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Press Conference with Secretary Cohen and the Central American Ministers

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 01, 1998

(Press Conference with the Central American Ministers in Cartagena, Colombia)

Secretary Cohen: Let me say that Minister Barrios, Minister Chamorro and Minister Guzman and I have had a very brief but productive meeting. We had General Wilhelm, who is with us, who gave a slide presentation showing the areas that have been impacted most severely throughout Central America, showing the relief package as such that the United States was able to work with other countries in helping to provide immediate emergency type of relief, to then move into the next phase of rehabilitation and finally moving to the phase of restoration. We have provided significant aid to the region. As I mentioned earlier we'll have approximately three thousand of our military who will be contributing to this effort. We have delivered some four million pounds of emergency relief, we have had some six hundred sorties of relief flying in. We have made a very major contribution of a hundred and fifty million dollars from the Defense Department's effort, out of a total of two hundred and fifty million dollars on the part of the U.S. government. So we'll continue to work with the people and the governments of Central America and to do our best to continue to help them on the road to recovery. The devastation means that it's a long term process and the most important part right now is to get the emergency relief, to save the lives that were saved, to provide temporary construction, to restore some of the bridges and then to make the long term effort to restore the ability of commerce to take place and for prosperity to return. That is what we discussed, we had a very good meeting, we've been very impressed with the level of the cooperation and the reaction on the part of the Central American armies working very closely with our military. We are very proud of the level of cooperation that we were able to achieve.

Defense Minister of El Salvador: As Minister of Defense of El Salvador I would like to thank the Secretary of Defense of the United States and the people of the Unites States and the government of the United States and the Armed Forces of the United States for their very solid support. Central America suffered greatly after the first storm and then Hurricane Mitch. There was great destruction, a very high death toll, the infrastructure suffered severely. Anyway it will be very difficult to engage in reconstruction efforts using our very own resources. We can say that we have been set back twenty years in terms of the infrastructure and the human potential that was lost with so many deaths. Therefore, we would like to thank the United States for this very great support at this critical time. We have finished the emergency relief phase of our efforts which consisted mainly in saving lives. We have started the rehabilitation phase. Next will be the reconstruction phase. We must again thank the United States, the U.S. forces, for working hand in hand with our very own forces. El Salvador was elected as the seat of the Eagle Joint Task Force which is going to work out of El Salvador in the region of Central America. So we thank the United States very much for its willingness to work with us and we are very willing to work hand in hand with US personnel in the reconstruction of our country.

Defense Minister of Guatemala: We have had an assessment with the US Secretary of Defense of the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch, but I would like to underscore at this time that the fact that there was previous training offered by the United States in disaster preparedness was very, very helpful in terms of saving a lot of lives. The government is responsible for the well-being and life of its citizens, but my country was able to save 7,000 lives on the border with Honduras, and 3,000 people in other regions of the country. Therefore, training was very, very helpful for which we thank the United States and we thanked the United States in the past.

Defense Minister of Nicaragua: We had a very productive meeting with the Secretary of Defense of the United States. I'd like to thank the Government of the United States on behalf of the Government and the people of Nicaragua for this very significant and very timely support offered by the United States, not only in this very initial phase of emergency relief but also in this phase we are initiating now, we have a rotation, and we are sure that we can count on the support of the United States in the last phase that is the reconstruction of our infrastructure. I'd like to thank the U.S. troops who will be (inaudible) to our country, they are sacrificing their vacations, their Christmas and New Years holidays and working with us hand in hand to help us recover our production infrastructure. Our army is very pleased to be able to work, hand in hand, alongside the U.S. forces. I would say it is as historic event after several decades of threats and crisis, we are able to work together to help Nicaragua in this situation. So the armies are going to work together very well and we would like to thank the United States again for its humanitarian effort, especially the SOUTHCOM Forces of the United States.

Q: Thank you, it's a question for Secretary Cohen. Could you give us a little more of a breakdown, please, of the three thousand U.S. soldiers in Central America, where are they, now? Where will they be? How long? What will they be doing?

A: (Cohen): General Wilhelm is here and he can give you a better breakdown in terms of where they are and how they are being deployed.

A: (Wilhelm): The answer, I think, can be fairly compact. As Secretary Cohen mentioned they are approaching three thousand troops in Central America now. They are operating from two joint task forces. One joint task force is operating from the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras. That task force is responsible for the rehabilitation in Honduras. The second joint task force, just set up over the week-end, it's at Comolapa Air Base at San Salvador, located about equidistant between Managua and Guatemala City. So it's in an ideal location to support the rehabilitation operations in El Salvador and in Guatemala and in Nicaragua. The Honduran task force is more mature right now. It has a full headquarters and it has received significant engineer assets. The task force in El Salvador has aviation elements, full headquarters. It has its command and control capabilities and its engineer elements will begin arriving around the mid part of December to commence the heavy operations in its area of responsibility.

Q: General Wilhelm, could you say more of what they are going to be doing in the countries by way of rehabilitation?

A: (Wilhelm): Yes. Right now the primary task will be to center themselves on the rehabilitation of the internal lines of communication, simply stated, bridges, repairing cuts in the and roads, installing culverts, in some cases bypasses. The design or the desire and the objective is to rebuild - at least temporarily reconstruct - the infrastructure so that surface transportation can start to deliver the sustenance required by the population much more efficiently. That's the first order of business.

I mentioned only the engineer effort. We have another effort which is also very important which is medical. Our emphasis right now is on preventive medicine, treating the problems of sanitation and local health to prevent the outbreak of epidemics.

Q: My question is addressed to the Ministers of Nicaragua and Honduras, the countries most affected. What are your most pressing needs at this time in terms of United States help?

A: (Minister of Nicaragua): I will speak on behalf of the Hondurans because Honduras is not present and on behalf of my country, Nicaragua. The most pressing needs that we face at this time are epidemics. We need specialists in epidemics, we need also in the area of reconstruction, we need to tend to our secondary road system. We have taken care of the primary road network but certain production areas are not connected with the cities, so we need to focus on that. Therefore, I would say restore basic communication and then focus on permanent construction of our bridges and roads.

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