US Military Presence in Colombia a Threat to Brazil and the Amazon

House in the Amazon The second half of this year has begun with difficulties here in Latin America. Shortly after the military coup in Honduras, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe announced that the US would be installing seven military bases in that country. However, while in the first country a possible meddling of the US is a source of dissatisfaction in and outside of Honduras, the announcement of the second country has received the support of some, and silence from others. 

The only outright opposition has come from Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela). Peruvian president Alan Garcia has given his support to Uribe, while other leaders – Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Tabare Vazquez (Uruguay), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have maintained diplomatic relations but have insisted on dialogue.

The agreement between the US and Colombia raises cause for concern, affirmed political scientist Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, retired professor from the University of Brasília. In all, the United States will use seven bases, four already in existence and will build three more.

Even though the US has affirmed that the bases will be used for military operations aimed at combating drug trafficking and to refuel cargo planes, it is clear that the real objective is to maintain vigilance in the area.

Even official US documents confirm this, arguing for autonomy of flights departing from Colombia and an increase of budget for “non-specified” military operations.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Moniz Bandeira:

Do the installation of the bases signify the beginning of a great military build-up in the region?

The presence of military bases of the United States in South America is nothing new. There were already bases in Bolivia, and the Joint Peruvian Riverine Training Center – the epicenter of the war against the Sendero Luminoso – still functions. In May of 2008, 70 soldiers of the Task Force New Horizons arrived in Peru under the pretext of engaging in humanitarian operations. This number increased to 350 between June and July of that year.

In October, pilots and crew of the U.S. Army’s CH-47D “Chinook” and heavily armed soldiers from Task Force New Horizon gave support to 990 U.S. soldiers operating in this region, 575 kilometers southeast of Lima, where the U.S. was negotiating with the Peruvian Armed Forces for a military base. This in the context of firming up the Freed Trade Agreement enacted in December of 2007.

The interest of the U.S. in installing a base in Ayacucho, which is equidistant from the areas dominated by Farc in Colombia and the social conflicts in Bolivia, is to facilitate the mobilization of its contingents in all regions of South America.

The U.S. continues to use a naval base in Iquitos, north of Peru, in a strategic region of the Amazon, and has at its disposal marine equipment, such as combat launches. There are other bases in Santa Lucia and one over the Nanai River. In Ecuador, there is the Manta Air Force Base, which will be closed and moved to Palanquero, in Puerto Salar, 120 miles to the north of Bogotá.

So what is so new about this latest investment in Colombia?

What is new and cause for alarm is the extent to which operations will be amplified. This air force base in Puerto Salgar will be capable of receiving more than two thousand soldiers, it will possess radar equipment, and will have its own casinos, restaurants, supermarkets, theaters and hospital.

The airport runway will be the longest in Colombia at 3,500 meters, more that 600 meters than that of Manta. Three airplanes will be able to take off simultaneously. Thus they will have point of support in the center of Colombia – even better than that of Manta – with the installation of three military bases in Malambo (Caribbean coast), Palanquero (close to Bogota), and Apiay, near the Brazilian border.

With the installation of these bases, is there any legitimacy to the argument that Colombia may become the “Israel” of Latin America?

You cannot compare Colombia to Israel. The economic conditions, the politics and the cultures are quite different. But, in fact, the US military support to Colombia, since 2004, will by this year mount up to US$ 3.3 billion. Or better, since the beginning of the Colombian Plan in 2000, the Colombian army has received US$ 4.35 billion, making it the best equipped army of South America, relatively speaking.

With a population of 44 million, Colombia has military contingent of 208,600. Brazil, with a population of 190 million and 8.5 million square kilometers has only 287,870 in its military; Argentina, with 40 million inhabitants and 2.7 million square kilometers, has only 71,655.

Colombia, with a Gross Domestic Product at US$ 320.4 billion, designates 3.8% of its budget to military spending. Brazil, with a US$ 2 trillion GDP only spends 1.5%. Argentina, with a US$ 523,7 billion GDP, spends only 1.1%.

In 2005, Congress granted to the region US$ 9.2 million in economic aid, and another US$ 859.6 for military assistance. In fighting the guerillas, soldiers and police have committed an increasing number of murders and abuses of human rights, and over a period of five years, up to June of 2006, extrajudicial executions increased more than 50% in relation to the previous period.

How would you evaluate the positioning of the Latin-American presidents in relation to the bases? How do you see Uribe’s efforts to dialogue with some of these heads of states?

As far as I know, with the exception of Alan Garcia, they are all opposed, but they see it as a sovereignty issue of Colombia. What else can they do? They cannot intervene in Colombia. But there is isolation, and it was Uribe’s intention to avoid greater isolation when he visited some countries in South America, including Brazil.

The U.S. budget proposal for spending in Colombia calls for a 13% decrease in spending destined for combating drug trafficking, while spending for “non-specific” military operations is 30% more compared to the previous budget. What do these numbers demonstrate?

The justification in the agreements for military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean is the combat of drug trafficking. But there is an explicit understanding that in the use of these bases “it is not prohibited other types of organization of the Department of Defense.”

It is clear that the United States uses these Forward Operation Locations, installed also in El Salvador and in Aruba/Curacao, for other types of operations. They have an objective strategy. The permanent stationing of troops and military equipment in Colombia and in Peru, as well as in Suriname and Guiana, and previously in Ecuador and Bolivia, gives the U.S. an enormous strategic advantage to intervene militarily in whatever country, and if necessary, to defend its economic interests and occupy the regions of the Amazon River.

In reality, the militarization of Colombia, with the presence of more than 1,000 soldiers and U.S. mercenaries who are employed by Pentagon business firms, in the region and neighboring regions, constitutes a threat to Brazil’s own national security, in the measure that it threatens the Amazon.

Do you see a connection between the bases in Colombia and the coup in Honduras?

Although they happened at roughly the same time, and in some sense are related, there is no direct connection between the coup in Honduras and the installation of the bases in Colombia. The transfer of the military installations in Manta to Colombia was already planned since Rafael Correa became president of Ecuador and had already announced in January of 2007 that he was not going to renew the contract for the Manta base.

As I have said, what is different about the bases of Colombia is the size, besides the objective of combating drug trafficking being suspect. This was certainly planned with the restoration of the Fourth Fleet of the South Atlantic, amplifying U.S. presence in the region and thus assuring control of the region’s natural resources, such as water and petroleum. The objective is to restrict the political and military power of Brazil, frustrating initiatives like Unasur and South American Council of Defense. These are not under U.S. domination.

With the installation and amplification of military bases on the margins of the Amazon and the Fourth Fleet navigating the South Atlantic on the margins of the enormous oil reserves discovered by Petrobras, Brazil is surrounded. South America is surrounded, and marked militarily as an economic and geopolitical space of the United States.

Dafne Melo and Luis Brasilino write for Brasil de Fato.


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