When times are tough, countries across the Caribbean, Central America, and South America know that they can count on the United States to lend a helping hand. This year as the global health challenge of COVID-19 came to the Americas, U.S. embassies and missions teamed up with U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to deliver field hospitals, medical supplies, and other desperately needed equipment under SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Aid Program (HAP). This program helps local communities supplement their domestic response to the deadly pandemic. As a diplomat serving as the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) and SOUTHCOM’s Civilian Deputy Commander, I am proud to stand with our military colleagues to help save lives and deepen partnerships across the Americas.
In a world with increasingly complex transnational challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, bridging the gap between diplomacy and defense is of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy and national security. The Office of State-Defense Integration (SDI) in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) helps make it happen by facilitating the exchange of personnel between the Departments of State and Defense. Nearly 85 POLADs are assigned to mid- to senior-level positions in the Department of Defense, from the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the service and combatant commands, such as SOUTHCOM.
POLADs help bring the State Department perspective to military planning and operations ensuring commanders and other military staff benefit from diplomatic expertise. Similarly, the Department of State benefits from nearly 100 mid- to senior-level military officers detailed as Military Advisors (MILADs) to Foggy Bottom, bringing important perspectives and expertise to American diplomacy on arms control and nonproliferation, democracy and human rights, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and regional security challenges.
Around the world, U.S. embassies and consulates are in daily contact with their host governments and monitor local conditions as part of their diplomatic mission. As the threat of COVID-19 spread throughout the region, SOUTHCOM’s immediate goal was to provide our ambassadors a way to contribute to emergency response to tangibly demonstrate U.S. support to our partners through this crisis and beyond, and affirm our partnerships stand the test of time.
In a crisis, agility matters. Working closely with U.S. embassies in the region, SOUTHCOM immediately leveraged its HAP and put “all hands on deck” to respond. This spring, as American diplomats tracked growing need in their host countries for emergency medical support, senior defense officials based at U.S. embassies were sending up to 15 project proposals a day to SOUTHCOM. With a 24-hour approval process, SOUTHCOM became a “first responder” of U.S. assistance, providing an essential bridge until assistance via U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other U.S. agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private charities could arrive.
Over the past five months, SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program has worked with U.S. embassies to invest nearly $17.5 million to deliver on 329 projects in 28 partner nations across the Americas. This is one part of the more than $140 million in support to U.S. partners across the Western Hemisphere in the fight against COVID-19, not including additional funding for ventilators. SOUTHCOM worked side by side with U.S. embassies on the ground making sure the right assistance got to the right place at the right time. A rapid coordination effort, SOUTHCOM tracked all U.S. government assistance to ensure we were leveraging U.S. assets as well as assistance by allies and adversaries to enable strategic assistance decisions.
In Costa Rica, for example, SOUTHCOM worked with Embassy San Jose to deliver three fully-equipped military field hospitals to support local COVID-19 response operations. These mobile hospitals – each with a capacity to treat up to 40 patients at a time – are the leading edge of an effort to provide additional medical surge capacity to countries facing the COVID-19 pandemic or any other emergency. In the coming weeks, another 21 hospitals will be donated to 10 additional countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“This is how neighbors help neighbors, and that is what our hemisphere is. A shared neighborhood with a common history and one where we have shared values. We are stronger because we stand together and support each other,” said Admiral Craig S. Faller, the SOUTHCOM Commander. Other examples of how the HAP is saving lives and making a difference include:
- In Ecuador, 20 small projects have helped protect first responders with PPE, lab supplies, and hygiene products;
- SOUTHCOM is collaborating with Embassy Lima to develop a project to bolster Peru’s ability to produce life-saving medical oxygen; and
- Across the Caribbean, countries have received more than $800 thousand in dozens of critical COVID-related support projects including PPE, hospital beds, and other key supplies.
The POLAD exchange program has been in operation for more than 75 years and has grown from only a handful of individual exchanges to almost 200 State and Defense positions combined. Here at SOUTHCOM, integrating diplomacy and defense has proven to be a winning formula for an agile response to the complex challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smooth communication and ample information flow have been key factors to mission success in getting through the pandemic, so that SOUTHCOM can live up to its motto, “Partnership in the Americas.”
About the Author: Ambassador Jean Manes serves as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of the Coordinator of the Foreign Policy Advisory Program (POLAD). Ambassador Manes also serves as Deputy to the Commander at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).