Interview with Air Force Gen. José Bonilla, Head of the Uruguayan Defense General Staff
By Dialogo May 12, 2011
Air Force Gen. José Bonilla was named the first Chief of the Uruguayan Joint Staff in October 2010, coinciding with the creation of the country’s Joint Staff as an institution. As his chief responsibility in his new post, General Bonilla must submit a report on the modernization and restructuring of the Uruguayan Armed Forces.
Recently, General Bonilla spoke with Diálogo about subjects including the importance of the new Joint Staff, the threats currently affecting Uruguay, and the country’s longstanding participation in peace-keeping operations around the world.
Diálogo: In October 2010, you were named to the position of head of the Joint General Staff, after serving as commanding-general of the Air Force. What is the significance of the creation of this position, and what objectives have you set out for your new post?
General Bonilla: The armies of the world, the armed forces of the world in general, and the governments more than anyone have seen that the role for which the Armed Forces were born has been gradually changing. Just as the different threats have changed, so also the role in which [these forces] are used is changing. Given that the countries of the Americas no longer fear the occurrence of clashes between countries, many people question why the Armed Forces exist, if no one is going to attack them. Why continue spending on the Armed Forces in a world where education and social spending are ever more sensitive issues, if every investment along those lines is seen more favorably by society?
Nevertheless, diminished investment in the Armed Forces results in decreased operability. In Uruguay, there was a major public debate about the role that the Armed Forces should play, and Law 18650, passed by the previous administration, defined what our national defense is. This concept includes the budget, sovereignty, independence, guardianship of strategic resources, and acting for the benefit of society, so that it can develop and live freely within a sovereign state. Since this law, the concept of national defense is better understood by the public.
Diálogo: What are your priorities, and what are the chief areas on which you would like to focus with respect to the development of the Armed Forces?
Gen. José Bonilla: As part of this law, a new body called the Joint Staff was born within the Defense Ministry. This is a body that provides advice and planning in relation to the military policy set by the defense minister, which after approval, gives the order to carry it out to the three branches of the Armed Forces.
Diálogo: Where do you see the Uruguayan Armed Forces in five years?
Gen. José Bonilla: We’re in the middle of studying that. Right now, we’re analyzing all the work that is involved in order to advise the National Defense Council. Once we have a defense policy, and on the basis of the threats defined in this new vision of the Armed Forces, [we’ll have better determined our direction] … keep in mind that this isn’t only the case in Uruguay. [It’s a change that] the whole world is making; it’s the same situation in Brazil, Chile, Japan, China, Germany … it’s the same thing. The Armed Forces are moving toward that new path.
Diálogo: What are the chief threats to Uruguayan security, and what measures are the Armed Forces taking to combat those threats?
Gen. José Bonilla: Internationally, we don’t see any short-range or mid-range possibility of foreign forces wanting to enter our country. Internally, working hand-in-hand with the different actors who form a society, our great threats are drug trafficking, all kinds of smuggling, trafficking of organs, drugs, which are the big ones that today are plagues affecting humanity.
Diálogo: What is the benefit of regional cooperation, not only with the United States, but with other countries in the region in order to wage the fight against common threats to security?
Gen. José Bonilla: Governments today are seeking bilateral or regional accords. It’s the first time (in March 2011) that there’s talk of a strategic accord with the United States. Normally, there are exchanges of skills development, training, finally everything that has to do with the tactical, operational part of a force. Today, benefits that go a little further are now visible. We have a great deal to gain from U.S. experience, just as Uruguay also has experience to share with the United States, in peace missions, among other things, as Deputy Secretary [Frank] Mora (U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs) said when he was visiting here. But also with Brazil, insofar as Brazil is going to have much more peace of mind if it knows that Uruguay has control over its borders, whether sea, air, or land. Of course it’s going to have much more peace of mind, because its security also depends on Uruguayan security. Likewise, we also have to have peace of mind that it’s more difficult for something to come in by way of Brazil or Argentina.
Diálogo: Uruguay has supported UN peace-keeping operations for more than fifty years. What are the peace-keeping experiences that Uruguay can share with other nations?
Gen. José Bonilla: Peace missions are a very significant point, because they’ve historically been a component of foreign policy and of preserving peace throughout the world. In Uruguay they began in 1935, when the country found that it needed to deploy observers in different areas in the Americas.
That experience was followed by the battalion deployed in the Sinai, where it’s the longest-serving battalion in the area. There’s no other battalion in the Sinai that has served longer in carrying out that mandate in the complex situation of the Middle East, no other battalion that’s served as long as the Uruguayan one. Subsequently, Uruguay deployed blue helmets to Cambodia, Mozambique, the Congo, Haiti; finally, there’s a very rich experience, which not only helps the Ministry of Foreign Relations, but also increases the preparation of our troops. The particular character and the way of being of the Uruguayan people also set an example, one that’s acknowledged by the countries where they’ve deployed. Our soldier, who is the most important resource the Armed Forces have, always goes beyond the training he formally receives; he also has the particular character that the Uruguayan carries with him, his way of acting, his relationship with the citizens. We have very direct attitudes that we achieve through that rapprochement: delivering medicine, providing services and aid to the population, organizing sports events; a very profound rapprochement that helps and facilitates our mission abroad.