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U.S.-Colombia base pact on the rocks

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By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, August 27, 2010

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

In the hemispheric fight against drugs and terrorism, the best thing Barack Obama and Colombia's newly inaugurated president, Juan Manuel Santos, can do next is back out of a year-old military agreement between their two countries.

This might raise some knee-jerk hawkish reactions. But killing the agreement would help Colombia win sorely needed cooperation from its neighbors, especially Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. Leftist FARC guerrillas use Venezuela as a haven and, with other Colombian criminals, run drugs and arms through there, Ecuador and Brazil.

The military pact, which governs U.S. use of seven Colombian bases, is seen by Chávez -- whether rationally or not -- as a threat. He almost went to war over it last year, and it also has cost Colombia support in the rest of the region. All this damages our interests against drugs and terrorism.

Happily, we have an unexpected chance at a do-over. Colombia's Constitutional Court suspended the pact last week, ruling it a treaty that must be approved by the Colombian Congress, and Bogota and Washington have started actively considering ending the agreement.

Santos has three options: seeking congressional ratification, renegotiating a pared-down pact with the United States or letting the whole thing die. People close to him say he is leaning toward the latter, and should do so. Preexisting agreements, some dating to 1939, were doing the job just fine.

Chastened by the reaction in Latin America over the past year, the U.S. State and Defense departments are not resisting burying the pact, and may even welcome doing so.

As one State Department official told me: "We're confident that in the intermediate period, or if there is no agreement for whatever reason, our older, existing agreements will permit us to continue our robust and effective cooperation with the Santos administration on counterterrorism and counternarcotics."

Chávez, meanwhile, is being unusually diplomatic, too. In the past two weeks, he has come to Colombia to meet with Santos, reestablished diplomatic relations, set up five joint commissions with Colombia that quickly started meeting to improve economic and security relations, and declined to crow about the court ruling, calling it an "internal" Colombian matter.

Most important, he promised: "I don't tolerate and will not tolerate the presence of the guerrillas in Venezuelan territory."

The new Santos government has few illusions about how trustworthy Chávez might be. Santos, as defense minister under his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, frequently butted heads publicly with the Venezuelan leader. The new Colombian foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, was an ambassador to Caracas.

But Santos, unlike the more ideologically conservative Uribe, is a pragmatist. Santos and Chávez privately agreed in their meeting to disagree on ideology. The new administration doesn't expect Chávez to prosecute the guerrillas but will be grateful if he stops actively supporting them.

The new military agreement was one of the more ham-handed misfires of United States policy in Latin America.

Colombia receives the most U.S. military aid and troop training outside Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Under "Plan Colombia," the country has received $7 billion in military aid since 1999, according to the State Department. The U.S. Congress set a cap of 800 soldiers and 600 civilian contractors at any one time in the country. Recently, the number has been running around 250 and 130 respectively as Plan Colombia winds down, a State Department official said.

The agreement was the brainchild of Pentagon bureaucrats and Uribe, who saw a chance to lock in the United States against the guerrillas and Chávez. At Colombian insistence, it was negotiated in secret, a major blunder that fueled mistrust.

In the United States and Latin America -- from right to left and by the mainstream media -- the agreement is still presented as either creating "U.S. bases" in Colombia or giving the United States "access" to bases, as if it were something sought primarily for U.S. aims.

Chávez called the bases "seven daggers" aimed at Venezuela, and won wide South American sympathy. As Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said, "Just because someone is paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't being followed."

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

More from The Post: Michael Shifter's assessment of how Colombia's new president is likely to alter U.S.-Colombia relations.


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