Possible US-Colombia military deal raises regional tensions
Venezuela and Ecuador have strongly condemned the pending agreement, which would allow the US to use three bases for counternarcotics and counterinsurgency surveillance.
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Colombia tries to quell worries on controversial deal
Colombia, Washington's greatest ally in South America, has tried to assuage some fears by saying that under the agreement, which could be finalized by the beginning of August, US forces would not be authorized to launch operations against third countries from Colombian soil.
Colombian officials insist the current US troop cap of 1,400 soldiers and contractors would remain, and those troops would ultimately be under the command of the Colombian military.
Former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, a presidential hopeful in the 2010 elections, told the El Tiempo newspaper that the deal was "like lending your apartment's balcony to someone from outside the block so that he can spy on your neighbors."
A Senate committee has called for hearings on the agreement at the three bases that will be used in the deal, but the dates have not been set.
US officials have been tight-lipped. But one US official said even before formal talks began that he was "not going to lose any sleep" if an increased US military presence in Colombia irked its neighbors.
The agreement would not set up a US base in Colombia, but rather grant US forces the use of existing facilities. Five facilities in Colombia currently have a semipermanent US presence.
The counternarcotics surveillance operations that had been run out of Manta were "extremely important" for the fight against drugs, according to Myles Frechette, former ambassador to Colombia. Operations from Manta are credited with more than two-thirds of all the successful drug seizures in the eastern Pacific.
Mr. Isacson notes, however, that none of the Colombian airbases that would host surveillance aircraft would be near the Pacific Coast, which was the area covered by the Manta base.
And, under the deal, US operations would go beyond drug surveillance to include counterinsurgency and more.
"It's a cooperation agreement against drug trafficking, terrorism, and other crimes," Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez said. Colombian forces would gain access to "real-time intelligence" gathered by the US surveillance teams, said Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the Colombian armed forces.
Bargaining chip for free-trade agreement?
Colombia has been worried about the shrinking US aid for Plan Colombia, a counternarcotics plan that has provided about $600 million per year since 2000. "Any military help, from anywhere, will always be welcomed by Colombia," says Sen. Jairo Clopatofsky, who sits on Colombia's Senate defense and foreign relations committee.
But he chastised the Colombian government for negotiating the deal secretly, saying lawmakers should have been kept abreast of the negotiations, which began in February.
Colombian critics say the deal is an affront to the sovereignty of the nation.Center-left Senator Gustavo Petro, another presidential hopeful, said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had agreed to the US presence in the hopes of finally winning approval of a free-trade agreement with the United States. "In exchange for a free trade agreement, Uribe decided to hand over the country's sovereignty," he said.
Although Isacson says he doubts that congressional Democrats who have opposed the trade deal on human rights concerns will be swayed by Colombia's "goodwill" gesture of the bases, "it will likely be one more argument the Colombians will use in their lobby packets."