The State Department says that the deal is all about security within Colombia and does not affect other countries, but Pentagon documents show that the US has far wider and more ominous objectives.
An US air force budget justification Bill, sent to Congress last year, states that Palanquero airbase in Colombia “provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout south America.”
Full spectrum operations is Pentagon jargon for dominating the battle space on land, sea, air and space and can include the use of nuclear weapons.
The document went on: “Development of this CSL [Palanquero air base] provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical subregion of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics-funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.”
Although the offending text was hurriedly deleted before the Bill was passed, the document showed that the US was not intending to confine its operations to Colombia and regards Palanquero as an important strategic asset for its regional, and even global, operations.
This analysis is confirmed by another US air force document which was prepared for a US military conference last year.
The global en route strategy white paper, prepared by Air Mobility Command, shows how Colombia’s Palanquero base will slot into a worldwide network of “en route” air bases giving the US airforce rapid “global access” to areas of “strategic interest.”
The new Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) allows the US to use seven named bases in Colombia, but US troops are not limited to these seven bases. They can use as many military bases or facilities as they like in Colombia, with the agreement of the host government.
The White House says that the existing cap of 800 US soldiers and 600 civilian contractors in Colombia will remain, but there is no mention of a cap in this latest agreement.
While all eyes have been on the Middle East, US involvement in Colombia’s counter-insurgency war has been gradually growing. US troops and special forces are involved in reconnaissance, operating radar sites, transporting Colombian troops and logistical back-up to combat operations.
US troops already use many Colombian bases, including Tres Esquinas, in Farc-dominated territory in the south and Arauca close to the Venezuelan border.
The wording of the agreement is vague, giving great scope for US action. The bases can be used “in order to address common threats to peace, stability, freedom and democracy.”
These parameters are so broad that they could include anything from counter-insurgency to operations against “anti-US governments.”
The deal does have a non-intervention clause, stating that “the parties shall comply with their obligations under this agreement in a manner consistent with the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity of states, and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.”
Colombia’s neighbours, however, are not reassured by this and do not think the wording is watertight.
Venezuela, which is frequently defined as an “anti-US government” in State Department and Pentagon documents, already has two US air bases immediately to the north in Aruba and Curacao and it views with growing unease the US military-build up just over its western border.
But it is not just Venezuela. Almost the countries of the Union of South American Nations, including Chile, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay, have expressed concern.
Argentina and Brazil have issued a strongly worded statement saying that foreign bases are “incompatible with the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states within the region.”
The US military presence is also bolstered by the Fourth Fleet of the US navy which was reactivated in 2008 despite protests by Latin American governments.
It patrols the waters surrounding Latin America and the Caribbean and includes nuclear submarines in its fleet. Surveying the hemisphere from the air are US air force “airborne warning and control system” radar planes.
The pretext for the US presence in Colombia is counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. Colombia has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere and, on some counts, the murder of trade unionists for example, the worst in the world.
The US has been pouring in military aid – $6 billion between 1997-2010, more than all the rest of Latin America put together.
Yet in that time human rights abuses by the Colombian army have increased, according to the United Nations high commission for human rights.
Extra-judicial executions by the army are “widespread,” says the UN, and perpetrated by “military units throughout the country.”
Collusion with paramilitary forces is still rife and recent political scandals show “the extent of paramilitary infiltration of the state” – extraordinarily powerful language for a body such as the UN to use.
Within Colombia, there is disquiet at the expanding US presence. Most of the text of the agreement focuses on what taxes the US will be exempt from.
US military forces or civilian personnel won’t have to pay road tolls, harbour fees, overflight or landing fees, entry or departure fees or import taxes. They won’t need licences to construct satellites and the Colombian authorities will not be able to inspect US vehicles or aircraft.
All US personnel will be immune from criminal prosecution, if this clause is ratified by the Colombian authorities. But perhaps the country whose sovereignty is most threatened is Colombia itself.
Grace Livingstone is the author of America’s Backyard: The United States And Latin America From The Monroe Doctrine To The War On Terror (Zed Books). She will be one of the speakers at an Alba seminar and reception, Building a New Latin America, alongside the ambassadors of Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela, the charge d’affaires of Nicaragua and TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady. The event is on Thursday from 2pm-6pm at Canning House, 2 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PJ. Entrance is £5 and must be booked in advance at [email protected] or call (020) 8800-0155.