SOUTH AMERICA: Uribe Defends US Base Deal from Neighhbours

  • by Marcela Valente (buenos aires)
  • Friday, August 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

After a debate that dragged on for nearly seven hours, instead of three as planned, the leaders meeting in the ski resort town of Bariloche in southern Argentina agreed that their defence ministers will carry out an in-depth analysis of the implications of the controversial bilateral agreement between Colombia and the U.S., and propose steps to be taken.

The actual contents of the deal to be signed by the governments of Colombia and the United States have not yet been divulged.

Although the climate was not as hostile as expected, the presidents and other representatives of the 12 UNASUR nations expressed their fears and concerns over the bilateral agreement, with varying degrees of vehemence and bluntness.

At the request of rightwing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the meeting was broadcast live — a decision that was later criticised by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said it conspired against the final outcome of the summit.

Much of the debate focused on the conflict between Colombia and the governments of neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador, which Uribe accuses of supporting the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and of failing to cooperate with his country's fight against drugs.

Working against the clock after a marathon of discussions, the presidents signed a brief statement saying the UNASUR countries will continue 'to abstain from resorting to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity' of another of the bloc's member states.

They also reaffirmed that 'the participation of foreign military forces cannot threaten the territorial sovereignty of any South American nation,' and instructed their defence ministers to meet in September to design measures to build 'confidence and security' in the region.

Civil society also made its presence felt at the meeting in Bariloche. A network of organisations called on the governments to discuss 'the questions of peace, regional security and the fight against drug trafficking from a multilateral standpoint.'

The Asamblea Permanente de la Sociedad Civil por la Paz (Permanent Civil Society Assembly for Peace), which groups some 100 Colombian organisations, once again presented a document containing proposals for bringing about peace in Colombia and 'overcoming the diplomatic crisis between that country, Ecuador and Venezuela.'

The petition had already been presented at the last regular UNASUR summit, on Aug. 10 in Quito.

'We urge the UNASUR governments to evaluate the results of the militarisation of the fight against illegal drugs and the implications of the indefinite prolongation of Colombia's armed conflict for security and integration in the region,' says the document, which suggests a dialogue between the region and Washington to forge 'an alliance between equals.'

In a climate of tension, Uribe began by explaining that the agreement with the U.S., which drew an outcry from Colombia's neighbours, 'does not imply an abdication of Colombian sovereignty,' but is aimed at fighting drug trafficking and the FARC, with 'shared responsibility' on the part of Washington.

But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez maintained that the agreement is part of 'the U.S. global strategy of domination' of the region. 'That is the reason that they want to establish bases in Colombia,' he charged.

To back up his arguments, he held up a U.S. document on 'Air Mobility Command' which, he said, discusses at length the control that the bases would give the United States over South America, to carry out operations within and outside the region.

In Washington, a U.S. Defence Department spokesperson said the document, the 'White Paper Air Mobility Command: Global En Route Strategy', was an 'academic' study.

The presidents agreed that their defence ministers would study the document carefully and deliver a report on it to the UNASUR heads of state.

Bolivian President Evo Morales insisted that the summit statement reject foreign bases in the territory of the member countries.

Argentine President Cristina Fernández, who urged the leaders to leave aside 'strident' speeches, recommended defining a common 'doctrine' against foreign military bases, so that the same criteria would prevail in other cases, regardless of the country involved.

And Brazil's Lula asked Colombia for 'legal guarantees' that there would be no incursions by foreign troops into neighbouring countries.

But none of the three initiatives made it into the final document.

Nor did Lula persuade the other countries to try to organise a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama — an idea that was backed by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa but not Uribe, who said 'We don't believe we should call President Obama to account.'

The Colombian president, meanwhile, lamented that the region did not declare the FARC a terrorist group, as the United States and the European Union have done, and said Colombia's neighbours should get more involved in the counterinsurgency struggle. 'We are very concerned that these groups are not being treated with severity, and that they are supplied with weapons from other countries,' he said.

Chávez said he would not respond to 'slander and lies' and Correa retorted that while Ecuador and Venezuela do not have problems with drug crops, production in Colombia is growing and the problem is turning its neighbours into the 'victims' of an unresolved internal matter.

The Bariloche meeting was scheduled at the UNASUR summit held Aug. 10 in Ecuador, which Uribe was unable to attend, when the other countries found out about Colombia's military base agreement with the U.S.

In the face of the angry reactions, Uribe made a lightning tour of seven countries — which did not include Venezuela or Ecuador — to convince his fellow leaders that the bilateral agreement was merely aimed at strengthening Colombia's fight against drugs and leftist insurgents and posed no risk at all to its neighbours.

But the generalised rejection of the bases and the angry voices of Chávez and Correa created an antagonistic climate ahead of the summit. The Venezuelan leader, who recently 'froze' his country's relations with Colombia, said 'winds of war' were blowing in the region.

Taking a more moderate tone, Presidents Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Alan García of Peru referred to the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries, but also called for 'openness' and 'transparency' in Colombia's agreement with the United States.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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