Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

U.S.-Colombia Military Deal Causes Controversy… Still

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Even now that Bogotá and Washington concluded their talks over the U.S.-Colombian military deal on Friday, questions linger over how and why it sparked so much controversy.  The general consensus—even by the Pentagon’s own admission—is that Bogotá and Washington mangled the public message. 

Now that more details are coming out about the deal, it’s clear that it didn’t need to be such a lightening rod. And even if it did, why did the U.S. allow Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to twist in the wind?

The core of the deal is to grant the U.S. access to seven of Colombia’s military bases (five air and two naval) to help build up Colombia’s current assets and capability (particularly on surveillance and intelligence gathering). The deal seeks to “provide to the Colombians that what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have,” as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General James E. Cartwright said at a Pentagon briefing on August 13, 2009.

This is NOT about increasing the ceiling for U.S. personnel in Colombia, or in South America. 

Under current law, the U.S. cannot have more than 800 military and 600 contract personnel in Colombia. Last year, there were only 71 military personnel and some 400 contractors in Colombia.  More importantly, the U.S. Congress has little appetite to increase the number of U.S. troops stationed there. 

Yet, the military deal was portrayed as a neo-imperial buildup. Even several reporters in Brazil asked me in all seriousness if the U.S. was furtively plotting some Venezuela invasion!

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has called this a direct threat, and—as he’s wont to do—called for his military forces to be on stand-by for a U.S. invasion!

Recent history of U.S. involvement in coups and planned assassinations in the region gives good reason for even rational Latin American leaders to be skeptical, and concerned.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva warned that the controversy was undermining the Obama administration’s early promises for a fresh start of equal partnership in the hemisphere, and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner described the deal as “belligerent.”

In fact, unease was so intense, that President Uribe took a spin around Latin America to calm fears that the deal with the United States was really no big deal. 

It isn’t unusual that specifics of a deal would not be known before it’s actually signed by the respective governments. But, a little more transparency would have gone a long way in allaying our neighbors’ concerns—and prevented Uribe from becoming even more unpopular among his neighbors.

The head of the U.S. Southern Command, General Douglas Fraser, recently said the U.S. does not have any conventional military threat in the hemisphere (sorry, President Chávez, you don’t count). Instead, the security challenges are related to natural disasters (like hurricanes), crime and narcoterrorism. 

But narcoterrorism is a term that cannot be taken lightly, especially since the U.S. General Accountability Office recently alleged that Venezuela facilitates (at the very least) drug trafficking.  If I were President Chávez, I’d be a bit worried about involvement in the narcotics trade…especially as Colombia’s intelligence gathering increasingly becomes more sophisticated. 

In fact, this deal is all about further beefing up Colombia’s intelligence gathering and information sharing to combat narcoterrorism.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said August 13 at a Pentagon briefing: “Virtually all of the counter-narcotics efforts that we pursue, in Latin America, are in partnership with other countries. Clearly the need for reconnaissance, for being able to find laboratories and so on—we bring some assets to this that our allies welcome.  And that’s really what this is all about is, how do we work together and more effectively with our partners in the region, to go after these narcotics cartels?”

Bingo. The U.S. military in fact plays a role in Obama’s agenda to work with Latin American countries as partners, and in recent years U.S. and South American militaries have increased collaboration and cooperation. Since the U.S. was kicked out of Ecuador’s Manta air base, it needed a new hub for anti-drug operations. Not a big deal.

So, why didn’t the U.S. stand up earlier and louder for Uribe and this deal? Why did the backlash in South America get so out of control?

Our current behavior would suggest that the U.S. is backing away from Uribe…in part to thwart his third-term ambitions, as I wrote about here earlier.

For better or worse, Uribe has gone far to demonstrate his friendship with the U.S.—even when the U.S. was hardly the cool kid during the Bush years.

What more does the Colombian president need to do to prove his friendship?

In the meantime, what has the U.S. done in return for our partner? Given billions in counterinsurgency/counternarcotics aid and assistance? Check. (But that is all about U.S. interests…and our grotesque appetite for drugs)!  Approved the free-trade agreement with Colombia? Nope!  Not yet, and it probably will not be approved for some time. OK, but what about clarifying the needless controversy over this military deal?  Nope! Not that either! We let President Uribe hang out to dry!

No matter your opinion of Uribe, the U.S. is doing a disservice to our own interests by treating our close ally with such disregard.

What does this say to our future, potential close allies?  That we’re reliable? Trustworthy? Not quite.

We could and should have been communicating better with Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries of the region. Yes, even Venezuela.  Not just for Uribe’s sake, but for our overall goals of strengthening relationships, both diplomatic and military ones.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org


Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

Tags: Alvaro Uribe, Robert Gates, U.S. bases in Colombia, U.S. diplomacy in Latin America
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter