Leaders Criticize Colombia Over U.S. Military Pact

Left-leaning South American leaders criticized Colombia on Friday for agreeing to allow the United States to increase its military presence on Colombian bases.

At a meeting in Bariloche, Argentina, leaders from Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia made clear their vehement opposition to the decision by President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia to expand cooperation with the United States to counteract narcotics trafficking and violence by insurgents.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela demanded that Mr. Uribe give the group that was gathered, known as the Union of South American Nations, copies of the signed agreement with the United States. Mr. Correa argued that the accord put the region's stability at risk.

"You are not going to be able to control the Americans," Mr. Correa said. In response, Mr. Uribe insisted at the meeting, which was televised, that Colombia would not cede its sovereignty or even a "millimeter" of its territory to the United States. He said that the military bases would remain under Colombian control and that American soldiers would work only to combat drug trafficking and domestic terrorism.

He also told the leaders that a copy of the 20-point accord with the United States was available on the Internet. Despite the heated speeches, the only consensus the presidents reached at the meeting was to support a document that, without referring to the accord, rejects foreign military threats to the sovereignty of the group's 12 member nations.

At the end of the session, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who leads the region's rising economic and political power, chastised his colleagues for speaking too much and complained about the rather vague outcome. "When the meeting seemed to have finished," he said, "it turns out we're discussing everything again."

In defending the agreement, Colombia and the United States have said that it simply expands their existing cooperation. American antidrug surveillance flights would rise sharply in Colombia, but American personnel would not be allowed to take part in combat operations in the country.

American and Colombian officials have also said that the accord will not raise the maximum level of American soldiers beyond the 800 already permitted. About 250 American military personnel are currently in Colombia.

The agreement "does not allow the transit of troops or warships because our Constitution prohibits it," Mr. Uribe said. "This is an arrangement for tactical intelligence and strategy."

Mr. Correa, with support from Mr. da Silva and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, suggested meeting with President Obama to discuss the accord. Mr. Uribe contended that the United Nations was a more appropriate forum.

The United States, which is not a member of the regional association, did not send an observer. "We and the Colombians have been clear about the nature of the bilateral agreement," Charles Luoma-Overstreet, a State Department spokesman, said in an e-mail message. "We will continue to reach out to our hemispheric neighbors to explain the agreement."

Mr. Chávez had previously described the accord as a step toward war and had said it involved American designs on Venezuelan oil. He has been threatening to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia.

President Alan García of Peru, who has warm relations with the United States, took a shot at Mr. Chávez, noting Venezuela's continued willingness to export oil to the United States.

"Man, why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?" Mr. García said. The remark drew laughter, though not from Mr. Chávez.

Some countries, including Brazil and Chile, offered a less polarized assessment of the agreement. While some presidents said that they, too, had reservations about the presence of foreign soldiers on the continent, they also said Colombia's neighbors should respect its sovereignty.

In response to criticism that the accord represented the continuation of American imperialism in the region, Mr. Uribe said the American soldiers were needed to help resolve Colombia's four-decade war against guerrillas who have financing from the lucrative cocaine trade. About 90 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia is smuggled into the United States, despite more than $6 billion of American security aid to Colombia over the last decade to combat insurgents and trafficking.

Mr. Uribe insisted that the agreement would have no effect on Colombia's neighbors. He acknowledged that relations with Venezuela, Colombia's second-largest trading partner, had become difficult and asked Mr. Chávez to refrain from threatening to use Venezuela's newly acquired arsenal of Russian weapons and aircraft, including Sukhoi fighter jets, against Colombia.

"On various occasions Mr. Chávez has said that at any moment he'd turn on his Sukhois and in a few minutes they are in Colombia," Mr. Uribe said.

Mr. Chávez, for his part, spoke of his deep mistrust of Mr. Uribe and of destabilization plots that he said originated in Colombia; he was referring to about 300 Colombians who were arrested in Caracas and described as paramilitary combatants. Mr. Chávez said the men were planning a coup against him.

[Source: By Alexei Barrionuevo and Simon Romero in Rio de Janeiro, NY Times, 29Aug09]

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