Thursday, August 21, 2008

NICARAGUA: US Fourth Fleet Treads Fine Line

By José Adán Silva
BILWI, Nicaragua, Aug 20 (IPS) - The newly reactivated U.S. Fourth Fleet began its operations in Latin American waters with a humanitarian mission that made its first stop in Nicaragua, before heading on to six other countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America. The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship of the Fourth Fleet of the U.S. Southern Command, anchored off Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast in the Caribbean Sea on Aug. 11, carrying 1,600 people, including U.S. military personnel and public health workers as well as humanitarian workers from several countries. The ship will remain in Nicaraguan waters until Aug. 25. According to Commodore Frank Ponds, the head of the Continuing Promise 2008 humanitarian mission, the Navy ship is providing medical and dental services, as well as assistance in the reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Felix in September 2007. The ship is equipped to launch three kinds of missiles, support amphibious assault operations from ship to shore, transfer special forces, and evacuate troops and civilians. It also carries modern hospital facilities as well as fighter planes and helicopters, heavy vehicles, trucks and amphibious vehicles. Christened in 1992, the warship has carried out missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. It also took part in humanitarian operations in Turkey and in the U.S. war on Iraq. The day it anchored three miles off the coast of Puerto Cabezas, the provincial capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said the ship "belongs to the Fourth Fleet. The doctors, nurses, paramedics and specialists who have come in that ship have not come with the intention of carrying out intelligence work. "They have come with the intention of providing humanitarian services, but for that there is a division of labour, and a ship like that is in a position to bring specialists who are engaged in intelligence work, while the others do their humanitarian work," the president said in a Nicaraguan navy installation. "We welcome the humanitarian work, but of course we cannot welcome the intelligence work," he said. Along with the marines and naval personnel on the ship are travelling members of the U.S. Public Health Service and non-governmental organisations like Project HOPE and Operation Smile, and volunteers from France, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada. At a press conference given by Ponds, foreign journalists questioned the use of a warship to carry out humanitarian actions in countries like Nicaragua, which in the 1980s suffered a civil war that was financed and fomented by Washington. Ponds responded that he did not get involved in such questions, saying "I’m talking about medical and dental care, infrastructure, schools and buildings that will be rebuilt and restored; that’s what I’m talking about." But this kind of large-scale operation is blurring the line between military missions and civilian humanitarian missions. There are organisations that refuse to work with the armed forces, despite their high level of organisation and capacity, journalists pointed out. "How do you tread the fine line between military and humanitarian missions? How can you think about showing up in Nicaragua in that big boxy grey ship without scaring people?" IPS asked. "The victims of the (2004) tsunami didn’t care if our ship was grey or blue," said Ponds. "What they cared about was that we were bringing humanitarian aid to a disaster area." The U.S. Embassy in Managua reported that the Continuing Promise 2008 mission will last four months, taking the ship to Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and the Dominican Republic. So far, the on-board personnel have seen 2,500 patients and performed some 100 surgical operations among the Betania, Tuapi, Yulu and Bilwi indigenous communities in Nicaragua, which were hit hard by Hurricane Felix. The reconstruction work will include bridges and public buildings as well as the installation of sewage and water networks and pumps for wells. In addition, donations of medical and sports equipment will be distributed. "What I see is a big humanitarian mission; I don't see anyone sticking their noses in anything, only people helping the needy," Puerto Cabezas Mayor Elizabeth Enríquez, who officially received the USS Kearsarge delegation, told IPS. RAAN Governor Reynaldo Francis said the ship came to his region thanks to local efforts to obtain international aid. "Through our efforts, today we are enjoying the presence of this humanitarian aid team, and we hope they will keep coming, and that more will come," he said. On Aug. 16, Ortega expressed a view that differed slightly from his original reaction. "There is a warship in Bilwi, but with medical aid. The ships from the U.S. are coming to help the people, and we have to sincerely express our gratitude," said the leftist leader. A source at the U.S. Embassy told IPS that an invitation to the president to visit the USS Kearsarge has not yet received a response. IPS was unable to obtain comments from the Nicaraguan government. "We have invited him to similar events and he has not come, although he has sent members of his government," said the diplomat, referring to the USS Comfort hospital ship, which last year stopped in the same area, where it provided assistance to more than 5,000 people in the wake of Hurricane Felix. Indigenous leader Osorno Coleman, candidate for mayor of the rightwing opposition Constitutionalist Liberal Party, said "Ortega has not been taught what to do when the enemy holds out his hand. "He has many bad things to say about the United States and continuously criticises it, but this time he didn't know what to do when his enemy extended its hand. And now a grateful Ortega suddenly shows up, expressing a welcome message," said Coleman. The Fourth Fleet was created by the United States in 1943, during World War II, to patrol the South Atlantic, but was disbanded in 1950. The decision announced in late April to re-establish the fleet under the Florida-based Southern Command came as a surprise for Latin America, and triggered controversy about the reactivation of the U.S. navy patrol mission for the region. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, the fleet was re-established to respond to natural disasters, carry out humanitarian operations, provide medical assistance, fight drug trafficking and cooperate in the areas of the environment and technology. On a visit to Argentina in July, Shannon said the fleet does not have an "offensive capability," and has no aircraft carrier or large warship, while the largest vessel is a hospital ship. Countries like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela have expressed irritation at the decision to dispatch the fleet to this region, and have stated that the Fourth Fleet will not be allowed to enter their territorial waters.

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