Uproar In South America Over U.S. Base Deal

Anti-U.S. grafitti in Venezuela i i

A sign in Caracas, Venezuela, denounces the Colombian government's decision to allow the U.S. military to use some of its bases. Colombia has accused Venezuela of supporting anti-government rebels, known as the FARC. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-U.S. grafitti in Venezuela

A sign in Caracas, Venezuela, denounces the Colombian government's decision to allow the U.S. military to use some of its bases. Colombia has accused Venezuela of supporting anti-government rebels, known as the FARC.

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

There are angry rumblings in South America over a deal that would grant U.S. troops greater access to military bases in Colombia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he is prepared to break diplomatic relations with neighboring Colombia, claiming that the agreement "amounts to a declaration of war" against his socialist political movement, the Bolivarian Revolution.

The plan has also raised concerns with more moderate leaders in South America, including President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

Analysts say the U.S. should have been more sensitive to the potential political fallout.

Presidents from 12 countries will discuss the issue Friday at a meeting of UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations in Bariloche, Argentina.

Venezuela's Chavez and Colombia's Uribe i i

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were fairly cordial at this meeting in Caracas in April. Now Chavez is accusing Colombia of "an act of war" if it permits the U.S. military to use Colombian bases. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuela's Chavez and Colombia's Uribe

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were fairly cordial at this meeting in Caracas in April. Now Chavez is accusing Colombia of "an act of war" if it permits the U.S. military to use Colombian bases.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Colombian officials have said the 10-year agreement would allow the U.S. to station aircraft at up to five Colombian air bases, and to dock naval vessels at two Colombian ports, one on the Caribbean and the other on the Pacific.

Chavez has said that the agreement is part of a "strategic plan" by the U.S. to dominate the continent. Chavez said there is "no possibility for a return" of relations with Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe countered that Venezuela is meddling in his country's internal affairs. Uribe has accused Venezuela of helping to arm Marxist rebels in Colombia.

Continuation Of A Partnership

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that the plan is an extension of U.S. cooperation with Colombia on security matters "including narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, illicit smuggling of all types, and humanitarian and natural disasters."

"This is a continuation of a partnership that we believe, and the Colombians believe, has helped to make life better for the people of Colombia," Clinton said.

It would allow for as many as 800 American military personnel and 600 private contractors to operate from the bases, although U.S. officials have said it is unlikely that the U.S. would increase the mission from the current numbers: fewer than 280 military and just over 300 private contractors.

Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C, says there was no need for this deal to cause so much turmoil. "The United States isn't up to anything in South America," Shifter says. "That would imply a higher level of attention than we've been giving it."

Shifter says the administration should have been sensitive to the politics of the agreement and the impact it might have on other South American governments, especially Brazil. "They were unhappy about the way this was done," he says. "They're the power in South America, so any change in policy has to be thoroughly vetted with them."

Brazil Voices Concerns

Brazil's Lula da Silva invited President Obama to the UNASUR summit to explain the deal to South Americans. Brazilian officials say Lula da Silva told the American leader that many nations are concerned about a growing U.S. military presence in Colombia.

Obama declined the invitation, but administration officials said he looked forward to seeing Lula da Silva next month at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

The U.S. made the deal with Colombia after Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa refused to renew a 10-year agreement that allowed the U.S. to fly drug-interdiction missions from a base at Manta, in western Ecuador.

Correa, an ally of Venezuela's Chavez, taunted the U.S. by saying that his nation would renew the base agreement only if the U.S. would permit Ecuador to build a military base in Miami.

Can The U.S. Ease South American Concerns?

Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a group that promotes human rights and democracy, says countries such as Brazil have cause for concern about the agreement as long as they don't know exactly what is in it.

"The big question is what will they [the U.S. military] do out of these bases," Olson says. For example, she says, if the deal is not specifically limited to counter-narcotics, other cross-border activities, such as illegal immigration and arms trafficking, might be seized on as pretexts for military action.

Olson says there are at least two things the U.S. can do to calm the furor over the base deal. "They could make it clear that there will be some limitations on what the U.S. can do under this agreement, and they can be transparent and clear about what's in it," she says.

Shifter says the U.S. should address the question of whether it really needs the bases.

"The larger point is that this agreement is made within a framework of anti-drug policy that is overwhelmingly seen as a failure," Shifter says. "Is there a better way to fight drugs without just continuing the same policy that hasn't produced very much for decades? It would be great if [Friday's UNASUR] summit took that up."

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