Brazil’s Armed Forces and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) co-hosted the South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) Aug. 20-22, 2019, in Natal, a coastal city in northeast Brazil.
Brazilian Air Force Gen. Raul Botelho, chief of the Brazilian Armed Forces’ Joint Staff, and U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of SOUTHCOM, opened the forum with defense leaders from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú, Suriname and Uruguay, as well as invited military and civilian representatives from Canada, Portugal, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Brazilian Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo and U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission William Popp joined Botelho and Faller as they greeted the delegations during a ceremony marking the start of the annual event.
“I’m sure that at the end of this conference, we’re going to be able to further enhance our relationship and friendship bonds, increment our mutual knowledge, and establish new opportunities for cooperation,” Botelho stated with firm optimism.
Azevedo contrasted present-day security challenges in the region with those experienced in previous years, underscoring how sharply different those challenges were just a decade prior. “The world is undergoing transitions with a diversity of threats, demanding joint efforts to neutralize them for regional stability and lasting peace,” he observed.
“It’s more important than ever before that we meet our challenges to the hemispheric security demands with a sense of urgency and action,” Faller encouraged the attendees. “That’s why we’re here, to understand where we need to adapt, where we need to reinforce, and to chart a way forward.”
Following the opening ceremony, SOUTHDEC participants took part in two days of dialogue, briefings, roundtables and meetings, focusing on their support of humanitarian assistance missions, disaster relief operations, and international cooperation targeting transnational threats. Their delegations included senior enlisted leaders, who met concurrently for the third consecutive year to discuss similar issues and the important role the region’s professional enlisted corps play in ensuring the success of security cooperation among the armed forces.
Brazilian Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Francisco Gleison and U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Zickefoose co-hosted the enlisted leaders, whose discussions also touched on fitness, talent management, professional development, and the growing contributions of women to peace and security missions.
“Regional defense cooperation in response to hemispheric challenges” was their theme this year, signaling the ever-growing desire of militaries in the region to work collaboratively in support of shared security objectives and against threats of mutual concern.
While the SOUTHDEC participants discussed regional cooperation, an ongoing example of it was taking place 1,300 miles south of Natal, in Rio de Janeiro. There, Brazil is currently hosting UNITAS, the world’s longest running maritime security exercise, having reached its 60th anniversary this year. Ten of the countries attending SOUTHDEC are participating in the annual maritime and amphibious exercise.
This year’s SOUTHDEC took place as the impact of an ongoing Venezuelan migrant crisis reached unprecedented levels, affecting many South American nations. The crisis has triggered a regionally-supported humanitarian response to aid Venezuelan victims fleeing ever-worsening conditions in their homeland.
The ongoing medical assistance mission of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort is contributing to that regional humanitarian response. Comfort has already made mission stops in three of the countries represented at SOUTHDEC, arriving at Santa Marta, Colombia, as SOUTHDEC got underway.
To date, the hospital ship’s international military and civilian crew, including volunteers from countries like Argentina, Brazil and Perú, has treated more than 26,700 patients and completed more than 560 surgeries. The mission is helping countries affected by the crisis reduce the pressure their national health systems are experiencing as a result of an influx of new patients in need of care.
UNITAS and the USNS Comfort mission were among the many security cooperation topics Faller discussed with regional defense leaders during SOUTHDEC.
Faller arrived in Brazil Aug. 18 to attend the opening ceremony for UNITAS in Rio de Janeiro, where he later addressed students at the Brazilian Armed Forces’ Escola Superior de Guerra (War College) and attended the advanced learning institution’s 70th anniversary ceremony.
The visit was Faller’s second to Brazil since assuming command of SOUTHCOM. Faller also hosted Botelho at SOUTHCOM’s headquarters in Miami July 16, where the two leaders discussed the deepening and expanding defense ties between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies.
The host city for this year’s SOUTHDEC, Natal, is one of historical significance in the longstanding defense partnership between the U.S. and Brazil. It was the site of a historic World War II-era meeting between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, which led to the creation of three air bases in Brazil of strategic importance to allied efforts in the conflict. The largest of those air bases, Parnamirim Airbase, would come to be known as the “trampoline of victory” for its important role in moving U.S. troops and equipment during the war.
After SOUTHDEC, Faller departed Brazil en route to Paraguay and Perú. In Paraguay, he will meet with key host nation and U.S. embassy leaders to discuss U.S. security cooperation with Paraguay’s armed forces and observe a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) bilateral engagement between U.S. and Paraguayan special operations personnel. In Perú, he will take part in similar meetings and tour the U.S. Navy’s Naval Medical Research Unit No. 6.