As one of the few surviving pro-U.S. conservative heads of state in a continent that has swung left, Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, is used to being at odds with his neighbors. But accustomed though he may be to swimming against Latin America's political tide, Uribe is scrambling to explain his less-than-transparent decision to allow the U.S. military to use air bases on Colombian soil to track drug traffickers and even rebels.
Although the pact has yet to be signed, officials in Bogotá say the U.S. will be given basing rights on at least seven Colombian army, navy and air force facilities. The intention is for the U.S. to fly P-3 Orion and AWACS surveillance planes from these bases to monitor Colombia and the eastern Pacific for aircraft and boats transporting cocaine and heroin. But confusion surrounding the proposed base agreement, deep-seated anti-American sentiment in the region and a botched rollout this summer have produced a diplomatic firestorm that has caught Uribe's government by surprise.
Some of the response has been predictably hyperbolic. Hard-core leftists, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, say the plan effectively gives los Yanquis a launching pad for an armed offensive against U.S. foes in Latin America. Chávez says he'll respond by bolstering his own armed forces with more Russian tanks. But even in Chile, ruled by the reliably moderate socialist President Michelle Bachelet, Uribe faced angry protesters during a seven-nation damage-control tour last week. "For the neighbors, this is about gringo bases on Colombian territory," noted the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. "In other words, an imperialist beachhead in Latin America."
Not exactly. The tentative deal would expand a decade-old security arrangement, Plan Colombia, in which Washington has provided Bogotá with more than $6 billion in mostly military aid. Colombia also hosts up to 1,400 U.S. troops and military contractors, who are banned from getting directly involved in the hostilities. All that assistance has helped the Colombian military target drug traffickers and seriously weaken the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's largest guerrilla group, known as the FARC. "There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric," President Obama said on Aug. 7. "We have had a security agreement with Colombia for many years now. We have updated that agreement. We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia."
The Colombian offer came after Ecuador's left-wing government refused to renew a 10-year-old agreement allowing U.S. drug-tracking aircraft to take off and land at an air field in Manta on that country's Pacific Coast. Under the Colombian deal, the base of those operations would simply be shifting next door. But the Uribe government dug a p.r. hole by keeping the negotiations under wraps and failing to acknowledge that it was even considering a new security arrangement with Washington.
One of the biggest concerns is the issue of mission creep. In Ecuador, U.S. flights were exclusively counternarcotics operations. But Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez says that under the new covenant, targets would include terrorists by which he meant Colombian guerrillas who kidnap civilians and run drugs to fund their war. "Planes and a slightly bigger U.S. footprint will mean far more intelligence-gathering missions over Colombia than ever before," says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington. "That may bring a notable increase in intelligence gathered about guerrilla locations and movements."
But the prospect of the U.S. having permission to use Colombian bases for more military-oriented counterinsurgency activities has unnerved even the centrist government of Brazil, which often parts ways with South America's pro-Chávez bloc. At a South American summit meeting in Quito on Aug. 10, from which Uribe stayed away, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva joined Chávez in expressing concerns and said, "I think we should directly discuss our discontent with the American government."
The Obama Administration's 2010 defense budget request includes $46 million for upgrading one of the Colombian installations that the Americans would use, a base north of Bogotá known as Palanquero. Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, says U.S. government documents suggest that Palanquero could eventually launch missions far beyond Colombia. "One of the interests of the U.S. Air Force in particular," she notes, "is to use the base in Palanquero to do surveillance activities from the air outside of Colombia and throughout the continent, eventually using the base to reach even Africa."
Foreign Minister Bermudez insists that any activities carried out by the Americans would be confined to Colombian territory. But South American governments plan to pursue the issue at another presidential summit in Buenos Aires later this month.
Ironically, Colombia feels it has more reason to suspect its neighbors than the other way around. FARC units routinely cross into Venezuela and Ecuador to rest and resupply. Files from confiscated rebel laptops suggest that Chávez officials have offered the guerrillas arms and money; this month the Colombian army found Swedish antitank missiles that were sold to Venezuela in the 1980s but somehow ended up in the hands of the FARC. (Venezuela denies the charges, and Chávez insists the rebels didn't get the Swedish arms on his watch.) But thanks to the less-than-adroit way Uribe and the U.S. have handled their new venture, it's Colombia that's doing the explaining this summer.