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Latin America Report

Why FIU's Frank Mora Worries As Much About Brazil, Venezuela As Cuba

Defense Department
Frank Mora (right), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, speaking at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Besides the horrific carnage inside Port-au-Prince, one of my most vivid memories of the 2010 Haiti earthquake is military helicopters idling out in Port-au-Prince Bay.

From the bridge of the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, I watched H-53 and Seahawk choppers waiting for rescue and relief supplies that seemed agonizingly slow in arriving from U.S. and other foreign aid sources. International coordination, in fact, felt as wanting in those first few post-quake days as the food and medicine.

But the effort righted itself in time to save thousands of lives. And a good deal of credit went to the U.S. military’s Miami-based Southern Command, which was overseen from the Pentagon by then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, Frank Mora.

Mora then as now honestly acknowledged what needed fixing, not only with the Haiti mission but with hemispheric emergency response in general.

“We were duplicating [efforts] and weren’t coordinating and communicating with our regional partners in ways that would have saved even more lives,” Mora told me in an interview last week about the earliest phase of the Haiti response.

Thanks to Mora’s efforts as well as those of countries like Chile, which suffered a major quake of its own in 2010, big steps have been taken toward that end and are being implemented this year by the hemisphere’s defense ministries.

After the Haiti earthquake, Mora said, it was clear the U.S. needed to help “develop a hemisphere-wide mechanism that will make the response to disasters better and more efficient.” Thanks to Mora’s efforts as well as those of countries like Chile, which suffered a major quake of its own in 2010, big steps have been taken toward that end and are being implemented this year by the hemisphere’s defense ministries.

Mora, a Miami native, brings that analytical and refreshingly self-critical outlook home this summer as he starts his new job as the director of Florida International University’s Latin America and Caribbean Center (LACC). His appointment by FIU President Mark Rosenberg, who founded the LACC 34 years ago, helps make Miami an even more important center of Latin America scholarship and policy debate.

Although no stranger to academia -- he received his Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of Miami in 1993 and later taught at the National War College in Washington, D.C. -- Mora believes that think tanks like the LACC need to be more “policy relevant. We have to not only enter the policy debate, but offer potential solutions and problem-solving activities.”

Credit Private Cody Barber / DOD
Frank Mora (left) then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, walking through quake-ravaged Port-au-Prince with then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Jim Schear and actor/activist Sean Penn in April 2010.

That seems especially important at a time when the Obama Administration is trying to re-engage Latin America and the Caribbean after largely ignoring the region during the President’s first term, an indifference Mora had to contend with during his tenure at the Pentagon from 2009 until this year. It also matters as the region hits the headlines again this summer -- from violent anti-government protests in Brazil to Uruguay’s unprecedented marijuana legalization campaign to Cuba’s possibly illegal shipment of arms to North Korea.

In our interview, Mora addressed those controversies:


On communist Cuba’s embarrassment -- which comes at a time when Washington and Havana are trying to achieve some rare rapprochement -- Mora points out that the U.S. so far is letting the question of whether Cuba violated U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea be “an issue between Cuba and the United Nations.”

Eventually, Mora adds, the U.S. will have to get involved. “But for now they’re maintaining a certain distance” so as not to scuttle current negotiations with Cuba on issues like immigration and possibly even Cuba’s imprisonment of U.S. aid subcontractor Alan Gross on questionable spying charges.

Drug War

Mora acknowledges that Latin America’s demand for a new drug war approach, given the awful narco-bloodshed the region is experiencing, “is one of the important hemispheric issues.” But he has “second thoughts” about whether Uruguay’s pot legalization is the answer since marijuana trafficking doesn’t generate as much violence as drugs like cocaine.

Brazil, Venezuela

It’s the Brazilian and Venezuelan situations that seem to worry regional experts like Mora more. While Brazil in the past decade has moved tantalizingly close to development, he says, “there are a number of internal structural contradictions,” and “unless Brazil addresses them in a very fundamental way, they’re going to be stuck” with the popular unrest “for a while.”

Mora is even more pessimistic about Venezuela’s post-Hugo Chávez future. Given the oil-rich country’s political polarization and economic dysfunction -- including South America’s worst murder rate and one of the world’s highest inflation rates -- the slightest “trigger” or “spark,” he says, could push the volatility “out of control.”

If that happens, how Washington responds could make a big difference. And how Miami helps frame the policy debate could, too.

The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.



Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.