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The 12 heads of state that constitute the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) convened in southern Argentina yesterday to register their fears about the alleged building of military bases in Colombia, and the talks seem to have been a successful landmark. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa said that “there has never been such a frank discussion about the military presence in the region.”
(Argentine president Cristina Fernandez had originally invited the leaders to Buenos Aires, as I reported a few weeks ago; but they ended up changing the venue. As much as I would have liked to visit the ski resort of Bariloche, I couldn't get away from Buenos Aires in my final two weeks as GlobalPost's Argentina correspondent, so my information in this notebook comes from the state-run news agency. )
The issue of U.S. military bases in Colombia had become the unofficial agenda-topper of the last UNASUR meeting in Quito, Ecuador. The leaders rang the alarms, with Venezuelan president Chavez pronouncing that the "winds of war were beginning to blow" in Latin America as a result of the U.S. plans. At that time, President Obama denied from afar that the U.S. had any intentions to build bases, but declined Brazilian president Lula's invitation to respond to the allegations in person at the extraordinary session in Argentina. He's still pushing for such a hemispheric meeting, but in Obama's absence yesterday, Lula called for “legal guarantees” against U.S. military encroachment; Ecuador's Correa said that "the U.S. military presence in Colombia affects the peace and stability of the region,” and Uruguayan President Vazquez called for “non-interference.”
At the end of the day, the leaders signed an accord to consolidate an “area of peace in South America” and defend “the non-interference in internal affairs” of member countries. This call for non-interference goes beyond the specific issue of Colombia. Argentina's Fernandez led the push for the accord, saying: "If one country stations foreign troops, others might do it as well, so we need to set a position and a regional doctrine." She, of course, has another axe to grind: the Falkland Islands, which are claimed by Argentina but controlled by British forces.
The leaders admitted that they still don't know precisely what the U.S. and Colombia have in mind, and Argentina's Fernandez requested that UNASUR be shown the agreements signed. Colombian President Uribe responded with an I'll-show-you-mine-if-you'll-show-me-yours kind of acquiescence.
Even if new U.S. army installations aren't in Colombia's future, President Obama admits that the U.S. will continue to cultivate its military presence in Colombia — and it's not surprising that this should ruffle some regional feathers. The strong, long-standing military relationship between the two countries has not always been a pretty one. U.S. military aid fed the Colombian army's 1953 coup d'etat, a pattern repeated frequently throughout the Americas and the world in the 20th century. As far back as 1937, when the U.S. contemplated sending warships to Latin America, a Colombian political leader pled: “Don't do this evil thing to us. The use of armaments is like the vice of morphine.”