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Tensions Flare in South America Over U.S. Troops in Colombia

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South America's presidents are meeting today in the ski resort of Bariloche, Argentina. Despite the tranquil setting, things could be tense.

Their agenda will be dominated by revelations that the United States and Colombia have quietly been discussing a deal to allow the U.S. military to operate from at least seven military bases inside Colombia. The base-deal negotiations - which only became known through leaks to the Colombian media - have created alarm throughout South America, as they involve, in the words of Argentina's most-circulated newspaper, Clarín, "The military presence in South America of the most powerful army on Earth."

Nearly every government on the continent has voiced concerns about the likely U.S. presence (except Peru, whose center-right government supports the deal). But there are varying degrees of opposition.

"Winds of war"

Venezuela, Colombia's neighbor sharing a 1,375-mile border, has been by far the most vocal opponent. Far-left President Hugo Chávez argues that the U.S. presence will seek to destabilize his government. He has announced plans to retaliate by cutting all diplomatic ties with Colombia, bringing the two countries' $7 billion of trade down to zero within a year, and buying tanks and other weapons from Russia. "These seven Yankee bases are a declaration of war against the Bolivarian Revolution [Chávez's term for his government]," he said Tuesday, building on earlier rhetoric about "winds of war" sweeping through the continent.

Few observers see much possibility of actual war between Colombia and Venezuela anytime soon. It is clear, though, that the base deal has given Chávez a huge political opportunity. The Bush administration's deep unpopularity had made it easy for the Venezuelan leader to portray the United States as an enemy bent on removing him from power. That argument became much less credible during the first months of the Obama administration, when the new U.S. president offered an "outstretched hand" to adversaries. It was difficult for Chávez to portray Barack Obama as an imperialist enemy.

But the U.S. and Colombian governments' ham-handed, secretive rollout of the base deal played right into Chávez's hands, giving the Venezuelan leader just what he needed to reignite his rhetoric about the "empire" on the march. (The lack of transparency about the deal, in fact, stirred up old resentments against the United States in almost every country. Would the United States have kept the deal secret from neighboring countries if the continent in question was Europe? Is a double-standard in effect?) Chávez has taken full advantage, dominating the debate.

Colombia has responded with new accusations about weapons from Venezuela's arsenal ending up in the hands of the FARC, a bloodstained, drug-funded insurgent group that continues to fight Colombia's government 45 years after its founding. Colombia's government also filed a formal complaint at the OAS this week demanding that Venezuela's government stop meddling in Colombian internal politics.

For Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the crisis with Venezuela brings distinct domestic political advantages. The right-wing president is in the midst of a knock-down, drag-out battle to convince Colombia's Congress to schedule a referendum on a constitutional change allowing Uribe to run for a third straight 4-year term. Every time Chávez uses threatening language against Uribe or Colombia, Uribe gets a boost in public opinion polls, and a third term becomes more of a certainty.

The base deal has further worsened relations between Colombia and its neighbor to the south, Ecuador. These relations could hardly be worse already, as neither country has had an ambassador in the other's capital since March 2008, when Colombia's army launched a raid 1 mile inside Ecuadorian territory that killed a top leader of the FARC. Ecuador's pro-government-majority legislature approved a resolution on Tuesday contending that the Colombia base deal would undermine peace in the region. Ecuador's foreign minister said Wednesday that his government's problems with Colombia "would not be resolved with a simple handshake at Bariloche."

In Bolivia, leftist President Evo Morales has said that any leader who invites foreign troops onto his soil is a "traitor" to Latin America. At the Bariloche meeting, Morales will call for a multi-country referendum to approve or reject the U.S. presence in Colombia, something that Colombia will most likely reject out of hand.

Perhaps most significantly, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, the continent's wealthiest countries with its best-equipped militaries (after Colombia), all three led by left-of-center presidents, have voiced strong discomfort with the U.S. presence in Colombia. Despite earlier declarations of opposition, at least Brazil and Chile have indicated that they will accept the base deal as long as Colombia offers assurances, in the form of a written diplomatic note, that U.S. personnel will never support operations beyond Colombia's borders.

How we got here

This story really began a decade ago, in 1999, when the last U.S. soldier left bases in Panama that dated back to Teddy Roosevelt's time. The base closures, in compliance with a treaty Jimmy Carter had negotiated in 1977, left the U.S. military without a runway from which to conduct counter-drug surveillance flights.

In order to fill that gap, the Clinton administration negotiated 10-year agreements with El Salvador, Ecuador and the Netherlands (Aruba and Curaçao). From these so-called "Forward Operating Locations," U.S. aircraft - piloted and maintained by military personnel and contractors - sought to identify planes and boats suspected of carrying cocaine to the United States.

The agreement with Ecuador allowed U.S. personnel to use a base in Manta, on the Pacific Coast, and strictly limited them to counter-drug missions. The agreement caused an outcry among Ecuador's leftist opposition, which was voted into office with the election of President Rafael Correa in 2006. Correa swore that he would "cut off his arm" before allowing the Manta base agreement to be renewed in 2009, when the 10-year arrangement ended.

As a result, starting in 2008 the Bush administration quietly set out to find a new site from which to launch its counter-drug missions. Talks with Peru didn't get very far, but Colombia proved quite willing to host the U.S. assets. When the United States requested a presence at one base, Colombia offered five, then seven. (Many of these bases already had a semi-permanent U.S. military presence anyway, as Colombia has received more than $5 billion in U.S. military and police aid so far this decade.)

Secrecy - and real concerns

These negotiations occurred in total secrecy, however. Apparently, even Colombia's friendlier neighbors weren't briefed about what was going on. When details about the agreement found their way into Colombia's media in early July, the response was - and continues to be - explosive.

  • Critics of the deal are concerned about what appears to be a greatly expanded mission for the U.S. personnel at the Colombian facilities: instead of simply monitoring suspect drug-trafficking as they did in Manta, the U.S. assets will also be used to help Colombia fight its long, bloody war of attrition against the FARC.
  • There are concerns about the size of the U.S. footprint. A congressionally mandated "troop cap" - an attempt to discourage "mission creep" - currently limits the U.S. presence in Colombia to 800 military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors. The "cap" has been increased before (in 2004), and there is reason for concern that, once the new U.S. presences are established, the Pentagon will go back to Congress asking for a bigger presence.
  • Despite U.S. and Colombian assurances that this will not happen, neighboring countries are concerned that the U.S. presence will be used to carry out operations beyond Colombia's borders.
  • Human rights advocates worry about the United States entering further into a marriage of convenience with the most abusive military in the Americas, accused of well over 1,000 extrajudicial executions since 2002.

The continent's leaders are now in Bariloche (the United States is not attending), and the meeting could be contentious. We must hope that it is not. A day of hostilities between Colombia and Venezuela could make tensions far worse than if the meeting had not taken place at all. The two countries have hardened their positions in advance of the meeting. Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez is saying that "we are not going to Bariloche to consult about anything," and that the basing deal is all but signed. For his part, President Chávez published an open letter to the other presidents in an Argentine newspaper Thursday warning of a "counter-offensive from the North American empire."

Brazil's role, and South America's moment

Much will be up to Brazil, the Americas' largest country, which under center-left President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has been playing a greater leadership role in regional politics. As the main regional military power in South America, Brazil is genuinely worried about having a significant U.S. presence nearby. Though it may sound odd to us, the Brazilian military for decades has operated under the threat hypothesis that the United States wishes to control the Amazon basin. The under-the-radar base negotiations with Colombia unhelpfully play into that hypothesis. Nonetheless, Lula has indicated that he will not oppose the base arrangement if he is given written assurances that the U.S. personnel will never leave Colombian territory and airspace.

In its regional leadership role, Brazil wants to calm tensions. Lula spoke on the phone for half an hour with Chávez on Thursday and is breakfasting with him before the Bariloche meetings, in an attempt to get him to tone down the rhetoric.

The Bariloche meeting could, years from now, be seen as a crucial turning point for South America's political stability and security. This is so because Latin America, as a whole, is suddenly in bad shape. Drug-related violence is killing nearly 5,000 people per year in Mexico, and the power of organized crime is growing almost everywhere. The June 28 military coup in Honduras has yet to be reversed. The tensions between right and left-wing governments in South America are like nothing we've ever seen, even during the Cold War. And militaries throughout the continent are seeing their budgets and arsenals increase dramatically, spurring fears of an arms race.

Will today's meeting be seen as the moment when the continent got together, independently of the United States, to reduce tensions and increase cooperation to solve common problems? Or will it be viewed as the moment when things really began to unravel, as the U.S. basing deal in Colombia - and the Obama administration's failure to explain it - became the catalyst for years of acrimony and instability?