Gustavo Silva

Colombia should welcome the US base deal

posted by Gustavo Silva Cano
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Colombia news - US military

You live in a nice house located in a dangerous neighborhood. The fact is that your neighbors do not like you very much, and they have big guns. You also have a terrible rat problem: you cannot remember the last time your house was completely clean, decent, and free from the pest. But there is hope. A big, strong guy lives across the street, and the two of you are good friends. His guns are far better than those of your neighbors, and he has the cash and the experience needed to deal with your rat problem –truth be told, he is partly to blame for the large numbers of animals living in your house. So the big, strong guy proposes a deal: he will help you fight the rats if you let him stay at your house for a while. He can use your bathroom and eat your food, but he will have to leave whenever you want. Plus, this bit is left unsaid, his presence at your house will keep your neighbors at bay. They will get really mad about it, but they won’t be able to touch you. Do you accept the offer?

Of course you do. And that is what Colombia’s government has done this week when a compromise was obtained with the Americans, giving the US Armed Forces greater access to Colombian military bases. Under the deal, there will not be American bases on Colombian soil, and the maximum number of American personnel inside Colombia permitted by law (up to 800 soldiers and 600 contractors) will not be altered. Thanks to the deal, the Colombian military will receive better help from the Americans in technology and intelligence in order to fight drug-trafficking. Already, the United States is about to disburse US$ 46 million to pay for upgrading a military base in Cundinamarca. With the closing of the American base in Manta, Ecuador, and Colombia’s need for military expertise and help in its fight against crime, this can only be a win-win situation.

Rest assured, however, the agreement has created an immense controversy. The news about the issue flooded the headlines until the AP released a video showing Mono Jojoy talking about aid to Rafael Correa’s campaign. William Brownfield, the vivacious American ambassador to Colombia, insisted that the new military agreement would not increase the level of collaboration between Colombian and American forces: “I promise you that the collaboration will be almost exactly the same as before”, he said. The State Council, one of the five heads of Colombia’s intricate judiciary branch, reprimanded the government for not consulting with them before acceding to the compromise. Whatever the State Council decides is not binding, however, so there is no danger to the agreement on that side.

But Congress is another story. We are talking about stationing foreign military elements on Colombian territory –it is clear that Congress ought to have a say in this, and that its decision should be binding. Yet, what is not clear is why Congress needs to give its approval a second time, given that they already acceded to the presence of American military elements in Colombia (under the Ley de Autorizaciones para la Defensa Nacional of 2005) and that the new agreement does not mean that there will be more American soldiers than those allowed by law.

Opposition parties in Congress have reportedly called on government ministers to explain the reach of the new agreement. A lot has been said about Colombian sovereignty being ignored and there are some inside and outside the country that have expressed their strong disagreement with this decision. Never characterized by refined rhetoric, President Evo Morales of Bolivia said that politicians who accept American bases on their countries were “traitors”.

No doubt, Mr. Morales and those Colombian politicians who oppose the new deal are wrong. For starters, the supposed danger to Colombian sovereignty is non-existent: There are American military bases in places such as Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Iceland, Portugal, The Netherlands, Turkey, Spain and the United Kingdom. In each of these countries, there are over 1,000 American troops, which is well above the 84 soldiers and the 243 contractors in Colombia today. Last time I checked, all these were independent, sovereign nations, and not part of some American empire or 51st states. The presence of 800 American troops won’t turn Colombia into the pawn of the United States that so many think it already is. If Colombia wants to be called an ally of the United States, it is about time it starts behaving like one.

Now, let us concentrate on another concern: that diplomatic relations with Venezuela, Ecuador and other countries in the region will take a turn for worse due to the new agreement. This is nonsense. Relations with Ecuador could not be worse, and President Correa has spelled out very clearly that he will not renew diplomacy with Bogota until President Uribe finishes his term. Bringing more American troops to Colombia is definitely not going to damage something that is already broken. About Venezuela, it is odd that some pundits and politicians would rather have Colombia refuse to increase its cooperation with its strongest and most reliable ally, in the name of preserving the fragile and hypocritical truce with the unpredictable Hugo Chavez. Moreover, even if it is Mr. Chavez’s most recurrent nightmare, less than a 1,000 American troops won’t fight a war of invasion against Venezuela, so the autocrat next door should sleep easy. Yet, few people would deny that, considering President Chávez’s past aggressive stances against Colombia, a strengthened American presence in this country is a wise move -even if the Americans won’t be there to fight him, he will think twice before sending his troops to the Colombian border once again. And let’s add that our neighbors should not have a veto about what occurs within Colombia’s military bases or its territory. The Constitution leaves that privilege to politicians and state officials working in Bogota.

Opponents of this new deal will have a hard time convincing the public that it is against Colombia’s interests to increase its cooperation with the greatest military and economic power in the world, or that stationing 800 foreign troops on Colombian soil automatically cancels out Colombian sovereignty. Furthermore, Colombia will not become a new Vietnam or another Iraq -it won’t even become Panama in 1989 -if those 800 American soldiers are stationed there. This number of troops is so within reasonable limits that it is difficult to see why that many people are so viscerally opposed to the agreement. It seems that an irrational brand of anti-Americanism is the cause d’etre of most of their arguments. And following their advice would be a mistake. Failing to ratify this agreement would be akin to surrendering our defense policy to the whims of two unfriendly neighbors. The fight against drugs would also slow down its increasingly successful march.

On the contrary, keeping our word with the Americans would make Colombian forces more efficient, better trained, and harder to defeat. It would also bring Colombia closer to the USA in a time when the relation between the two countries does not seem as synchronized as before. Moreover, American intelligence, if not flawless, remains the best in the world, and having the USA share some more of it with Colombia is a privilege we cannot refuse. The potential gains are so many relative to the few possible backlashes that it would be myopic to give no for an answer.

The big, strong guy is ringing the bell –and somebody should go open the door.

Author Gustavo Silva is Colombian and studies
Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University in the
U.S. He has his personal weblog.
  

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