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Obama, Ignoring Local Outrage, Set to Expand U.S. Military Presence in Colombia

Obama continues to defend the expansion of U.S. military operations in Latin America, but against what threat?

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"If Uribe claims that we are the 'intellectual bloc of the FARC' because we disagree with him, and the U.S. classifies the FARC as a terrorist organization, will we then be targets, too?" he asked.   

Even supporters of the bases have inadvertently provided reasons to worry. During the debate, a senator supporting the bases spent over 40 minutes comparing, via a PowerPoint presentation complete with photos and detailed descriptions, the military arsenals of Colombia and Venezuela. He concluded that since Colombia's arsenal is substantially smaller and less powerful than Venezuela's and since Colombia would therefore lose in a war against its neighbor, Colombia should accept the U.S. military bases with open arms. 

The senator, whose information was clearly informed, if not supplied, by the Colombian military, thus affirmed the fear of those opposing the bases that the installations may well be used in aggressions against Colombia's neighbors.

Perhaps Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez isn't over the top when he cautions that the bases could mean war. Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, affirms Chavez's concerns. She says U.S. government documents suggest that Palanquero, one of the sites for the proposed bases, could eventually launch missions far beyond Colombia.

"One of the interests of the U.S. Air Force in particular is to use the base in Palanquero to do surveillance activities from the air outside of Colombia and throughout the continent, eventually using the base to reach even Africa."  

Also raised in the Senate debate was the serious concern about the behavior of U.S. soldiers and contractors given the U.S.'s insistence on complete immunity under Colombian law for its personnel. This would likely also apply to subcontractors, like Dyncorp, which has been accused of ignoring, even firing, whistleblowers; tolerating widespread sex trafficking among its employees, and failing to act even in documented cases of rape against girls on a U.S. base in Bosnia.

These concerns are important because most crimes committed outside the United States are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, and Status of Forces Agreements, part of the negotiations of foreign military installations, protect U.S. personnel from legal action even in the case of the most serious crimes. 

This issue clearly scares the bases' proponents: in the Senate debate, senators supporting the plan refused to allow the mother of a 12-year-old girl raped by U.S. soldiers in Melgar, Colombia, to speak, calling such testimony "pornographic" and irrelevant to a discussion of war planes and tanks.   

All these local and regional concerns seem to be making the Uribe and Obama administrations sweat. In a memo to the Colombian Senate, the defense minister said final negotiations wouldn't happen until the last weekend of August. Now, however, the Colombian daily El Tiempo has reported that a Colombian negotiations team will be in Washington this weekend to finalize the bases deal.

This new urgency demonstrates that leaders want to move the deal before local and regional debates heat up further. 

Opposition in the U.S. is also mounting. On Thursday, over 100 U.S. organizations sent a joint letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging her to halt negotiations with Colombia.

Referring to Obama's statement to hemispheric leaders in April, in which he cautioned against military-only interactions with the region, the organizations called on the administration to "broaden relationships with South America and value respect for human rights," arguing that "the United States should not create a fortress in Colombia in concert with the region's worst rights violators, the Colombian military."

The groups oppose the bases because of the potential to escalate regional conflicts; the precedent for mission creep in current bases like Manta, Ecuador; the fact that such an agreement demonstrates tacit support for the horrendous human-rights record of the Colombian army; and the stated counternarcotics aim for the bases despite the failure of the U.S. war on drugs.

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