Américas / November-December 2001
By Larry Luxner
With the peaceful resolution of old border disputes and the end of Cold War-era proxy wars between leftist guerrillas and right-wing dictatorships, the militaries of Latin America are gradually turning their attention to other pressing concerns such as disaster relief and the threat of global terrorism.
That's the word from Major Gen. Carl H. Freeman, chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB), which next March celebrates its 60th anniversary.
"The issue is one of joining together to combat global terrorism. At present, the United States is certainly the leader in this campaign. Most of the countries realize that terrorists can strike anywhere, and that no one is exempt," says Freeman. "With the attacks of Sept. 11, the academic debate which had been going on for a long time has effectively been ended."
Freeman said that a week after the attacks, in which terrorists using hijacked planes destroyed New York's World Trade Center and crashed into the Pentagon, the IADB drafted a paper on fighting terrorism that was adopted by foreign ministers meeting at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington.
"The attacks were not against the United States. They were attacks on American soil against citizens of the world. No one wants to stand isolated at this time," said Freeman, adding that "Latin America should give unqualified political support to the effort to combat global terrorism. I think you'll soon see changes in laws which will facilitiate identifying and breaking up terrorist groups; banking and finance laws that will hamper their ability to move money and finance terror; greater interest in border and imigration controls, and efforts by the region's militaries to improve their own domestic security."
A little-known organization, the IADB is often confused with the much larger Inter-American Development Bank because of their similar initials. However, few Americans have heard of the Inter-American Defense Board, let alone understand the role it plays in promoting stability throughout the region.
"This is the oldest collective security organization in the world, dating back to 1942, when there were concerns about the influence of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in the Southern Hemisphere," said Freeman. "At the conclusion of World War II, the IADB was put under the umbrella of the Organization of American States. We are not a U.S. agency. We're an international organization chartered by Congress, and our funds come from the OAS, individual member countries and the U.S. government."
The IADB, which comprises 25 nations, operates the Inter-American Defense College on the grounds of Fort McNair in southwest Washington, D.C. The organization has a total budget of around $12 million, of which $2 million is funded directly by the OAS. The U.S. government provides transportation on Air Force planes and the free use of Fort McNair and other facilities.
"Most of the countries have realized that the key to economic and political success is to settle your disputes peacefully," Freeman told Américas. "ln comparison to other areas of the world like the Middle East and Asia, Latin America continues to be the lowest in terms of military spending as a percentage of its GDP."
Freeman, 54, has spent the last 32 years in the U.S. Army, beginning his military career in Vietnam in 1969.
"I was an international affairs major at Lafayette College [in Easton, Pa.] and took Spanish as my foreign language," he said. "After I'd been in the army for seven years, I had the opportunity to go to graduate school, so I jumped at the chance. From there, I went through training, and attended the Mexican War College for a year as an exchange officer."
Freeman has since been in over 60 countries, including every nation in Latin America, and he has a master's degree in Latin American studies from the University of Alabama. His assignments include commanding a joint task force in Kuwait and overseeing humanitarian relief operations for Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We are totally committed to the support of democracy and regional stability. That's our overarching concern," he said. "We want to further confidence and security-building measures so that countries feel comfortable with their neighbors and understand there are no bellicose intentions. We're very much interested in assisting the military as they transition into non-traditional roles. The military is more interested now in taking a look at natural disasters.
"We've had earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires and flooding, and in virtually every country, one of the first forces able to respond has been the military, because they have the logistics, the communications and the organizational capability. For example, the Salvadoran military did a tremendous job responding to the two earthquakes that hit El Salvador earlier this year."
Freeman said one of the IADB's most important projects is the removal of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance left over from the civil wars that shook Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. This program, which involves 32 soldiers from seven IADB member nations, has resulted in the destruction of over 9,000 mines in Nicaragua and another 3,000 in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.
The Inter-American Defense College is, however, what the IADB is best known for. In its 40 years of existence, the college -- which offers a year-long, graduate-level program in international security and defense -- has graduated 1,904 students from 23 countries, led by the United States, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
The average IADC student is between 40 and 46 years of age, possesses a college degree, holds the rank of colonel and has seen 20 to 25 years of service. The current class, which began Aug. 6, comprises 64 students from 18 countries led by the United States, Colombia and Venezuela. The college also has 20 advisers and 17 civilian employees.
Courses are taught in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and students are fully subsidized by their countries' governments.
"As a senior security institution, we don't deal strictly with military topics," he said. "We look at the security of the Americas internationally, from an economic, political and social as well as a military point of view," he said. "It's very important to have students from throughout the hemisphere. This way they have the opportunity to get to know each other much better. Friendships that they form here are important throughout their careers. We're bringing in some of the brightest minds in defense and security. We think this institution is truly an investment in the future."
Students at the Inter-American Defense College go on four field trips annually. Last year, the curriculum included a trip to Ottawa to meet with Canadian defense officials; a visit to Norfolk, Virginia, to visit with major U.S. military installations, municipal government officials and the local chamber of commerce; a week-long trip to New York, for meetings with United Nations ambassadors, the Council of Foreign Relations, Wall Street officials and the New York City Police Department's anti-terrorism squad, and an overseas trip to Uruguay and Brazil.
In addition, the school receives frequent guest speakers. These include leading academics from Georgetown University, George Washington University, Amnesty International, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and other institutions, as well as 20 to 30 ambassadors in the Washington diplomatic community.
Heads of state who have addressed IADC students include Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and two former presidents, Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador and Alberto Fujimori of Peru. This year, speaking invitations have been extended to Mexican President Vicente Fox and Mexico's foreign minister, Jorge Castańeda.
He adds that since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, "we have revamped our curriculum to look at the changing role of the military in light of evolving threats" such as global terrorism, biological warfare and the potential use of weapons of mass destruction.
Freeman says the Inter-American Defense College should not be confused with the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which he attended and at which he spent another six months teaching math and logistics. That school, whose name has since been changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has been linked by opponents of U.S. policy in Latin America with torture and human-rights violations committed by Panama's Manuel Noriega and other graduates.
"We'll occasionally send guest instructors down to speak, and we have discussions on peacekeeping operations, but there are no formal ties between the institutions," said Freeman, though he adds that the school "was a pioneer in teaching about human rights and respect for individuals" and that the whole controversy has been blown out of proportion.
"The School of the Americas has probably had around 55,000 graduates," he said. "So to single out a half-dozen or so individuals is very unfair. Those individuals who have gone on to become dictators or commit atrocities didn't learn that at the School of the Americas."
He adds: "One of the best ways to change people is to work with them, not to avoid engagement. So we freely discuss a wide range of issues dealing with ethics and respect for human rights."
Asked if that philosophy includes Cuba -- whose OAS membership has been suspended since 1962 and which therefore cannot participate in Inter-American Defense Board activities -- Freeman chose his words carefully.
"Speaking from a regional perspective and not as a representative of the U.S. government, I think the best way to bring about change in any totalitarian govenrment is to seek to open it up, whether it be North Korea or Cuba. The longer the country remains isolated from the mainstream of international thought , the longer it lags behind."
Insisting that he's not criticizing U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said "I understand very well why they have that policy, but I also understand why many countries favor a more open engagement with Cuba." He quickly added that the Castro regime has the worst record in the hemisphere when it comes to human rights. "In that area, Cuba personifies all those elements to which we are opposed."