Chávez stirs anxiety over US military deal in Colombia

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sought a region-wide censure of the pending agreement at a summit Monday in Quito, Ecuador. But other leaders were declined to condemn it outright.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Controversy over Colombia's decision to host an expanded US military presence loomed over a summit Monday of South American leaders, which President Álvaro Uribe refused to attend for fear of a diplomatic ambush.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, who says the increased US presence in neighboring Colombia is aimed at overthrowing his leftist government, had sought a region-wide censure of the pending military cooperation agreement in the summit's closing statement. But other leaders who met privately with Mr. Uribe on his damage-control tour of seven nations last week were less inclined to condemn it outright.

"Colombia ... wants to sink seven daggers into the heart of South America," Mr. Chávez said on arriving in Quito for the regional summit, referring to the access to seven Colombian bases the Americans would be granted under the deal, which has yet to be finalized.

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'Winds of war'?

The deal has heightened tensions in the region, especially with Venezuela and with Ecuador, which broke diplomatic relations with Bogotá last year after Colombia bombed a rebel camp in Ecuadorean territory. Mr. Chávez warned that the "winds of war are beginning to blow" with the US-Colombia deal.

On Sunday, he said a Colombian Army patrol had crossed the Orinoco River into Venezuelan territory. Colombia denied the incident. At the same time, Colombia announced Sunday it had detained 11 Ecuadorean military personnel inside its border and quickly handed them over to Ecuador.

The condemnation Venezuela seeks, however, will have to wait. The summit ended with a call for a statement hammered out by foreign ministers reportedly did not include the censure and rather called for a separate meeting for foreign and defense ministers to discuss the issue of the US use of Colombian bases later this month. A new summit of the region's leaders would follow, and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva suggested the United States be invited to the meeting to explain its intentions in South America.

Colombia: What's all the fuss?

Colombia says it doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"We don't think they should be concerned. When you look at the cooperation agreement, it's going to be practically the same agreement that we have under Plan Colombia," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said in an interview, referring to the more than $6 billion in US aid to Colombia over the past decade to fight drug trafficking and leftist insurgents. "It shouldn't be made such a big issue."

Brazil and Chile had originally called for the issue to be discussed at the meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), a fledgling group that aims to unify the continent. Though Uribe initially said it was a bilateral deal that did not need a green light from Colombia's neighbors, last week he visited seven heads of state in the region to explain the deal privately to each, trying to allay their fears of the agreement with the US. Peru's President Alan Garcia expressly supported the deal, while Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales condemned it. Others, while continuing to chafe over the idea of an expanded US military presence in the region, were more reluctant to meddle in Colombia's internal affairs.

Though the text of the deal has not been made officially public, Colombian officials have said it expressly prohibits operations against third countries and that all operations would be under the ultimate command of Colombian officers.

Katerine Mora, a cafe owner in Bogotá, says Colombia's neighbors are right to be concerned. "They have a reason to worry about [the increased US presence], because it could be a threat, but I also think they've exaggerated," she says, wiping down the counter. "That overreaction is making things worse."

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