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Taking the Helm

Taking the HelmFletcher graduate Adm. James Stavridis brings a diplomatic perspective to his new post as head of the U.S. Southern Command.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.09.06] As Adm. James Stavridis takes charge of the U.S. Southern Command—the first naval officer to ever hold the joint command post—the Fletcher graduate comes armed not only with strong military experience, but a background in international diplomacy that many expect to serve him well in negotiating the United States' relationships in the region. " Latin America is part of our DNA and we are part of theirs. It's all one Americas. I think that's a very positive factor," he told the Associated Press. "We want to be as engaged as we possibly can."

U.S. Southern Command, based out of Miami, oversees military operations in Latin America (south of Mexico) and in the Caribbean and is comprised of 1,200 military and civilian personnel from all branches of the armed forces, according to The Army Times. Stavridis, who assumed his new post in October, told the AP that the U.S. plans to remain "the partner of choice" in the region, which boasts a population of 450 million.

Ret. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led Southern Command from 1994 to 1996, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Stavridis had a "tremendous grasp of international issues" and understanding of "the highest levels of government."

Stavridis graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976 and earned a doctorate in international relations from The Fletcher School in 1984. His Navy experience includes commanding the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group involved with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and heading the Navy's Deep Blue think tank, according to The Army Times. Stavridis also recently served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

One of Stavridis' challenges will come from Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has been openly critical of U.S. policies. According to the Associated Press, Venezuela's recent large purchase of arms, warplanes and helicopters raised flags to American officials.

"It's a concern any time a nation in the region embarks on a large arms purchasing operation without any seeming visible threat. Naturally, we're concerned when we see the government of Venezuela make statements that are anti-American in certain ways," Stavridis told the AP. "We are hopeful as always that we can have a positive relationship at some level. I'm not confident we'll be able to close that switch anytime soon."

Stavridis' oversight also includes the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, which has been the target of international criticism for its use to detain terrorism suspects. "I view Guantanamo Bay as a central part of my mission. By all reports, it is today a well-run, legal, transparent facility," Stavridis told the AP, noting that he plans to visit the base soon.

As for Cuba itself, which recently saw a transfer of power from ailing leader Fidel Castro to his brother, Stavridis told the AP, "I think what we are going to see in Cuba eventually is a transition to democracy. It's really hard to see what the timeline looks like."

Other concerns in the region include continued battles against drug trafficking and human smuggling, according to the AP.

"This is an area of the world [where] it's extremely unlikely that we're going to be launching missiles or dropping bombs. This is an area of the world where our engagement is in ideas," Stavridis told the AP. "Our objectives are to be engaged in a positive way with as many of our regional partners as we possibly can."

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