Obama’s Choice: New Documents Show United States Seeks Colombian Bases for Training and Operations

President Obama was forced to address the growing clamor in South America in opposition to plans for U.S. military use of at least seven bases in Colombia. The base agreement proposes to carry out regional operations with a wide and ambiguous mandate and has raised concerns among governments throughout the region.

"We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia," Obama said on Friday.

But the South American presidents who met in Quito on Monday weren’t buying it. They agreed to meet again later this month to discuss the bases in Colombia. Despite a seven-nation tour by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe the previous week, only Peru openly supports the proposal. President Lula da Silva of Brazil—the continent’s superpower—called for President Obama to attend the meeting, and several Latin American presidents and Colombian leaders echoed the call. Obama needs to "explain in depth U.S. policy for the region," Lula said.

His declaration came following an explosive exposé of base negotiations between the Pentagon and the State Department, and the Colombian government in the Colombian weekly Cambio. The report generated broad discontent in Colombia and the region. The article noted that the plan would include "filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia," according to sources cited in Washington and Bogotá.

Whether the bases are "U.S." in name matters little in practice. The proposal has always been for U.S. military use of national bases in Colombia, which is how the United States works at military bases in Honduras, Ecuador, and many other countries in the world. The Pentagon does not acknowledge having "U.S. bases" in Iraq, for example. In Ecuador, the U.S. government denied it had any military base, though now supporters of the military deal with Colombia claim the U.S. operations in Manta, Ecuador were "truly a gringo presence." Obama’s announcement doesn’t change the situation that has bothered so many Latin Americans and U.S. citizens who hoped for something better from Obama’s government.

The issue is really the missions of U.S. forces at those bases and the message they send to Colombians and others in the region that the United States will respond militarily to every problem, from poverty to bilateral tensions. The State Department says the bases are to address narcotics trafficking and "should be viewed as nothing more than that." But the most recent military budget document and the Colombian government define the purposes much more broadly. The Pentagon seeks sites for "contingency operations, logistics, and training," and plans to deploy C-17 cargo aircraft—not used for counter-narcotics—at Palanquero air base in Colombia.

In fact, the facilities under negotiation appear to be aimed at replacing the former School of the Americas and other U.S. military training sites for Latin American armies. In a July 28 written response to Colombian senators, Interior Minister Fabio Valencia said that the agreement seeks to "deepen cooperation in areas such as: interoperability, joint procedures, logistics and equipment, training and instruction, strengthening monitoring and reconnaissance capacity, combined exercises, and especially exchange of intelligence information."

There will be an attempt to "expand training offered to other countries in the region through instruction of helicopter pilots and in human rights and international humanitarian law." Colombia is already imparting military training to jungle commandos and naval forces of other countries, Valencia says, and "plans to continue doing so with low-cost training of the same quality as that offered by countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom."

The bases also will lock in a U.S. military presence well beyond President Obama’s tenure to address issues that should be addressed with diplomacy, negotiation, economic development, and drug treatment. Rather than responding to a specific and justified military mission, these bases represent a presence in search of a mission.

It is not credible that U.S. military activities will be restricted to Colombian territory. First of all, U.S. and Colombian drug warriors have been saying for years that narco-trafficking is an international threat that must be met through international operations. So it’s no surprise the Pentagon has its eye on Colombia’s Palanquero air base, with its capacity for C-17s that can reach half of South America.

Second, President Obama has maintained the doctrine of transnational attacks against groups the United States designates as terrorist, including in Ecuador. Obama supported the March 2008 Colombian attack over the border—and sponsored U.S. attacks in Pakistan, leading to many civilian deaths.

Third, President Uribe launched his defense of the base agreement by announcing what he said was new evidence that officials from Venezuela and Ecuador were aiding the FARC. Leaders of those countries dispute the evidence, but even if it is true, escalating the U.S. military presence on bases in Colombia will hardly resolve the conflict. It will instead further polarize it.

Latin American leaders have rejected this statement as a justification for the bases. Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim said that "many weapons get to the FARC, just as they get to the favelas of Río de Janeiro. That announcement is no more than a small episode, compared with the United States bases."

The State Department appears to be clueless about why regional leaders would be so worried. Asked whether it was time for Obama to talk with hemispheric leaders about U.S. intentions, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said blandly, "We have a positive plan for the hemisphere … We talk to leaders all the time." But are they listening?

The operations of U.S. military forces inside Colombian territory are formally based on two claims with equally poisonous implications: that the biggest problems of Colombia are drug trafficking and guerrillas, and that U.S. and Colombian military cooperation is the best way to address these problems.

The largest number of killings of civilians each year in Colombia is not committed by the guerrillas, but by the army and paramilitary groups, according to the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Grassroots Education (CINEP). A large majority of Colombia’s 4.7 million internally displaced people were forced from their homes by paramilitary violence, with more than 11 million acres of land violently stolen. The increased U.S. military presence won’t contribute anything to returning those lands to their rightful owners, nor to holding the Colombian Army accountable for more than 1,700 civilian killings committed since 2002.

Neither will U.S. soldiers at seven bases in Colombia put a brake on Colombian intelligence agencies’ harassment, attacks, and surveillance of human rights defenders, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and opposition party leaders. Although these problems constitute grave threats to Colombian democracy and citizen security, none of that is the U.S. soldiers’ mission.

Similarly, more than $6 billion spent on Plan Colombia since 2000 has done nothing to stop the production and flow of cocaine from Colombia to the United States. U.S. and Colombian negotiators appear to be in a hurry to replace the flights conducted from the military base in Manta, Ecuador, which ceased last month. But there is no need to immediately replace the operations based at Manta. When operations there began in 2002 after the United States upgraded the airstrip, it was after a two-year hiatus of aerial monitoring of the region because of the closure of Howard Air Force Base in Panama, yet there was no detectable impact of this hiatus on cocaine arriving in the United States.

Supporters of the base agreement ask what the big deal is, saying that it changes nothing in U.S.-Colombian military cooperation. But the U.S. military presence in Colombia should change, because the facts on the ground either have changed, or cry out for a policy change. There are whole Colombian brigades of 2,000 men chasing tiny bands of guerrillas in some areas. This is a time when Washington should invest in peace talks, not institutionalize its relationship with the military.

Leaders from all over Latin America and Europe are calling for a paradigm shift in how to deal with the narcotics trade. Yet Colombian negotiators say the bases aim to replace Plan Colombia’s U.S. military aid, which has been reduced because of human rights scandals and ineffectiveness. This is a blatant attempt to defuse citizen criticisms of the old strategy by simply giving it a new face.

Moreover, it is not true that the agreement does not change anything. U.S. presence will be more oriented toward the Caribbean and Venezuelan side of Colombia, instead of the south, where U.S. aid to date has been concentrated. Whatever the reasons for it, it sends a threatening military message to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Also U.S. activities in Colombia become even more secretive and impervious to policy-making under this new plan. The Defense Department doesn’t set counternarcotics budgets by country, so Congress never knows how much the U.S. military will spend in Colombia until after the fact. That’s a change from Plan Colombia, most of which is debated openly in Congress as part of the foreign aid budget. The base agreement would not be up for annual review, as Plan Colombia aid has been, but will install a long-term agreement.

The number of U.S. soldiers and military contractors is also likely to be increased from the current 575, toward the limit of 1,400 set by Congress. Even the cap of 1,400 may not hold. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently called on the Pentagon to review these limits and consider whether to remove them in light of the new basing agreement.

What will make the Obama and Uribe governments table their ill-considered deal? U.S. and Colombian negotiators will meet again late this month or in early September, and haven’t reached an agreement on nine of 26 articles in the agreement, including five articles in which they have "encountered some difficulties," according to Valencia.

Will the Obama government take seriously the rising tide of opposition to this deal? Not only South American presidents, but Colombian senators and civil society groups and grassroots leaders from across Latin America and the United States are telling Obama and Clinton to back off and reconsider.

"Besides the problem of national sovereignty," more than a hundred Colombian organizations and leaders wrote on August 5, "this kind of agreement generates risks to the region’s security and stability, prolongs failed anti-drug policies, creates incentives for the arms race, and aims to expand and prolong an internal armed conflict that we are sick of."

More than 100 grassroots, religious, academic, and labor leaders and organizations wrote to Hillary Clinton this week, urging a suspension of base negotiations, and a fundamental review of drug and Colombia policy. They outlined the reasons why the military bases agreement is seen as a threat, including President Obama’s support for Colombia’s March 2008 cross-border attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador.

For all the assurances that the U.S. and Colombian militaries will abide by international law, the doctrine of transnational attacks in counterinsurgency wars, demonstrated repeatedly in Pakistan, may be the most acute reason for international concern about the bases in Colombia. If both countries formally abandon that doctrine, it would be an important step to stabilizing hemispheric relations.

The Americas-wide coalition contesting free trade agreements and militarization, the Continental Social Alliance, denounces the deal as "an intervention in Colombian internal affairs and a threat against democratic process in the whole region. For example, the Soto Cano military base in Honduras has been used by the coup leaders of that country to demonstrate U.S. support for the military coup."

Colombians are also worried about judicial immunity for U.S. soldiers, who reportedly committed 37 acts of sexual abuse in 2006-07. A U.S. soldier and contractor reportedly raped a 12-year-old Colombian girl inside the Tolemaida military base in 2006, dumping her outside the gates in the morning. This week her mother, Olga Lucia Castilla, was prevented by pro-government legislators from testifying before the Colombian Senate, although she was recently the target of a military attack, according to Senator Gustavo Petro. The two alleged rapists, who were whisked away to the United States, were never prosecuted for their attack, according to Petro.

These realities call for serious consideration of the proposals by Uruguayan president Tabaré Vasquez to oppose foreign military bases in Latin America and Evo Morales to prohibit such bases. Ecuador has led the way, through a constitutional provision banning the "establishment of foreign military bases or foreign installations with military purposes" as well as "ceding national military bases to foreign armed forces."

The presence of a U.S. military base in Palmerola, Honduras has contributed to the Pentagon’s reluctance to sanction the Honduran military’s brutal treatment of coup opponents. U.S. withdrawal from the base would offer concrete pressure to restore the constitutional government and send a signal of commitment to democracy over Pentagon priorities, but has so far been rejected by the administration.

A pact to reject all foreign military presence in the hemisphere would prevent the United States and other countries from imposing their will through violence, and make space for a true community of American nations. Concerned people in the United States should support this effort and reject the dangerous plans for a U.S.-Colombia base agreement.



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