Tue, Jul 28, 2009 - Page 7 News List

ANALYSIS: Plan to let US use bases in Colombia upsets neighbors

AFP , BOGOTA

An agreement allowing US forces to use three Colombian military bases for South American anti-drug operations has heightened tensions between Bogota and its neighbors while highlighting Washington’s diplomatic difficulties in the area.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that the US army has “plans to invade” his country from Colombia, where “a Yankee military force” is assembling. He earlier announced that he would review ties with Colombia over the base agreement.

Ecuadoran Security Minister Miguel Carvajal said on Friday that “an increase in military tension” between Colombia and Ecuador was a possibility.

Colombia on July 15 announced that it would allow US forces to use the bases, in part to compensate for Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa’s decision to ban the US military from Manta, on the Pacific coast, an important Ecuadoran military base for regional US anti-drug operations.

Relations between the populist Chavez and the staunchly pro-US government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have been tense for years.

The two countries nearly went to war after Colombian forces bombed and raided a camp belonging to leftist guerillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) deep in the jungle just across the border with Ecuador in late March last year.

Quito and Caracas broke diplomatic ties with Bogota. Chavez has since restored ties with Colombia, but Ecuador has not.

“Colombia has emerged as the new US geopolitical pivot” in the region, said Juan Carlos Eastman, deputy head of the Institute of Geostrategic Studies at the Nueva Granada university.

He believes it is essential for Washington to maintain both an anti-drug presence and “an effective military presence” in Latin America.

US President Barack Obama faces a dilemma in the region.

On one hand the US agreement with Colombia can be seen as part of Bogota’s responsibility in the war on drugs: Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine and the US is the world’s largest cocaine consumer.

But the US use of the Colombian bases “renews antagonistic relations” between Washington and several leftist governments in Latin America — many sympathetic to Chavez — which Obama “was hoping to overcome,” said Carlos Espinosa, an international relations professor at the Universidad of San Francisco de Quito.

Peter Hakim, president of Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said he was “not very sure the highest levels” of the US government were involved in the decision on the Colombian bases.

“Is the cost too high? In South America, we’re not fighting al-Qaeda,” he said.

Washington “should give serious consideration” to ending the US military presence in the region, Hakim said.

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