US Bases in Colombia Rattle the Region

On the shores of the Magdalena River, in a lush green valley dotted
with cattle ranches and farms, sits the Palanquero military base, an
outpost equipped with Colombia's longest runway, housing for 2,000
troops, a theater, a supermarket, and a casino.

Palanquero is at the heart of a ten-year, renewable military
agreement signed between the United States and Colombia on October 30,
2009, which gives Washington access to seven military bases in the
country. Though officials from the U.S. and Colombian governments
contend the agreement is aimed at fighting narcotraffickers and
guerrillas within Colombian borders, a U.S. Air Force document states
the deal offers a "unique opportunity" for "conducting full spectrum
operations" in the region against various threats, including "anti-U.S.
governments."

The Pentagon sought access to the bases in Colombia after Ecuadorian
President Rafael Correa canceled the lease for the U.S. military base in
Manta, Ecuador. The U.S. capability in Colombia will now be greater
than at Manta, which worries human rights advocates in Colombia and
left-leaning governments throughout the region.

"The main purpose of expanding these bases is to take strategic
control of Latin America," opposition senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of
the Polo Democratico Alternativo told me over the phone from Bogota.

Every president in South America outside of Colombia is against the
bases agreement, with Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela being the
most critical. Chavez said that by signing the deal the United States
was blowing "winds of war" over the region, and that the bases were "a
threat against us."

"Colombia decided to hand over its sovereignty to the United States,"
said Chavez in a televised meeting with government ministers. "Colombia
today is no longer a sovereign country. . . . It is a kind of colony."
The Venezuelan president responded by deploying troops to the border in
what has become an increasingly tense battle of words and flexing of
military muscle.

Correa in neighboring Ecuador said the new bases agreement
"constitutes a grave danger for peace in Latin America."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe dismissed critics and said the
increased U.S. collaboration was necessary to curtail violence in the
country. Uribe told The Washington Post, "We are not talking about a
political game; we are talking about a threat that has spilled blood in
Colombian society."

But plans for the expansion of the bases show that the intent is to
prepare for war and intimidate the region, likely spilling more blood in
the process.

The Palanquero base, the largest of the seven in the agreement, will
be expanding with $46 million in U.S. taxpayers' money. Palanquero is
already big enough to house 100 planes, and its 10,000-foot runway
allows three planes to take off at once. It can accommodate enormous
C-17 planes, which can carry large numbers of troops for distances that
span the hemisphere without needing to refuel.

The intent of the base, according to U.S. Air Force documents, "is to
leverage existing infrastructure to the maximum extent possible,
improve the U.S. ability to respond rapidly to crisis, and assure
regional access and presence at minimum cost. . . . Palanquero will
provide joint use capability to the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, and
U.S. Interagency aircraft and personnel."

The United States and Colombia may also see the bases as a way to
cultivate ties with other militaries.

"The bases will be used to strengthen the military training of
soldiers from other countries," says John Lindsay-Poland, the
co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin
America and the Caribbean Program. "There is already third-country
training in Colombia, and what the Colombia government says now is that
this agreement will strengthen that."

"This deal is a threat to the new governments that have emerged,"
says Enrique Daza, the director of the Hemispheric Social Alliance,
currently based in Bogota. These new governments are "demanding
sovereignty, autonomy, and independence in the region, and this bases
agreement collides directly" with that, he says.

The Obama Administration, with the new agreement, is further
collaborating with the Colombian military in spite of that institution's
grave human rights abuses in recent years.

In a July 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senators
Patrick Leahy and Christopher Dodd wrote: "What are the implications of
further deepening our relationship with the Colombian military at a
time of growing revelations about the widespread falsos positivos
("false positives") scandal, in which the Colombian military recruited
many hundreds (some estimates are as high as 1,600) of boys and young
men for jobs in the countryside that did not exist and then summarily
executed them to earn bonuses and vacation days?"

The military base agreement needs to be understood in the context of
two other U.S. initiatives in Colombia.

First, Plan Colombia, which began under President Clinton, committed
billions of dollars ostensibly to fight the war on drugs but also to
fighting the guerrillas, intensifying the country's already brutal
conflict in rural areas. This has led to increasing displacement of
people from areas that are strategically important for mining
multinationals.

Second, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which was signed in
2006, could pry open the country to more U.S. corporate exploitation.
But it has been met with opposition in the United States, delaying its
ratification. Daza says the signing of the bases deal is part of "a
military strategy that complements the push for the free trade
agreement." The trade accord will serve "transnational corporate
investments," and these investments, he says, "are sustained by a
military relationship."

Opposition to the military bases agreement is vocal in Colombia. In a
column written in July 2009, Senator Robledo denounced it, saying,
"There is no law that allows bases of this type in Colombia." One
struggle, Robledo said, is on the legal and political front. The other
is among social movements in Colombia and beyond. "It is important to
organize a type of democratic citizens' movement, a national campaign
against these foreign bases, as well as a continental social alliance
that promotes the denunciation of this agreement," he says.

Daza is working with Mingas, a cross-border solidarity organization
consisting of activists in Colombia, Canada, and the United States.
Mingas wrote a letter to Obama, condemning the President's decision to
go forward with the deal on the bases. "At the Summit of the Americas in
April 2009 you promised to foster a 'new sense of partnership' between
the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere," the letter
states. "But your Administration has yet to address the grave concerns
expressed by national leaders throughout Central and South America and
the Caribbean regarding the U.S.-Colombia military base agreement."

By signing this bases agreement, and by equivocating over the coup in
Honduras, Obama has sent ominous signals to Latin America.

"Obama has not renounced the policies of Bush," Robledo says.
"Speaking in economic and military terms, on the fundamental issues, the
similarities between Bush and Obama are bigger than the differences.
Obama has not produced a change."