South American Leaders Assail U.S. Access to Colombian Military Bases

Protesters in Buenos Aires oppose having U.S. troops at Colombian bases.
Protesters in Buenos Aires oppose having U.S. troops at Colombian bases. (By Natacha Pisarenko -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 29, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug. 28 -- South American leaders meeting Friday at a special summit in Argentina lashed out at the United States and Colombia over an agreement that gives Washington access to seven military bases in this country.

The tension in the publicly televised meeting eased after the leaders unanimously agreed to a vague resolution that says no foreign military force should be allowed to threaten the sovereignty of a South American nation.

But the tone of the criticism and the apparent unease about U.S. American motives during the seven-hour meeting underscore the hurdles President Obama faces in trying to improve relations with countries that have distanced themselves from Washington in the past decade. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of regional power Brazil, said Obama should explain his administration's objectives, while the leaders of Ecuador and Venezuela warned that an expanded U.S. presence threatens their security.

"You are not going to be able to control the Americans," said Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, locking eyes with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. "This constitutes a grave danger for peace in Latin America."

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the agreement's scope and the secrecy of the negotiations between Washington and Bogota have generated controversy over what has always been a hot-button issue in Latin America: the deployment of U.S. troops.

"It's hurt the Obama administration's credibility in the region at a time when the administration was attempting to really set a different path in U.S.-Latin America relations that was multilateral, that involved working with allies," Arnson said, speaking from Washington by phone. U.S. relations with some countries in the region, particularly Venezuela, were in tatters by the end of President George W. Bush's term, she said.

"It's certainly the case that Chávez and his allies in the region have been the most vocal opponents," Arnson said, referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's hostility to the base access plan. "But it says a lot that countries like Brazil and Chile were also opposed to this."

Since some details of the defense cooperation agreement between Bogota and Washington became public last month, governments from Ecuador to Argentina have questioned why Uribe would permit the United States long-term access to three air bases, two army installations and two naval ports. Colombian officials have said that the United States has expressed particular interest in stationing surveillance planes at the German Olano de Palanquero air base, strategically located in Colombia's geographic heart.

Uribe told the presidents meeting in the Patagonian resort of Bariloche that the U.S. assistance was necessary to fight drug-trafficking and Marxist rebels but that the bases remained Colombian, not American. Colombian officials have also said that U.S. servicemen and planes have been operating in Colombia for years and that the agreement merely formalizes a string of old accords and cuts bureaucratic hurdles.

The Colombian leader, a stalwart caretaker of Washington's war on drugs, arrived in Argentina with the challenge of assuaging Chávez. All this month, Chávez has warned that the base plan could lead to war and prompt him to break diplomatic relations with Colombia. He has also said his country would curtail Colombian imports and start investigating Colombian companies operating in Venezuela.

Speaking to the other presidents on Friday, Chávez read a long document that he said demonstrated that the United States is planning a war on South America. "This is the global strategy of the United States," he said. "That's the reason for this. It's the reason why they're talking about those bases."

The document, which is public, is an unofficial, academic paper -- some 14,000 words long -- that explains the importance of more than 40 bases worldwide for U.S. air mobility.

The concerns of Colombia's neighbors have been heightened by Uribe's ties to the United States, which has historically been viewed with suspicion by leftist leaders on the continent. Ecuador has also repeatedly warned that Colombia is a threat to its sovereignty since March 2008, when Colombian planes bombed a Colombian rebel camp just inside Ecuador, killing two dozen guerrillas.

Referring to the document that Chávez read, Correa said the United States was treating the region like a colony and that its planes could be used "for intervention in other countries."

Uribe, though, described the agreement with the United States as irreversible, and Chávez was unable to muster support for his effort to have the pact officially condemned. Uribe also forcefully criticized Venezuela, both directly and indirectly.

He said that arms "from other countries" have been supplied to Marxist rebels here, and he accused Venezuela of giving refuge to two top guerrilla commanders, Luciano Marin Arango and Rodrigo Londoño. Uribe also noted that Chávez had publicly eulogized a guerrilla commander who was killed last year.

The Colombian leader stressed that, with U.S. support, his country had curtailed violence generated by the long, drug-fueled conflict that has plagued this country.

"We are not talking about a political game, we are talking about a threat that has spilled blood in Colombian society," Uribe said.

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