MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A high-ranking Pentagon official and Miami native is stepping down to become director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.

For the past three-and-a-half years, Frank O. Mora, 48, has guided Defense Department policy in the Americas as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere — a position that has had oversight of the U.S. Southern Command during a period that included Haiti’s devastating earthquake and lifting travel restrictions on Cuba.

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CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald reports Mora is an academic who came to the job from the National War College, holding the post with a low-profile approach — few photo opportunities and below-the-radar travel throughout the region.

In a rare interview Friday, Mora disclosed his last day on the job will be Jan. 24, days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and that the toughest task of his tenure was the U.S. response to Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake .

“I think we saved lives,” he said of the multi-agency U.S. military-led response to the earthquake. “We had to mobilize everything we had and the resources we had.”

Still, analysis later found international efforts were duplicated and fell short in certain places of the impoverished island.

“It was completely uncoordinated with all these partner nations. The United Nations had the lead; we had a big presence,” he said. “But there wasn’t a coordinating mechanism.”

As a result of that disaster and another earthquake in Chile, Mora and the Department of Defense have championed a system of multi-national coordination for future humanitarian disasters in the hemisphere. It will start next year with a website being managed by Peru, headquarters of the next secretariat of the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, where nations can share contacts and information about resources being brought to a specific disaster.

As for Cuba, Mora said he was surely disappointed that his tenure didn’t see a shift in the political status quo there.

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“Certainly I would’ve liked to see important change and transition,” he said. But the Obama administration’s lifting of travel restrictions likely has “had some impact on the families that have been able to see each other.”

Beyond that, he said, “it’s hard to measure what impact it had on the process of change in Cuba.”

For Mora, the new job provides a homecoming. He grew up in Miami, graduated from the old Belen Jesuit Preparatory School on SW Eighth Street in 1982 and, after getting a bachelor’s degree in political science at George Washington University, obtained both a master’s and doctorate from the University of Miami.

Now Mora is crossing town from the university where he studied to rival FIU, where now-President Mark Rosenberg founded LACC in 1979 “to promote the study of Latin America and the Caribbean in Florida and throughout the United States.”

When he starts work in Miami in June, Mora has a new vision for a center that was founded with a Cold War focus: Acting as a clearing house and think tank on common regional issues from energy and infrastructure to public health and the environment.

”These are the hot topic issues in the region that are of great interest,” he said, adding that when he’s not focusing on raising funds for the center, a major area of responsibility, he’ll emphasize its expertise on these issues through conferences and collaboration.

“Those are some of the critical issues going forward,” Rosenberg said Friday, noting that by bringing a “talented academic” from the Pentagon, FIU was getting “a person who understands the real world and the policy interface between the academy and practice.”

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Plus, he said, Mora’s University of Miami pedigree and Pentagon service are in keeping with cross-town collaboration as well as LACC’s earliest support of Southcom in Miami. “We try to think out of the box,” he said, “and we don’t necessarily want to get pigeon-holed into what we should do and what we should be.”