Alone in a crowd

Published : Dec 18, 2009 00:00 IST

A COLOMBIAN SOLDIER displays marijuana packs confiscated by the army in Florida Valle del Cauca province on November 19. Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said that his government would like to have more "effective tools from our neighbouring countries, the entire region and the entire world" to combat the drug cartels.-JAIME SALDARRIAGA/REUTERS

A COLOMBIAN SOLDIER displays marijuana packs confiscated by the army in Florida Valle del Cauca province on November 19. Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said that his government would like to have more "effective tools from our neighbouring countries, the entire region and the entire world" to combat the drug cartels.-JAIME SALDARRIAGA/REUTERS

CONTROVERSY is raging in Latin America over the military cooperation agreement signed between the United States and Colombia. The Colombian government insists that the only purpose of the October 30 agreement, which allows U.S. troops access to seven Colombian military bases, is to eradicate the twin threats of drugs and terrorism and that it is no different from earlier military agreements signed with the U.S. President Alvaro Uribe told his fellow Latin American heads of state at the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) summit in August that the only focus Colombia has is to end its internal wars. But others in the regional grouping are not willing to swallow that. Colombias neighbours, led by Venezuela, have been airing their misgivings about the agreement. They fear that it could be used to launch aggression against countries opposed to the U.S. strategy for the region. William Brownfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, however, said joint military operations were not being planned outside Colombia and that Article 1V of the agreement prohibited such actions. Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez reiterated it during his visit to India in the second week of November.

We are not going to have U.S. bases in Colombia. What we have, as we have had in the past, is a cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, he said in an interview to Frontline. He stressed that there was no question of his government providing military bases to the U.S. The government, he said, depended on the U.S. military only for intelligence-sharing and technical cooperation.

According to him, Colombians had suffered a lot from drugs and drug-related activities for a long time. Today the largest coca cartel in Colombia is the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]. It is also a terrorist group, he said, adding that international help in the fight against narcoterrorism had not been forthcoming though the international community was sympathetic to his governments efforts in dealing with the problem. We have found an ally in the U.S. in this fight, but we need cooperation from everywhere too.

Bermudez said that the issues involved pertained to transnational crime and global terrorism and that the Colombian government would like to have more effective tools from our neighbouring countries, the entire region and the entire world to combat the drug cartels.

The lack of international support for the governments efforts was one of the major reasons he cited for deepening the cooperation agreement with Washington. The goal, Bermudez said, was to dismantle the drug and terrorist infrastructure in Colombia. When we succeed, it will benefit not only Colombia but also the entire region and the world, he asserted.

Bermudez said the controversial Plan Colombia, signed at the end of the Clinton presidency, had laid the groundwork for the eradication of the cartels. Before Plan Colombia was implemented, 400,000 hectares of land was under illegal coca cultivation. Today there is only 80,000 hectares, which is also high. We have managed to demobilise 50,000 people from paramilitary groups and guerilla groups, but there is a lot more to be done, the Minister said. The new agreement has only deepened the cooperation between Bogota and Washington, he said. A recently revealed Pentagon budget document, however, shows that the U.S. has other plans for Colombias strategically located Palanquero air base. The document states that the air base will provide an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America and the possibility of using the base to confront the threat of anti-U.S. governments.

The language used in the document confirms the fears of many South American countries. One sentence pertains to the potential use of Palanquero to expand expeditionary war capacity. But Bermudez said the new agreement was a transparent document, the entire text of which was posted on the Internet.

The best foreign policy is a good domestic policy. Kidnappings have been reduced by 40 per cent. Our roads are safer, said Bermudez. He also pointed out that his country and the U.S. were traditional allies.

Colombia was the only country from the region to send troops to fight alongside U.S. soldiers in the Korean War of the early 1950s. In 1952, both countries signed their first comprehensive military agreement. The agreement, Military Assistance between the Republic of Colombia and the United States of America, contains a clause granting legal immunity to all U.S. forces operating in Colombia.

Significantly, the Colombian legislature was not taken into confidence by the government before signing the latest military agreement. The Colombian State Council, a judicial body that advises the government, has ruled that the new agreement is in fact a treaty and needs the approval of the legislative body.

It has described the agreement as very unbalanced for the country. Senators from the left-wing opposition party, Polo Democratico (Democratic Pole), have demanded an open debate and asked the administration to submit the full text of the agreement to the Congress.

Up to 800 U.S. soldiers and 600 private contractors are allowed to use the Colombian bases for a period of 10 years. According to the agreement, the U.S. Air Force will be allowed access to five bases and the U.S. Navy will be allowed to dock at two Colombian ports, one in the Caribbean and the other in the Atlantic. The U.S. has demanded complete immunity under Colombian law for its personnel.

This agreement comes close on the heels of the decision of Ecuador to end the U.S. military presence in Manta. Ecuador had accused the U.S. forces in Manta of helping Colombia carry out an attack on a FARC camp inside its territory.

The Colombian Foreign Minister said that ties with Ecuador were on the mend, but many challenges had still to be overcome for relations to be normalised. He expressed optimism about the relations between the two countries improving in the near future.

Colombia finds itself isolated in the region on the bases issue. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on behalf of the UNASUR, has proposed a non-aggression pact among member-countries to prevent the U.S. from exploiting the loopholes in the agreement to participate in attacks on other Latin American countries. He has gone on record as stating that he does not like an expanded U.S. military presence in the region. I would like to say, in a very friendly way, that if U.S. bases have been in Colombia since 1952 and there are still no solutions to the problem, we should think about something else that we [UNASUR] can do together to solve the problem, Lula said in a speech at the UNASUR summit in August.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has told his countrymen to prepare for all eventualities, including war. Since the agreement was announced, there have been reports of skirmishes between Colombian paramilitary groups and Venezuelan troops along the border. Many civilian deaths have also been reported. The Colombian Foreign Minister told Frontline that talks were on with his Venezuelan counterpart to defuse tensions. Regional groupings such as the Organisation of American States (OAS) are also involved in the efforts to bring bilateral ties back on track. Colombia and Venezuela are brothers. Weve been together for ages, Bermudez said.

In September, Uribe made a hurried three-day visit to some of the neighbouring countries to explain his governments position on the bases issue. He succeeded in making President Lula and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet tone down their criticism of the deal. The Colombian government says that the bases will remain under Colombian control. U.S. Air Force and Navy missions from Colombia, it says, will have to get clearance from Bogota before they can launch missions.

But an official document from the U.S. Air Force reveals a clause that authorises U.S. personnel to utilise any installations, including civilian ones within Colombia, in the event of an emergency.

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