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Inter Press Service

Indigenous People Troubled by US Military Presence in Colombia

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA - The head of Colombia's
biggest association of indigenous people is concerned that allowing
U.S. troops to use military bases in his country will signal a
regression to former times when the United States exercised control
over Latin America, while a native activist warned of an increase in
the number of cases of sexual abuse of young indigenous women by
foreign soldiers.

A recent agreement between Bogotá and Washington for the
U.S. to use seven military bases in Colombia, which has caused concern
across Latin America, was ignored in discussions about Colombia's
record on racial discrimination, held this week in Geneva.

At sessions of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the effects of militarisation in
Colombia, which has been torn by civil war by nearly half a century,
were examined, but the controversial issue of the bases was not raised,
said Karmen Ramírez Boscán, a leader of the National Indigenous
Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).

"This issue is a focus of broad debate at the national level,
and of course it should have been dealt with here at this U.N. agency,"
said Ramírez Boscán, a Wayuu indigenous woman.

The fact that it was not discussed is because "we all know that a very sensitive situation is developing," she said.

The agreement between the two countries provides greater access
to Colombian territory for the U.S. military, which will operate small
stations known as Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) or Cooperative
Security Locations (CSLs).

This will create changed circumstances and greater
difficulties for Colombian, especially indigenous, women. "I think
that, directly or indirectly, this generates violence, and obviously
its most immediate effects are on Colombian women," said Ramírez

The indigenous leader recalled cases that have been
investigated of young single mothers in which "the fathers had been
stationed at Colombian military bases. They became pregnant by foreign
soldiers, not Colombians," Ramírez Boscán told IPS.

"I believe the greater presence of U.S. troops will definitely bring changes to the local areas near the bases," she said.

Wilbert van der Zeijden, an expert with the Transnational
Institute, told IPS in April that "We should not forget that military
bases are usually inhabited mostly by young men, who get bored and
frustrated, being far from home, family, friends and girlfriends/wives.
They seek 'diversion' in town.
"The result has been a steep increase in all sorts of crime, including
rape, drugs, theft and violent abuse," he said. In the view of Luis
Evelis Andrade, an indigenous elder and head of ONIC, the fight against
drugs and terrorism is being used as a pretext to wind the clock back
to the time when the United States had total control over Latin
American countries.

Some of the seven bases are close to villages of indigenous or Afro-descendant people, while others are not, Andrade said.

"The Colombian state and the government are riding roughshod
over what I understand to be the feelings and the collective imaginary
about the meaning of foreign military bases in any country, and
especially in Latin America," he said.

"Bases commanded, operated and administered by the United
States are unacceptable, and so are bases operated by the Colombian
military with the presence of U.S. military advisers," he said. Neither
scenario is acceptable "to us, as indigenous peoples."

Cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking cannot mean
interference and the covert abdication of sovereignty to another
country, said Andrade, of the Emberá people, who as elder statesman is
president of ONIC, the national authority of indigenous peoples living
in Colombia.

U.S. forces at the bases will have immunity from the Colombian
justice system, and facilities for operating C-17 Globemasters, large
transport planes for troops and weapons with a range that extends to
half the South American continent. With refuelling and provisioning,
these aircraft can reach every part of the Americas except Cape Horn,
at the southernmost tip of Chile.

Andrade remarked that the Colombian government acts as if the
agreement with the United States had implications only for Colombia.
But experts and other governments are well aware that the aircraft and
technology involved have implications far beyond the borders of
Colombia, and can be used to spy on other countries, he said.

"We're already sick and tired of the internal armed conflict.
We think (U.S. access to) these bases should not be implemented,
because we believe it will damage relations with bordering countries,"
he added.

For example, deteriorating relations between Colombia and
Ecuador and between Colombia and Venezuela have repercussions on health
care and food security for more than 20 indigenous villages along the
Ecuadorean and Venezuelan borders.

The ill-feeling between the countries arises because of the
mishandling of the Colombian armed conflict, which spreads across
national boundaries, Andrade argued.

The issue of the military bases is already causing problems
for indigenous people, "and I would say for all the poor who live on
the Colombian-Venezuelan border, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
himself has recognised," Andrade said.

The Chávez administration has frozen relations with Colombia –
with which Venezuela has close economic ties - because of the decision
on military bases.

Andrade criticised those involved in the debate on the effects
of the tension between Bogotá and Caracas for only alluding to the
crisis experienced in the dominant economic sectors, such as automobile
manufacturers, textile industrialists and beef exporters.

"But no one talks about the problems of the border
communities, which normally, as in the case of the border between
Colombia and Venezuela, get most of their supplies of food, clothing
and even medicines from Venezuela," he said.

Ramírez Boscán said Colombian officials had portrayed the
agreement for the U.S. use of the bases as "a necessary evil" in order
to combat the guerrillas and drug trafficking. "But we think that it's
all part of a strategy to control everything that goes on in Latin
America, in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, from a key
geographical position," she said.

She said it was a good thing that Monday's summit meeting of
the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Quito had decided to
hold another summit on Aug. 27 in Bariloche, in southern Argentina, to
examine Latin America's reaction to the U.S.-Colombia military base

"It's important for other countries to hold the Colombian
state accountable, because we really do not know what our government's
intentions are," she said.

The plans for U.S. access to the bases have met with vocal
resistance in Colombia on the part of human rights and indigenous
organisations, and civil society in general. But "the government has
responded with indifference," Ramírez Boscán said.

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