High-ranking military officers from 10 countries met in Chile to discuss the best way to provide pan-regional aid in case of catastrophes and natural disasters.
Immediately following the earthquake that rattled southern Haiti on January 12, 2010, hundreds of organizations from around the globe traveled to the Caribbean nation to offer humanitarian assistance. The biggest challenge in the first few hours and days after the tragedy included organizing all the help coming in.
Just a few weeks later, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake shook central Chile on February 27, 2010. The Chilean government requested the support of the military, but it also encountered logistical conflicts in administering all the welcomed aid coming in from around the globe. “It’s worthless to have tons of tomato sauce if the spaghetti never comes,” said chief of the Chilean Joint Staff Command, Major General Hernán Mardones Ríos, while illustrating the problem at the 3rd South America Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) in Santiago, Chile.
The conference, which took place August 31 to September 2, 2011, was co-hosted by the Chilean Armed Forces and the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). It brought together chiefs of Defense from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. SOUTHDEC covered military support to humanitarian assistance and response to natural disasters, but mainly focused on the search for a joint effort among the countries of the region.
“Each of our militaries brings a wealth of experience to provide the immediate and extensive response of our hemisphere to help the thousands of victims who are affected by natural disasters,” said General Douglas Fraser, SOUTHCOM commander. “This demonstrates the importance of being prepared to work together to support these missions, because unorganized assistance can counter the desired result.”
During the opening address, Chilean Defense Minister Andrés Allamand said that Latin America has a high risk of natural disasters. Similar to the majority of countries present at the conference, the Chilean Armed Forces mission includes a role in humanitarian assistance and disaster mitigation operations.
Minister Allamand described a recent example of joint rescue humanitarian assistance operations, which Chile has participated in for many years. “A Chilean Army patrol unit marched for miles in the snow to rescue 37 foreigners trapped in a bus due to a strong snowstorm in the northern region of Colchane, on the border with Bolivia.”
Minister Allamand also took stock of lessons learned after the February 2010 earthquake. In his opinion, the communications system must improve as a whole in the country, as must the mass alert systems and logistics capabilities. The country must work with risk and likely demand scenarios as well. Likewise, among Chile’s strengths, Minister Allamand highlighted the multiple functions of the country’s rescue units, its organizational capacity, the military commanders’ leadership and the Chileans’ civic commitment.
One of the conclusions reached was the need to create an organization to centralize all regional activities related to humanitarian assistance.
Diálogo had the opportunity to discuss regional humanitarian and disaster coordination with six chiefs of defense in attendance at the conference.
“Assist, aid, cooperate with a country facing natural disasters—I think there is no thinking twice about helping. We have to take immediate action. We [Bolivia] have also made attempts to cooperate. It is not only about receiving [aid], but also about providing it.”
Admiral Armando Pacheco Gutiérrez, commander in chief of the Bolivian Armed Forces
“Brazil is one more partner in this area [humanitarian assistance]. We have many countries in South America that are in very advanced stages of preparedness and deployment of military forces in case of natural disasters and humanitarian response. The conference proved that we have many possibilities and options for joint participation in situations of extreme need. The consensus is that we are missing a process that will enable the interaction of all those options. And this will be achieved in the near future.”
Air Force Major General Marco Aurélio Gonçalves Mendes, chief of strategic affairs of the Brazilian Ministry of Defense
“Deploying the Chilean Army during disaster situations is capacity-based. It is not based on the use of military force for action during a catastrophe, but rather to utilize and select a group of capabilities for the situation at hand in a given place. Since Chile is a country where all types of natural disasters occur, our military has vast experience in this respect, and it is very good to be able to share this experience with the rest of the countries in the region.”
Army Major General Hernán Mardones Ríos, chief of the Chilean Joint Staff Command
“Ecuador provides humanitarian assistance through the presence of military troops in many countries, including Haiti, Liberia, Sudan and Ivory Coast. Nationally, we [the Ecuadorean Armed Forces] are the main support mechanism in case of disasters. Ecuador believes that all the countries in the region should have specialized military units to heed and provide humanitarian assistance, meaning dedicated units that are organized, equipped and trained — specially and technically — for this type of contingency. The sum of all these units will allow us to better manage these risks.”
Army General Luis Ernesto González Villarreal, chief of the Joint Command of the Ecuadorean Armed Forces
“We have been carrying out many humanitarian assistance activities, mainly within our country and with the help of SOUTHCOM. We are capable of offering assistance in case of natural disasters, which in our countries are generally cyclical, and thus virtually programmable, so that gives us time to prepare. The creation of a regional humanitarian assistance organization would allow for the standardization of procedures that would be helpful in providing aid, especially to the neighboring countries.”
Army Brigadier General Jorge Francisco Ramírez Gómez, interim chief of the Paraguayan Joint Staff Command
“Historically, Uruguay has had a strong calling for humanitarian assistance. Despite the country’s size, we have the best resource to offer others, the human resource. For example, after the earthquake in Chile in 2010, we were the first country to arrive with aid. We have also been present in Japan, Haiti and at many other humanitarian assistance missions. We have to be prepared because it is less costly and the only way to take immediate action when the forces of nature speak.”
Air Force General José Bonilla, chief of the Uruguayan Defense General Staff