Published on
The Times Online/UK

Colombia Under Fire From Neighbours Over US ‘Military Aggression’

Hannah Strange in Caracas

The President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe in April 2009. (AFP/File/Yuri Cortez)

It is the cocaine deal that threatens to divide a continent. President Uribe
of Colombia has brought stability to his country by crushing the Farc
guerrilla movement, but much of his drug eradication effort has been a

The Latin American leader has now asked Washington to step in, inviting US
forces into Colombian military bases to run operations against the country’s
still-thriving narcotics industry.

He is to sign a plan with the United States allowing it to use seven Colombian
military bases to counter trafficking and the paramilitary activity it
finances. The deal suits Washington, which wants to use Colombia, one of its
few remaining allies in Latin America, as a regional operations hub.

The plan has aggravated tensions in a region already riven ideologically,
pitting Colombia against leftist governments who accuse the United States of
planning military aggression against its enemies and undermining efforts to
rebuild ties on the continent.

President Chávez of Venezuela has been particularly rattled, breaking off
diplomatic relations with Colombia and warning that the move was a step
towards all-out regional war.

With almost all of his Latin American counterparts signalling alarm at the
plan, President Uribe embarked on a whirlwind tour of regional capitals this
week in an attempt to reassure them that it was not a threat to their
sovereignty and was aimed only at combating the drugs trade, which raises
millions of dollars for Colombian paramilitary groups.

Colombia says that the accord, expected to be signed within weeks, would allow
US troops access to seven bases in the world’s top cocaineproducing nations
and increase the number of permanent personnel from the current 300 to about

The tour produced limited success, with only the conservative President García
of Peru pledging unqualified support for the plan.

President Lula da Silva of Brazil, who had previously voiced serious concern,
appeared to have been partially reassured, telling Mr Uribe on Thursday that
Bogotá’s plans were a sovereign matter provided that operations were
restricted to Colombian territory.

However, the Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, said after a meeting between the
two leaders that Brazil had suggested that it be discussed at a regional
Unasur defence summit in Ecuador on Monday, where some countries have vowed
to campaign against the move.

Brazil had sought unspecified guarantees from Colombia and wanted more talks
with the United States, Mr Amorim said.

Chile and Paraguay adopted similar positions while Uruguay and Bolivia — whose
left-wing leader, Evo Morales, is one of the most vocal foes of the US in
the region — remained strongly opposed. An Argentine government source said
that President Fernández had told Mr Uribe that the plan was “worrying”.

President Morales, who has already thrown the US Drug Enforcement Agency out
of Bolivia, said that he would urge his counterparts at the Ecuadorian
summit to reject the bases plan, calling them “an attack not only on the
governments but also democracy in Latin America”.

Mr Uribe did not visit Ecuador or Venezuela, both of which have a tense
relationship with Washington and Bogotá.

Ecuador has yet to restore diplomatic relations with its neighbour after a
Colombian cross-border raid last year that almost plunged the region into
conflict, while Venezuela recently withdrew its envoys from Colombia and cut
off trade over what it claims are aggressions against its socialist

President Chávez, a fiery leftist leader, said on Thursday that Venezuela
planned to buy “at least three battalions” of Russian tanks to defend his
oil-exporting country. “Sadly we have to arm ourselves ... ready for war to
defend the homeland against aggression from the North American empire,” he
said, claiming that the “Yankee” imperialists planned to provoke conflict
between Venezuela and Colombia.

Mr Chávez has also frozen trade deals and denied Colombian energy companies
access to Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco region, citing the US plan and a
recent accusation from Bogotá that Venezuela had supplied rocket launchers
to the Farc. He says that the launchers, discovered in a guerrilla camp,
were stolen from a Venezuelan military post 14 years ago, charging Colombia
with trumping up the accusation to distract from the US military plan and
justify aggression.

The only way to defuse the situation was for Colombia to discard the military
plan, Mr Chávez said. Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader, a close ally,
backed his position, claiming that the plan amounted to “seven daggers in
the heart of Latin America”.

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