A pending agreement that would give the US military broad access to several Colombian bases is rattling already shaky relations in the Andean region, where Venezuela "froze" relations with Colombia Tuesday.
The agreement, which is in the last stages of negotiation, would allow the US to run surveillance from three different air bases in the central Andes for both counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela declared the agreement an affront to his country, adding that the deal was "opening the doors to people who constantly attack us and are preparing new aggressions."
Ecuadoran Security Minister Miguel Carvajal said that "increased military tensions" between Colombia and Ecuador were a possibility. The US lost surveillance capability when it ended flights out of a base at Manta, Ecuador, after that country refused to renew the lease.
FARC ties to Venezuela, Ecuador?
The United States and Colombia have increasingly voiced concerns over the use of Venezuela as a transit route for Colombian drugs on their way to markets in the United States and Europe, and over drug-trafficking vessels using Pacific routes that dip into Ecuadorean territory to avoid detection.
Colombian and US officials have also fretted over the alleged ties between Mr. Chavez's and Mr. Correa's leftist governments and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel army of about 10,000 fighters mostly financed by proceeds from the drug trade.
Tensions between Colombia and its two neighbors reached their peak in March 2008, after Colombia attacked a rebel base just over the border in Ecuador. Computer files found in the raid uncovered e-mails and internal communications that Colombia says prove the friendly relations.
Ecuador broke off relations with Colombia, which have yet to be restored. And Venezuela, after ordering troops to the border with Colombia in solidarity with Ecuador, only recently sent a new ambassador to Bogotá.
On Monday, the Colombian government revealed that antitank weapons purchased by Venezuela 20 years ago were discovered in a raid on a separate FARC camp. Angered by the implicit accusation that he was arming the rebels, Chavez recalled his ambassador to Bogotá, "froze" relations with its neighbor, and threatened to take measures that would hurt bilateral trade.
"The wounds are still raw" from the 2008 diplomatic crisis, says Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "If the idea is to reduce tensions in the region, this [the US-Colombian military agreement] does the opposite," he says.
Chavez sees the mounting accusations of leniency toward drug trafficking and chumminess with the FARC as an attempt to build a case for a US-led invasion. He said last week the US Army has "plans to invade" his country from Colombia, where "a Yankee military force" is amassing.
On Monday, Chavez signed a military agreement with Russia to buy enough armored vehicles and tanks to double the nation's inventory.
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."