This picture shows an American soldier in the base of Manta in Ecuador.

Why Colombia should say YES to the bases

Military cooperation from the United States in Colombian bases is complicated diplomatically, but necessary to fight guerrilla and drug-dealing groups.

In a perfect world, it would be best to live without American military cooperation on Colombian soil. Better yet, it would be preferable to live without a single U.S. soldier in the country. But in the real world, the drug-dealing business, the guerrilla and other criminal groups threaten Colombian democracy. The state does not have the capacity to confront this challenge on its own.

United States has been an unconditional ally for the Colombian government in the battle against these powerful enemies, who have created a true blood bath in the last decades. In the past 10 years, the United States has given Colombia more than 6 billion dollars in military aid and even though it has been essential in weakening the FARC and other drug dealing groups, the problems are still there.

With the United States leaving Manta in Ecuador, and the imminent decrease of the resources sent through Plan Colombia, the Colombian government saw a golden opportunity to strengthen the military alliance with North America and vanish the criminal groups once and for all.

That is why a confidential negotiation began this February in Washington. It will allow the United States to use seven military bases in Colombian territory, in exchange for increasing support and logistics in the local operations against drug dealers and guerrilla groups. The agreement, yet to be signed and finalized, is the reason Colombia is currently enmeshed in a diplomatic tornado all throughout the region. It even forced President Alvaro Uribe to undertake a diplomatic whirlwind tour through South America to explain the agreement to the region’s presidents.

Bluntly, the country gains vital intelligence capabilities with the deal, crucial at this time. The information it will receive will be key for the final battles with the illegal armed groups. But all is not joy. The agreement creates three potentially delicate issues. The first is the fine print included in its content. The second one deals with the communication flaws and perception problems about American military presence it has created. The third one, a geo-strategic debate with Brazil, an emerging power, at the head.

The fine print

The agreement has not been publicly released, so it is difficult to analyze its content. Yet, the important points have been discussed. The bases will not be American, they will be Colombian. All the commanders will be Colombian. They will control the security and will have full access to the entire perimeter of the military bases. This is a key difference with other bases like Manta, in Ecuador. Also, the rules that govern Plan Colombia will not be modified. The United States will not be able to have more than 600 soldiers and 800 contractors, which is what they can currently deploy in Colombia. These will not directly participate in the operations.

Another widely debated point is the number of bases that will be used by the American military. They were only interested in one: Palanquero, located in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca province (central Colombia), because they saw it as replacement for Manta. It allows them to cover the Pacific Ocean, especially the drug-dealing routes. For Colombia, monitoring the Pacific is crucial. Thanks to American intelligence, this year alone they have seized 17 cocaine shipments en route to the United States. Without the information, all theses shipments would have passed unnoticed by the authorities.
The question that remains is: why does the agreement include seven bases? The other six bases were requested by the Colombian government. In some—like Apiay and Larandia—American presence is not a novelty. Other army bases, like Tolemaida, and naval bases, like Cartagena, will only be used if needed. Many bases were included because the Colombian Military Forces seek resources to improve their installations.

There are, however, critical aspects for both countries in the agreement: the type of operations that can be launched from the bases, the authorization mechanisms and the issue of sovereignty. The deal clearly states that operations on third countries are not permitted, although they can take place in international waters. The Colombian Constitution bans the transit of foreign troops and this would, in theory, dismiss any hostile operation. Nevertheless, the Awac and C-17 airplanes have continental reach. They are one of the main concerns voiced by Colombia’s neighbors, who fail to realize these planes have already been in Manta, performing without problems all throughout the region.

The agreement deals with the fight against drug-dealing and terrorism. Venezuela is obviously concerned, since it has recently been described as protector of the FARC guerrilla group by important newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The deal also states that all operations must be approved by both nations; Colombia has the right to reject operations if it considers that the Pentagon’s requests violate Colombian law or national sovereignty. The immunity of the American soldiers is another sensitive issue yet to be settled.

In a few words, the fundamental points of the agreement do not change the military dynamic of the past decade in Colombia, nor do they differ dramatically from the Pentagon’s current operation in Manta. The same will be done, but now with more resources.

A matter of perception

The second problem that erupted with the bases scandal has to do with perception and communication. Perception because what the bases mean to the Colombian government is different to their international meaning, especially within the region. For Colombia, there will not be an American base in Colombian soil. Rather, the agreement strengthens military cooperation between the two countries. For the nation’s neighbors, it’s all about American military bases on Colombian soil. It’s the empire’s presence in Latin America. While Colombia and the United States understand it as a deal between friendly countries that will allow them to hunt down drug-dealers and armed groups, for the other countries it’s Uncle Sam peeking and spying on them, violating their national defense. A hostile gesture.

On top of this, the Colombian government followed the wrong communication strategy. It denied any possibility of American military bases in Colombia. Then, when the agreement found its way to the press, the government’s public statement was unclear and confusing. The information has been inexact and incomplete. First, they said the agreement included three bases, then five, and then seven. Because of this, President Alvaro Uribe himself has had to embark on a whirlwind diplomatic tour, visiting nearly every country in the region to explain the deal.


The last problem has to do with the balance of power within the region. In other words, Brazil’s reaction. Everybody expected Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa to deliver a populist, anti-imperialist speech blaming Colombia. But, although nobody expected a congratulatory note from Brazil, the government wasn’t expecting such an adverse response either.

Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Secretary, said the bases had created “a new situation”, and went on to say the three Venezuelan rocket launchers found in a FARC guerilla camp were trivial when compared to the military bases.

What Brazil really expected was a significant decrease in American military presence in the region, especially when they were leaving Manta in Ecuador. Meanwhile Brazil, an emerging country, has been increasing it’s military arsenal heavily. In 2005 Lula’s government approved a far reaching policy of regional defense with the pretext of guarding the Amazon. The American military bases in Colombia are, just as Amorim stated, unexpected and alter the power equilibrium in the region.

Nobody in Brazil, or almost any other country in the region, believes the American’s military display is destined solely to Colombia’s internal conflict. It is evident that the United States has global geopolitical interests. In a Pentagon document titled Global en route Strategy, it is clear that the Americans want to change the military model they use in all the bases around the world (more than 100) since the Cold War, fixed and static. They are searching for more flexible models based on cooperation with other governments instead of solider deployments.

The key word is deterrence. Colombia wants to strengthen its military capabilities to face the internal conflict, but it also wants to deter the neighboring countries, whose friendly attitude towards the guerrilla groups has been evident. The guerrilla issue has become a source of permanent conflict with Venezuela and Ecuador. Colombia can’t keep up with Venezuela’s arms race but it definitely can send a powerful message with the backing of the United States.

At the same time, the Americans want to dissuade some governments of the region who are entering military agreements with Russia, China and Iran. And Brazil, as the regional leader, wants to deter the Americans, make them understand this isn’t their backyard.
Although nothing changes for Colombia with the military bases agreement in the short term, it does create a new scenario for other countries. In the long run, nobody knows what the new puzzle will look like. All we know is that the bases will play an essential role.
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