The South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) 2016 began with a moment of silence on August 17th in Montevideo, Uruguay, in honor of Uruguayan Air Force Captain Fernando Martín de Rebolledo and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Correa, who perished in a tragic military helicopter accident the day prior. However, it was the first time that Uruguay hosted the conference, whose theme this year was “The evolution of the military role in Latin America.” Diálogo talked to Army General Nelson Eduardo Pintos González, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Defense of Uruguay, to discuss the main theme of SOUTHDEC 2016 and other related topics.
Diálogo: Uruguay has a very important tradition in the area of humanitarian aid, participation in peacekeeping missions for the United Nations and others. Can you talk to us about this?
Gen. Nelson Eduardo Pintos González: The regional scene makes it practically impossible to conceive of a conflict between nations in the region. In addition to having the specific function of defending the sovereignty and independence of the territories, the national defense, beyond the Armed Forces, has the role of seeking and being able to take actions that will benefit the society, the country, and the international community as well. And support through participation in the peacekeeping missions is an important point for achieving that. As far as humanitarian aid in the case of disasters, our Armed Forces of our country fulfill and carry out many activities to benefit society as a whole. They support the various ministries, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education and Culture, for example, with various activities. For example, there is a military unit in a city in Uruguay’s interior which gets the maintenance of the unit’s vehicles, the mechanical equipment, and the tanks, done there. Automotive-maintenance classes are taught to young people in that community with the participation of military personnel. Then, professors of the Technical University of Uruguay teach classes to the civilian and military population also in the premises of the military unit. Support to the Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Agriculture, and Fisheries is planned with regard to what are called sanitary barriers against the intrusion of a pandemic transmitting an animal illness or one that affects agriculture. The ministry draws control lines with its inspectors, but with the help of the Armed Forces; and there are Armed Forces personnel who also receive education in areas of the Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Agriculture, and Fisheries that allow them to participate and carry out specific activities within the requirements of those lines of sanitation control so that they may also collaborate.
Diálogo: Uruguay has the National College of Peace Operations (known by the Spanish acronym ENOPU), an institution considered an international benchmark in the training of military personnel for participation in peacekeeping missions. Can you explain how a country of less than 3.5 million inhabitants can be a benchmark in that area of peacekeeping operations?
Gen. Pintos: It is more or less like having to explain that we have 45,000 troops who have been through peace missions when our Armed Forces amount to more or less, 25,000. [Laughter] How can I explain?
Diálogo: Ah, but that is over multiple years. The 45,000 troops are troops who have participated in peace keeping missions since the beginning, right?
Gen. Pintos: Over time, yes, because many of our comrades have gone on more than one peacekeeping mission to different places. So, that has allowed them to gain experience that has then let us integrate them into ENOPU, and, with their contributions, they accomplished very good results in training, leaders in particular, when they enroll for personal development and to prepare for the peacekeeping missions.
Diálogo: Given the probable end of MINUSTAH [the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti], will the Uruguayan military personnel there be redirected, for example, to Africa?
Gen. Pintos: It may be. There is a possibility. At the moment, Uruguay is part of a battalion with Peru, that is, a Uruguayan company and a Peruvian company together. We are working together in Haiti, and it is a new experience because integrating the two countries into one unit is a new experience, but for now, it has been pretty beneficial for both.
Diálogo: The other different role of the military is the fight against drug trafficking. Are the Armed Forces of Uruguay also involved in that fight?
Gen. Pintos: No. In our country the fight against drug trafficking is not a fundamental mission of the Armed Forces. The National Navy, in particular, and the Air Force control entry to the country. The National Navy has jurisdiction over the sea and riverine border crossings, where the Naval Prefecture has jurisdiction. And the country’s other point of entry, the airports, are the responsibility of the Aviation Police, which is the responsibility of the Air Force. Basically, that is the part that could be directed and used for the control of drug trafficking. Beyond accidental controls, as with any citizen, the rest falls under the responsibility of the Army. But control and search are not part of its functions… that is, there are no military operations directed at the fight against drug trafficking.
Diálogo: The last topic of the conference was female participation in the Armed Forces. What is your evaluation of the female participation in the Armed Forces of Uruguay?
Gen. Pintos: Women have participated, as was shown during SOUTHDEC, since the year 1970, more or less. They began to fulfill various functions: First in the medical area, later in justice, until, in the 1990s, the possibility for women to become commissioned officers became available. Today, we have female majors in all of the Army’s branches, and without limitations. They also have no limitations in the Air Force or the Navy. Women are holding positions, and they have responded and earned their places and gained respect.
Diálogo: As the host country, can you give us an analysis of SOUTHDEC 2016?
Gen. Pintos: I have received the best comments. I believe the objectives we foresaw were well achieved. I believe it is enriching to share experiences among the various actors who participated. Vice Admiral Gonzalo Ríos Polastri [during his presentation about the Inter-American Defense Board] synthesized it very well. He said, “The knowledge of one favors the group.” And so it has. Sharing the knowledge of one with the group has enriched us all. It touched upon very important topics. The peacekeeping missions are a very important topic, one, particularly for Uruguay, that has given it the chance to make itself known to the world. We are a small country, low-key; however, many people in the world know us because we participate in peacekeeping operations missions, and that provides a chance for us to be recognized. Today, Uruguay is part of the UN Security Council, and one of the strong points that made this possible is our participation in peacekeeping operations.