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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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Imagine that you live in a nice house in a tense neighborhood. Your neighbors haven't been too pleased with you lately, and you have a terrible roach infestation running havoc in your house. But perhaps there's hope.

A big, strong guy lives down the street, and is offering to help out. He has big guns and says he has just the spray to get rid of those pesky roaches if you just let him crash at your place.

I'm not the first to have used the tough-neighbor analogy when discussing a current proposal for seven U.S. military bases in Colombia, but others have failed to mention all the problematic side effects of inviting the neighbor to stay.

This neighbor has a very sketchy reputation and just may try to take advantage of your sister, not to mention raid your fridge and clog up your toilet. His presence will really upset your neighbors, even the ones with whom you have been friendly.

Although he says he's only staying at your house to help with the roaches and maybe intimidate the troublesome folks next door a bit, he always seems to get involved in other things: He traipses around in the neighbors' gardens and hassles his host's family members.  Besides, his record in getting rid of the roaches isn't all that exemplary.

Is it really worth it?

Perhaps this analogy simplifies matters too much, but I'm not the only one playing with rhetoric. Barack Obama continues to defend the expansion of U.S. military operations in Latin America, arguing that the U.S. is not establishing bases in Colombia but simply extending existing agreements with the country.

Under U.S. military terminology -- using euphemisms that call to mind George W. Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" -- the proposals for Colombia would not be bases because they would not be property of the U.S, but instead be called Forward Operating Locations, or Cooperative Security Locations. 

Nonetheless, the U.S. would still have control over what happens in those installations, as it does in bases, and is insisting on immunity under Colombian law for its personnel. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said it well when she joked to Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe last week, "Come on, nowhere in the world is a Gen. Fernandez going to give orders to a Gen. Johnson!"

The Colombian government has also been toying with words. The wordsmithing is apparent in a recent in a memo to the Colombian Senate explaining that the base plan is "a simplified agreement of technical cooperation and development of related bilateral agreements already in force."

Previous bilateral agreements, however, make no mention of U.S. military personnel being based in Colombia. So it's a bit of a stretch to claim this agreement is simply a matter of extending previous accords.

In Colombia, this renaming is part of the Uribe administration's strategy to slide the agreement through without submitting it to the Colombian Congress for approval. You see, the Colombian constitution requires congressional approval for international treaties and the submission of such agreements to review by the Constitutional Court, but not for extensions of previous treaties. 

Despite Uribe's effort to avoid congressional input, some in Colombia's Senate aren't too sure that they like the idea of inviting the neighbor to stay. 

Senators from the left-wing political party Polo Democrático have insisted on a public debate and are now fighting to have the administration submit the agreement to Congress, as the law requires.

The first session of the debate, held Tuesday, raised some very worrisome issues. Sen. Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Polo Democrático expressed concern that he and other members of opposition parties, investigative journalists and human-rights activists might themselves be in danger if the U.S. military sets up house in Colombia, given that a stated aim of the bases is counterterrorism.

"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.

You, too, can take action. Send a message to Clinton that you don't want U.S. military bases in Colombia.  

Moira Birss is working in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Moira has also worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing and promoting environmental protection. She blogs at One Peace at a Time.
 
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