U.S. Decision to Reactivate the Fourth Fleet a Matter of Concern

Military Sealift Command hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort is seen at anchorage off the coast of Haiti near Port-au-Prince in September, while on a four-month humanitarian deployment to Latin America and the Caribbean providing medical treatment in a dozen countries. (Photo: Thony Belizaire / AFP-Getty Images)

The decision of the United States Navy to reestablish the Fourth Fleet, after almost 60 years on standby, in order to have a higher profile in Latin America and the Caribbean raised concern in the hemisphere.

Spokespersons of the Navy have insisted on saying that the move "is administrative in nature" and does not imply a bigger military presence, because the logistical demands in the Persian Gulf prevent physical relocation of the combat units.

"In fact, the U.S. Navy forces of the Southern Command have acted as a fleet. Therefore, from the operational view, nothing changes. Basically, the name is intended to be adjusted to the reality," Lt. Myers Vásquez, the Southern Command public affairs officer, told the BBC.

In the meantime, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba yell out at a new "terror sowing" or the comeback of "gun boat diplomacy"; Brazil downplays the announcement and Washington claims that this new navy component will have not "a military purpose, but one of cooperation."

Beginning on July 1, the Fourth Fleet will be based in Mayport, Fla., and will join efforts with the United States Southern Command, located also in the area. It will be responsible for more than 30 countries, covering 15.6 million square miles, focusing on the waters adjacent to Central and South America, the Caribbean Sea, its 12 islands and European overseas territories, the Gulf of Mexico and an area of the Atlantic Ocean.

While some claim that the Fourth Fleet will have appointed the new George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier and several submarines, the chief of the Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, reasserted that the unit "will have never an offensive possibility. It is a promise."

"We have no intention whatsoever to have an aircraft carrier as part of the Fourth Fleet. Over the past three years, there were two trips of two aircraft carriers through this zone and did not last more than 20 days; it is a provisional passage."

During a visit to Argentina, Stavridis clarified that the George W. Washington aircraft carrier crossed the region on its way to Japan and specified that the largest vessel to operate in the region is a hospital ship (U.S.N.S. Comfort). "When a mission is carried out, it will be done with ships provided by the U.S. Navy. There are not standing ships appointed."

Military analysts estimate that the United States is in possession of 10 Nimitz aircraft carriers, which have similar features: displacement from 101,000 to 104,000 tons of full load, 333 meters long, 2 nuclear reactors, speed of 56 kilometers per hour, and 80 warplanes.

Cooperating vs. Scaring

According to the Southern Command, the Fourth Fleet renewed operations to accomplish five specific missions: responsiveness in the event of natural disasters, humanitarian operations, medical aid, antinarcotics efforts, and cooperation in environmental and technology matters.

However, Venezuelan authorities have doubts about the underlying intention of the move. They think that the United States government seeks to "scare" South American countries, "which in some way are turning to the left, particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba."

"The U.S. government is desperate. When the determination of peoples to be free and sovereign awakens, not even 1,000 fleets can stop them," said Vice Adm. Luis Cabrera Aguirre, a member of the Venezuelan presidential staff.

In his view, the revival of the navy component is a threat, because the administration of President Bush uses humanitarian tasks to get valuable information in the theater of operations, such as recognition, communications testing, and salinity testing.

Such assumptions have been dismissed by Stavridis, who feels that "hardcore populism" does not endanger his country. "I think that in this region there are different ideas in terms of politics and economy. For the United States, they are democracy, free market, freedom, and human rights. There are other ideas in the region that compete with those, but they are not threats," he said, as quoted by Argentinean daily newspaper La Nación.

The reestablishment of the Fourth Fleet called the attention also of retired Rear Adm. César Augusto Manzano, Venezuela's former advisor to the United Nations. The fleet was created during the Second World War to repel the attack of German submarines and discontinued five years after the end of the war.

"The U.S. must have some information beyond [what] we all know that drives it to take that decision," he said.

On the Alert

Cabrera Aguirre revealed that the Venezuelan government viewed as an alert the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet. Based on the intelligence information handled by them, they will outline a "map of potential actions," including organization and partnership with foreign countries.

"When we talk about getting ready, we refer ourselves to strengthening the civic-military union in the context of the new Bolivarian military thinking. And when we talk about forming an alliance, we back the southern military integration," explained the staff representative.

Manzano, on the contrary, does not see the need to raise any alarm in the face of an operational decision.

Translated by Conchita Delgado.

From El Universal.