Central, South American Nations Demonstrate Power of Democracy


The power of democracy is increasingly on display in Central and South America, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said during a recent interview.

A seated Navy admiral gestures while speaking to a Marine officer.
Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, provides guidance to Marine Corps Col. Michael Oppenheim on Latin America operations during a meeting at the command's headquarters in Doral, Fla., May 16, 2018. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Zachary Dyer
A seated Navy admiral gestures while speaking to a Marine officer.
Provides Guidance
Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, provides guidance to Marine Corps Col. Michael Oppenheim on Latin America operations during a meeting at the command's headquarters in Doral, Fla., May 16, 2018. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Zachary Dyer
Photo By: Gunnery Sgt. Zachary Dyer
VIRIN: 180516-M-VM748-040

Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd also said the bonds among the nations of the Western Hemisphere are strong and that nations are cooperating and working together. A consistent and long-term strategy in the region has helped to foster this outcome.

The admiral will turn over the reins of the Miami-based command to Navy Adm. Craig Faller Nov. 26.

The classic example of progress in the region is Colombia, Tidd said. In the 1980s, Colombia was beset by drug cartels and a rebellion. The government was under siege and terrorists with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – known as FARC – ran rampant. The people of Colombia were the ones who suffered.

Fast-forward to 2016. The FARC negotiated peace with the government and laid down its arms the following year. The Colombian military is one of the most respected institutions in the nation, and the nation itself is an “exporter of security” in the region and the world.

The Colombian military benefitted from internal controls and training provided by Southcom. “This is a part of our four military imperatives – the hallmarks of a 21st-century military force,” Tidd said.

Four Imperatives

The four imperatives are: The institutionalization of respect for human rights, development of a professional noncommissioned officer corps, joint operations and working with nations to ensure they take advantage of all of the talent available in their populations.

Today, the Colombian military is capable and professional, and is in the process of shifting from a force focused almost exclusively on a counterinsurgency to a more rounded force. “They are working in Central America to help these militaries to deal with internal security challenges, and at the same time incorporating this fundamental respect for human rights,” Tidd said.

This changes in Colombia demonstrate the power of a long-term investment. “We have worked side by side with them for decades, and now our Colombian partners are shoulder to shoulder with us, very capable and mature in their leadership,” he said. “They are able to play important security roles helping other countries develop their own capabilities. It really has become what folks hoped for and dreamed about years ago.”

It has not been a smooth path. The FARC insurgency morphed into a dangerous transnational criminal gang. But the Colombian government remained steadfast and the nation held several elections during that period. “We’ve all gone through the inevitable ups and downs,” Tidd said. “No one has perfected democracy – it is messy and challenging. But all of the countries are bound together by this belief, and democracy ties together the Americas in ways that are fundamentally unique.”

Surmounting Challenges

Particularly, the militaries in the region understand their place in democracies. Some nations have been through challenges that in years past would have resulted in military coups, the admiral said. That hasn’t happened, he noted. Military leaders respect their constitutions and the role they need to play.

Is there the possibility this may change? Tidd posited.

“Yes. But the fact that we work together and stand with each other allows us to reinforce and support each other’s commitment to respecting the rule of law and trying to improve governance,” he said.

Southcom is one of the smaller combatant commands. Many people call it an “economy of force mission” but Tidd has banned that term from the vocabulary because, the admiral says, it sounds like whining. In his view, being small and having a small footprint forces the command to be creative.

“I like to think of us an elite welterweight punching above our weight class and able to go after problems as they present themselves,” Tidd said. “We will take advantage of creativity and we are liberated to try nondoctrinal experimental solutions. We can try things to see if they work. If they do, we certainly share that with the broader security community. If they don’t work, we continue to move out. It’s okay to fail.

“When you study science of learning organizations and creative organizations, if you are not pushing right up to the edge of the envelope, you are not going to advance or change,” he said.

Testing Ideas

The command has made a conscious effort to be the “try-it-first-here” theater. “We work closely with the services and industry and allies and other government agencies to test ideas and give them meaningful feedback,” he said.

Trying a new process or idea at Southcom is real; it is not an exercise in a controlled environment, Tidd said.

Above all, working at the command requires “an opportunistic mindset” from all members, the admiral said. “They take new things and push,” he said. “It is an exciting place to work. These folks know doctrine, but they are confronted with issues that aren’t covered by the book. I feel like this is a culmination of 40 years of being allowed to push the envelope, and try some new and exciting things and work with creative people.”

Building Partnerships

The command goes way past the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1987’s definition of jointness in its operations. “It is no longer enough to be part of a team that’s made up of all the branches of the military; you’ve got to be able to work within a team and create trust with teammates from the intelligence community, the law enforcement community, diplomats and with partner nations,” the admiral said.

The problems confronting the command – drug interdiction, uncontrolled migration, trafficking in people and more – are complex. “No individual branch of the armed forces can solve them on their own, no individual department or agency can solve them alone, and no individual nation can solve them on their own,” Tidd said. “Trust underpins everything we do. For the interagency to work you have to get past the stovepiped perspectives.”

Military-to-military contacts are the glue that cements together the force elements required to make things happen, the admiral said.

“I think this was the true intellectual breakthrough and genius of people like Dwight Eisenhower. His boss – George Marshall – understood we were going to have to fight as part of a coalition to succeed in World War II. How do you build them?” he said. “Eisenhower truly embraced and perfected the multitude of negotiations and compromises that were necessary and established relationships that we continue to benefit from.”