Presidents Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, left, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil met for more than two hours this week.
August 8, 2009
Colombia President, on South America Tour, Defends U.S. Military Role
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
BRASÍLIA —President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia wrapped up a seven-country tour of South America this week seeking to calm skeptical neighbors about a proposal to allow an increased American military presence in Colombian territory.
On Thursday, Mr. Uribe met for more than two hours here with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who requested guarantees from Mr. Uribe that the military cooperation with the United States would not spill over Colombia’s borders, Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, told reporters.
Mr. Uribe took to the road on his diplomatic offensive this week after some countries — including Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua — denounced the plans to allow for increased American troop levels. Others, like Brazil, expressed concern about the agreement, which Colombian and American officials insisted would only extend and formalize a continuing counternarcotics program between the countries.
The concerns — and Mr. Uribe’s hastily organized diplomatic road show — underscore contrasting views about threats to the region’s security. For the Colombian president, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, remain the primordial threat, not only to Colombia but to the entire region, said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington.
“Other governments don’t quite see it that way,” Mr. Shifter said. “Most are sympathetic to Uribe, but they view the FARC as essentially Colombia’s problem. They are more worried about any decisions regarding U.S. military presence in the region, which remains a highly sensitive issue that continues to arouse suspicions.”
Those sentiments were on display this week as Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, said that the move amounted to preparations for an invasion of Venezuela by a “Yankee military force.”Mr. da Silva said last week that the proposal was unsettling and that leaders in the region should have been contacted beforehand. He also reiterated his concerns about the Fourth Fleet, which the United States reactivated last year in the Americas, and its ships’ ability to range over waters where Brazil would be developing large deep-water oil fields.
Mr. Amorim said little about the substance of the talks on Thursday with the Colombian leader, which he said were continuing. “Our concerns were expressed, and Uribe clarified for us what he felt he should about the agreement with the United States,” Mr. Amorim said.
Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, said last week that countries in the region were “unnerved” by the plan to increase the number of American troops and that the issue should be addressed at Monday’s meeting in Ecuador of the Union of South American Nations. Mr. Uribe does not plan to attend the meeting, Mr. Amorim confirmed. Ecuador and Colombia broke off diplomatic relations last year after Colombia’s military assassinated a rebel leader of the FARC in Ecuadorean territory.
After meeting with Mr. Uribe, the presidents of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay said that Colombia’s sovereignty should be respected. Peru’s leader, Alan García, who is allied with the United States in its efforts to curb narco-trafficking, emphatically supported the Colombian proposal.
But other leaders criticized Colombia. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, said Mr. Uribe needed to “reduce the conflict in the region” and that “the installation of the bases didn’t fit with that objective,” the Argentine state news agency reported.
Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president and a staunch ally of Mr. Chávez’s, called it a threat to the region and said he would press for a resolution at the Ecuador meeting to veto the presence of foreign bases in the region.
But the strongest reaction came from Venezuela and Ecuador, which have maintained tense relations with their neighbor since last year. Mr. Chávez, already fuming over reports claiming that Venezuelan arms had ended up in the hands of FARC rebels, withdrew his diplomats from Bogotá last week.
On Wednesday he said his government planned to buy “several tank battalions” to boost its defenses in light of Colombia’s enhanced military cooperation with the United States. The Venezuelan leader also said he would halt imports of some 10,000 cars from Colombia — purchases he said would shift to Argentina and Brazil.
“Just when it seemed that relations between Colombia and Venezuela couldn’t get any worse, they have reached another low point,” Mr. Shifter said.
Some analysts said Mr. Uribe was forced to defend his negotiations with the United States because of confusion in the region about whether he had agreed to allow the establishment of American bases in Colombian territory, which is not part of the proposal. The proposal instead calls for a potential increase in American troop levels at at least five Colombian-controlled bases.
The United States has been negotiating the increase of military operations in Colombia in recent weeks in light of Ecuador’s decision to end a decade-long agreement allowing American surveillance planes to operate from a base on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast.
While American antidrug surveillance flights would sharply increase in Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine, the agreement would not allow American personnel to take part in combat operations in the country.
The United States, which currently has about 250 members of the military in Colombia, would continue to be limited to 800 military personnel and 600 military contractors, said Charles Luoma-Overstreet, a State Department spokesman.
Colombia has already received more than $5 billion in military and antidrug aid from the United States this decade.
“There is no military offensive nature to this,” Mr. Luoma-Overstreet said. “This is about assisting the government of Colombia to combat transnational crime and narco-trafficking within their borders.”