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Colombia: Agreement with U.S. worries neighbors
September-October 2009

A potential military agreement between the U.S. and Colombia has sparked concern from South American neighbors. Reaction to the plan to give the U.S. a 10-year lease to seven Colombian military bases has indicated that both countries could become more isolated in the region and set off a regional arms race.

U.S. and Colombian officials say U.S. personnel at these bases will not serve in combat roles, but rather will cooperate on “security matters including narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, illicit smuggling of all types, and humanitarian and natural disasters,” according to the State Department.

Though the deal has not been signed, the Obama administration’s 2010 defense budget request already includes $46 million to make construction improvements to the Palanquero base. The U.S felt the need for access to the bases after Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa’s refused to renew the U.S.’s 10-year lease on the Ecuadoran base in Manta unless the U.S. allowed an Ecuadoran military installation within U.S. borders.

One of the most difficult aspects in the U.S.-Colombia negotiations is the level of immunity granted U.S. personnel. According to the Colombian magazine Cambio, “This discussion is not minor, and it was one of the points that justified Ecuador’s decision to close Manta. That country’s Constituent Assembly considered that about 300 irregular and criminal acts - illegal detentions and seizures of Ecuadorians and their goods, robberies, murders, injuries and paternity cases - are attributed to U.S. military personnel, and received no response from U.S. judicial authorities.”

By signing this deal, U.S. activities in Colombia will become even more secretive and less influenced by Congress. The current Plan Colombia is debated yearly in Congress as part of the foreign aid budget. But these bases would not be up for an annual review; they will be treated as a long term agreement under the Defense Department. There is also the question of how many U.S. personnel will work in Colombia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has assured that the current cap of 1,400 U.S. personnel in Colombia at a time will be respected. But the Senate Armed Services committee recently asked the Pentagon to consider removing that limit in Colombia.

Despite reassurances that this deal represents nothing new in/for the region, there are many causes for concern. The plan gives no assurance that the military activities will be solely in Colombian territory. Colombia already showed its willingness to carry out unwanted military operations in other countries. In March 2008, Colombian military crossed into Ecuador with no warning to or permission from Ecuadoran authorities to kill members of the guerrilla organization FARC, a move supported by then-candidate Obama. This action, plus the doubling of Colombia’s military in the past 10 years and Colombia’s frequent complaints that Venezuela and Ecuador harbor the FARC, has led neighboring countries to boost their number of troops on or near the Colombian border in what could be the beginning of a regional arms race.

“What worries Brazil is a strong military presence whose objective and capabilities have the potential to go beyond Colombia’s internal needs,” stated Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister. He noted the contradiction between Bogota’s statement that the FARC has been practically annihilated, and an increase in U.S. military presence to combat them. The Brazilian military is especially concerned about U.S. intentions toward the Amazon and the wealth of minerals, water and biodiversity there. A Brazilian military study in 2002 expressed alarm at the then 6,300 U.S. soldiers in a “militarized belt” around Brazil. It also pointed to the fact that 25 percent of oil consumed in the U.S. comes from Andean countries as evidence of the importance of the area for U.S. interests. Many Latin American analysts see the purpose of U.S. use of the bases in Colombia as a way to assure access to key natural resources in the region such as Bolivia’s massive fields of lithium, a key mineral for rechargeable batteries.

Reactions to the proposal have been strong. Bolivian President Evo Morales has called for a continent wide referendum on the plan. “If the Colombian president wants his bases to be used, I say I want a referendum in South America so the people of Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina -- all 12 countries -- can decide,” said Morales. He will also bring two proposals to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR): to create a regional defense school and a regionally coordinated fight against narcotraffic, and for a resolution that no South American country would accept foreign bases in its territory.

Ecuador’s national assembly passed a resolution saying the U.S. use of Colombian military bases would undermine peace in the region, while Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has called for a summit with the U.S. to discuss the details of the plan and diffuse tensions between countries.

Despite assurances from the U.S., South American leaders have legitimate fears with a U.S. presence in seven military bases nearby. As Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy writes, “The United States is creating a new capability in South America, and capabilities often get used.” With so many regional leaders opposed to the agreement, its signing will further isolate the U.S. and Colombia in the region while strengthening the position of those who speak out against the U.S. empire in Latin America.

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