A new humanitarian mission changes the U.S. military policy in Latin America

In spite of the tragic death of Specialist Hernaldo Beltran Jr., 24, in Guatemala during the operation“Beyond the Horizon” this mission constitutes an important shift…
A new humanitarian mission changes the U.S. military policy in Latin America

Spc. Hernaldo Beltran Jr., died in Guatemala while participating in an exercise called Beyond the Horizon. (AP Photo/U.S. Marine Corps, File)

In spite of the tragic death of Specialist Hernaldo Beltran Jr., 24, in Guatemala during the operation“Beyond the Horizon” this mission constitutes an important shift  in U.S. military policy towards Latin America.

The U.S. military is carrying out humanitarian missions in Belize, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

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The Accident

us soldier dies

Spc. Hernaldo Beltran Jr., 24, was assigned to the 56th Signal Battalion at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. (Army)

The deceased soldier has been identified as Specialist Hernaldo Beltrán Jr. of the 56th Signal Battalion. This unit is based at the Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. The cause of the soldier’s death was unrelated to local criminals: an anomaly considering that drug trafficking is a persistent and ongoing problem in Guatemala and throughout Central America.

Unfortunately, a large branch broke off from a tree and fell on four soldiers who were engaged in an engineering project in Los Limones, south of Guatemala City. The American personnel were quickly airlifted via a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to the Megamedica Hospital in Zacapa. While three injured soldiers received “non-life threatening injuries,” there was nothing that could be done to save Beltrán.

Tragically, this is not the first time that military personnel have perished in non-conflict zones while they were carrying out humanitarian assistance. A similar situation occurred in July 2012 when Staff Sergeant Robert Traxel of the Missouri National Guard, died when he was also struck by a falling limb while he was making a video of the military’s humanitarian relief operations. Ironically, this accident also occurred in Guatemala.

Beyond Horizon Exercise

Specialist Beltran was taking part in the “Beyond the Horizon” humanitarian exercises, which have been carried out annually since 2008 by Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

This year’s “Beyond the Horizon” mission began this past March 15 and is scheduled to run until June 27.

According to SOUTHCOM, a variety of construction projects will be carried out as part of “Beyond the Horizon”. These will include the construction of seven new classrooms in three schools located in Guatemala’s Zacapa and Chiquimula departments, as well as a three-room clinic in Zacapa.

An Evolving Partnership?

The “Beyond the Horizon” humanitarian assistance mission in Central America and the Caribbean come at a critically important time for the future of U.S. relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Over the past decade, U.S. foreign policy priorities have focused towards different parts of the world, such as the Asia Pacific, the Arab Spring protests and, most recently, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine vis-à-vis the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

With multiple tensions and challenges occurring across the world, Latin America and the Caribbean are arguably not a notable priority for the Obama administration.

This was perhaps best exemplified in February 2014, when the U.S. president travelled to the Mexican city of Toluca to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The objective of the summit was to promote cooperation among the three North American states and to praise NAFTA, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. But as the summit progressed, it seemed as if President Obama had his mind focused on the Ukraine rather than on North American integration (he spoke about the situation in Ukraine at length during his public remarks there).

Moreover, Vice President Joe Biden cancelled a visit to the Dominican Republic in early March in order to attend a meeting with President Obama and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was visiting Washington at the time.

As for Western Hemispheric initiatives, Washington is trying to reshape its military relations with the continent, morphing from aiding various Latin American militaries to emphatically crack down on guerrilla insurgents (e.g. during the Guatemalan civil war), to providing humanitarian aid (like building schools and clinics).

Certainly, U.S. military initiatives in Latin America will continue to be viewed through the prism of the Cold War for the immediate future, but initiatives like “Beyond the Horizon” are nevertheless of ranking importance.

One could contrast the effectiveness of “Beyond the Horizon” with other U.S. military initiatives towards Latin America that have been less than useful or effective. One prime example is the Fourth Fleet, which was reconstituted in 2008 during the George W. Bush presidency, but which remains essentially a fleet that only exists on paper.

As for the death of the Specialist Beltran, his loss is tragic and we salute him for giving his life in an act of solidarity while trying to aid the people of Guatemala.

Hopefully “Beyond the Horizon,” and other humanitarian operations like it, continue to take place in the Western Hemisphere, in spite of Washington’s problematic defense budget. This is the type of constructive, win-win initiatives by the U.S. military that Latin America needs today.

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