Washington's best ally in the region, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, has agreed to host the Pentagon's narcotics-interdiction flight operations. Those operations were recently kicked out of Ecuador by leftist President Rafael Correa after a 10-year contract for use of the Manta air base came up for renewal.
The new plan, which has been quietly negotiated, is causing a storm across South America at a time of stepped-up arms deals and hushed military contacts involving not just the United States but Russia and Iran as well. News of an expanding US military presence was always going to roil South America, regional analysts say, but they add that the Obama administration could have avoided some of the reaction by practicing something it preaches: transparency.
"It's still the US, it's still Latin America, and the US military in Latin America is still a very sensitive topic," says Michael Shifter, director of the Andean program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But the administration could have avoided the brouhaha by being up-front and communicating with other governments in the region beforehand."
The US interdiction center, operated by more than 200 American personnel, flew its last surveillance flights out of Ecuador's Manta air base last month. President Correa's decision to evict the Americans was hailed by the leftist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, as a victory for South American sovereignty and independence from American imperialism.
Now, President Chávez is blasting the plan to relocate the drug operations to Colombia – a neighbor whose relations with Venezuela have seriously deteriorated in recent years. He sees it as a belligerent and destabilizing move.
The stepped-up American military presence in Colombia "could be the start of a war in South America," Chávez told reporters Wednesday. "We're talking about the Yanquis, the most aggressive nation in human history."
In the meantime, Colombia has recently found additional evidence that Chávez's government has contacts with and provides occasional harbor to Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels, who profit from the drug trade.
The US already has about 300 military personnel in Colombia under the decade-old antinarcotics cooperation agreement called Plan Colombia. According to the agreement, the number of US military personnel in Colombia cannot top 800. US officials have refused to comment on what they say are ongoing negotiations, but the new plan is said to include the use of several bases in Colombia and additional arms sales.
Bolivian President Evo Morales – a Chávez ally who last year kicked out US narcotics agents – said this week that the US plan "isn't against drug trafficking, it's against the region." He added, "Our duty is to reject it."
It should have surprised no one, Mr. Shifter says, that the US would look for a new home for the antidrug operations – any more than the reactions should have come as a shock. But, he says, the tensions suggest the progress yet to be made.
"If governments are serious about reducing tensions," he says, "the response now should be, 'Let's use this controversy to get a full accounting of all of the relationships in the region. Let's do this across the board.' "
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