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Cablegate: Usns Comfort Visit to Colombia

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FM AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
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RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL

UNCLAS BOGOTA 006487

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL MARR MASS MOPS SNAR PTER CO
SUBJECT: USNS COMFORT VISIT TO COLOMBIA

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. USNS COMFORT anchored near Buenaventura, Colombia
from August 22-28 during its humanitarian assistance deployment to
the region. Coordinating with Embassy Bogota, Colombian
authorities, and NGOs, the COMFORT team provided 25,815 medical,
dental and veterinary services and training to local citizens,
health care providers, university students, and medical clinics.
Colombian government and military officials at all levels toured the
ship and its operations ashore. The can-do attitude of COMFORT and
its U.S. and Colombian partners on the ground overcame many
logistical and weather hurdles. As a result, the ship received
unanimously positive press coverage in the national and local media,
with the USG portrayed as a positive and helpful ally in Colombia.
END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) The US Military Group in Bogota, Joint Task-Force Bravo,
and the Embassy's Public Affairs (PAS) and Political sections worked
closely with COMFORT in coordinating with Colombia's MFA, MOD,
Ministry of Health, and other local institutions to provide
humanitarian assistance to the people of Colombia.

3. (SBU) Medical services provided included treatment of 6,597
patients, including 101 surgeries, 733 dental exams, 467 dental
varnishes, 4,050 immunizations, 2,046 eye exams, the distribution of
1,605 eyeglasses, and dispensed 8,404 drugs from the ship's
pharmacy. COMFORT taught 1,316 students about environmental health,
infectious disease control, and other public-health issues in 26
sessions. Colombians primarily received COMFORT's services aboard
the ship, in the city's coliseum in Buenaventura, at a naval base at
Bahia Malaga, and at the river community of La Sierpe.
Additionally, PAS organized a program with Buenaventura's university
students, characterized by an energetic, positive exchange between
the USG and the Colombian people. The U.S. Navy Show Band bolstered
the event with a lively performance for the university students and
entertained thousands of patients during two hugely popular concerts
held on August 23 as part of as part of Embassy's Education and
Cultural Day.

4. (SBU) The Naval Construction Battalion embarked aboard COMFORT,
known as the Seabees, built a multi-purpose medical clinic for the
impoverished people of La Sierpe and renovated parts of
Buenaventura's medical clinics. Project Handclasp donated medical
supplies worth well over $10,000 to the people of Buenaventura.
Preventative medicine physicians and technicians also provided
veterinary services to local farmers and animal owners, including
vaccinations of livestock, as well as education and training to
prevent future disease and worm infestations. Colombians benefited
from 25,815 encounters from the COMFORT team, including medical and
dental services, surgeries, examinations, procedures, vaccinations
and prescriptions, as well as medical services provided by Project
Hope volunteers.

5. (SBU) USNS COMFORT's visit drew participation from senior
officials of the Colombian national and local governments,
contributing to the Embassy's efforts to win support from the people
of Buenaventura, an area of substantial drug trafficking and FARC
terrorist activities. On August 26, Colombian Minister of Defense
Juan Manuel Santos toured the ship along with Admiral Guillermo
Barrera, Commander of the Colombian Navy. On August 27, a group of
distinguished visitors, including General Freddy Padilla the
Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, William Farrel the Canadian
Charge d'Affaires, and Colombian Health Ministry officials, toured
the ship with the Embassy's then Charge d'Affaires, Brian Nichols.
Both groups also visited COMFORT's main treatment facility ashore at
the city's coliseum and enjoyed extensive, positive media coverage.


6. (SBU) The Embassy's original press strategy complied with
COMFORT's desire to limit press tours of the ship to one day so that
the ship could devote its resources to medical services. However,
due to dangerous weather conditions, the media could not board the
ship on the designated Media Day, August 24. The ship and the
Embassy's public affairs officers adapted and arranged for 24
members of the press to board COMFORT over the following three days,
resulting in 34 television broadcasts, 20 news articles (15 in major
newspapers, 2 on-line, and 3 in news magazines), and 13 radio
broadcasts; PAS expects the publication of more major weekly
magazine articles over the coming weeks. The broadcasts and
articles thus far have been universally positive, previously unheard
of in Colombia's often negative media environment. COMFORT agreed
to bring two members of the media to the ship by helicopter to
accompany the Commodore to the shore for the opening ceremony on
August 22. The reporters shot video and stills of the ship on the
flight out to COMFORT, interviewed some of the leadership, and
covered the inauguration ceremony itself. PAS also convinced
COMFORT to dedicate one of its two helicopters to transport media in
order to cover the Distinguished Visitors tours of the ship. The
overall successful interagency partnership resulted from having PAS
staff both aboard ship and co-located in the U.S. MILGROUP's
operations center on the ground in Buenaventura. In each instance,
the media provided substantial national coverage which could not
have happened without close coordination with COMFORT. The ship's
unofficial motto, Semper Gumby, accurately reflects their ability
and willingness to always remain flexible and successfully adapt to
changing circumstances.

7. (U) Television coverage included 34 national and regional
newscasts. The press dedicated considerable time to human interest
stories, including one in which COMFORT operated on a child allowing
him to walk. The child's mother called COMFORT's visit "like a gift
from God." Many other broadcasts spoke of cooperation and
friendship between the two countries. PAS also nurtured its working
relationships with regional press, especially the Afro-Colombian
journalists including TelePacifico, a major television station.

8. (SBU) The logistics and weather issues encountered in Colombia
cannot be overstated. Due to Buenaventura's shallow harbor and
COMFORT's deep draft, the ship had to anchor 20 nautical miles from
the city's center. This distance complicated the movement of
COMFORT's personnel and supplies, necessitating the significant use
of boats and helicopters in order to move the COMFORT team to its
various sites in Buenaventura, Bahia Malaga, and La Sierpe. This
reduced the number of services COMFORT could have otherwise
provided. Many members of COMFORT, including personnel from the
U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Public Health Service,
Canadian forces, and the NGO Project Hope, endured daily, and
sometimes dangerous, one-hour boat rides each way, oftentimes in the
rain and heavy-seas. The unanimously positive media coverage
demonstrates that the COMFORT leadership and crew deserve high
praise for successfully adapting so well to the distant anchorage,
severe weather, and complicated logistics.

BROWNFIELD

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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