Deal: United States soldiers will deploy to Colombia
Chavez: ‘The winds of war [are] beginning to blow’
Some American troops will soon find themselves stationed at military bases scattered across the South American nation of Colombia with a mission to use advanced Predator drone technology to aid in fighting the drug trade and to combat terrorism, according to published reports Saturday.
But Colombia’s neighbors certainly do not see it that way.
In Venezuela, officials bristled. President Hugo Chavez warned, “the winds of war [are] beginning to blow.”
Chavez has already accused Colombian troops of making an incursion over the border and regional tensions are running high. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa also took exception, saying the United States would target Colombia’s neighbors if the deal is finalized.
“It has also sparked concern from moderate Colombian allies, such as Chile and Brazil, who want assurances that U.S. forces won’t be operating outside Colombia’s territory,” The Wall Street Journal adds.
Colombia says its agreement with the United States will allow Washington to use its military bases to track drug-runners through the use of remote aircraft.
“The Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, called for a meeting between US President Barack Obama and the region’s leaders, saying the ‘climate of unease disturbs me,’” reported the BBC.
“This agreement reaffirms the commitment of both parties in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism,” Colombia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday.
Officials here said the two countries agreed the text of an agreement, which now has to be reviewed by government agencies in Bogota and Washington before getting a final signature.
The controversial deal would permit the US military to operate surveillance aircraft from seven bases to track drug-running boats in the Pacific Ocean.
A senior US general said Thursday that the United States needed to reassure regional powers about the deal.
“I think we need to do a better job of explaining to them what we’re doing and making it as transparent as possible, because anybody’s concerns are valid,” General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference.
Washington sought out its ally Colombia to make up for the loss of its hub for counternarcotics operations in Manta, Ecuador.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa had refused to renew an agreement that allowed the US military to fly out of Manta for the past 10 years.
The deal is worth over 40 million dollars for Bogota, along with expanded US military assistance for Bogota’s counternarcotics efforts, according to a US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Cartwright and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said this week the deal was not a unilateral move but the product of a partnership with Colombia designed to target drug cartels.
“The strategic intent is, in fact, to be able to provide to the Colombians what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have,” Cartwright said.
Colombia raised concern throughout the region, which has a troubled history of US military interventions, after announcing July 15 that it was negotiating the deal.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led the charge, alongside his Ecuadoran counterpart and ally Correa.
Speaking in Quito at a regional summit last weekend, Chavez said he was fulfilling his “moral duty” by telling fellow leaders that the “winds of war were beginning to blow.”
“This could generate a war in South America,” he said.
Other regional leaders, including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have asked Colombia to explain its decision.
Responding to criticism, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said Friday the purpose of the deal was to “defeat terrorism,” adding that the accord with the United States will serves “as an insurance policy for neighboring nations.”
Uribe said he would attend an emergency summit of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) that will gather on August 28 in Bariloche, Argentina, to discuss the situation created by the Colombian base agreement.
However, Frank Mora, a US Defense Department official for Latin America, said the controversy was a storm in a teapot.
“This agreement simply formalizes what already almost exists right now,” he told AFP.
In his remarks, Uribe also extended an olive branch to Ecuador, saying the two countries “could have dialogue” and “resolve their differences in the future.”
Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia over last year’s air strike by the Colombian military against a Colombian leftist guerrilla base located in the Ecuadoran selva. Raul Reyes, a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed in that attack.
“I apologize for that,” Uribe said. “But we are interested in the future, and the same goes for Venezuela.”