It was a winter day in the Argentine city of Bariloche when 12 South American presidents gathered there on August 28. It was so cold that Hugo Chavez wore a red scarf and Evo Morales put on a sweater. The presidents arrived at the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting to discuss a US plan to establish seven new military bases in Colombia. Though officials in Colombia and the US say the bases would be aimed at combating terrorism and the drug trade, US military and air force documents point to other objectives.
Earlier his year, when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa decided to not renew the US lease on the military base in Manta, Ecuador, the US set its sights on Colombia, a long-time US ally and one of the biggest recipients of US military aid in the world. Under the agreement the US eventually developed with Colombia, the US would have access to seven military bases for 10 years, stationing up to 1,400 US personnel and private contractors.
One US military document cited by the AP explains that the Palenquero base in Colombia – which the US plans transform with a $46 million upgrade – would be a stopping off point for the US military and air force so that "nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling."
Uruguayan analyst Raul Zibechi writes in an article for the Americas Program that the US is shifting away from large, immobile bases to more a more flexible model involving smaller bases. He cites the U.S. Air Force’s April 2009 report entitled "Global en Route Strategy" which "refers to the ability to utilize these installations above all for air transport, making it possible to have control from a distance and act as a dissuasive force, leaving direct intervention only for exceptionally critical situations." The cooperation of local governments is a key aspect of this plan. Zibechi writes, "This ongoing cooperation is much more important than direct military presence, as current military technology allows troops to concentrate in any given area within a matter of hours."
Considering the regional implications of the expanded US presence, the presidents at the Bariloche meeting agreed that UNASUR countries will "abstain from resorting to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity" of other South American countries, and planned to investigate the military bases agreement further.
Yet what many of the region’s presidents already know is that increased US militarization is unlikely to curb violence in Colombia because the biggest perpetrators of violence in the country are already allies of the US, largely through the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia.
"The largest number of killings of civilians each year in Colombia is not committed by the guerrillas," Latin American political analyst John Lindsay Poland writes in the Americas Program. "A large majority of Colombia’s 4.7 million internally displaced people were forced from their homes by paramilitary violence, with more than 11 million acres of land violently stolen. The increased U.S. military presence won’t contribute anything to returning those lands to their rightful owners, nor to holding the Colombian Army accountable for more than 1,700 civilian killings committed since 2002."
US soldiers in Colombia also reportedly committed 37 acts of sexual abuse from 2006 to 2007. Poland writes, "A U.S. soldier and contractor reportedly raped a 12-year-old Colombian girl inside the Tolemaida military base in 2006, dumping her outside the gates in the morning." The two rapists remain free and are back in the US without facing charges.
An increased US military presence in a failed war on drugs is also unlikely to curtail narco-trafficking, as pointed out by President Morales at the meeting in Bariloche. Morales spoke of his experiences as a coca grower and union leader facing the brunt of US militarization. "I witness this," he said, when describing repression. "So now we’re narcoterrorists. When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists," Morales said. "The history of Latin America repeats itself."
Many analysts see the plans for these bases as an indication that Washington is not interested in changing its disastrous policies in the war on drugs. "This agreement is made within a framework of anti-drug policy that is overwhelmingly seen as a failure," Michael Shifter of The Inter-American Dialogue told NPR. "Is there a better way to fight drugs without just continuing the same policy that hasn’t produced very much for decades?"
Morales said the root of the drug problem lies in the US, not in South America. "If UNASUR sent troops to the United States to control consumption, would they accept it? Impossible!"
Benjamin Dangl is the author of the forthcoming book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, (AK Press, 2010). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com