South American presidents expressed deep concerns over a United States plan to increase its military presence in Colombia at a Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) Summit in Quito, Ecuador, on Monday.
Full details of the US-Colombia military plan have not been released, but the US is expected to have a significant presence at three air bases and two naval bases, in addition to the two Colombian military bases it currently operates in.
The discussion of the US-Colombia plan was introduced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a ceremony to inaugurate Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa as temporary president of UNASUR.
“I don’t want to sabotage your ceremony Rafael … [but] we are very worried,” Chavez said, explaining he felt a “moral obligation” to warn about “the winds of war that are beginning to blow” in the region.
The bases constitute a “threat” to Venezuela and “could generate a war in South America,” Chavez added.
In an open letter circulated to his South American counter-parts at the summit Chavez warned that the June 28 military coup against the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya and the US-Colombia military plan signify that “the US Empire … has launched a retrograde and anti-historic counteroffensive, with the aim of rolling back the union, sovereignty, and democracy of our continent.”
Correa agreed, saying, “It is an issue that concerns all of us, because it can destabilize the region.”
Bolivian President Evo Morales, supported by Chavez and Correa, introduced a motion to the summit to condemn Colombia’s actions.
The Colombian President Alvaro Uribe refused to attend the summit because of his strained relations with Correa (due to Colombian military raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorian territory last year), but sent vice-Foreign Minister Clemencia Forero instead.
Earlier Uribe had also said he would not attend the summit, arguing it “is not the appropriate place” to discuss the US-Colombia military plan “it is only an agreement between two nations.”
“Some people do not want to talk. The Colombian government, for example, does not want unity. It is acting against the unity,” Chavez said at the summit.
“The Colombian government does not want South American unity because it is tied to the empire’s orders, it is subordinated,” he added.
Although Colombia signed the UNASUR Treaty in Brazil in May 2008 – together with Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Surinam – the staunch US ally has had an uneasy relationship with the regional bloc.
Uribe refused to host the temporary presidency of the organization and opposed the formation of the UNASUR Defense Council initially refusing to join it, but later changing his mind.
Uribe and US National Security advisor James Jones undertook a seven-country tour of South America last week to drum up support for the military agreement, saying the agreement was to assist Colombia in its internal conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and to combat narco-trafficking. Only Peruvian President Alan Garcia openly supported the plan.
During discussion at the UNASUR summit, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he was “disturbed” by the “climate of unease” resulting from the Colombia-US plan, but argued UNASUR should not convert itself into “a club of friends, surrounded by enemies,” but should resolve the issue with Colombia through dialogue.
He also called on US President Barack Obama to meet with South American leaders to explain the plan, “I think we should directly discuss our discontent with the American government – directly with them,” he said.
Silva also indicated that he was concerned over “information we receive about [US] ambassadors that still intervene in internal electoral processes in our countries” and the reactivation of the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet.
Despite saying the Colombia-US plan “is creating an unacceptable and unprecedented state of belligerency in the region,” Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said she was worried about the tone adopted by other presidents at the summit towards Uribe.
The motion to condemn Colombia was not included in the final declaration of the summit, as no consensus was reached. However, the leaders agreed to hold a presidential summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, later this month to discuss the matter.
Kirchner argued this would “take away any excuses” Uribe had for not attending the summit in Quito.
The Colombian vice-foreign minister told the summit, “The bases will continue being Colombian, entirely under Colombian jurisdiction and sovereignty.”
However, in an interview with Colombian television station RCN on Sunday, Chavez disputed the claim that US troops will be under Colombian jurisdiction, pointing out that under the agreement they are granted immunity.
“Do you think Colombia will be giving orders to US troops? It is a lie, the US Empire would never allow it,” he said.
Venezuela has broken off diplomatic relations with Colombia and cut subsidized oil to its neighbour over the military plan.
Relations between Colombia and its neighbours Venezuela and Ecuador have become increasingly strained in recent weeks. A few weeks ago Colombia said it has a FARC video proving the guerrilla group financed Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign – a claim categorically denied by Correa.
Colombia has accused Venezuela of providing arms to the FARC, after Colombian soldiers found FARC was using rocket launchers allegedly from the Venezuelan military.
Both Venezuela and Ecuador have denounced the accusations as false, saying they are designed to justify the increased US presence in the region.
In other news at the summit, the leaders of the UNASUR member states also called for the immediate and unconditional return of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, and affirmed that they will not recognise the outcome of any elections held while the coup government remains in power.
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This post was written by Kiraz Janicke