The recent spat over the use of Colombian military bases by the U.S. armed forces poses crucial questions about the future of U.S.-Latin America relations. The agreement between the United States and Colombia will give the U.S. military access to seven existing facilities in order to carry out counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. This would allow the United States to retain a presence on South American soil after the closure of its military base in Manta, Ecuador.
Predictably, the agreement’s announcement has met the wrath of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chávez, who has even threatened to sever diplomatic links with Colombia. Less predictably, however, it has been received with uneasiness by other South American governments, notably Brazil. Brazilian President Lula prominently brought it up in a recent conversation with President Obama. In the meantime, President Uribe, of Colombia, felt compelled to do a whirlwind tour of South American capitals to allay regional fears, an unusual diplomatic gesture with mixed results.
There are lessons that the United States would do well to extract from this debate. Counternarcotics policies are the first motive invoked by both the United States and Colombia for the agreement. However, as the situation in Mexico and Central America shows, this is not just a bilateral issue. The Latin American countries are justifiably anxious about the dire implications of the U.S.’ "War on Drugs" for the region. Numerous organizations and individuals, including the Brookings Institution’s Partnership for the Americas Commission and the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, have called for a change in the current strategy which emphasizes forced eradication of illicit crops.
Hence, if the United States is to have operational capacities in Latin America for its counternarcotics efforts, it should at least call for a proper dialogue between producing, consuming and transshipment countries. It is high time to have a meaningful hemispheric conversation to deal with a problem whose solution lays not just in the jungles of Colombia, but also on the streets of Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago.
A second lesson is as much about form as it is about substance. This agreement was abruptly announced and seems not to have been preceded by the diplomatic groundwork to prevent the chilly reaction it elicited from trustworthy U.S. allies, such as Chile and Brazil. By all appearances, they were caught by surprise. If a respectful partnership with Latin America is to be shaped, as announced by President Obama at the Summit of the Americas, U.S. diplomacy must do much better than this. In particular it has to show some awareness of the sensitivities of an emerging power, like Brazil, that sees itself playing a key role in the security of South America.
Yet, Brazil and the rest of South America must understand a few things too. Brazil ought to realize that with power comes responsibility. If its security interests are to be taken seriously, not just by the U.S. but also by its South American neighbors, Brazil ought to step up significantly its security cooperation with the rest of the region, and support the Colombian government in its legitimate struggle against the FARC, a terrorist organization. Under Brazil’s complacent gaze, the recent South American Union’s Summit in Argentina failed to condemn FARC or admonish the countries that have been supportive of it. For Brazil to become a regional leader it needs to start playing a more decisive role.
By the same token, the rest of the region must understand that it cannot have it both ways. It may regard the struggle with FARC as a purely Colombian problem on whose solution is not willing to assist, in which case the Colombian government can form whatever security alliances it sees fit. Alternatively, it can regard it as an international problem, on whose solution unequivocal regional cooperation and support are to be committed. In the latter case, and only in it, the rest of the region would deserve to be informed and consulted on security matters by Colombia. Given that the security fallout of the FARC’s presence has been traced as far as some Central American countries, not to speak of Venezuela and Ecuador, it is clear that the Colombian government has a fair claim to robust international support in its struggle.
A new partnership between the United States and Latin America, including on security matters, will need significant adjustments in the mind frame of both parties if it is to succeed. The insensitivity, hypocrisy and sense of entitlement shown by key actors in the current row about the Colombian bases are not promising signs.