Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised leaders of Central and South America in his address to the Council of the Americas, in Washigton, D.C., earlier this week. “Today the countries of the region are working together in a very constructive way,” Rumsfeld said.
“They’re leaning forward in support of democracy and economic opportunity and recognizing that cooperation with respect to security matters is certainly central to political and economic success.”
Getting to this point was not easy, the Secretary noted, just as it will be a challenge to stay the course. “Anti-social elements” seek to return these countries to instability and chaos for their own benefit, he said.
The top Defense Department civilian said those who would challenge Central and South America’s progress toward political and economic freedom come in the forms of violent gangs, drug traffickers, smugglers, hostage takers and terrorists.
“Central and South American leaders are concerned about these criminals that are seeking to destabilize governments and to prey on various vulnerabilities that exist,” Rumsfeld said.
“They’re a particular danger because they can attack one of the key underpinnings of a successful civil society, and that’s the people’s confidence in their system of government to the extent that people do not have confidence in government.”
The only way of dealing with these elements that threaten a civil society, he told those gathered for the 35th Washington conference of the council, is for countries to work together. This is beginning to happen in the region, he said.
Brazil, Colombia and other Andean nations are increasing cooperation to fight narcoterrorists operating in and across their borders. This is a positive step when one considers that terrorists and criminals often use the lack of border security to their advantage, Rumsfeld said.
Brazil has developed a new radar operation that eventually will allow coverage and control over Amazon airspace, he added.
Part of the equation that is allowing the lean toward a free political and economic system is the waning military rivalries between Latin American states, something Rumsfeld called “the bane of the 19th and 20th centuries.” He said this gives people increasing confidence in the integrity and independence of the armed forces.
“Indeed, Latin America today may well be the least militarized region in the world,” he said. “And it’s now mostly shaped by the kind of trust and cooperation and accountability that is possible among a family of democratic nations.
“One of my colleagues, a South American minister of defense, put it this way: ‘We are now united by the threats we face, not divided by them,'” Rumsfeld said.
The Department of Defense has contributed to strengthening the security of Central and South American nations, Rumsfeld said. During a 2002 meeting with defense ministers in Santiago, Chile, he proposed Operation Enduring Friendship, which promotes naval cooperation.
One result of that endeavor is an Argentine destroyer taking part in exercises with the U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean. But, Rumsfeld cautioned, security issues are not the only threats to progress.
“Poverty also threatens to derail economic progress, which can in turn threaten democratic governance,” he said.
He told the leaders that one great challenge “to maintaining freedom’s forward momentum is to demonstrate to more people that free political and free economic systems offer the best hope for changeable benefits for them and for their children.”
Companies tend to not want to invest in areas they feel are unstable or unsafe. However, as Latin American countries take control of their security challenges and increase cooperation, the confidence of investors, foreign and domestic will increase, the secretary said.
“Also, if fully approved by all of the nations, and I certainly hope it will be, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, could usher in a new era of trade and prosperity in Central America, which would be a good thing,” Rumsfeld said.
The secretary also noted that many of the nations in the region are taking on increased leadership roles in other parts of the world, including as part of the coalition in the global war on terror. Four of the CAFTA countries have provided soldiers for coalition forces fighting in Iraq, he said.
American Forces Press Service