Admiral James Stavridis is the first naval officer ever to take charge of U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, traditionally the domain of ground forces. The four-star admiral will face a number of challenges, including overseeing prison operations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and dealing with the drug war and insurgency in Colombia.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, headquarters in Miami Thursday , to take part in a festive change-of-command ceremony, complete with a cannon-salute and colorful flags from the region. Rumsfeld had high praise for outgoing SOUTHCOM chief General Bantz Craddock, who will soon be named chief of U.S. Europe Command. And he welcomed Admiral James Stavridis, who has been his own senior military assistant for the past two years.
"Jim Stavridis has spent a good deal of his career at sea, taking on tough assignments, notably commanding a carrier strike group in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Donald Rumsfeld. "And over the last two years I've come to rely on his council and his sound judgment. Jim, you're the right man for this post and it's an exceedingly important post, and I know you will do a superb job for our country."
Fifty two-year-old Stavridis is a Persian Gulf veteran with a doctorate in international relations. Some analysts see the appointment of an admiral as SOUTHCOM chief - a sailor instead of a soldier - as an example of Rumsfeld's ongoing transformation of the military and his desire to "shake things up."
Stepping up to the microphone after being introduced as SOUTHCOM chief for the first time, Stavridis enthusiastically highlighted some of Latin America's languages.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Commander of the United States Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis."
"Good morning, Buenos Dias, Buon Dia, Buon Gior," said Admiral Stavridis. "Just look at all those flags out there, look at the colors. Think about all the diversity and the richness and the vibrancy of this incredible hemisphere. I'm so lucky to be here."
Stavridis arrives in Miami with fresh congressional approval for military-to-military contacts with several Latin American nations that joined the International Criminal Court and have refused to grant immunity to US citizens. SOUTHCOM can now offer training to some 750 Latin American military personnel from Brazil to Mexico.
He made clear that his focus will be on strengthening partnerships with U.S. neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, and not on military threats:
"I am very focused on increasing our interaction with partners, on traveling in the region, on connecting with our counterparts and doing everything I can to bring the Americas together," he said.
For years, the major focus of SOUTHCOM has been a wide-ranging, multi-agency effort called "Plan Colombia" to help the Colombian government fight insugents and drug traffickers. Stavridis will also oversee operations at Guantanamo Bay prison camp and coordinate planning for potential instability in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies.