Reporter’s Podcast: U.S.-Colombia Military Deal Raises Hackles at Summit

An agreement that would give U.S. troops access to bases in Colombia stirred fiery opposition at a summit of South American leaders over the weekend.

NewsHour senior producer of foreign affairs Michael Mosettig gets two perspectives in this Reporter’s Podcast.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: The face-off was familiar at Friday’s summit of Latin American leaders in Argentina: Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe versus Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his two allies, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. In the middle, was Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The object of the fight this time was an agreement between Uribe and the Obama administration that would give the U.S. military access to seven bases in Colombia to help that country in its war on narcotics traffickers. The agreement also would increase to 800 the number of American military that could be stationed in Colombia. The current number is slightly more than 200.

The bases deal, still to be signed by the U.S. and Colombia, has produced vastly different interpretations of its intent: Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor at Pomona College in California, says it worries many in Latin America, not only the left.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS, professor at Pomona College: The principal concerns that Latin American countries have is that the U.S. presence in Colombia is expanding a military role in the region that many had hoped had been a thing of the past. Latin America has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years and has begun to chart its own independent course.

And the idea that the U.S. would be able to or could establish, or would establish a total of five new bases, or seven new bases, in Colombia is a great concern. It changes the balance of power in the region. And this is not just being expressed by Hugo Chavez or (Rafael) Correa in Ecuador and Venezuela, it’s being expressed by all the countries in South America because again they see this as a continuation of an older U.S. policy that they had hoped run its course.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: But Roger Noriega, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States during the Bush administration, says those concerns are overdrawn.

AMBASSADOR ROGER NORIEGA: I think they’re reading far too much into this. Colombia and the United States have worked together for a decade in very close collaboration. The Colombians themselves have reached out to their neighbors, seeking more support to combat narco-trafficking, narco-guerilla situation that affects Colombia very acutely. They’ve asked for support, they’ve asked for help. They’ve been open in requesting assistance from their neighbors. And frankly, the neighbors have not responded in a particularly constructive and helpful way for the most part.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: At the summit, which goes by the Spanish acronym UNASUR, Uribe had few allies. Leading the attack on the U.S,-Colombia agreement was Venezuela’s President Chavez, who said the U.S. was planning a war on Latin America.

ROGER NORIEGA: I think that unfortunately, President Chavez uses his petro-diplomacy and uses some of the ideological leverage that he has in Latin America to criticize Colombia and to try to isolate Colombia. But I think that responsible countries, no matter what they say in public, will recognize that Colombia has a right to defend itself and that they should do what they can to support the efforts of Colombia to impose the rule of law against these irregular forces and that hopefully these other countries will do more to deny the use of their territory to these narco-groups that are attacking Colombia.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: But Tinker-Salas said many Latin countries see a real threat in the accord.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: There is a concern among the Latin American countries that conflict can escalate, conflict in Colombia could spill over, as it did in March of 2008, when the Colombian troops followed into Ecuador, or actually invaded Ecuadoran territory, attempting to locate FARC guerillas, so there’s a fear that the military presence would lead to conflict and might also lead to an arms race. I mean if Colombia is receiving new military weapons than Colombia and Ecuador would feel obliged to respond. And then that sets off a policy in the region that many would see as counterproductive.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: The United States did not participate in the summit at a Patagonian resort, but some analysts think the Obama administration may be backtracking on its commitment to more multi-lateral diplomacy by making the bi-lateral arrangement with Colombia.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: They see a coup in Honduras, and they see an expansion of U.S. military presence in Colombia. And those are all grave concerns, because rather than seek an understanding, rather than seek dialogue, rather than seek a different relationship or the continued promise of a different relationship, for many in Latin America, this is a continuation of rather a U.S. imperial role toward the region, one in which the U.S. dictates policy without engaging the countries of the region, without engaging in consultation, and that’s the fear.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: Again, Noriega said that was an over-reaction.

ROGER NORIEGA: I think the U.S. and Colombian authorities have been open now about the plans, and are explaining what the purposes are, what the modalities will be and what the footprint of the U.S. security forces will be in Colombia. So I think that neighbors should be reassured by this information and they’ll understand that the presence will actually enhance their relative security and stability.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: The summit ended with a statement asserting that the sovereignty of every Latin nation should be respected. President Lula of Brazil helped produce the compromise. His increasingly assertive role in hemisphere diplomacy has drawn mixed reviews, including a critical editorial in the Economist, which asserted he should take a stronger stand against the autocratic tendencies of such neighbors as Chavez. But Tinker-Salas said the Brazilian leader was effectively speaking for the hemisphere, especially in his request for a meeting of Latin leaders with President Obama:

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: He said we don’t want to meet with third-tier diplomats, we want to meet with the president of the U.S. That’s unprecedented. That’s unprecedented that Latin American countries are demanding to meet with the U.S. president to have him explain why there’s a need for other military bases in the region.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: Ambassador Noriega disagreed.

ROGER NORIEGA: I would have liked to see President Lula play a constructive role in explaining to all of its neighbors that South Americans need to step forward to help Colombia and not to criticize things that Colombia is doing to support its own national security, because the threat of narco-guerillas and narco-terrorism is a transnational threat and will impact naturally all of Colombia’s neighbors. So they all share a responsibility in responding to that threat, and I wish that would be the message of support and solidarity that would come from South America and not a criticism of what Colombia is doing to protect its own security and sovereignty.

MICHAEL MOSETTIG: As of now, no meeting is on the schedule between President Obama and Latin American leaders. But Mr. Obama and President Lula will have a chance to talk directly at the United Nations and the Pittsburgh meeting of the G20 nations later this month.

This is Michael Mosettig for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.