Colombian President Iván Duque took to Twitter, describing as “productive” his meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. “We talked about issues related to hemispheric security and reinforcing our bilateral relations.”
Mattis concluded his official South American trip in Bogota, Colombia, meeting with recently elected Colombian President Duque and his Colombian counterpart, Minister of Defense Guillermo Botero, August 17, 2018. Although details of the meeting weren’t made public, Mattis, on his flight back to the United States, highlighted the peace process in Colombia, the country’s role as a regional and international leader, and the Venezuelan migration crisis.
“Listen, learn, help, and leave,” Mattis said about the meeting in Colombia. “We were in the listening, learning, and now we’re going to be more focused in the helping effort.”
The head of the Pentagon confirmed to the press the deployment of the USNS Comfort hospital ship to Colombia to provide medical attention to Venezuelan migrants and support the Colombian health system. The hospital ship, stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, is scheduled to stop in Colombia and other Latin American countries.
Details of the mission, the U.S. defense secretary said, are still on the drawing board. Colombian officials suggested specific ideas for the project during the meetings, Mattis added.
“They not only agreed in principle, they gave details [about] how we might best craft the cruise through the region, ” Mattis said. “And along with input I got in Brasília and Buenos Aires and Santiago, this all helps.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Administrative Registry of Venezuelan Migrants, a Colombian government effort, recorded more than 440,000 people as of early August. The Colombian government estimates that nearly a million legal and illegal Venezuelan migrants are in the country, mainly in the departments of Norte de Santander, Arauca, and La Guajira—on the border with Venezuela—and Cundinamarca, in central Colombia.
“It is an absolutely humanitarian mission,” Mattis said. “We’re not sending soldiers; we’re sending doctors. And it’s an effort to deal with the human cost of [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, and his increasingly isolated regime.”
Mattis said that the hospital ship would not enter Venezuelan waters. He did not confirm whether the vessel would anchor in the Pacific or the Caribbean territorial waters of Colombia. “We’re going to go where the need is greatest and the countries in the region say they need help,” he said.
Enduring bonds of friendship
After a breakfast meeting at the presidential Nariño Palace with President Duque, who took office in Colombia on August 7th, Mattis made way to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, where he was received with military honors. In an official statement, the Ministry of Defense said the visit sought to “strengthen bonds of friendship and cooperation for the first time with the new government to benefit binational interests in terms of joint responsibility.”
According to the Ministry of Defense, the officials addressed regional security, the fight against narcotrafficking, and intelligence exchanges. Enduring strategic cooperation between countries was another important issue during the meetings.
“The leaders discussed a broad range of defense issues, and the secretary thanked the president for his country’s efforts to optimize the implementation of the Peace Accord,” Dana W. White, Pentagon chief spokesperson, said about efforts to put an end to the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. “The secretary also thanked Colombia for its work regionally to denounce undemocratic actions—especially those of Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
Mattis recognized the capabilities of the Colombian Armed Forces, which stand out for their decades-old fight against violence. The country, he added, also contributes to regional security by training the armed and police forces of neighboring countries.
The leaders also analyzed the military partnership between both countries and agreed to strengthen common training exercises, White said. The U.S. secretary stressed the role of Colombia as a facilitator of multinational training in the region, such as UNITAS LIX-2018, to be held in September in Colombian waters. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps-sponsored exercise, hosted by the Colombian Navy, will feature 13 countries and 18 naval units, including ships, submarines, and aircraft.
Mattis’ trip, conducted during what U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley dubbed the “year of the Americas”, started in Brazil and continued with stops in Argentina and Chile. “Our Colombian partners, they are one of the most capable, and certainly most reliable partners, both in Latin America and even in the world in many ways,” Mattis said. “We stand with them as they continue to strengthen their democracy.”