From Pentagon to academia: LACC Director Frank Mora

After the January 2012 Haiti earthquake, President Barack Obama promised the world, “These people will not be forsaken.” The Department of Defense led the way in fulfilling that promise for the U.S. government.

Behind the scenes was Miami-born political scientist Frank Mora. As the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, Mora was the link between the Pentagon and the many national and international agencies involved in responding to the disaster. The president’s words echoed in his head through the confusion.

“These were very long hours sleeping in my office getting calls from the White House. ‘What are you doing? Why is it going so slow?’” he said. “It was very tense.”


Mora, right, with then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Mora saw the suffering in Haiti. The government had fallen, and he knew that any success would have to come through collaboration with international partners. So he worked closely with the U.N. Mission in Haiti led by Brazil and other Latin American governments. “We coordinated in a way that helped save lives,” he said.

Out of that experience and his work in response to the Chilean earthquake of 2010, Mora helped develop a disaster response plan to coordinate military assistance at an international level. That plan was approved by the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in October 2012, a first in Latin America.

Now, Mora is bringing his solution-oriented skill set to FIU as the new director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC) founded by FIU’s President Mark Rosenberg in 1979. LACC is part of a Miami consortium that has been designated a National Resource Center for Latin America by the U.S. Department of Education, recognizing it as one of the top study centers on the region.

Mora, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Miami, was a professor at the National War College prior to joining the Pentagon. At FIU he has already contacted LACC’s 150 alumni, writing: “You are a key stakeholder in the future success of the center so I will be reaching out to you for your ideas and insights.”

Editor Deborah O’Neil, who earned a master’s degree with LACC, recently sat down with Mora to talk about his vision for the center.

Tell us about your ideas for the future of LACC.

There’s enormous intellectual capital here that can be marshaled and leveraged in an effective way toward enhancing the profile of FIU, of LACC and of its faculty. We have to continue to support faculty and students, bolster the master’s program, support research of faculty, and do academic, theoretical work.

The other piece is policy innovation. How are we contributing to the debate of solving the complex issues of today? I come to that through my own experience as an academic and also someone who was in the policy world and realized it’s not an either-or, policy or theory. They are mutually reinforcing.

What are the big issues in Latin America that we at FIU could help address?

Infrastructure is huge. Cyber security. They need technical assistance. Energy and the environment, you can’t get more hot topic than that. Another area is access to public health, community medical care.

What was your role in the Department of Defense?

My job was to advise the undersecretary and secretary on all policy issues in Latin America. I was the senior Pentagon official in charge of Latin America. I went to nearly every country in my nearly four years on the job. President Obama’s approach is one that I share: We are going to be committed to partnering and collaborating. We wanted to find practical solutions to complex problems, which is the way I’m approaching this job.

What big trends are you paying attention to in Latin America these days?

Integration has a bad history in Latin America and what I am noticing is this split between the Pacific and the Atlantic countries. The Pacific countries have the Pacific Alliance. Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico belong to the Pacific Alliance, a group focused on economics and open markets, a pragmatic approach to solving problems. On the Atlantic side, there’s a more ideological and political discourse and anachronistic way of approaching problems. The United States has free trade agreements with every single country facing the Pacific except Ecuador. Countries on the Pacific side have free trade agreements with each other for the most part. On the Atlantic side we have no free trade agreements with Venezuela on down. So we’ll see how far this split grows.

How does Central America factor these days in terms of U.S. interests?

When I was coming in, I felt Central America would be the center of gravity for us and it was. It had become the under-governed quadrant between North and South America. As a result of institutional weakness, Central America has become very attractive for cartels and drug trafficking. It is the most violent region in the world, more so than Afghanistan and Iraq. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world. We spent a lot of time and resources on a plan called the Central America Regional Security Initiative, an interagency effort to support the Central Americans in their fight against transnational criminal organizations. The president made this a priority in Latin America.


Mora joined the Department of Defense in 2009, under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (center).

I want LACC to be the center of gravity for all academic and policy discussions about Latin America and the Caribbean, not just in Miami, but the entire country.

We all have a story about why we study a certain place. Why did you choose to focus on Latin America?

At home with my parents, the conversation was always about Cuba and politics. I was always very intrigued and wanted analytical answers to the questions raised in my family. As a political scientist, I’m interested in the complexity, the instability of Latin America, the coups, the revolutionary movements, the protests. What explains turmoil? I just absolutely love traveling in the region…the people, the geography, the diversity. At the end of the day, I felt like I spoke the language and I don’t mean Spanish. I understood things at a kind of genetic level and that has served me well.

Now let’s have a little fun. Who’s got the best food in Latin America?

Peru. The seafood is out of this world.

Maduros o tostones?

Tostones. Much prefer tostones.

Favorite city in Latin America?

I just absolutely love Rio.

Do you salsa?

Of course, I’m Cuban.

Any Defense Department secrets you can share?

Probably not.

Oh, come on.

Nothing that you could print.   


Top photo by Doug Garland ’10