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Signing of Colombia Bases Deal Could Set the Stage for 'Expeditionary Warfare'

Moira Birss

After several months of secrecy and controversy, on October 30th the US and Colombia signed an agreement to allow the United States military extensive access to seven Colombian bases, notwithstanding serious concerns about true intentions and eventual consequences of the deal.   

Despite pledges by Colombian and U.S. governments about the limitations of the agreement, the text of the deal and U.S. military documents contradict such assurances. One of the principal concerns raised by regional governments after news was leaked of the pending agreement had been the possibility of the bases' use for aggressions against neighboring countries. In an interview Sunday with the Colombian daily El Tiempo, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield claimed that joint operations aren't planned outside of Colombia, and that Article IV of the agreement expressly forbids such operations. In fact, a careful review of the text of the agreement, finally made public on November 3, reveals no such prohibition.   

Not only that, but similar assurances by Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva that the agreement "has no geopolitical or strategic connotation, other than being more effective in the fight against drug trafficking" are even more hard to believe after reading a recently uncovered Pentagon budget document that expresses clear regional intentions for the Palanquero air base. The document describes the U.S. presence in Palanquero as an "opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America," and confirms the fears of Colombia's neighbors when it discusses the possibility of using the base to confront the "threat" of what it calls "anti-U.S. governments."

The most chilling phrase, however, is the discussion of the potential use of Palanquero to "expand expeditionary warfare capability."    Perhaps in hope that the true scope of the deal wouldn't be discovered, the Colombian government has pushed through the deal's signing without the approval of the Colombian congress, claiming that as a mere bilateral agreement no approval is required. This is despite the fact that Colombia's State Council, a judicial body that advises the government on administrative issues, found that the agreement is in fact a treaty and must be reviewed by Congress. The Council also called the agreement "very unbalanced for the country."  

For Colombians who live near the bases, the deal is also worrisome, as the agreement lacks environmental protections. The U.S. has no obligation to remediate ecological damage, nor does the deal provide for damages claims on behalf of the Colombian government.  The agreement states, for example, that bases will be turned over in "as is" condition upon termination of the agreement. Given the U.S. military's legacy of environmental damage around the world, this is a serious concern for the land and populations surrounding the bases.  

Criticism of the deal signing has come from many corners. Presidential candidate and Senator Gustavo Petro urged the Colombian government to renounce the deal, calling it illegal without Congressional approval and pointing to the regional tensions it has fueled.  Brazilian president Lula da Silva proposed a "non aggression pact" for UNASUR (Union of South American Countries) over concerns about the "gaps" in the deal that could allow U.S. military personnel based in Colombia to participate in attacks on neighboring countries. Twenty-seven European organizations signed a letter to President Obama just before the deal was signed, urging him to reconsider.  On November 1st, several pacifist organizations from the U.S. and other countries protested at the Palanquero air base, raising a "no to US troops in Colombia" banner and comparing the plan to "a little School of the Americas in Colombia."  The activists commemorated the 1998 massacre of 17 peasant farmers launched from the Palanquero base and carried out with the participation of pilots from a U.S. company under contract with Occidental Petroleum. 

You too can support a change U.S. policy toward Colombia by urging your Representative to sign a Dear Colleague letter to Secretary Clinton. The letter, initiated by Representatives McGovern, Schakowsky, Payne and Honda, calls for reduced aid to Colombia's military and increased support for human rights and humanitarian efforts. Click here to take action.

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Moira Birss works in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, though she considers San Francisco, California home and plans to return there some day. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira's articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at

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