U.S.-Colombia Pact Causes Stir Among Lat-Am Neighbors

U.S.-Colombia Pact Causes Stir Among Lat-Am Neighbors

If there is, or should be, one rule of U.S. Latin America policy today, it
is this: Don’t give Hugo Chávez a freebie. Avoid handing the leftist
Venezuelan President a reason to sound an alarm against yanqui aggression in
the western hemisphere. Chavez’s reputation in Washington may be that of an
oil-rich populist demagogue whose default political strategy is gratuitous
anti-Americanism. But his rants often strike a chord with his more moderate
counterparts in Latin America, whose decibel levels are lower but whose
anxieties about U.S. designs in their region are still high.

The Obama Administration dropped the latest gift into Chavez’s lap this
summer when, in a manner most Latin governments call less than transparent,
it completed negotiations with Colombia to let the U.S. military use seven
military bases there. On the surface, the deal simply moves U.S.
counter-drug operations to Colombia from a base in Ecuador, whose leftist
President Rafael Correa has refused to renew the U.S.’s lease. But to
neighboring countries it appears to inflate U.S. military presence on the
continent, especially since it also implies that U.S. troops will take up
counterinsurgency work against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. Chavez
predictably declared that the pact has “loosed the winds of war” on South
America. But even centrist, U.S.-friendly Brazilian President Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva said this week, “Our beloved South America is feeling very
Those concerns got aired on Friday at a meeting of Unasur, the Union of
South American Nations, at the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche. One head
of state after another grilled conservative Colombian President and U.S.
ally Alvaro Uribe on the details of the new base plan and why they weren’t
better consulted about it. An oft expressed fear, based on recently
disclosed U.S. documents , was that the U.S. might use the bases, especially Palanquero in
central Colombia, to launch operations beyond Colombia and violate its
neighbors’ sovereignty. Two other moderates, Chilean President Michelle
Bachelet and Peruvian President Alan Garcia, joined leftists like Chavez and
Correa in insisting on a guarantee that U.S. missions will be confined to
Colombia. Otherwise, “I would be very tempted to [oppose the base deal],”
said Garcia.

Uribe came under criticism last year when his army commandos crossed into
Ecuador to attack a Colombian guerrilla lair. But he assured the Unasur
gathering that the base deal, far from allowing U.S. violation of South
American sovereignty, will not give up “a millimeter” of even Colombian
territory. Still, most Latin leaders feel the murky way in which Uribe and
the U.S. have presented the base pact belies President Obama’s encouraging
pledges of U.S.-Latin partnership. “To them it doesn’t square with the
rhetoric they heard from Obama at the Summit of the Americas” last April in
Trinidad, says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American
Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “What they heard then was a new beginning in
hemispheric relations, that the U.S. would no longer be devising policy for
Latin America but rather with Latin America.”

The response also reflects a concern that Latin America’s new 21st-century
self-reliance could be undermined by a continued dependence on American
might to beat back drug traffickers and insurgents like the Marxist
Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. Uribe is widely popular in
Colombia for having neutralized the drug-financed FARC largely with the help of the U.S.’s
$5 billion Plan Colombia. Mexico, though not allowing U.S. military
presence, has had to open its doors to Washington aid to an unprecedented
degree in recent years as it confronts its horrific drug cartel violence.

But at the same time, if Uribe has to answer for his dealings, he and the
U.S. insist Chavez has his own to explain. Colombia has long accused the
Venezuelan leader of aiding the FARC, which he denies, and the charges have
grown louder this summer with the discovery that a cache of Swedish
anti-tank weapons and other arms that Venezuela purchased in the 1980s had
somehow ended up in guerrilla hands. Chavez denies his government gave them
to the FARC; but confiscated FARC documents appear to trace them to a Chavez army general
and intelligence chief. Either way, many of the same South American leaders
pressing Uribe also feel Chavez should be more forthcoming or else risk
looking as if he’s using the Colombian base melee to deflect attention from
his own cross-border transgressions.

In the end, Lula and other moderates at Bariloche backed off from the more
excited rhetoric of Chavez, Correa and other leftists like Bolivian
President Evo Morales, who say they’ll go shopping for more arms now to
defend themselves. Lula is urging Obama to meet with the South American heads of state, perhaps at next month’s U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, to ease their angst. Lula, whose country’s rising political and economic

influence has made it the U.S.’s first real hemispheric counterweight, had
envisioned the fledgling Unasur as a cooperative body in the style of the
European Union. “But he feels Uribe, with the way he did his deal with the U.S.,
thumbed his nose at that idea,” says Bruce Bagley, chairman of international
relations at the University of Miami. Lula and most of his 11 Unasur
partners feel the U.S. did too. And that has loosed the winds of Chavez.

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