Stavridis Takes Reins of Latin-American Ops in SOUTHCOM Ceremony
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
MIAMI, Oct. 19, 2006 Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis became the first naval officer at the helm of U.S. Southern Command this morning. Before assuming command, he said he’s looking forward to the challenges and opportunities in this varied region and to strengthening relationships throughout Latin America.
Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis addresses the media after assuming command of U.S. Southern Command in a Miami ceremony Oct. 19. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Stavridis received his fourth star yesterday evening and assumed command from Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock in a ceremony here today. Craddock is moving to Europe to assume the lead of U.S. European Command and of NATO military forces.
In a broad-ranging interview earlier this week with local media members and American Forces Press Service, Stavridis discussed his thoughts on issues facing the region and described some of his previous experiences there.
“Latin America is part of our DNA, and we are part of theirs,” he said. “It's all one Americas.”
Stavridis’ new command encompasses a vast and varied region of 450 million people in 32 countries and 13 territories and protectorates. “It's a sixth of the surface area of the world,” he said.
Despite pressing demands on the U.S. military in other parts of the world, U.S. Southern Command is a vital piece of American security policy for several reasons, Stavridis explained. “There's a plethora of reasons that SOUTHCOM is an important functional part of what we're doing in the Department of Defense,” he said.
He noted that 40 million Americans speak Spanish, and that immigrants come to the United States from the region every day. “So there's an enormous cultural and demographic linkage,” he said.
Security concerns in the United States’ backyard could spill over into the country. “We have to always be mindful of security concerns that are close at hand to us. So if there are problems like poverty, and gangs, and narcotrafficking, money laundering, human smuggling, these are things that will impact the United States,” Stavridis said. “And so therefore, when it's proximate to us and in our region that's close at hand, it's important that we work with our partners to try to reduce those threats, not only in their countries but in ours, because inevitably the effects can be felt in the United States.”
Finally, the admiral said, operations in SOUTHCOM are vital to the war on terrorism. “It is always a possibility that, as terrorists seek to harm the United States, they could possibly try and come through the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility,” he said. “We see indications of activity from a variety of different organizations that have interests antithetical to the United States in this region.
“So we have to be very mindful of that and, therefore, participate … with our regional partners to try and defend the United States from a security perspective in this war on terror,” he added.
Stavridis had a golden opportunity earlier this month to begin getting to know ministers and chiefs of defense in the region when he attended a Defense Ministerial of the Americas meeting in Managua, Nicaragua. “I had a nice oportunidad de practicar mi Español en Nicaragua,” he said. “And it was all very, very positive and helpful.”
The admiral said he is fluent in French, has been working hard on Spanish and plans to tackle Portuguese once he’s fluent in Spanish. Brazilians speak Portuguese. “One hundred eighty million people in this area speak Portuguese,” he said. “We often don't sort of recognize that. … So it's important to reach out to that particular partner … as well as to make an effort with their language. I think language is very important.”
Stavridis said he plans to visit the U.S. enemy combatant detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which he called “an important part of my responsibilities.”
“I want to look the commander there in the eye, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, who is a friend of mine. I've known Admiral Harris for a long time. He enjoys my confidence,” Stavridis said. “I want to meet with him personally, get his impressions of how things are going, and I want to emphasize to him that we will continue to run Guantanamo Bay in a legal and transparent fashion.”
The new commander will find Guantanamo much changed since he first visited the naval base there as a young naval officer in 1973. At the time, Stavridis served as a boat captain who shuttled sailors back and forth to the base from the USS Nimitz, anchored off shore because of Guantanamo Bay’s shallow depth.
Stavridis said he believes the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is a “well-run, legal, transparent facility … run under the auspices of United States law.” But, he added, he will visit the base to draw his own conclusions.
Stavridis has a wealth of unique experiences that will serve him well as the chief of U.S. Southern Command. The regional studies portion of his doctorate in international relations focused on Latin America, and he’s plied these waters as a sailor for many years.
“Throughout my naval career, I've had the opportunity to sail through these waters: the Caribbean, I've been through the Panama Canal multiple times, in and out of Guantanamo multiple times,” he said. “I've operated at one time or another with, I would venture to say, all the seagoing navies in the region.”
Stavridis also commanded the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, which for a time included an Argentine destroyer, the Sarandi. “The Argentine navy placed her in our strike group, and we trained together and worked up together and she deployed with us to the Mediterranean Sea in 2003.”
The admiral has recently traveled extensively through the region in his capacity as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who will officiate at today’s change-of-command ceremony.
Stavridis said he is most looking forward to engaging with partners and increasing regional security. “This is an area of the world where it's extremely unlikely that we're going to be launching missiles or dropping bombs,” he said. “This is an area of the world where our engagement is in ideas and conferences and working together -- creating a global security environment that we can all be part of and draw benefit from.
“And so that opportunity to engage with all these different partners in this rich, diversity and complexity in this region is just fascinating to me, and I look forward to it.”