The member countries of UNASUR met in Bariloche, Argentina
on Aug. 28. Photo:

On Aug. 28, 10 South American presidents gathered at the luxurious Llao Llao hotel in the Patagonian ski resort of Bariloche, Argentina. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner called the special meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to discuss the provisional U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement.1 This agreement, if signed, will facilitate "U.S. access to three Colombian air force bases, […] two naval bases, and two army installations, and other Colombian military facilities."

The plan raised questions among Latin American leaders since it was first made public by the press. Neighboring UNASUR nations expressed concern at the pact and its possible consequences for their sovereignty and security. UNASUR has taken a regional approach to security, emphasizing national capacity, non-proliferation, and non-intervention from the United States. As leaders arrived, they found the Patagonian resort town plastered with posters declaring "Bariloche, City of Peace"—a subtle reproach to what many viewed as an aggressive action by Colombia and the United States.

Presidents Present their Arguments

Proceedings began early behind closed doors. As journalists jostled for space in the press tent outside, insiders speculated that President Lula da Silva of Brazil was using his role as regional leader to calm Presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who represent the polarized positions on the base agreement.

The UNASUR nations expressed their "extreme concern" at the expanded U.S. military presence and questioned the premise that such presence enhances local capacity in the drug war. Uribe spoke first. He delivered an emotional speech on the costs of the "war on terror," documented with photos of massacred pregnant women and children.

As co-host of the meeting, pro-tempore UNASUR President Rafael Correa of Ecuador exuded smiles and courtesy. However, when it came his turn to speak on the base-sharing deal, Correa addressed Uribe in no uncertain terms, stating that Colombian drug-running was not exclusively a Colombian internal problem. Both the drug trade and the measures adopted to stop it, he said, have grave regional impacts in neighboring nations like his. He also noted that U.S. and Colombian cooperation under Plan Colombia has been ineffective in reducing regional cocaine production.2

Correa stated that Ecuador and Venezuela both represent 0% of cocaine cultivation3 in the region, noting that this figure proves that illegal drug cultivation can be controlled without U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or military support. Using maps and tables, he added that the majority of Colombian drug production is concentrated on the border with Ecuador and "lamentably there isn’t any real presence of the Colombian state in spite of the fact that it is known where drug production is located." He also noted that the Tres Esquinas base is located in this zone "which shows that even with the presence of bases, drug production is not being eliminated." Correa argued forcefully that rebel Colombian groups do not use Ecuador to attack Colombia but "exactly the opposite—these groups are jeopardizing Ecuadorian security due the lack of control on the Colombian side."

Ecuador refused to renew the U.S. lease for use of its Manta base, which U.S. forces have practically abandoned already. Correa reported that Ecuadorian security forces managed to double the average historical amount of cocaine seized after confiscating 42 tons in August without the help of the DEA. He noted that the same happened in Bolivia and that, in addition, DEA agents have been implicated in crimes. Correa concluded, "It’s not true that with the DEA and U.S. soldiers, efficiency in counter-narcotics operations is improved. We don’t need them." In a direct appeal to the Colombian people he added, "The solution lies elsewhere, not in U.S. aid."

Reflecting the high tensions raised by this issue, Correa’s politeness was strained to its limits when he referred to last year’s incursion into Ecuadorian territory. Correa spoke directly to President Uribe, "With all kindness Sir, you bombed my country!"4

President Chavez and Bolivian President Morales also delivered impassioned speeches against the military accord that has rocked the region. They left little room for doubt as to their anxieties over the proposed U.S.-Colombian military agreement that is viewed by both leaders as an imminent threat to South American peace. Morales proposed that all foreign military bases be expelled from South America.

Chavez allocated his time at the microphone reading out sections of a document from the U.S. Air Mobility Command called the "Global En Route Strategy."5 This document emphasizes "strategic airlift" capacity in South America stating, "USSOUTHCOM has become interested in establishing a location on the South American continent that could be used both for counter-narcotics operations and as a location from which mobility operations could be executed." The "white paper" mentions Palanquero as the base for such operations.

Specifically Chavez questioned the "need for [C-17] military transport planes in the war on drugs or to fight armed groups within Colombia," charging that such military expansion is part of "the global strategy of U.S. domination … the reason that they are installing these bases in Colombia."6 Chavez seconded Lula’s proposal to discuss U.S. military expansion in Colombia with President Barack Obama.

The debate continued all day with heated speeches and flushed faces, running many hours over schedule. In the late afternoon, the meeting ended with strained tempers and was saved from imminent disarray by Correa’s conciliatory attitude and the calm, if somewhat verbose, interjections of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

To everyone’s credit, an agreement was finally reached in the form of a rather vague two-page document.7 Following the incorporation of a few anxious last-minute refinements explicitly mentioning insurgent groups and the involvement of the Organization of American States (OAS), the agreement settled on continued talks. Changes to the draft were incorporated by Correa in real-time and were displayed on computer screens to the presidents.

Draft Decision8

Officials disseminated a two-page document entitled "Draft Decision"9 in the press tent just minutes after the meeting. The document detailed the following six decisions, to:

  • Strengthen South America as a zone of peace, committing to the establishment of a mechanism of mutual trust in matters of defense and security, upholding our decision to abstain from resorting to threats or use of force against the territorial integrity of another UNASUR state.
  • Reaffirm our commitment to strengthen cooperation in the fights against terrorism and transnational organized crime and their related offenses: drug trafficking, small and light arms trafficking, as well as the rejection of the presence and actions of armed groups operating outside the law.
  • Reaffirm that the presence of foreign military forces—with their means and resources linked to their own objectives—cannot threaten the sovereignty and integrity of any other South American nation, and in consequence threaten the peace and security of the region.
  • Instruct the respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Defense to hold an emergency meeting during the first two weeks of next September, in order that, in pursuit of greater transparency, they design measures to encourage trust and security in a manner that is complementary to the existing means used in the framework of the OAS, including concrete implementation mechanisms and guarantees for all nations applicable to existing agreements with countries of the region and outside the region; such as the trafficking of illicit weapons, drug trafficking, and terrorism in accordance with the legislation of each country. These mechanisms must consider the principles of unconditional respect for territorial sovereignty, integrity, and inviolability and noninterference in internal matters of the states.
  • Instruct the South American Defense Council, that it may analyze the text of "South American Strategy, White Paper, Mobile Air Command (AMC)" and conduct a verification of the situation on the borders and deliver the results of the study to the Council of Heads of State and Government, so that a course of action can be considered.
  • Instruct the South American Council on Drug Trafficking to urgently elaborate its Statutes and Plan of Action with the objective of defining a South American strategy in the fight against the trafficking of illicit drugs and the strengthening of cooperation among specialized bodies in our respective nations.

The UNASUR meeting was broadcast live to the press.10 This experiment in open politics led Lula to criticize the process, charging that the presence of cameras had led to grandstanding to television audiences at home. The lengthy speeches, he claimed, were more directed toward winning elections than to solving the problem at hand of foreign military expansion in South America.

The U.S. Air Mobility Command’s White Paper11 at the center of controversy outlines a global strategy with two objectives in South America: "it helps achieve the regional engagement strategy and assists with the mobility routing to Africa."

Chavez and other presidents questioned the necessity of C-17 aircraft,12 super-transporter jets identified in the paper for their "warfighting capability."13 He pointed out that such a plane is capable of carrying up to 200 paratroopers, the implication being that these planes could be used to invade a neighboring state. The paper claims that with use of the Palanquero base, the C-17 can reach the entire continent, with the exception of Cape Horn.14

Chavez affirmed that U.S. bases compromise national sovereignty. He noted that when Honduran military personnel kidnapped President Zelaya forcing him into exile, the plane used in Zelaya’s kidnapping stopped on the way to refuel at a U.S. air force base.

UNASUR: Steps Toward Regional Security Integration

UNASUR was founded in 2005. Originally known as the South American Community of Nations (CSN), the organization was re-branded UNASUR in 2007.15 This South American political, military, financial, and energy alliance16 has barely begun concerted efforts in the security and counter-narcotics areas. Just last year, as a result of a Brazilian initiative, UNASUR created its security council and the idea of a counternarcotics group came from the last meeting of UNASUR in Quito, Ecuador. Following the directives of the presidents, the Security Council will be required to set out its own system of military inspections, including supervision of plans for new bases and their use. A major result of the Bariloche meeting is to spur activity on counternarcotics cooperation within UNASUR.

Many UNASUR nations expressed their firm conviction that the new U.S.-Colombia agreement on military bases goes well beyond fighting the drug war and insurgency within the borders of Colombia. Both the State Department and most of the U.S. press has attempted to divert attention from these regional implications. On Aug. 28 the New York Times reported:

"At a meeting in Bariloche, Argentina, leaders from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia made clear their vehement opposition to the decision by President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia to expand cooperation with the United States to counteract narcotics trafficking and violence by insurgents."17

While both insurrection and drug-running in Colombia is surely a concern, that is not what was said by leaders in Bariloche. Rather, the overwhelming concern expressed by these leaders was the fear that these bases might be used for mobilization against other South American nations.

More U.S. Military in Colombia

"Until such time that USSOUTHCOM establishes a more robust theater engagement plan, the strategy to place a CSL [cooperative security location] at Palanquero should be sufficient for air mobility reach on the South American continent."18

In addition to the new Bilateral Cooperation Agreement, expansion of the Palanquero base for U.S. purposes is also included in the 2010 Defense Department budget. In the Senate report dated July 2, 2009,19 the Committee on Armed Services of the United States Senate expressed their awareness of:

"concerns raised and the perception that this expanded U.S. military presence in the region, particularly for Colombia’s neighbors (e.g. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia) will give rise to increased skepticism about American military intentions in the region. Given these concerns, the committee directs the Commander of SOUTHCOM to consult partner nations in the region to assure they are aware of ongoing U.S. requirements for robust counternarcotics aerial detection and reconnaissance operations."

In the same document the Senate committee points to the "expected loss of cooperative security location Manta [closed by Correa in Ecuador]" and "ongoing requirements for Air Base facilities" as reasons to approve the $46 million appropriations for construction at Palanquero.

Instead of a process of consultation, the bilateral agreement expanded the concept of U.S. military reach in the region with no prior warning or discussions with regional leaders. Hillary Clinton’s20 speech attempted to assuage "concerns" but offered so little specific information that it did almost nothing to relieve tensions. In Hillary Clinton’s press conference on the proposed agreement, she was asked by journalist Sergio Gomez:

"[…] despite the explanations, the agreement has generated some turmoil in the region. Specifically, President Chavez insists that it’s an aggressive plan and has announced that he will purchase even more weapons from Russia, and also place around seven new bases in the Colombian border. Do you think this agreement is, like, starting an arms race in the region? Are you concerned about it?"

The secretary went on about the damages wrought by terrorism and drug trafficking, then answered:

"I believe that any fair reading of what it is we are discussing is about our continued commitment to assist Colombia. It has nothing to do with other countries, and I only hope that people will actually take the time to understand that."

Whatever Secretary Clinton believes, it is clearly not the interpretation made by certain presidents in the region.

Now what?

It is unclear what the UNASUR countries can actually do to stop or influence an agreement between the U.S. government and Colombia. Whatever the influence on the current proposed agreement, the Pentagon and the State Department are now more aware than ever of neighboring countries’ sensitivity to bilateral defense pacts with Colombia. UNASUR has also requested direct communication with President Obama. If granted, such dialogue will bring that same awareness to the new commander-in-chief himself. This could begin a dialogue leading to better, more cooperative mechanisms for designing any future military agreements between the United States and South America.

On the regional front, the meeting in Bariloche served to activate the UNASUR Defense Council and its sub-group on counternarcotics operations. South American nations have stated their aims to control drug trafficking inside and across national borders by means of improved cooperation within UNASUR.

It remains to be seen what will ultimately result from the regional response to U.S. military plans. What is certain is that a relatively new regional political agent, UNASUR, must now be considered in those plans.

End Notes

  1. State Department announcement of agreement:; also speech by Hillary Clinton on draft agreement:
  2. Video of Rafael Correa’s speech in Bariloche:
  3. "Libre de cultivos de droga." To see relevant sections of this speech in Spanish on video:
  4. Referring to the incursion of Colombian troops and the killing of various Colombian and Mexican citizens on Ecuadorian soil by Colombian military.
  5. Global en Route Strategy paper:
  6. Video of Chavez’s first speech at Bariloche:
  7. Like all UNASUR agreements, even the final agreement is by consensus and non-binding which makes them easy to sign but next to impossible to enforce. This is a general problem with many trans-Latin American treaties.
  8. This article shows the original in Spanish:
  9. "Proyecto de Decision."
  10. President Lula da Silva at first objected to the live broadcast of the lively meeting to the press and complained later that it had cost them much time as the presidents of the three neighbors most affected (Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela) spoke not only to each other but to the audiences of their national press.
  11. op. cit., Global en Route Strategy paper.
  12. A C-17 has a base price tag in the ballpark of a Boeing Jumbo jet 747-400 (approx. $220 million per plane).
  13. op. cit., Global en Route Strategy paper, page 11.
  14. op. cit., Global en Route Strategy paper, footnote, page 22.
  15. In April 2007 at the first South American Energy Summit on Margarita Island when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed to rename and revitalize the South American Community of Nations (CSN), founded by Brazil in 2005, the CSN became the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The formal inauguration of UNASUR occurred a year later in a ceremony in Brasilia on May 23, 2008. President Lula of Brazil and President Chavez of Venezuela have promoted UNASUR as a South American political, military, financial, and energy alliance.
  16. UNASUR as yet defers inter- and intraregional commerce to much maligned, but partially operative, MERCOSUR (still awaiting approval of new members, Bolivia and Venezuela) and the Andean Community (CAN, Comunidad Andina). The CAN remains a trade group in name only even among the remaining members: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru (Chile retired from the group as did Venezuela). CAN is kept alive only by its dysfunctional institutions. It was dealt a mortal blow when its legitimacy was undermined by Peru and Colombia’s machinations in order that they be able to comply with the more liberal intellectual property requirements of bilateral commerce treaties (a.k.a. ALCitas or little ALCAs / FTAAs) they are still trying to have ratified with the United States.
  17. Leaders Criticize Colombia Over U.S. Military Pact:
  18. op. cit., Global en Route Strategy paper, page 22.
  19. NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2010; Calendar No. 89; Section entitled: "Temporary prohibition on use of funds for military construction improvements, Palanquero Air Base, Colombia (sec. 2307)": page 225, (accessed Sept. 12, 2009, Warning: very large document).
  20. U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, op. cit., interviews of Secretary Clinton after speech on draft agreement.