The U.S. Air Force made its last flight from its military base in Manta, Ecuador in mid-July; it’s closing because of Ecuador’s concerns over arrogance and aggression. While the Pentagon abided by the eviction, it didn’t use the occasion to re-examine its missions in the region or correct its overreach. On the contrary, the military appears to be escalating its operations in the Andes.
President Barack Obama met with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in the Oval Office on June 30 for the first time. The presidents didn’t mention it in their press conference, but the two countries are negotiating an agreement for five military bases in Colombia that would replace not only the U.S. airbase in Ecuador, but much of the controversial Plan Colombia.
With bases in place for 10 years and more, and the secrecy that accompanies such installations, the proposed agreement would constitute an end-run around the struggles to make U.S. policy in Colombia and the region less militarized.
Colombia has been the hemisphere’s largest recipient of U.S. military aid since 2000, under Plan Colombia — more than $5 billion to date. Purportedly designed to halve the cocaine trade and subsequently refashioned to include fighting terrorism, the results of counter-drug programs have been a complete waste. There’s been no overall decline in land planted with coca, nor in the amount of cocaine available in the United States. “Street prices” have held steady or dipped lower than when Plan Colombia began during the Clinton administration.
On the counterterrorism side, while left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are weaker, right-wing terrorist paramilitaries acting in alliance with the military have been mainstreamed into the Colombian state and economy. Some 2.5 million Colombians have fled their homes since the plan began, most as a result of paramilitary forces violently taking control of valuable lands. Those lands would be focal areas of investment, if Washington ends up approving the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, an accord held up largely because of human rights concerns. The concerns include revelations that the armed forces, supported by U.S. aid, have killed 1,700 civilians since 2002, in acts that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions recently called “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.”
Yet current negotiators’ objectives for the base agreement include “filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia,” according to sources in Washington and Bogotá cited by an explosive article published in the weekly Cambio magazine.
With an increasingly unpopular drug war and presidents (both Uribe and Obama) enamored with special operations, the establishment in Colombia of five U.S. military facilities for at least a decade, whose missions include counterinsurgency and transcend Colombian borders, would be the worst thing to happen to U.S. policy in the Andes since Plan Colombia began a decade ago.
The U.S. installation in Manta — Pentagon officials refused to call it a “military base” — was initially one of more than five U.S. military sites established in El Salvador, Aruba, Curaçao, Puerto Rico, and Ecuador, when U.S. bases in Panama were shuttered in accordance with the Canal Treaties in 1999. Most U.S. military troops left Puerto Rico, after a mass nonviolent protest movement successfully closed the naval bombing range in Vieques in 2003. After initial high hopes for jobs and an impact on local drug trafficking, many Ecuadoreans turned against the U.S. base in Manta, and during his campaign in 2006 President Rafael Correa promised to close the base when its lease expires. And efforts are beginning in Holland to refuse renewal for the bases in the Dutch possessions of Aruba and Curaçao.
In light of these developments, and because the Pentagon is keeping the same missions — even expanding them — it isn’t surprising that it would bargain for as much real estate and privileges as it can get from Colombia.
The agreement would establish U.S. military operations for at least ten years on five sites — at Palanquero, Puerto Salgar; Apiay, Meta; and Malambo (all air force bases), and in Cartagena and Málaga Bay (both naval bases).
“Unlike the agreement for the U.S. military presence in Manta, the agreement at its start does not limit its application to counternarcotics operations in the Pacific, but extends to the Caribbean, and also includes assistance in the fight against terrorism — that is, against the guerrillas,” Cambio reported.
The U.S. negotiators, the magazine says, “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.” The White House budget request to fund work at Palanquero said it would be used for “contingency operations,” which can mean almost anything. So apart from U.S. soldiers’ involvement in the Colombian army’s decades-long counterinsurgency war, Colombian foreign policy in the region will be held hostage to U.S. actions in other countries that may be undertaken from the bases.
A point under negotiation is whether the agreement would be automatically renewed after 10 years, or require a new agreement, as Colombian negotiators reportedly want. Either way, U.S. use of the base would extend until after the Obama administration is gone from the White House. Some people liken changing U.S. policy to turning around an aircraft carrier, which takes a long time. In this case, the aircraft carrier is dropping its anchors.
Another sticky point is judicial immunity for U.S. soldiers and contractors, sought by Washington. In October 2007, two U.S. soldiers reportedly raped a 12-year-old Colombian girl at a U.S. facility inside a Colombian base, and were whisked away from Colombia rather than face trial there. But Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez says U.S. soldiers will continue to enjoy such immunity under the accord.
The locations of the bases under negotiation raise further questions. None of the air bases are on the Pacific coast, from where aircraft on the Manta base patrolled for drug traffic — supposedly with great success, reflecting how traffic has increased in the Pacific. Two of the bases are clustered near each other on the Caribbean coast, not far from existing U.S. military sites in Aruba and Curaçao – and closer to Venezuela than to the Pacific Ocean. Why are U.S. negotiators apparently forgoing Pacific air sites, if the drug war remains part of the U.S. military mission? What missions “beyond Colombia’s borders” are U.S. planners contemplating?
Annual funding requests for Plan Colombia under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, especially in the Foreign Operations bill, have provided a space for congressional debate about funding the Colombian military; this funding has been subject to conditions and required reports on human rights abuses. But funding for U.S. military activities in Colombia faces no such discussion, except for a cap on the number of troops and contractors (they can’t exceed 1,400). Even a Colombia desk officer at the State Department has told me he doesn’t know how much Defense Department money is spent in Colombia. And Congress exercises almost no direct oversight on the activities of U.S. military bases around the world — with the exception of a couple high profile sites like the Guantánamo detention center in Cuba.
Moreover, Washington’s and the U.S. military’s priorities in Colombia are evolving. Congressional staffers told me last year that Plan Colombia is slated to be reduced over time, and even many conservatives believe drug policy must change. The foreign aid budget approved by Congress earlier this month, which included more than $500 million for Colombia spending, most of it military, zeroed out purchases of aircraft used for spraying toxic herbicides on coca fields. It substantially cut other eradication programs from last year, although they still account for at least $80 million in military aid.
But funding for military training and other non-drug war military aid — that is, for counterinsurgency — increased slightly in bills the House and Senate approved this month. The Defense Department budget will also likely include more than $100 million in aid to the war, not including $46 million requested for upgrades on the base in Palanquero.
Some leaders are vocally opposing these negotiations, which may be concluded as soon as early August. They are incensed at the attempt to bypass the Colombian Constitution, Article 173 of which prohibits the presence of foreign troops except in transit, and then only after legislative approval. “It involves us in wars of the principal foreign power in the world, and it is an aggressive attitude against neighboring countries, which will go over very badly on the American continent,” says Democratic Pole Senator Jorge Robledo. “It is openly unconstitutional.”
Indeed, Bolivian President Evo Morales referred to Colombia’s decision to accept U.S. bases, calling it “treason,” and suggested banning foreign military bases from the region. Former Colombian Defense Minister Rafael Pardo said the deal is “like lending your apartment’s balcony to someone from outside the block so that he can spy on your neighbors.” The Washington Office on Latin America compared the base negotiations to “the disastrous rollout of the U.S. 4th Fleet, in which the United States, with little diplomatic preparation and without clear motives, announced that it was greatly enhancing its naval capabilities. Many, if not most, countries in Latin America took this as nothing less than a return to ‘gunboat diplomacy.'”
If the Obama administration truly wants to broaden relationships with South America and value respect for human rights, it should not create a fortress in Colombia in concert with the region’s worst rights violators, the Colombian army. Instead of treading the same path to nowhere in drug policy, it should use the closing of the Manta base as an opportunity to redirect resources toward drug treatment and prevention programs that actually work in reducing demand for illegal narcotics.
Congress, too, should take initiative, not just wait for the White House. Progressive U.S. lawmakers should build on the example of 242 members of the British Parliament (the U.K. is the second-largest donor to the Colombian military) who called for a complete cessation of military aid to Colombia earlier this month.
Together with concrete action to deny recognition to the Honduran coup leaders, a change in U.S. policy toward Colombia would be the clearest indicator that for the Americas, Obama means change, not more of the same.
JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND is co-director of the Latin America Program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He can be reached at johnlp[at]igc.org.
This article was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus.