U.S. Military Sites Set to Replace Plan Colombia

By John Lindsay-Poland, FOR Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, July 15, 2009

The United States is negotiating for the use of five military facilities in Colombia, in an agreement whose objectives include "filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia," according to sources in Washington and Bogotá cited by an explosive article published July 1 in the weekly Cambio magazine.

If such an agreement is reached, it could constitute an end run around the struggles waged for years by human rights, religious, peace, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, women's, and youth groups to demilitarize U.S. policy in Colombia.

The agreement would establish U.S. military operations for at least ten years on five sites -- at Palanquero, Puerto Salgar; Apiay, Meta; and Malambo (all air force bases); and in Cartagena and Malaga Bay (both naval bases). "Unlike the agreement for the U.S. military presence in Manta, the agreement at its start does not limit its application to counternarcotics operations in the Pacific, but extends to the Caribbean, and also includes assistance in the fight against terrorism -- that is, against the guerrillas," Cambio said.

The U.S. negotiators, the magazine says, "have made it known that even if they won't interfere in the exercise of command by Colombian officers on the bases, they will ensure the autonomy of U.S. military forces when operations go beyond Colombia's borders." So apart from U.S. soldiers' involvement in the Colombian army's decades-long counterinsurgency war, Colombian foreign policy in the region will be held hostage to U.S. actions in other countries that may be undertaken from the bases.

A point under negotiation is whether the agreement would be automatically renewed after ten years, or require a new agreement, as Colombian negotiators reportedly want. Either way, U.S. use of the base would extend until after the Obama administration is gone from the White House. Some people liken changing U.S. policy to turning around an aircraft carrier, which takes a long time. In this case, the aircraft carrier is dropping its anchors.

Another sticky point is judicial immunity for U.S. soldiers and contractors, sought by Washington. "Immunity = Impunity" wrote one reader on the Cambio site.

The locations of the bases under negotiation raise further questions. None of them are on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, where aircraft from the Manta base patrolled for drug traffic -- supposedly with great success, reflecting how traffic has increased in the Pacific. Three of the bases are clustered near each other on the Caribbean coast, not far from existing U.S. military sites in Aruba and Curacao -- and closer to Venezuela than to the Pacific Ocean. Why are U.S. negotiators apparently forgoing Pacific sites, if counternarcotics is still part of the U.S. military mission? What missions "beyond Colombia's borders" are U.S. planners contemplating?

Annual funding requests for Plan Colombia, especially in the "Foreign Operations" bill, have been a space for debate about funding the Colombian military and are subject to conditions and reports on human rights. But funding for U.S. military activities in Colombia faces no such discussion. Even Colombia desk officers at the State Department don't know how much Defense Department money is spent in Colombia. And Congress exercises almost no direct oversight on the activities of U.S. military bases around the world -- with the exception of a couple high-profile sites like the detention center in Guantanamo Naval Station.

Moreover, Washington's and the U.S. military's priorities in Colombia are evolving. Congressional staffers have told us that Plan Colombia is scheduled to be reduced, and even many conservatives believe drug policy must change. The foreign aid budget approved by the House on July 9, which included $520 million for Colombia spending, zeroed out purchases of spray aircraft. It substantially cut other eradication programs from last year, although they still account for at least $80 million in military aid. The Malaga Bay naval base that hosts maritime interdiction operations received a boost in the bill.

But funding for military training and other non-drug war military aid -- that is, for counterinsurgency -- increased slightly (to $1.7 million and $60 million, respectively). The U.S. military budget will also likely include more than $100 million in aid to the war, not including $46 million requested for upgrades on the base in Palanquero.

The negotiations are set to conclude soon, since operations in Manta must cease by November, and U.S. officials have already indicated they will shut down operations there before September.

With an increasingly unpopular drug war and a president enamored with special operations, the establishment in Colombia of five U.S. military facilities for at least ten years, whose missions include counterinsurgency and transcend Colombian borders, would be the worst thing to happen to U.S. policy in the Andes since Plan Colombia began a decade ago. We invite you to work with us in mobilizing opposition to these negotiations.

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