Concern at nature of US bases in Colombia


A NEWLY revealed US air force document has cast doubt on assurances by the US and Colombian governments that an agreement to give the US military access to bases in Colombia was solely for the purpose of combating that country’s drug-traffickers.

The document says one of the bases provides a “unique opportunity” for “conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America”, which it describes as a “critical region” under constant threat from “anti-US governments”.

The US-Colombian agreement, signed last Friday, gives the US military access to seven Colombian bases.

In the face of regional opposition to the deal, the US’s closest ally in South America has mounted a diplomatic offensive to assure neighbours that the US presence on Colombian soil is solely aimed at combating the country’s cocaine industry.

The South American country is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, which finances a decades-old left-wing insurgency.

“The agreement has no geopolitical or strategic connotation other than being more effective in the fight against drug trafficking,” said the country’s defence minister Gabriel Silva, during a visit to Washington last week. In a statement following the agreement’s signing, the US said all operations from the bases will be confined to Colombia.

But these assurances have been undermined by a US air force document found by the Colombian news weekly Semana.

Dated May 2009, it says that one of the bases, Palanquero, “provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America including CN [counter-narcotic] missions”.

Published on the US air force financial management and comptroller’s website, the document outlines the air force’s own rationale provided to US Congress when asking for $46 million (€30 million) to expand the facilities at Palanquero and goes far beyond that provided by the US and Colombian governments.

Justifying the request, the document says the base “provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics-funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters”.

Pro-government media in Venezuela say the document corroborates the claim of the country’s president and chief US critic in the region, Hugo Chávez, that the deal was motivated by the US’s desire to “dominate all South America” and not its decades-long “war on drugs”, which has had little impact on cocaine production in the region.

US critics of the country’s policy in South America say the air force document raises questions about the administration’s real motivation for signing the bases agreement.

“The [US] air force talks about all sorts of ‘full spectrum operations’ throughout South America, then they say ‘including counter-narcotic missions’ which obviously means counter-narcotic missions and more,” says George Withers of the Washington Office on Latin America, a US think tank on Latin American affairs.

“If nothing else, this document was given to congress as rationale as to why it should spend $46 million. So there are at least those in congress who believe this is what their money is going to buy. I think other countries should have more of an explanation of what it is that the US military intends by the phrase ‘full spectrum operations’ throughout South America,” says Mr Withers.

Brazil’s foreign ministry says it is analysing the US document and will raise its concerns at the next meeting of Unasur, the regional union of South American governments.

Brazil had previously expressed unhappiness at the agreement but dropped its initial objections after Colombian president Álvaro Uribe and US officials went to Brazil to explain the deal to President Lula, da Silva who said he received assurances from Mr Uribe and US president Barack Obama that “the bases will look after the internal problems of Colombia”.

“It is difficult to imagine Lula would have given his support if it was not in the belief that the agreement was based on Colombia’s need to combat its drug-traffickers and guerrillas,” says Rubens Ricupero, former Brazilian ambassador to the US. “If the details of this US document are confirmed then the Brazilian reaction must be condemnation. Any country has the right to co-operation against drug trafficking and guerrillas. But no country has the right to interfere with the sovereignty of a third country.”

Colombia’s government has made no official response since Semana published the air force document. The US government statement on the agreement said it “ensures continued US access to specific agreed Colombian facilities in order to undertake mutually agreed-upon activities within Colombia”.

But critics of the deal say the wording is vague and could allow for broader interpretations over the deal’s 10-year span.

On Tuesday, The Irish Times asked the Pentagon and the US embassy in Bogotá to comment on the discrepancy between the US statement and the air force document found by Semana. By the time of going to press last night, no answer had been received other than an e-mail from the embassy to say a response was being co-ordinated with Washington.