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Cohen Press Availability en route to Manaus, Brazil

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
October 16, 2000

(Press availability en route to Manaus, Brazil. Also participating was Kenneth H. Bacon, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs.)

Cohen: I am looking forward to the fourth DMA [Defense Ministerial of the Americas]. This has been quite a transformation from the first time in Williamsburg. This'll be my third that I've attended and it has been, I think, quite a transformation the way in which all of the countries in the region now...

Bacon: Second.

Cohen. I'm sorry. There've been four.

Bacon: You've been in Cartegena at this point. This'll be the second.

Cohen: OK. You're right. I lost myself. This is my second. It seems like three, though. (laughter) But there has been quite a transformation in terms of the nature of the relationship that I have seen during my tenure. I was thinking of the four because this is my fourth trip to the region, and there is a greater level of cooperation, a much greater level of transparency with countries undertaking the publication of white papers. There is more in the way of coordination of some of the training missions that they have together. We've seen the resolution of border disputes between Ecuador and Peru. We've seen a dispute over, again, border issues between Argentina and Brazil and Chile. All of this has taken place in the past four years that I have at least been witness to. And this DMA is a continuation of that process, and the fact that Brazil is now hosting it, I think is a significant statement about Brazil. Brazil now has, for the first time, a minister of defense. You may recall, in our past visits, I had to visit with each of the heads of the military. There was not a coordinated approach, at least having someone of reciprocal responsibility that I have, and so there has been a great transformation taking place throughout the region. And this is an opportunity to discuss the issues that affect the entire region: Greater cooperation in terms of the region, greater transparency, publication of white papers, finding ways in which they can cooperate. You now have Argentina and Chile cooperating in terms of acquisition and actually construction of frigates and other types of joint efforts to share some of their resources in terms of acquisition of whatever they need in the way of the security needs. All of this has come about in a very short period of time, and this defense ministerial is an opportunity for them to get together and, again, sit down with each other and have a discussion of all the challenges that they face from environment to economics to transnational types of challenges, potential transnational terrorism, the flow of drugs. All of that will be part of the discussion. But this is a very remarkable transformation that has taken place, and the DMA is something that I think has matured very quickly.

Q: Can you expect (inaudible)

Cohen: I think that will be a part of it. That will not be the major part of it. This is, again, something that will try to embrace the scope of the challenges facing all of the countries of the region and it deals with, again, environmental, economic, how they can marshall resources in order to modernize their forces for security purposes, continuing to talk to each other about any disputes that might arise. It's a great forum for them to get together to discuss these issues. That will be a part of it. It will not be the focus of it.

Q: Why would Colombia not be a focus considering that five of these nations border on Colombia and there are definite spill over effects in all of those countries and it's a regional issue?

Cohen: Because the defense ministerial is designed to encompass all issues. That will be a part of it, but it is not being convened solely for the purpose of discussing Colombia. We had the last DMA in Colombia, but previously, we had it in Williamsburg and then we had it in...

Bacon: Argentina.

Cohen: Argentina was the second. So, this is something that will come up but it is not going to be the central focus of it in terms of Plan Colombia as such, but that will be a part of it. Colombia is obviously going to want to discuss it, and there'll be working groups that will discuss it. But this will not be the major focus of it.

Q: How do you answer, though, those countries who are concerned that increased U. S. military involvement in Colombia could worsen the spill over of the conflict from Colombia in their countries?

Cohen: First of all, illegal narco-trafficking is much like a cancer, and it will spread unless it is addressed. The democracy in Colombia is trying to come to grips with what it is doing in terms of the corruption of its system, and so this is a plan that Colombia has developed. The military component, in terms of the United States, is helping them with their counter-narcotic activities, working with them in that respect. We don't have a very large military component in terms of our presence. We are trying to help them develop the capability to deal with their narcotic trafficking. But Plan Colombia is something that they have put together, and the military aspect and support of it is only a part of a much wider program which deals with alternative economic proposals, support from the Europeans, support from the United States, support from Colombia itself which is really going to be required to put up the bulk of the resources. So, if you don't treat the illegal drug trafficking, it will spread like a cancer to other regions, and so I think it's in everyone's interest to help a democracy survive as a democracy and to work through democratic institutions to bring this about.

Q: Will you be seeking help from other countries that border Colombia to have a coordinated response to what's going on?

Cohen: I really think it's up to them. This is not the United States trying to dictate, in any way, what the regional response should be. This is an opportunity for all of the countries in the region to discuss this issue and how best they can either cooperate or deal with the issue of what is taking place in Colombia. The natural evolution of things would be that you cannot allow something like this to simply continue to grow and grow and grow without addressing it and still have a democracy. Every country that has an interest in promoting democratic ideals will have to determine what role, if any, they are going to play. But this is not the United States going to dictate or try to dictate in any way what the response of the individual countries should be. They will decide for themselves whether it's in their interest to help, what way they can help, or whether they can simply say that this is a problem for Colombia to deal with internally. That's entirely up to them. Right now, Colombia wants to deal with it internally. That's Plan Colombia. They're saying they'd like to have some assistance from the United States in terms of helping us to train our counter drug people and working with their police so they can deal with that internally. What the Colombia will ask others to do is up to Colombia. This is not the United States trying to dictate in any way.

Q: President Pastrana has gone around the region looking for support. He didn't get it in Argentina; he hasn't gotten it from Brazil; he's not getting it from Venezuela. Are you concerned for the fate of Plan Colombia?

Cohen: It's up to the countries in the region. Again, if they feel that this is something that is going to be beneficial to their interests, they will help. If they feel that it's something that's going to be contained, they will decide for themselves. But this is something that he has to continue to work at, and the more public discussion there is of the issue, it's certainly the better.

Q: Do you plan on discussing the possible purchase of U.S. F-16's or other jets by Brazil as it modernizes its air force?

Cohen: Only if there are questions raised about whether they wish to acquire equipment from the United States. Then, we certainly would want to be competitors, but it's not something that I have high on the agenda.

Q: May I ask you a question about the Cole? Just to clarify on what you said earlier which was that you mentioned that you expect Yemen's full cooperation in the investigation on the security breaches. At this point, have you found that there were... Obviously, there was a security breach in that the bomb happened, but have you found any specific breaches of security arrangements that have been made?

Cohen: The answer, Jim, is no, not at this point. I will probably resist answering the questions until they make a complete analysis. Otherwise, it will be taken ad hoc and rushed to a conclusion that could be contradicted later. What we're going to try to do is to be a complete as we can, work as quickly as we can, but we don't have any more information at this point.