The move comes as the U.S. seeks to regain its hegemony over Latin America – which has declined over the past decade in the context of a continent-wide rebellion against neoliberalism spearheaded by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, led by President Hugo Chavez.
In order to regain control of its “backyard,” the U.S. is increasingly resorting to more interventionist measures. This is reflected by the recent military coup in Honduras, destabilisation of progressive governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Paraguay and a massive military build up in the region, including new military bases in Panama and the reactivation of its Fourth Fleet.
Over the past decade the Venezuelan government, which is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, has used its control over this resource to massively increase social spending. This has resulted in significant achievements, such as poverty levels being reduced by half, the eradication of illiteracy, and free universal education and healthcare for the poor.
In 2005 Chavez declared the revolution to be outright socialist in its aims. Since then, in addition to regular elections and referendums, the government has sought to promote grassroots democracy and participation, through the creation of institutions such as urban land committees, health committees, grassroots assemblies, communes, workers’ councils and communal councils.
However, these pro-poor and redistributive policies have increasingly brought the Chavez government into conflict with powerful economic interests both in Venezuela and the U.S. The new bases deal poses a direct threat to this radical process of social change.
Hand in hand with this military build up has come a fraudulent propaganda campaign that tries to paint the democratically elected Chavez government as a “dictatorship” and claims that the government promotes drug trafficking, and supplies arms to left-wing guerrillas in Colombia.
Tensions between Venezuela and the U.S.-aligned government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have also increased with the deal. As the negotiations came to light in July, Chavez ordered the “freezing” of all diplomatic and commercial relations with Colombia.
With the finalization of the accord Chavez declared that Colombia had handed over it’s sovereignty to the U.S. “Colombia today is no longer a sovereign country… it is a kind of colony,” he said.
Under the deal, the U.S. military has access, use, and free movement among two air bases, two naval bases, and three army bases, in addition to an existing two military bases, as well as all international civilian airports across the country.
The deal also grants U.S. personnel full diplomatic immunity for any human rights abuses or other crimes committed on Colombian soil.
Among other things, U.S. military, civilian, and diplomatic personnel and contractors covered by the accord are also exempt from customs duties, tariffs, rent and taxes, while ships and planes are exempt from most cargo inspections.
Although U.S. officials claim publicly that only 800 personnel will operate in Colombia the deal places no limits on the numbers of military personnel that can be deployed.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly denied that under the accord Colombia will be used as a launching pad for military interventions in other South American countries.
However, as James Suggett pointed out in a recent Venezuelanalysis.com article, the U.S. military’s financial documents tell a different story.
“The Pentagon budget for the year 2010 says the Department of Defense seeks ‘an array of access arrangements for contingency operations, logistics, and training in Central/South America,’ and cites a $46 million investment in the “development” of Colombia’s Palanquero air base as a key part of this,” Suggett wrote.
Also the 2010 fiscal year budget of the U.S. Air Force Military Construction Program describes the Palanquero base as a “Cooperative Security Location (CSL),” which “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-US governments, [author’s emphasis] endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.”
“A presence [at the Palanquero base] will also increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), improve global reach, support logistics requirements, improve partnerships, improve theater security cooperation, and expand expeditionary warfare capability,” the budget states.
“It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half of the continent if unrefueled,” the budget continues.
On August 10th, Chavez said in an open letter to all South American presidents that the U.S.-Colombian bases deal shows that the U.S. Empire wants to “control our resources.”
Colombian paramilitaries operating illegally in Venezuela’s oil rich border regions, together with the right-wing opposition in Venezuela are the advance guard of this imperialist project to destabilise and ultimately defeat the Bolivarian revolution.
Tensions flared in recent weeks when the bodies of nine Colombians believed to have been executed by an illegal armed group were found dumped in the border state of Tachira. The Venezuelan government said the group was part of a “paramilitary infiltration plan.”
In addition, Venezuela announced that it has captured three Colombians accused of spying for Colombia’s intelligence service, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), as well as documents that indicate that Colombia sent spies to Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba as part of a CIA operation.
Then on November 2, two Venezuelan National Guard members were shot dead at a border checkpoint by armed gunmen. In response the Venezuelan army has begun massive security sweeps of the border region where paramilitary groups, Colombian guerrillas, extortion and kidnapping rings and smugglers are rife.
Also, trade between the two countries dropped a dramatic 49.5% for September, after Chavez ordered commercial relations to be “reduced to zero” to protest the bases.
Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, who has criticised the bases deal, said in a recent interview “we are in a pre-war situation… the situation could harden and reach extremes.”
Brazil, the major economy in South America has called for “dialogue” between Chavez and Uribe.
While an armed conflict is a possibility, the current tactic of the U.S. is to continue undermining and destabilising the Venezuelan revolution in the hope that it will collapse under its own weight.
A war would also be dangerous for U.S. imperialism already bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even a proxy war via Colombia would be likely to spiral out of control. Latin America’s poor, downtrodden and marginalized have had a taste of independence; it is likely they would fight back.
An abridged version of this article was published on November 7th by Green Left Weekly.