BOGOTA, Colombia – South American leaders meeting Friday at a special summit in Argentina lashed out at the United States and Colombia over an agreement that gives Washington access to seven military bases in this country.
The tension in the publicly televised meeting eased after the leaders unanimously agreed to a vague resolution that says no foreign military force should be allowed to threaten the sovereignty of a South American nation.
But the tone of the criticism and the apparent unease about U.S. motives during the seven-hour meeting underscore the hurdles President Barack Obama faces in trying to improve relations with countries that have distanced themselves from Washington in the past decade. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, president of regional power Brazil, said Obama should explain his administration’s objectives, while the leaders of Ecuador and Venezuela warned that an expanded U.S. presence threatens their security.
“You are not going to be able to control the Americans,” said Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, locking eyes with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. “This constitutes a grave danger for peace in Latin America.”
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the agreement’s scope and the secrecy of the negotiations between Washington and Bogota have generated controversy over what has always been a hot-button issue in Latin America: the deployment of U.S. troops.
“It’s hurt the Obama administration’s credibility in the region at a time when the administration was attempting to really set a different path in U.S.-Latin America relations that was multilateral, that involved working with allies,” Arnson said. U.S. relations with some countries in the region, particularly Venezuela, were in tatters by the end of President George W. Bush’s term, she said.
“It’s certainly the case that Chavez and his allies in the region have been the most vocal opponents,” Arnson said, referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s hostility to the base access plan. “But it says a lot that countries like Brazil and Chile were also opposed to this.”
Since some details of the defense cooperation agreement between Bogota and Washington became public last month, governments from Ecuador to Argentina have questioned why Uribe would permit the United States long-term access to three air bases, two army installations and two naval ports. Colombian officials have said that the United States has expressed particular interest in stationing surveillance planes at the German Olano de Palanquero air base, strategically located in Colombia’s geographic heart.
Uribe told the presidents meeting in the Patagonian resort of Bariloche that the U.S. assistance was necessary to fight drug-trafficking and Marxist rebels but that the bases remained Colombian, not American. Colombian officials have also said that U.S. servicemen and planes have been operating in Colombia for years and that the agreement merely formalizes old accords and cuts bureaucratic hurdles.
The Colombian leader, a stalwart caretaker of Washington’s war on drugs, arrived in Argentina with the challenge of assuaging Chavez. All this month, Chavez has warned that the base plan could lead to war and prompt him to break relations with Colombia.
Speaking to the other presidents on Friday, Chavez read a long document that he said demonstrated that the United States is planning a war on South America. “This is the global strategy of the United States,” he said. “That’s the reason for this. It’s the reason why they’re talking about those bases.”
The document, which is public, is an unofficial, academic paper – some 14,000 words long – that explains the importance of more than 40 bases worldwide for U.S. air mobility.
Uribe, though, described the agreement with the U.S. as irreversible, and Chavez was unable to muster support for his effort to have the pact officially condemned.