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Tensions Rise in Latin America over US Military Plan to Use Three Bases in Colombia

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The Colombian government has agreed to grant US forces the use of three Colombian military bases for South American anti-drug operations. The move has heightened tensions between Colombia, the largest recipient of US military aid in the Americas, and its neighbors, particularly Venezuela and Ecuador. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned that the US Army could “invade” his country from Colombia. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Colombia, where the government of President Uribe has agreed to grant US forces the use of three Colombian military bases for South American anti-drug operations. The move has heightened tensions between Colombia, the largest recipient of US military aid in the Americas, and its neighbors, particularly Venezuela and Ecuador.

The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, warned the US army could, quote, “invade” his country from Colombia. He said last week the move had forced him to review ties with Colombia.

Colombian President Uribe has denied the agreement allows US bases in the country and insists it’s only about strengthening the Colombian military.

    PRESIDENT ALVARO URIBE: [translated] The agreement was to strengthen the Colombian military bases, not to open North American bases. The accord is meant to help Colombians regain their right to live in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: But the Venezuelan president, Chavez, only reiterated his opposition to the agreement.

    PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: [translated] They just announced from Washington and Bogota that they will soon start sending thousands of North American soldiers to Colombia, not only to the bases that already exist, but to four new military bases. These are contract soldiers who are nothing more than paramilitary mercenaries and assassins. Airplanes, radar, sophisticated weapons, bombs — and, of course, they say it’s to fight drug trafficking.

AMY GOODMAN: Ecuador’s security minister, meanwhile, has warned of, quote, “an increase in military tension” with Colombia.

Colombia announced it would allow the US to build three more bases on its soil, soon after Ecuador decided to ban the US military on its territory.

Well, for more, I’m joined now by John Lindsay-Poland in San Francisco, co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Latin America Program, and author of a history of US military bases in Panama called Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of US in Panama.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of what’s happening now in Colombia, John.

JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND: Well, these bases represent an institutionalization of the relationship between the US and Colombian military, at a time when the Colombian military is being heavily criticized for killings of civilians, hundreds of killings of civilians, for pay, in order to produce body counts. It’s been a major scandal within Colombia and even in the meeting that happened between Presidents Uribe and Obama a few weeks ago.

It’s also — these bases represent a destabilization of relations with the region, as we were just hearing, because instead of using other means to deal with any kind of issue in the region, it’s a signal to the rest of the region that the United States is going to be using military means in order to address not just drug trafficking, because both in terms of in the US documents as well as in the Colombian government’s announcements, it’s been made clear that these bases are not just to combat illegal drug trafficking, but also to address — to support the counterinsurgency within Colombia and to carry out contingency operations in the region, which could be anything.

In addition, there’s going to be a renewed capacity, or additional capacity, for regional operations, because there will be C-17s based at these bases by the United States, and they can carry out operations throughout the South American continent.

So, it’s of great concern this is being done very rapidly without — with very little consultation both within Colombia and within the United States. And so, there’s a move afoot in order to try and give more time and have a real public debate about the negotiations for this agreement.

In addition, to the extent that these are for combating drug trafficking, the closure of the base in Manta, Ecuador, should be and should have been an occasion for revisiting the whole military approach to the drug war, which has been a total failure in terms — any way you measure it, whether you’re talking about the amount of land in Colombia that’s planted with coca leaves, if you’re talking about the price of cocaine on the street in the United States, or the purity or the amount of cocaine that’s available in this country.

So, instead of relooking at the mission, instead the mission is being expanded to include counterinsurgency and regional operations in a way that is destabilizing the region. So, the — it’s very likely that it will lead to a military arms race, particularly between Venezuela and Colombia, at a time when the United States should be promoting greater and better relations within the region.

It’s something that Obama has given some signals that he would be doing, in terms of opening more relations, both with Venezuela but also with other countries in South America. But on the other hand, during the campaign, Obama also said that he would support transnational military operations from Colombia into neighboring countries. So, in that context, the setting up of military bases in Colombia is a very worrisome signal about how the conflicts between those countries will be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response inside Colombia?

JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND: Well, right now, there’s very little that’s known about it. It just has come out. Some of the details about a draft agreement have come out earlier this month. And initially, a number of presidential candidates have said that it’s a bad idea, that there’s no reason to set up these agreements.

There’s a lot of concern about immunity that would be offered to Colombian troops, because — I’m sorry, US troops in Colombia, because of crimes that have been committed by US troops, as well as private contractors, US contractors from the military, that have been committed on Colombian soil, including rapes and arms trafficking, that are not prosecuted in Colombian courts. The Colombian courts don’t have jurisdiction under the current agreements and would not under the new base agreements. So there’s criticism of that.

There’s an attempt to open up the debate. There was a demonstration on Friday in Bogota against the base agreement. There will be another one tomorrow and, I suspect, more in the days to come.

And in addition, there will be a challenge in the legislature. It’s unconstitutional to have military bases, foreign military troops, in Colombia — only in transit, and even that has to be approved by the Colombian Senate. And in addition, if there is a base agreement signed, then there will likely be a court challenge to the base agreement as being unconstitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: How is President Obama’s policy towards Colombia different from President Bush’s? Or is it?

JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND: Well, I would say that there is — again, there was a comment by President Obama during the campaign that the problem of human rights is a serious one, particularly in the context of the free trade agreement. He has not campaigned for the approval of the free-trade agreement, although he has said that there will — they are going to try to move forward, but there’s no calendar for moving it forward. And so, in that respect, it’s a bit different from President Bush, who was campaigning very hard for the approval of the free trade agreement in spite of all the human rights violations and —

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, I remember clearly when Obama was running for president and clearly singled out Colombia, saying he would not support that because of the unionists who have been killed in Colombia.

Finally, John Lindsay-Poland, the issue of the US Congress, what role does it play here?

JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND: Well, it should be playing a greater role. It should be challenging this. So far, the pushback from Congress on the base agreement and on continued military aid has been very light. So the military aid to the Colombian army is continuing. And we’re very concerned, because the bases come through the Pentagon budget, which is not transparent at all. It’s different from the foreign aid budget in that respect. So, we’re urging Congress to make this more transparent and to urge the President to revisit both the drug policy, in general, and this base agreement with Colombia, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lindsay-Poland, I want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Latin America Program, author of Emperors in the Jungle.

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