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A Bad Deal

By Bernardo Álvarez Herrera

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After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's November deployment of 15,000 troops to the porous border with Colombia, some analysts have worried about the prospect of conflict between the two neighbors. It's not the first time our countries have had disagreements. And, as usual, Venezuela is being blamed in Washington for this dispute. Some go as far as to claim that Chávez has used the conflict with Colombia as a means to whip up nationalist fervor.

But this isn't about nationalism or petty disputes. As much as some in Washington want to think so, this is no mere spat between Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and our President Chávez. Those that say so just don't understand the context underlying the tensions between Colombia and Venezuela and the central role that Washington has played in them.

A case in point is the October military agreement signed between Bogotá and Washington that would give U.S. military personnel, intelligence officials, and defense contractors access to military bases on Colombian soil. This agreement's vague provisions and questionable motivations threaten regional stability and territorial sovereignty, alter the region's military balance, and threaten to push more of the violence and drug trafficking that is endemic to Colombia's conflict across its borders.

The current tensions between our countries are just one expression of the broader regional concern over this pact. When the agreement first came to light in July 2009, many countries in South America worried about the impact it would have on regional stability. In two summits of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), 11 of 12 member states united in their opposition to the military agreement and expressed concern that it would further externalize Colombia's internal conflict. They also demanded guarantees that joint U.S.-Colombian operations would not violate the sovereignty of neighboring countries. More recently, the presidents of Argentina and Brazil released a joint statement of concern over the deployment of foreign troops in the region and the threat their presence could pose to regional countries' territorial sovereignty.

South America has good reason to be particularly worried. In its fiscal 2010 budget request presented to Congress in May, the U.S. Air Force justified an air base development project in Colombia by explaining that "Development of this CSL [cooperative security location] provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-U.S. governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disaster." This document, which was not part of the agreement itself but still refers to an air base where U.S. troops will be stationed under the agreement's provisions, gave an honest insight into how U.S. military officials envisioned future deployments in the region.

The U.S. Air Force subsequently removed any mention of "anti-U.S. governments" from the document, but did so only after the U.S.-Colombia cooperation agreement was signed and various countries expressed their strong reservations. Although the words disappeared, the language outlining the strategic value of the Colombian bases to broader U.S. military global strategic deployment did not. This agreement is a geopolitical foray into the region on the part of Washington.

Indeed, it has become clear that a U.S. presence in Colombia will have far larger implications for the region than just helping eradicate coca -- as the failed Plan Colombia originally claimed to -- or support the Colombian government in fighting insurgents. And it isn't just Venezuela that sees this possibility. In July, Rafael Pardo, Colombia's former defense minister, called the agreement analogous to "lending the balcony of your apartment to someone from outside so that he can keep watch of the neighbors." In a statement on the agreement, the well-respected Washington Office on Latin Americanoted: "This appears to be an agreement without borders, potentially allowing the U.S. military to conduct virtually any mission against virtually any perceived threat."

The concerns expressed by the region and by Venezuela's recent defensive moves also have more practical foundations. In March 2008, Colombia launched an attack on Ecuadorean territory, bombing what the Colombian government claimed to be a FARC encampment. The attack was an unprecedented violation of territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the George W. Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. Suddenly, Venezuela faced not only a neighbor engaged in fighting an internal enemy but also a neighbor that was willing to take that fight across international borders on the thinnest of pretexts.

The new U.S.-Colombia agreement doesn't do anything to assuage regional concerns that more violations of sovereignty won't occur. While it does not contemplate operations in third countries, it does not explicitly prohibit them. Just as it would be for any country, this is an unacceptable threat to Venezuela.

You don't have to like President Chávez to understand the hostile reality Venezuela and the region face. For decades, Venezuela has had to contend with an internal conflict in Colombia that has spilled across the 1,400-mile border. Now, the region also has to face a U.S. military presence that has been officially justified on the need to develop "full spectrum operations" throughout the region and act against the "threat" posed by alleged "anti-U.S. governments," as stated in the Air Force budget request.

The countries of the region will continue working together as they have in past months to address the crisis that the U.S.-Colombia agreement has provoked. Another UNASUR summit was held on Nov. 27 to discuss the agreement, but at the last minute Colombia's foreign and defense ministers decided not to attend. The organization agreed to request a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the bases and additionally restated its opposition to any threats to regional stability or the sovereignty of UNASUR member states.

We hope that Barack Obama's administration and members of the U.S. Congress who have supported the bases come to understand the grave implications their decision has had on regional stability -- and choose to reverse it.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is Venezuela's ambassador to the United States.

 
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