Colombia: U.S. Bases Stoke the Flames of Regional Conflict

It was a moment that promised to define a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations: Obama greeted Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas with a smile and a handshake, and Chávez responded with a gift and a heavily accented "I wanna be your friend." But a nearly completed agreement to grant the U.S. military access to Colombian bases is rapidly undermining whatever diplomatic progress was made in that fleeting moment.

It was a moment that
promised to define a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations: Obama greeted
Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas with a smile and a handshake, and
Chávez responded with a gift and a heavily accented "I wanna be your friend."
The Cold War-style chasm between Washington and the leftist leaders of the
Andes that had widened during the Bush administration finally seemed to be
narrowing a bit.

But a nearly completed
agreement between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the Obama administration
to grant the U.S. military access to Colombian bases is rapidly undermining
whatever diplomatic progress was made in that fleeting moment.

The Uribe administration
announced on July 12 that it had nearly reached an agreement on the terms of a
decade-long lease to allow U.S. military personnel to use Colombian military
bases to conduct anti-drug trafficking and anti-terrorism operations. No draft
of the agreement has yet been made public. The increased access would serve to
replace the U.S. lease at Manta, Ecuador, the only U.S. base of operations in
South America until the lease was allowed by the Correa administration to
expire this month.

President Uribe defended
the agreement
as a necessary step in his administration's fight against drug
traffickers and Marxist guerrillas at a public event in Santa Marta last week.
"This agreement guarantees continuity in the era of an improved Plan Colombia,"
he said, referring to the pact that has funneled $6 billion in U.S. aid to the
Colombian government and military.

The lease agreement has
drawn criticism from Colombian congressmen across the political spectrum, who
argue that the executive does not have the authority to allow foreign troops
into the country. Liberal Senator Juan Manuel Galán claimed that the Uribe
administration "bypassed the Senate." Senator Jairo Clopatofsky, an uribista of
the right-wing Partido de la U, echoed Galán's criticisms.

Senator Jorge Robledo of
the left-wing Polo Democrático Alternativo Article 173 which states that the
decision to "Permit the transit of foreign troops through the territory of the
Republic" falls to the Senate.

Colombian and U.S.
authorities have sought to calm critics by reassuring them that the agreement
will not constitute the creation of an autonomous zone of U.S. military
operation. "Any activity performed within the framework of the agreement has to
be coordinated and authorized by the Colombian authorities," said Minister of
Defense General Freddy Padilla de León
. U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William
Brownfield has reiterated the same point and has emphasized that the increased
U.S. presence should not be misconstrued as a foreign military base. "They have
their bases. This is a question of access," he said.

The national controversy
provoked by the possibility of an increased U.S. military presence in Colombia
pales in comparison to the international dispute it has caused. As a neoliberal
island in a Bolivarian sea, Colombia's decision to host more U.S. military
personnel has been interpreted by neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela as a
security threat. Consequently, Colombia's diplomatic and commercial relations
with its neighbors are crumbling faster than a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colombia's relations with
Ecuador have remained tense since March 2008, when the Colombian military
attacked an encampment of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
(FARC) located along the border, killing rebel leader Raúl Reyes and 16 other
guerrillas. The Correa administration recalled its ambassador to Colombia in
protest against the violation of Ecuador's sovereignty.

The latent conflict erupted
once more in June, when Ecuador filed an arrest warrant with Interpol against
former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos for the murder of an Ecuadoran
citizen killed during the March 2008 offensive. Santos is a close ally of
president Uribe and rumored to be a presidential contender in 2010 if Uribe
does not seek re-election. The Uribe administration responded by releasing a
video of FARC commander Jorge Briceño claiming that the FARC contributed
$100,000 to Corrrea's presidential campaign. The video, which the Colombian
government says was recovered from the computer of alleged FARC member Adela
Pérez last May, was submitted to Interpol and leaked to the media. Correa
denies any support of illegal armed groups in Colombia and has demanded that
the FARC "say if they have donated money and to whom." The Economist reports
that Ecuador's electoral commission has certified his campaign contributions.

Colombia's relations with
Ecuador were further soured by Uribe's invitation of more U.S. troops, since
Correa had only recently expelled U.S. military personnel from the Ecuadoran
base at Manta. Correa promised in his presidential campaign to shut down the
only U.S. military base in South America, although he later offered to renew it
if the U.S. agreed to let Ecuador establish a military base in Miami. "If
there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll
let us have an Ecuadoran base in the United States," he said.

Correa has announced that
any further aggressions from Colombia will invite a military response. An
increased U.S. military presence in Colombia promises to ratchet up tensions
with Ecuador. The U.S. president, in his first major statement on Latin America
, said that "In an Obama administration, we will support Colombia's right
to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders…"

Venezuela's Chávez has also
characterized the increased U.S. military presence as a threat to his country's
national security. Chávez maintains that the United States supported an
abortive coup in Venezuela in April of 2002-a charge that U.S. officials deny,
though the Bush administration did not join the 19 Latin American countries who
condemned the illegal seizure of power.

Largely in response to the
Colombian government's decision to increase the U.S. military presence there,
an indignant Chávez ordered the withdrawal of the Venezuelan ambassador to
Colombia on July 27 and has threatened to freeze imports from Colombia and
nationalize Colombian companies if he perceives "one more act of aggression."
Venezuela is Colombia's second largest trading partner, followed by the United

The crisis in
Colombia-Venezuela relations was stoked by allegations from the Uribe
administration that the Venezuelan government supplied Swedish anti-aircraft
rocket launchers to the FARC. The Colombian military seized the weapons in
at La Macarena in October of 2008, but did not notify the Venezuelan
government until early this month, according to a press release. The Swedish
government has requested an explanation from the Chávez government. Chávez
denied the allegations, saying "Anyone can take a rifle [sic] and put a
Venezuelan seal and a serial number on it."

Colombia's more distant
neighbors have also taken a keen interest in the military agreement. Brazilian
President Lula da Silva commented that "An American base in Colombia doesn't
please me." Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who was tortured along with
her father by the Pinochet government following a military coup supported
clandestinely by Washington, has called a meeting of the Union of South
American Nations on August 10 in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the issue.
President Uribe is not expected to attend.

Far from the smiles and
handshakes of April, the Obama administration now finds itself at the center of
Latin America's most explosive inter-state crisis. The "New Partnership in the
Americas" promised by Obama on the campaign trail and at the Summit of the
Americas looks increasingly elusive.