Regional Leaders Blast Colombia Over U.S. Alliance
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The United States is deepening its role in Colombia's war against Marxist rebels and drug traffickers. Under a new accord, the U.S. gets access to seven military bases. American aircraft and servicemen will be deployed on at least two of those bases. The Colombians say the accord will help them. Across Latin America, the plan has generated alarm. Presidents from as far away as Argentina criticize what they call an expanded and unwelcome American presence. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Puerto Salgar, Colombia.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
JUAN FORERO: Air traffic controllers at the German Olano Air Base here in central Colombia prepare planes for takeoff. Moments later, Colombian fighters take to the sky.
(Soundbite of jet engine)
FORERO: Since 1933, German Olano has been a busy air base, the country's most important, one coveted by American military planners. There are transport planes and surveillance aircraft, a 10,000-foot runway for the biggest of planes.
(Soundbite of hangar door opening)
FORERO: And hangars where mechanics keep Colombia's Air Force active in this country's long drug war. Now German Olano is about to get a lot busier. Under a soon-to-be signed agreement, American AWACs and P-3 surveillance planes will be based here, along with American pilots, mechanics, mission planners and commanders, perhaps as many as 200 people. Brigadier General Guillermo Leon is the commander here. Standing at the top of the control tower, he points to a vast field of green, a field that will soon be paved over.
Brigadier General GUILLERMO LEON (Commander, German Olano Air Base): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: The fence you see, the general says, will be moved, and a new tarmac will be added. There'll be an operations building and a new control tower. General Leon says the American planes will fly over Colombia and the Pacific, searching out drug trafficking aircraft and boats.
Brig. Gen. LEON: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: He also stresses that the base will not be an American one, and neither will the other bases where the U.S. will have access. Here in German Olano, General Leon says, he'll be in command, and all American missions will need Colombian approval. American officials say the U.S. already uses Colombian installations and that its planes already fly over Colombia, that this agreement simply makes formal a string of old agreements with Colombia. That's not the way President Hugo Chavez in neighboring Venezuela sees it.
President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Colombia is opening its home to an enemy of Venezuela, the populist leader says, an aggressor against Venezuela. He's talking about the United States. His response was no surprise to Colombia or Washington. Chavez frequently accuses the U.S. of having diabolical designs on his oil-rich country.
But governments throughout South America have also expressed concern, convening a special summit today in Argentina to discuss the matter with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Among the countries opposed to the base plan is Ecuador, Colombia's southern neighbor, a country that Colombia bombed last year when Colombian rebels were camped just inside Ecuador's border. Miguel Carvajal is Ecuador's minister for external security.
Mr. MIGUEL CARVAJAL (Minister for External Security, Ecuador): (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Carvajal says he believes the bases are for much more than fighting traffickers and rebels. His government and others say they know next to nothing about the base agreement, and in fact, it was negotiated in secrecy, say Colombian and American legislators. They, too, contend they've been kept in the dark.
Representative JIM MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): I haven't been briefed and I haven't read very much about what the intentions of these agreements with Colombia regarding military bases are.
FORERO: That's Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern from Massachusetts. He says U.S. aid to Colombia should be debated because of the Colombian military's poor human rights record. Here in Colombia, Senator Juan Manuel Galan says he's failed to learn details about the agreement, even though he sits on an important security and defense committee.
Senator JUAN MANUEL GALAN (Colombia): We have received a few pieces of information regarding the agreement, but we haven't received the whole agreement.
FORERO: In fact, Galan says, he now has more questions and more doubts than ever before.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Puerto Salgar, Colombia.