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PORTSIDE  October 2010, Week 3

PORTSIDE October 2010, Week 3

Subject:

U.S. Base Deal for Colombia: Back to the Status Quo

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Date:

Sun, 17 Oct 2010 23:12:05 -0400

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U.S. Base Deal for Colombia: Back to the Status Quo
By John Lindsay-Poland and Susana Pimiento
Foreign Policy in focus
October 8, 2010
http://www.fpif.org/articles/us_base_deal_for_colombia_back_to_the_status_quo

As the dust settles on the August 10 Colombian
Constitutional Court ruling declaring invalid the U.S.-
Colombia military bases agreement, politicians and
analysts are saying that the decision was for the
better.  Most of those voices come from former
supporters of the deal -including Liberal Party
presidential candidate, Rafael Pardo.

Last October, the United States and Colombia signed an
agreement allowing the United States to use at least
seven military bases in Colombia. U.S. troops and
contractors already operated from several bases, and
U.S. military engagement with Colombia has included more
than $6 billion in military assistance since 2000. But
the new agreement provoked regional condemnation because
of extraterritorial aims outlined for the U.S. presence,
and domestic opposition to the imposition on Colombian
sovereignty. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez
temporarily severed diplomatic relations and suspended
billions of dollars worth of trade with Colombia in
response.

Increasingly it appears that a new agreement will not be
negotiated or submitted for approval by the Colombian
Congress any time soon. Such a move would not only
provide space for opponents of the agreement, but risk
its defeat, if not in Congress, then in the
Constitutional Court's mandated review. On August 27,
The Washington Post reported that Colombian President
Juan Manuel Santos was "leaning toward" not submitting
the agreement to Congress, and quoted a State Department
official as saying "We're confident that in the
intermediate period, or if there is no agreement for
whatever reason, our older, existing agreements will
permit us to continue our robust and effective
cooperation with the Santos administration on
counterterrorism and counternarcotics."

The Constitutional Court ruling declaring the agreement
invalid came at a perfect time to help mend broken
Colombia-Venezuela relations. Supporters of the base
deal in Colombia, which unlike other bases was not
exclusively for drug interdiction, interpreted it as a
guarantee against the supposed prospect of Venezuelan
aggression.  Yet, the broken relations had a disastrous
economic effect on Colombian exports. Until the military
bases deal was signed, Venezuela was the second largest
market for Colombian exports.

Furthermore, countries in the region were not happy with
the tension and had offered to mediate. So, it did not
come as a surprise that only three days after President
Santos took office, he received President Chavez in the
Caribbean town of Santa Marta, at the hacienda where
Simon Bolivar died, and both governments committed to
mend their broken relations.  Colombia and Ecuador have
also been progressively patching up their differences
since the March 2008 Colombian raid into Ecuador that
prompted Quito to sever diplomatic ties.  With these
bilateral d├ętentes, the militarist rationale in Colombia
for the base agreement disappears.

The Future of the Accord

Because the base deal is an international treaty, it
requires congressional approval before going back to the
Constitutional Court.  While President Santos's majority
in the Congress would surely afford him a swift
approval, the same cannot be said about the deal's
transit through the Constitutional Court.  Indeed, as
many opponents of the deal have pointed out, the
Colombian constitution does not allow stationing of
foreign troops on Colombian soil, only their transit.
Moreover, in its preamble, the constitution commits
Colombia to integration with other Latin American and
Caribbean nations.

At the same time, it appears that the regional
objectives of the accord have been substantially
reduced. In other words, Washington and Bogota may allow
the agreement to die and go back to the status quo ante,
which permitted US-Colombian military cooperation in the
war within Colombia, as well as training of other
nations' militaries.

At the end of August, George W. Bush's top Pentagon
bureaucrat for Latin America from 2007 to 2009, Stephen
Johnson, published some very telling observations in
Foreign Policy. He recommended that the Pentagon
".embrace new methods. While we might need to continue
tracking using conspicuous 1950s-vintage planes for now,
flexible staging locations using smaller, less
noticeable, civilian sensor platforms should become the
model. With help from Congress, we might update our
technology to do more tracking from ships or remote
radar locations. These steps could help shrink our
military footprint, reducing the need for facilities
upkeep and status of forces agreements that take forever
to negotiate and create headaches for partner
countries."

The references to "headaches for partner countries,"
"less noticeable" platforms, and the virtues of
"shrink[ing] our military footprint" give backhanded
credit to the movements in Colombia, the rest of Latin
America, and the United States that have campaigned
against this and other U.S. base agreements in the
region. In that respect, the court's ruling - and
Washington and Bogota's apparent decision not to
resubmit or renegotiate an agreement - is a substantial
victory.

Not Dead Yet

Many of the most pernicious aspects of the military base
agreement - especially regarding U.S. intentions for
extraterritorial uses of the bases in the region - were
not contained in the accord itself, but in U.S. budget
and planning documents. The use of Palanquero air base
for "contingency operations" in a White House budget
document, the Southern Command's ambitions to expand
beyond counternarcotics operations to establish a base
with "air mobility reach on the South American
continent" outlined in an Air Mobility Command planning
document, and references to the capacity for "full
spectrum operations" from Palanquero to confront
"narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-U.S.
governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural
disasters" in the region all were unilateral U.S.
statements of the bases' missions. It may be that strong
opposition to the agreement chastened these ambitions.
But scrapping the base agreement will not necessarily
neutralize such regional interventionist plans.

Moreover, of the seven bases specified in the October
2009 agreement, the United States was already using all
of them, except possibly the Palanquero air base.
Palanquero was slated for an upgrade to facilitate new
operations. But it had already been re-approved for U.S.
assistance, after being suspended for five years in the
wake of a 1998 bombing that killed 17 civilians. That
incident, in which Colombian pilots from Palanquero
dropped cluster bombs against a civilian target, invoked
the Leahy Law, which prohibits military aid to foreign
military units that have committed gross abuses until
those responsible are prosecuted. U.S. planes bound for
Haiti as part of the militarized response to the January
2010 earthquake left from Palanquero.

Both Colombia and the Pentagon still have an incentive
to revive the base agreement. The U.S. Congress last
year provided $43 million to upgrade the Palanquero air
base, but made spending the funds contingent on
concluding a base agreement. Since the funds have been
authorized for five years, if Colombia addresses its
constitutional issues, the funds for Palanquero can be
released, to the delight of the Colombian Air Force. In
the meantime, any U.S. activities on Palanquero must
draw from other funds available to the Pentagon.

The United States has also had access to other bases not
named in the agreement, such as the Tres Esquinas base.
The court's decision will not deny access to these
bases. But it is possible that the additional privileges
for U.S. forces spelled out in the agreement -- such as
U.S. troops bearing arms, the wide scope of immunity for
crimes committed in Colombia by U.S. troops, and access
to the electromagnetic spectrum -- will be excluded.

What's more, foreign military assistance - central to
the U.S. military presence in Colombia prior to the
bases agreement - can be as pernicious a form of
military intervention as bases. Training a military
force, especially its leadership, on the scale the
United States has done in Colombia gives the United
States itself extraordinary power within the country,
even without the profound and institutional violations
and illegitimacies that permeate the Colombian army.

Meanwhile, any hopes that the Santos government might
use its political capital to negotiate with the FARC are
dim, given the government's current offensive against
the FARC and President Santos's refusal of Brazilian
president Lula's offers to mediate. The Obama
administration shows no interest in a negotiated
solution, which would require at least tacit U.S.
support. U.S. military assistance and presence, then,
will continue to help perpetuate the armed conflict.
Accusations of Venezuelan support for the FARC serve to
rationalize the U.S. military involvement in Colombia,
as well as the destabilization of Venezuela.

The October 2009 military base agreement served as a
wakeup call for social movements in the Americas to the
growing militarization of U.S. actions in the hemisphere
- from assault ship deployments in Costa Rica and the
U.S. role in the Honduras coup to military control of
humanitarian disaster response in Haiti and elsewhere
and the impact of U.S. military aid on political
violence in Colombia. The Americas Social Forum in
Paraguay last month brought together social activists
from around Latin America for a continental campaign
against all foreign military presence in the Americas.
The Colombian court's rejection of the base deal points
the way for the region as a whole.

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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