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South America to Slam US-Colombia Base Deal

SAO PAULO - South American presidents are expected to slam a US plan to use military bases in Colombia when they gather for a summit in Argentina at the end of the week specifically to discuss the issue.

The anti-US leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have already vociferously criticized the announcement that Washington wanted to expand its military presence in Colombia to access seven bases.

Colombians fill up a motorbike with smuggled gasoline in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. In Venezuela the price of oil is 50 times cheaper than in Colombia, and due to the crisis between both countries, Colombians started smuggling along the border. Venezuela will not renew a recently-expired deal that provided Colombia gasoline at cut-rate prices. (AFP photo) The more moderate presidents heading up Brazil, Chile and Argentina have likewise expressed concern at the decision, first announced last month by Bogota.

The Union of South American Nations (Unasur) summit in the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche on Friday is to examine claims by Venezuela President Hugo Chavez that the increased US deployment could be used to invade his country.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is to attend, after having snubbed the previous Unasur meeting in Ecuador early this month because of regional friction over the deal.

Ahead of that last meeting, Uribe embarked on a tour of South America to speak to leaders one-on-one about the bases deal, but failed to win any support except from Peruvian President Alan Garcia.

US officials say that, while the deal on the bases was finalized this month, the agreement with Colombia has yet been signed.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected to ink the accord soon.

She also insisted that the beefed-up US military presence was exclusively aimed at "narco-traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups in Colombia."

But Chavez on Sunday charged that "they are turning all of Colombia into a (US) base."

He said in his weekly broadcast he had a document that showed the US military intended to operate unhindered "in strategic areas" -- which he interpreted as including the Orinoco Delta in eastern Venezuela and Brazil's northern Amazon basin.

The US aim was to "dominate South America and act freely across the continent," he alleged.

Brazil's defense minister, Nelson Jobim, was to travel to Colombia on Tuesday to talk over the bases decision with his counterpart, Gabriel Silva Lujan.

On Monday, he met with Ecuadorian Defense Minister Javier Ponce. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim also met with Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Fander Falconi.

Falconi said Colombia had requested that several agenda items be discussed in conjunction with the bases issue at Friday's summit, including other military deals in South America.

That latter point could touch on Venezuela's recent purchases of billions of dollars of Russian weaponry, including sophisticated fighter jets and tanks, and Brazil's deal with France to buy five submarines, one of which will be outfitted as a nuclear-powered vessel. Brazil is also poised to buy 36 new fighter aircraft from France, the United States or Sweden.

"There are no off-limit subjects at the meeting," Falconi said.

"We think that all aspects linked to security in the region need to be tackled by the presidents. It's not about accusing anybody, only holding transparent dialogue with the aim of strengthening regional unity," he said.

Unasur groups Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guayana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Last week, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva urged US President Barack Obama to attend a Unasur summit to hear the grievances.

Obama said only he would "look at possibilities" and would next meet with Lula on September 24-25, at a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Under a current cap exercised by the US Congress, the number of US citizens deployed to bases in Colombia cannot exceed 800 uniformed and 600 civilian personnel.

The US daily The Washington Post claimed in an editorial on Monday that Chavez was stirring up trouble over the bases to distract attention from his alleged support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel organization deemed a "terrorist" group by Washington.

The newspaper, which has good sources in US defense and political circles, asserted that giving the US military access to seven bases in Colombia was an "unremarkable" expansion of existing US operations in the country.

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