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Cohen Renews Central, South American Ties

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Dec. 1, 1998 – The disaster relief effort currently under way in Central America is just one example of growing military cooperation between the United States and other Western Hemisphere democracies.

During the three-day Defense Ministerial of the Americas conference here, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen cited the heroic operation as the way of the future. The relief effort, he said Nov. 30, epitomizes the goals of those meeting through Dec. 2, including Colombian President Andres Pastrana and defense counterparts from throughout the hemisphere.

More than 2,000 American troops are furnishing food, water, medical supplies and engineering support in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the most destructive storm on record to hit Central America. U.S. Southern Command officials said the storm killed 10,000 people and left another 13,000 missing in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

"Working together, our militaries showed our capacity for compassion," Cohen said in his opening remarks to defense ministers from 33 nations gathered to strengthen military- to-military ties.

En route from Washington, the secretary said the defense ministerials have contributed to the region's evolution in the last few years by encouraging greater international dialogue, interchange and cooperation, he explained.

This year's conference focused on human rights issues and the importance of more multilateral training operations, particularly peacekeeping and disaster relief, Cohen said. A U.S.-Guatemala disaster relief exercise held earlier this year, for example, helped save lives and reduced property damage when Hurricane Mitch hit, he said.

Overall, Cohen said, the ministerial continues the progress made in tearing down barriers of suspicion, mistrust and conflict.

"All of these countries are now democracies moving to establish strong civilian control of the military," he said. Peru and Ecuador, for example, recently ended a long and bitter border conflict in a peaceful and honorable fashion, he noted during his Nov. 30 opening remarks.

One of the ministerials' more positive developments has been nations' dedication to being more open with each other, Cohen said. "A lack of transparency breeds distrust, suspicion and competition. If one [nation] is developing its national security, it should not be seen as a threat to its neighbor."

"I would hope that at the conclusion of this ministerial, that we would greet the new century as a region that is united, that is open in our friendship, transparent in our dealings, and is bound together by a common commitment to freedom and democracy," the secretary said.

Before the conference, Cohen met separately with Pastrana. He praised the recently elected Colombian president for his efforts to start a peace process with the nation's guerrilla groups and to restructure and modernize the military.

The Colombian leader asked Cohen for help in building a professional military and help with air mobility requirements. Congress recently authorized State Department funds for six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the Colombian national police to help in counternarcotics efforts.

Cohen signed a bilateral agreement setting up a working group to coordinate human rights training in the United States for Colombian military officers and other cooperative initiatives.

"A new stage has begun in the relationship between the two countries," Pastrana said. "Clearly we are being treated completely differently than was the case for the previous four years. The peace process has been supported and there is a spirit of cooperation toward our country."

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