- - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Earlier this month, the hospital ship USNS Comfort departed the Caribbean, concluding a five-month, 12-country visit across Latin America and the Caribbean that included stops in Curacao, Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts & Nevis, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti.

From Peru to Jamaica, the crew of this ship saw and served many people in our shared neighborhood, including Venezuelans fleeing the brutal, illegitimate Maduro regime. All told, Comfort’s team treated nearly 68,000 patients (more than 35,000 in the Caribbean alone), built medical readiness and interoperability between the U.S. Navy and our partners and allies, and reflected the very best of the Americas. 

Although the numbers are impressive, they’re not the most important aspect of Comfort’s deployment. The people-to-people ties forged along the way are the mission’s true result. Each of those 68,000 patients represents a family – parents, grandparents, children — and, most importantly, a neighbor in our shared home of the Western Hemisphere. 

Strong people-to-people ties are the bridge to effective regional cooperation and continued regional stability in the Caribbean and beyond. From a defense and security perspective, we strengthen those ties whenever we work together, train and exercise together, and protect our citizens together. This partnership-first approach underpins the U.S.-Caribbean 2020 Strategy and the U.S.-Caribbean Resilience Partnership. The United States is working with partners across the Caribbean to advance security, diplomacy, prosperity, energy, education and health — one person, one community and one nation at a time. 

For SOUTHCOM’s part, we’re investing in key leader engagements, education and our joint exercise program — long-term, cost-effective efforts that yield significant dividends. In our annual TRADEWINDS exercise, we’re laying the groundwork for a combined task force (similar to counter-terrorism and counter-piracy task forces in other regions) that can plug into existing security architecture to help us all better address a range of risks and threats – from transnational criminal organizations and violent extremism to natural disasters. 

We’re also working closely with partners that contribute military capabilities to our common defense. Strong regional organizations such as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), the Caribbean Community’s Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS), and the Regional Security System (RSS) are increasing their efforts to coordinate individual contributions to regional security into a more effective whole.

At last week’s Caribbean Nation Security Conference (CANSEC) in Miami, leaders from those three organizations, 21 Caribbean nations, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands committed to sharing in the responsibility of helping one another when disaster strikes or security is threatened. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are leveraging U.S. and allied training and equipment to respond to a range of threats, including natural disasters. Along with Barbados and the Dominican Republic, they are also helping to address global challenges like drug trafficking and violent extremism.  

Ultimately, it’s the strong people-to-people ties in the Caribbean that form our solid foundation of trust and shared democratic values. We’re taking on the hard challenges with our partners: Developing leaders, strengthening institutions and defending democracy, human rights, sovereignty, and the rule of law. These engagements don’t always make headlines, but they’re the kind that matter — the kind that set us apart from transnational criminal organizations and external state actors, both of which contribute to instability in the region and undermine rule of law and sustainable development. 

Ultimately, our continued close engagement and cooperation are all part of our enduring promise to our neighbors to be there for the long-haul, as equal partners and as true friends. I was reminded of the strength of this promise when I visited COMFORT’s last mission stop in Haiti. As I was talking to a young Haitian mother, she pointed to COMFORT and said, “I’ve been waiting nine years for this ship to return.  But I knew you’d be back.”   .

For that one mother and thousands more, we kept our promise – and we will continue to keep it as we work with our partners to build a stronger neighborhood and a better future for all our citizens.

• Adm. Craig S. Faller is commander of the U.S. Southern Command.

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