council on foreign affairs

Amid UNASUR Summit, Brazil Likely to Emerge a Winner, With Colombia a Questionable Beneficiary

On August 28, the presidents of the members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – a supranational entity modeled after the European Union encompassing all of South America – convened in the Argentine resort city of Bariloche to discuss a range of regional security issues, though the uproar revolving around the recent Colombian-American basing deal eventually dominated the meeting.

The ten-year deal, which represented what could be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Obama administration, was completed on August 15 and allows the American military to utilize five Colombian airbases as well as two naval installations — one on the country’s Pacific coast and the other on the Caribbean. Under the terms of the accord, American military forces are to operate strictly within Colombian territory under an antinarcotics and antiterrorism mandate. Washington and Bogotá have both stated that the deal would merely update Plan Colombia, an existent military agreement between the two nations. Even before the deal was finalized, details of the negotiations had leaked and governments throughout the continent had expressed their concern and opposition.

Leading Up to the Summit

Despite a demonstrably ineffective tour earlier in August by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and American officials to allay concerns regarding the deal, a marked polarization has developed in the region among most of the governments, which seemed to divide themselves into three camps. On one end, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have at different times ferociously attacked the deal, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez claiming that the military bases accord amounts to a “declaration of war” against his Boliviarian Revolution and that they could serve as a launching pad for future American military actions across South America. In fact, a U.S. Air Mobility Command document titled Global En Route Strategy released in early April, and later obtained by Chávez, could serve to justify some of Chávez’s fears. This white paper states that the Palanquero airbase — one of the facilities included in the deal — has the potential to morph into a “cooperative security location” from which “mobility operations could be executed,” as “nearly half the continent can be covered by a giant C-17 (military transport) aircraft without refueling.” In other words, the airbase could potentially serve as a staging ground for operations by airborne expeditionary forces elsewhere in the hemisphere, potentially providing Washington with a means to project its coercive capacity at will in South America at some time in the future.
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