Interview with the Chief of the Uruguayan Armed Forces, General José Ramón Bonilla
By Dialogo November 02, 2011
From August 29 to September 2, 2011, Diálogo attended the Third Annual South American Defense Conference, held in Santiago, Chile, where it had the opportunity to speak with some high-ranking military representatives of the participating countries. The interview with the Head of the Uruguayan Defense General Staff, Air Force General José Ramón Bonilla, is below.
DIÁLOGO: General, Uruguay is a relatively small country, with a small population, but one that is recognized internationally for its participation in humanitarian aid when there is a disaster or a problem in other countries…
General José Ramón Bonilla: Historically, Uruguayan society has been very open, both to receiving foreigners and welcoming them and more so in the way locals are treated, and it has had a strong vocation for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping, to the point that it’s our country’s foreign policy. We’ve always been present, starting a long time ago, in aid of all kinds. Even if, as you said, it’s a small country with few possibilities and very limited resources, we still have the best resource to offer the world, which is undoubtedly the human resource, which is always present to the extent of our country’s possibilities. We’ve been in Japan, we’ve been in Chile; in Chile we were the first aid that arrived by air. We’ve been in Haiti, of course, and so on, looking back many years, because we’ve always been present, because that’s our character.
DIÁLOGO: You just mentioned Haiti. There’s now the idea that the MINUSTAH troops are going to leave the country; is that also a possibility for Uruguay, or not?
Gen. Bonilla: No, that’s being looked at politically. It’s being evaluated. How long can you offer aid inside a country? It can’t be forever, right? There should be a process that [determines] when the people themselves should start to move [forward on their own]. And that capability that our soldiers have is the same capability that Uruguayans feel, of being very open. And they succeed in all these missions of this kind due to their empathetic character; they’re very much affected by the tears and the happiness of a child or an adult, they feel solidarity with them, they’re ready to give a great deal of themselves in order to benefit those people who are there, and this results in our forces being much appreciated in that region. This helps open channels of communication that need to exist in order to raise the standards, at least in Uruguay’s peacekeeping mission.
DIÁLOGO: With regard to the conference, do you think that the next natural step would be to create a joint regional body across countries to provide humanitarian aid?
Gen. Bonilla: I think so. Prevention is where the strength of all these things lies, and when a country has a particular impact or a specific event and has to respond to an emerging situation and does not have the capability, shall we say, to ask the community for help through the press, then that body outside the region can have the capabilities and preexisting ties, the protocol to arrive with the aid that the country may need.
Because sometimes, and we’ve been saying this here, many actors with the best intentions arrive with very valuable aid that isn’t coordinated. Another case may involve this aid arriving in one place and then suddenly needing to be transported someplace else, when it could have been coordinated to arrive directly at the epicenter, or where that medicine or that food is needed to begin with.
DIÁLOGO: Do you think that Uruguay, due to its tradition of humanitarian aid, would be a natural leader for the region in developing a possible transregional body?
Gen. Bonilla: The Defense Ministers of the Americas met last year and wanted to move forward on all the initiatives that exist in favor of this so that someone can lead the whole thing. The conclusions that we reached at the conference of heads of General Staffs include defining a computer support structure where we can input all our aid capabilities, and a place where the headquarters of this body could be located.
We belong to UNASUR, and since it’s a South American Defense conference, we have to advise our political branches of government through UNASUR so that through it, the Inter-American Defense Board could possibly be the lead organization, because it’s going to leading the entire American continent. When you have the possibility of helping, you don’t pay attention to who it is, you can’t pay attention to who it is. What’s more, it could even extend beyond the hemisphere, for example, the humanitarian aid that Uruguay took to Japan. So we think that this international body into which all the countries are integrated through the Inter-American Defense Board could be the body giving direction to that system to coordinate and provide needed support to the country that may need it.
DIÁLOGO: To conclude, General, is it important to have U.S. participation, for example, in an initiative like the one we’ve mentioned?
Gen. Bonilla: It is important to count on their participation with everything involving the computer infrastructure, the computer support system as the U.S. forces presented it, and why is that? Because they can keep it up over time. I can have a very good plan to move everything forward; Chile, in fact, made a very good presentation; Argentina as well; and Brazil. In addition to all this, we’re united by the experience of the unfortunate events that we’ve lived through recently, but APAN, the system proposed by the U.S. Southern Command’s 12th Air Force [Air Force South], offers the possibility of continuing to enrich it with resources and with the necessary infrastructure. The framework is already there, it’s already approved.