Thursday, August 13, 2009

US Might Use Colombia's Military Bases

U.S. says it might operate from -- but not run -- Colombian military bases

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Colombia's armed forces chief Wednesday said negotiations could conclude this weekend on an agreement to increase the U.S. military presence in the South American country -- a vaguely explained deal that has sparked strong protests in the hemisphere.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has warned that ``the winds of war are blowing.'' Bolivia's Evo Morales urged Latin Americans to ``rescue'' Colombia from the grip of U.S. imperialism. Argentina's Cristina Kirchner called the move ``belligerent.'' And Fidel Castro alleged it could ``block social change'' in the region.

Even moderates like Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva joined the more strident leftists in expressing concerns, indicating that the controversy is undermining the Obama administration's efforts to forge warmer ties with the region and reviving memories of past U.S. interventions around the hemisphere.


The agreement involves the use of Colombian military bases by U.S. aircraft and troops engaged in counter-narcotics and counter-guerrilla surveillance programs. They would make up for last month's closure of a similar U.S. operation out of the Ecuadorean port of Manta, from where U.S. planes swept the Pacific for vessels smuggling cocaine north to Central America and Mexico, where it would be taken by land to the U.S. border.

Manta was one of the three U.S. ``Forward Operating Locations'' (FOLs) -- others are in El Salvador and Aruba-Curaçao -- that feed data to the counter-drug Joint Interagency Task Force based in Key West.

U.S. officials are adamant that the Colombia FOLs will not be ``bases'' -- no U.S. flags, no U.S. sovereignty, no U.S. controls over base security, no lethal equipment, no use of force.

``We're not talking about U.S. bases at all. . . . We're talking about access by U.S. personnel to existing Colombian bases,'' said a State Department official on condition of anonymity. Also included in the agreement may be ``modest'' U.S. funding for infrastructure improvements, he added.

Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the Colombian armed forces, told reporters that negotiations over the Washington-Bogotá agreement could be concluded by this weekend. He spoke to reporters at the Palanquero air force base northwest of Bogotá, one of the possible FOLs.

But exactly what the FOLs would include remained vague Wednesday -- perhaps work spaces for pilots, crewmen and ground mechanics as well as secure communications and firefighting units (in case of plane crashes), as well as warehouses for spare aviation parts or emergency humanitarian supplies.

The Pentagon usually also requires ``quality of life'' facilities for U.S. troops stationed abroad, such as U.S.-quality food, housing and medical facilities.


Both U.S. and Colombian officials have acknowledged that they mishandled the public relations side of the deployments, initially saying little or nothing in the face of media reports of plans for up to seven new U.S. military ``bases'' in Colombia.

``There's been no clarity, no explanation of why and how the bases will operate,'' said Rafael Pardo, former Colombian defense minister and presidential hopeful in the 2010 elections.

Colombian officials first spoke publicly about the FOLs a full week after the Cambio newsweekly in Bogotá reported ongoing negotiations for ``U.S. military operations'' at five Colombian armed forces bases. Later media reports mentioned three Colombian air force, two navy and two army bases.

Reaction from Colombia's neighbors was immediate and harsh, in part because of the long U.S. history of meddling in Latin American affairs..

Chávez called the FOLs part of a Pentagon plan to invade Venezuela, now the leading exit point for Colombian cocaine and fountainhead for the leftist and anti-American policies adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua.

Ironically, Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa has also complained bitterly about the planned U.S. FOLs next door, although his country hosted the Manta FOL since 1999. He ordered the facility closed shortly after his election in 2006, but followed the required advance notification procedure for the closure.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative with long-tense relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, visited Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil last week to explain the U.S. arrangements and try to assuage concerns.

President Barack Obama waded into the brouhaha last week, saying, ``There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric . . . We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia.''

Washington officials say there's been some signs that U.S. and Colombian efforts to better explain the plans for the FOLs are having some impact.

Peru and Paraguay have issued statements saying they ``understand'' Bogotá's position. Chile moderated its initial expressions of concern and Brazil has been ``listening to our explanations.''

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