U.S. Plan Raises Ire in Latin America
Troops, Planes Would Use Colombian Bases in Anti-Drug Effort

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 8, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug. 7 -- A U.S. plan to deploy troops and station aircraft at several Colombian military bases has generated controversy across Latin America, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez warning that it could lead to war and the president of Brazil saying that he did not like the idea of an expanded U.S. presence in the region.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said by phone from Washington on Friday that the plan would give the United States access to Colombian bases from which to carry out vital counter-drug surveillance flights over the Pacific, a conduit for cocaine smuggled to Mexico and on to the United States. "Our ability to have broad coverage in that area was important," he said.

But since Colombian authorities revealed details of the proposed agreement last month, Chávez has said the United States might use the bases as a platform for an invasion of his oil-rich country. "We're talking about the Yankees, the most aggressive nation in the history of humanity," Chávez said Wednesday in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.

The reaction from Caracas was no surprise to Washington officials, whom Chávez frequently accuses of plotting against his government. But moderate, European-style leftist governments in South America, most of which have good relations with the United States, have also raised concerns that the proposed U.S. presence is greater than Washington needs for its anti-drug efforts.

Hurdle for Obama

That indignation poses a new challenge for the Obama administration, which has been trying to improve relations with governments that had openly opposed the Bush administration. But political analysts, as well as officials in Colombia, said the secretive nature of the talks between Washington and Bogota had proved counterproductive.

"There just didn't seem to be any serious consultation beforehand," said Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, adding that the controversy "was completely avoidable."

On Friday, President Obama tried to soothe nerves in Latin America, telling reporters in Washington that the United States was simply upgrading its security agreement with Colombia. "There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric," Obama said, adding, "We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia."

The concerns expressed in the region prompted Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to embark on a three-day South American trip this week to reassure fellow leaders, including populists such as Bolivia's Evo Morales and moderates such as Chile's Michelle Bachelet. Morales and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did not offer support for a Colombian-U.S. deal, but Bachelet and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva toned down their initial criticisms to say that the proposal is a sovereign matter.

Still, after Uribe met with Lula in Brasilia on Thursday, Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, told reporters that his country had asked Colombia to be more transparent about the proposed accord. "We will have to see if that Colombian transparency satisfies, or does not satisfy, our doubts," Amorim said. The plan was expected to be the main topic of discussion when Latin American officials meet in Ecuador on Monday for a regional defense summit.

Colombian authorities said last month that under the accord, which may be signed this month and would last 10 years, U.S. aircraft could be stationed at up to five Colombian air bases and U.S. naval vessels could dock at two Colombian ports, one on the Caribbean and the other on the Pacific. Up to 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 private contractors could use the bases, meeting a cap of 1,400 that was set in 2000 when Congress approved $1.3 billion in anti-narcotics aid for Colombia. As of June 19, there were 268 U.S. military personnel in Colombia and 308 civilian contractors.

The Uribe administration has stressed that the bases would remain under Colombian command, with U.S. missions requiring Colombian approval and base security handled by Colombian troops. U.S. planes would be unable fly over a third country unless the United States had a separate agreement with that country. "These are not American bases, but Colombian," Gen. Freddy Padilla, chief of the armed forces, said Tuesday at a summit with U.S. military officers in the coastal city of Cartagena. "But we will provide the possibility for them to use our installations."

U.S. military officers and specialists working for U.S. companies that carry out anti-drug operations already use several Colombian bases.

Colombian officials said the base that would have the biggest U.S. presence under the accord is Palanquero, in Puerto Salgar, a steamy river town a four-hour drive from Bogota. Hundreds of service members can be housed there, and its hangars can accommodate more than 100 aircraft.

End of Ecuadoran Deal

The idea of using Colombian bases comes as a decade-long U.S. presence ends at the coastal air base in Manta, Ecuador, which U.S. forces used to patrol the Pacific. Then-candidate Rafael Correa railed against the U.S. presence during his 2006 presidential campaign and, once in office, did not renew an operating agreement with Washington.

Correa's government also accused U.S. forces operating out of Manta of having helped the Colombians carry out the bombing of a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador last year that killed two dozen guerrillas.

The senior State Department official said talks with the Uribe administration over use of Colombian bases began "long before" Ecuador decided to end the U.S. presence at Manta. "We thought it made sense," he said.

Colombia's vice minister for defense, Sergio Jaramillo, said in an interview Friday that officials have become increasingly concerned about the smuggling of cocaine into Mexico via speedboats and semi-submersible vessels operating out of clandestine Pacific ports. "One must not underrate the significance or danger of losing the capability that the U.S. had in Ecuador," he said.

Jaramillo said the planes that had been in Manta "were the ones that were giving us the intelligence to do the interdiction operations we were doing in the Pacific."

In Venezuela, though, Chávez scoffs at those arguments, his rhetoric ratcheting up in recent days since Colombia accused Venezuela of providing Colombian guerrillas with antitank rocket launchers.

Chávez denied the allegation and recalled his ambassador from Colombia. In the wake of the base controversy, he has announced an economic counteroffensive that includes suspending the participation of Colombia's state oil company in operations in Venezuela's richest oil belt. He also said plans to import 10,000 cars from Colombia had been called off and threatened to cut other Colombian imports.

"The only way this situation returns, let's say, to calm is for Colombia to refuse to give its territory to the United States," Chávez told reporters Thursday.

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