US Bases: A Step Backward for the Hemisphere

A recently signed agreement allowing the use of seven military bases in Colombia by U.S. soldiers and intelligence officers will have negative consequences in the hemisphere that the U.S. will not be able to avoid.

A recently signed agreement allowing the use of seven military bases in Colombia by U.S. soldiers and intelligence officers will have negative consequences in the hemisphere that the U.S. will not be able to avoid. The agreement expands upon a military strategy that by all accounts, even according to U.S. agencies, has failed in its stated objectives and has instead provoked regional instability.

In recent years, the military strategy for dealing with Colombia’s internal conflict and illegal-drug problem has produced increasing flows of refugees to neighboring countries, violations of territorial sovereignty, additional legions of armed combatants and an increase in the production and trafficking of illegal drugs. The agreement signed between the U.S. and Colombia will only worsen these problems.

Contrary to what the Colombian government has claimed, concern over the agreement is not limited to a few countries, but rather extends throughout the majority of the region. During a summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, in Spanish) in late August 2009, 11 of the organization’s 12 member-states expressed their reservations with the agreement. (The only dissent came from Colombia.) Foreign ministers and defense ministers of the organization’s members similarly highlighted their opposition to the deal in a mid-September 2009 meeting.

In none of these summits did the Colombian government agree to offer any guarantees to the region that operations carried out from the bases would not violate the sovereignty of any other country. The conditions of the agreement, made public only after it was signed, explain why neither the Colombian government nor the U.S. government could offer such guarantees.

The agreement vaguely conforms to the principle of non-intervention in the internal matters of other countries, but it does not explicitly prohibit regional intelligence operations or acting preemptively, as President George W. Bush became famous for, in order to safeguard “Colombia’s national security.” On the latter point, concern has been aggravated by the March 2008 raid by Colombian forces on Ecuadorian territory that set off a regional crisis.

Worse yet, a number of public documents shed light on the agreement’s real objectives. In a document presented to the U.S. Congress in May 2009, the Air Force offers an alarming justification for expanding the use of the Palanquero Air Base in Colombia. “Palanquero provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America,” it says, which are “essential for supporting the U.S. mission in Colombia and throughout the United States Southern Command.”

The main revelation of this document is the clear allusion to the political objectives served by the Palanquero base. “Development of this CSL [Cooperative Security Location] provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-U.S. governments …”

The agreement is vague enough that it does not impose limitations on the possibility of implementing this vision. It also leaves at its discretion the justifications that could be used to violate the sovereignty of other countries.

Rafael Pardo, Colombia’s former minister of Defense, outlined in very simple terms why the region has expressed concern with the agreement. It is, he said, “like lending a stranger your balcony so he can spy on the neighbors.”

If the U.S. and Colombia are really interested in tackling the complex issue of the production and trafficking of illegal drugs, they should instead support comprehensive and multilateral strategies that consider existing social problems in the region and the characteristics of the drug market, and put additional responsibility on countries that consume the drugs. Simply combining the usual military-based anti-drug strategies with “anti-terror” operations will only worsen the Colombian conflict, extending it further beyond the country’s borders. The experience of other countries in the region that have overcome internal conflicts proves that the only solution to the hemisphere’s only remaining civil war is political, not military. What the region needs is peace, not more war.

It’s a shame that the Obama administration has not more closely considered the region’s reaction to this agreement, but even more a shame that it has not heeded the warnings of Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senators warned of “the grave implications this agreement will have for the United States, as well as for Colombia’s population.”

The agreement, which was inherited from the Bush administration, will make it difficult for the Obama administration to foster a new relationship with the region. Of course, it is not too late. President Barack Obama could still break with the militaristic policies of his predecessor that used the pretext of the “war on terror” and “war on drugs” to impose its views on the region.

Instead, President Obama could embrace a serious political agenda that multilaterally addresses the real problems in the region. President Obama would offer an important gesture to the region if he heeded the invitation to meet with UNASUR’s member-states and discuss the bases in Colombia.

This agreement may allow the U.S. military to complete some of its regional objectives and it may strengthen the Pentagon’s allies in Colombia, at least in the short-term, but it will not contribute to stability or peace in Colombia, much less the region.

Alvarez is Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S.