In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O'Grady laments an apparent shift left in the Obama administration's Latin America policy. Clearly, O'Grady hasn't been keeping up to date with current events. If she had been, she would have heard about negotiations underway between the U.S. and Colombia to establish at least seven U.S. military bases in Colombia. Last I heard, folks on the left tend to oppose increased militarization; it's tough to see seven new military bases as a move to the left.
Why is the Obama administration pushing for these bases, despite having previously criticized Colombia's human rights record?
The Administration's goals for the military facilities are "filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia," according to sources in Washington and Bogotá. The proposed bases, replacements for the soon-to-closed U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, would serve to expand the U.S. military's counter-narcotic operations in the region, deepen involvement in Colombia's counterinsurgency war, and combat "other international crimes," according to Colombia's Foreign Minister.
Despite these hints at the intention of the bases, many serious questions remain. In fact, even the Colombian Congress has yet to receive detailed information from the Uribe administration, despite repeated official requests. Nonetheless, on Tuesday Uribe began a South America tour to convince his regional counterparts of the plan, despite not having briefed his own Congress.
Such secrecy is worrisome. Fellowship of Reconciliation's John Lindsay Poland, who has spent years studying U.S. military bases around the world, writes, "the locations of the bases under negotiation raise further questions. None of them are on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, where aircraft from the Manta base patrolled for drug traffic – supposedly with great success, reflecting how traffic has increased in the Pacific. Three of the bases are clustered near each other on the Caribbean coast, not far from existing U.S. military sites in Aruba and Curacao – and closer to Venezuela than to the Pacific Ocean. Why are U.S. negotiators apparently forgoing Pacific sites, if counternarcotics is still part of the U.S. military mission? What missions 'beyond Colombia's borders' are U.S. planners contemplating?"
Even if we had answers to these questions, however, there exist plenty more reasons to be wary of the bases.
In cooperating with the Colombian army, the U.S. would be demonstrating support for an institution with an atrocious human rights record. More than 1,000 civilians have been murdered by the Colombian army in recent years, in a criminal attempt to portray them as guerrillas in order to raise the number of guerrillas killed in combat. Proposing these seven bases unmasks Obama's previous statements calling for the improvement of Colombian's human rights record as merely lip service.
Colombian forces aren't the only ones to worry about: U.S. military forces will be not be bound by Colombian law and will potentially get away with all kinds crimes. US negotiators have made it known that "even if they won't interfere in the exercise of command by Colombian officers on the bases, they will ensure the autonomy of U.S. military forces when operations go beyond Colombia's borders." And there is precedent that validates these concerns. In 2007 two U.S. soldiers carrying out a Plan Colombia mission in the small town of Melgar raped a 12-year-old girl, and have yet to be punished. When confronted by the girl's mother, the soldiers were quoted as saying, "Yeah, we raped her, so what? We are in Colombia, the law doesn't affect us." An all too accurate depiction of the US military's mentality in Colombia.
These bases would lack oversight in the financial arena as well. While Plan Colombia funding has been open for Congressional debate, funding for US military activities has not. Congress would therefore exercise little to no control over the funding – and therefore the actions – of the bases in Colombia.
The many unanswered questions and ominous possibilities that come with seven new US bases have raised alarms among Colombia's neighbors, fueling serious regional tensions. Venezuela has frozen diplomatic relations, and Ecuador has threatened "increased military tensions" over their concerns about the increased U.S. presence in the region. Brazil's President Lula said last week he was "not happy" at even one base being handed over for U.S. operations.
Many Colombians are opposed as well, backed up by the fact that such an agreement would bypass Article 173 of the Colombian Constitution, which prohibits the presence of foreign troops except in transit, and then only after legislative approval. Multiple protests have been held in downtown Bogota, and a national day of action is being planned for August 7 – the national holiday celebrating the Colombian armed forces – as opposition to these military bases grows.
The bases agreement has not yet been signed; there is still time to convince Colombian and U.S. leaders to scrap the idea. The Fellowship of Reconciliation has compiled a bilingual (English and Spanish) resource page for those opposing the bases: www.forcolombia.org/bases, and asks that you call the White House Comment Line (202-456-1111) today to say NO to military bases in Colombia.