Why are we in Colombia?

There has been a pretty steady drumbeat of news coming out of Latin America recently surrounding the possibility of war between Venezuela and Colombia. In most of this media coverage, the blame here has been placed pretty squarely on Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, who is portrayed as a possible warmonger against our valiant ally in the War on Drugs (TM), Colombia. However, recent developments have raised the somewhat alarming prospect of further destabilization in the region, and, not surprisingly, the US seems to be behind it all.

The story is fairly straightforward–the US and Colombia have signed a new agreement that would expand the ability of the US to station forces on Colombian territory, and the range of what possible military operations might be. The reporting of this in the mainstream media has been pretty low key. A search of the index of The New York Times comes up with the following, which is simply an AP story that we’re told appeared on page A8 on 31 October–and this is the entire story:

In a private ceremony, the American ambassador, William Brownfield, and three Colombian ministers signed an agreement on Friday to expand Washington’s military presence. Officials have said it will increase United States access to seven Colombian bases for 10 years without increasing the number of personnel beyond the cap of 1,400 specified by American law. Although details were not immediately released, a government communiqué said the pact “respects the principles of equal sovereignty, territorial integrity and nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states.”

The Washington Post story, while a bit longer, looks as if it were cribbed from some State Department press release:

U.S., Colombia sign agreement on bases

In a private, low-key ceremony in Bogota on Friday, the U.S. ambassador and three Colombian ministers signed a pact to expand Washington’s military presence in Colombia, a deal that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has called a threat to the region’s security.

Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez said the pact restricts U.S. military operations to Colombian territory — alluding to fears expressed by leftist regional leaders that the deal would make Colombia a base for asserting U.S. power in South America.

Although details were not immediately released, a government communique said the pact “respects the principles of equal sovereignty, territorial integrity and nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states.”

Officials have said it will increase U.S. access to seven Colombian bases for 10 years without boosting the number of service personnel and contractors beyond the cap of 1,400 specified by U.S. law.

OK, so this is not the first time a major international development has been pretty much ignored by the US media. But given what’s been coming out of the alternate media on the issue, you would think that the media outlets that brought us Judith Miller and Dana Milbank would be paying a bit more attention to a development that could backfire dramatically on the US.

Alternet, thankfully, did a considerable drill-down into what’s going on, and their full story, which appeared on 16 November, is worth a read. Because if the Alternet story is true, then the major particulars reported in the Times and the Post are almost certainly wrong. And you would think the Times and the Post might want to know that. The Alternet story, by Moira Birss, pulls no punches:

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.”

Gosh, I wonder what that might refer to? This really does seem to be a return to Bananarepublicland, especially since the Colombian government has ignored internal judicial guidance that the treaty needs the approval of the Colombian congress.

The fullest discussion of all of this, and its implications, can be found in today’s Independent in a story by Hugh O’Shaughnessy whose headline pretty much says it all: US builds up its bases in oil-rich South America. The story begins badly, and goes downhill from there:

The United States is massively building up its potential for nuclear and non-nuclear strikes in Latin America and the Caribbean by acquiring unprecedented freedom of action in seven new military, naval and air bases in Colombia. The development – and the reaction of Latin American leaders to it – is further exacerbating America’s already fractured relationship with much of the continent.

How does it go downhill? Here:

And, this being US foreign policy, a tell-tale trail of oil is evident. Brazil had already expressed its unhappiness at the presence of US naval vessels in its massive new offshore oilfields off Rio de Janeiro, destined soon to make Brazil a giant oil producer eligible for membership in OPEC.

The fact that the US gets half its oil from Latin America was one of the reasons the US Fourth Fleet was re-established in the region’s waters in 2008. The fleet’s vessels can include Polaris nuclear-armed submarines – a deployment seen by some experts as a violation of the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons from the continent.

Does everyone else know that there may be nuclear-armed submarines in something called “The Fourth Fleet” patrolling Brazilian waters? And that the Brazilians are unhappy with it? Was I the only one who missed that? And it should come as no surprise that the rabid Christians running the US Air Force, not content with the one or two wars the US is already losing, seem to be behind this:

Much of the new US strategy was clearly set out in May in an enthusiastic US Air Force (USAF) proposal for its military construction programme for the fiscal year 2010. One Colombian air base, Palanquero, was, the proposal said, unique “in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from… anti-US governments”.

The proposal sets out a scheme to develop Palanquero which, the USAF says, offers an opportunity for conducting “full-spectrum operations throughout South America…. It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half the continent if un-refuelled”. (“Full-spectrum operations” is the Pentagon’s jargon for its long-established goal of securing crushing military superiority with atomic and conventional weapons across the globe and in space.)

Palanquero could also be useful in ferrying arms and personnel to Africa via the British mid-Atlantic island of Ascension, French Guiana and Aruba, the Dutch island off Venezuela. The US has access to them all.

The USAF proposal contradicted the assurances constantly issued by US diplomats that the bases would not be used against third countries. These were repeated by the Colombian military to the Colombian congress on 29 July. That USAF proposal was hastily reissued this month after the signature of the agreement – but without the reference to “anti-US governments”. This has led to suggestions of either US government incompetence, or of a battle between a gung-ho USAF and a State Department conscious of the damage done to US relations with Latin America by its leaders’ strong objections to the proposal.

The close of the article is not exactly comforting:

Many Colombians are upset at the agreement between the US and Colombia that governs – or, perhaps more accurately, fails to govern – US use of Palanquero and the other six bases. The Colombian Council of State, a non-partisan constitutional body with the duty to comment on legislation, has said that the agreements are unfair to Colombia since they put the US and not the host country in the driving seat, and that they should be redrafted in accordance with the Colombian constitution.

The immunities being granted to US soldiers are, the council adds, against the 1961 Vienna Convention; the agreement can be changed by future regulations which can totally transform it; and the permission given to the US to install satellite receivers for radio and television without the usual licences and fees is “without any valid reason”.

President Uribe, whose studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, were subsidised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has chosen to disregard the Council of State.

This is like a bad dream. Or anorther one, on top of all those other bad dreams we’ve had to endure this past decade. The War on Drugs (TM), which was lost long ago, is now being used as a subterfuge to expand US military activities in Colombia, whose government routinely wipes out members of indigenous tribes, and whose human rights record is in the same league as that of Cuba. The US Air Force, a collection of Bible-thumpers constantly on the lookout for someplace new to bomb and someone new to terrorize, is salivating at the prospect of these agreements so much it couldn’t keep its mouth shut. And Obama has apparently signed something that can only lead to some sort of further catastrophe for American relations with other Latin American governments. Brazil achieves a milestone this year–its trade with China will exceed its trade with the US. And Brazil isn’t alone in the region. One gets the nasty feeling that what the US can’t keep through trade and economics, it’s prepared to try to keep through brute force. Great. And are Obama and Clinton being led by the nose here? Frankly, neither of them is stupid, so I’m assuming the worst here–that the US government knows full well what it’s doing. As usual, though, it will be totally unprepared for the blowback.

2 replies »

  1. Ya gotta love the long-term, fully-developed thought process that is US foreign policy…and the belief that being able to drop bombs equals “full spectrum dominance”.

    And if memory of a situation that i do not follow closely serves me correctly, there have been some pretty serious charges of corruption leveled against family members/close associates of Uribe. That’s apparently a problem when it happens in Afghanistan but not so much of a problem in Colombia.

    But hey, what’s one more violent mess more or less? We know that the US can’t win a war anymore, and so does the rest of the world.