Unsettling Revelations Regarding US Lease of Colombian Military Bases

US Air Force reveals another possible explanation behind bilateral defense cooperation agreement.

On Friday, October 30, U.S. and Colombian officials signed the controversial Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), granting the U.S. armed forces access to seven Colombian military bases for the next ten years. The deal has been the subject of anxious speculation and heated debate since talks were first confirmed over the summer, as many policymakers throughout the hemisphere are now grappling with the reality of a heightened U.S. military presence in South America.

Though details were not released to the public prior to the signing of the agreement, official statements from both governments have continuously affirmed that the leased facilities would be exclusively used to support counternarcotic and counterinsurgency initiatives within Colombia. However, a recently publicized U.S. Air Force document presents a far more ominous explanation for massive congressional funding for the forthcoming military construction at the Colombian bases. It emphasizes the “opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America” against threats not only from drug trafficking and guerrilla movements, but also from “anti-U.S. governments” in the region.

The day after the signing of the DCA, the Colombian newsweekly Semana publicized the document, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in May. The Budget Estimate Justification Data for the Military Construction Program of the U.S. Air Force was intended to defend the appropriation of $46 million to outfit and update the Palanquero air base, the largest such facility in Colombia and one of the seven to be leased through the DCA. Submitted long before the security accord was reached in mid-August, the Air Force budget justification document constitutes the first official declaration of the rationale for the agreement with Colombia, a statement of intent met with approval from the U.S. Congress. The document appears to validate the persistent reservations expressed by Colombia’s neighbors, particularly Venezuela, in regards to the real motivation and potential scope of the DCA, and has added further strain to the already tense relations that the U.S. and Colombia have with other South American countries.

Behind Closed Doors: The Defense Cooperation Agreement

Details of the agreement between the United States and Colombia have been shrouded in secrecy since the summer, when an article in the Colombian magazine Cambio first drew international attention to the $46 million appropriation earmarked by the House of Representatives to upgrade the Palanquero base, signaling possibility of a military deal between the two countries. In response to the article, three Colombian ministers held a press conference in Bogotá that marked the first in a series of attempts to offset speculation that the operations of U.S. military personnel and civil contractors on the leased bases may not remain limited only to countering security threats within Colombia. The session was also intended to reassure the public that the agreement would not permit unilateral U.S. operations nor the creation of new U.S. bases there. The ministers confirmed that the seven existing Colombian bases leased as a result of the deal— Palanquero, Malambo, Tolemaida, Larandia, Apíay, Cartagena and Málaga— would remain fully under Colombian jurisdiction. Days after the August 14 accord was reached, the State Department issued a statement confirming that the DCA, which was then under review, would “facilitate effective bilateral cooperation on security matters in Colombia, including narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, illicit smuggling of all types, and humanitarian and natural disasters.”

Colombia’s neighbors remain skeptical as to the objectives of the arrangement, and despite international pressure to publicize the terms of the agreement, transparency has been lacking. The DCA was only released to the public on Tuesday, November 3, nearly three months after the accord had been reached and days after it was signed by Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez and the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield. President Álvaro Uribe submitted the agreement to be reviewed by the Consejo de Estado (State Council), a non-partisan state advisory institution. However, Uribe ignored the Council’s recommendation to make the DCA open to congressional debate, even though the agreement unquestionably enjoys the support of the majority of Colombians. The Council urged further review in order to resolve critical concerns that make the agreement excessively “vague and unbalanced,” as well as potentially problematic for Colombia. Among these concerns are the agreement’s ambiguous wording regarding the cooperative relationship, time frame, legal status of U.S. personnel stationed in the country, use of satellites, and the role of third countries. Refusing to release the DCA to the already supportive Colombian public generated even more suspicion of the Uribe administration.

Justifying Strategic Interests: The Military Construction Budget Estimate

The U.S. Air Force construction budget for the Palanquero base, published by Semana magazine on Saturday, October 31, appears to validate existing regional anxieties regarding the implications of the long-obscured military base deal. The Budget Estimate Justification document, which outlines the specific destination and purpose of the funds, gave further weight to the questions first raised in July surrounding the pending deal and the purpose of U.S. military funding destined for the Colombian bases. In contrast to the Defense Cooperation Agreement, this document stands as a far more concrete declaration of intent for U.S. military presence in South America, as “an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America.” Contrary to public statements from both governments, this document confirms the potential of the military cooperation to extend beyond Colombian borders. Furthermore, it suggests that the base could be used for continental combat operations and to neutralize regional governments considered “anti-U.S.,” presumably Venezuela but also likely including Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Located near the Magdalena River 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogotá, the Palanquero base has the capacity to lodge over 2,000 personnel, hangar space for 50-60 airplanes, and the longest runways in the country, Palanquero is already Colombia’s largest military base and one of the most advanced in Latin America. Leasing this Colombian facility would provide the U.S. Air Force with “access to the entire continent.” According to the budget justification, the planned structural and operational improvements are intended to “leverage existing infrastructure to the maximum extent possible, improve the U.S. ability to respond rapidly to crisis, and assure regional access and presence at minimum cost.” The upgrade is also intended to “increase [the U.S. Air Force’s] capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).” Within this budget justification, stated interests in counternarcotic and counterinsurgency operations within Colombia are sidelined in favor of promoting strategic military and security throughout the hemisphere.

This explanation marks a critical departure from the public representation of the agreement embodied in official statements that have been made since the summer as well as in the recently released DCA. U.S. Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz dismissed the document as “budget, not policy,” maintaining that only the DCA would govern the activities of the U.S. military in Colombia. However, with so much left up to interpretation by the DCA itself, the budget justification document may represent “a more candid declaration of intent,” according to John Lindsay-Poland, co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin American and the Caribbean. Rather than a firm policy framework, Lindsay-Poland explains that instead the DCA is “an empty vessel that provides a structure for military cooperation, whereas the budget document is a declaration of the military’s intent for how that structure will be used.” He argues that the Pentagon is looking to gain strategic capacity in the region over the long term. Weak non-interference provisions in the DCA are unlikely to succeed where accords by the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States (OAS) have failed, as in the case of the U.S.-backed attack on Ecuador by Colombian forces in 2008. The vague terms of the DCA as well as the secrecy of the talks surrounding it have raised questions not only concerning its present intent, but also its future exploitability over its ten-year duration.

Escalating the Latin American Arms Race

In much of Latin America, the Defense Cooperation Agreement has been understood as a threatening act of aggression, especially in light of the combative language used in its budget justification. In the news article revealing the existence of the budget document, Semana magazine characterized the deal with the U.S. as an escalation of the ongoing arms race in the region, calling it the beginning of a “new Cold War.” Prior to the amplification of its strategic partnership with the U.S., Colombia lacked the capital to compete with the weapons arsenal accumulated by its neighbors, particularly Venezuela and Brazil. Former presidential security advisor Armando Borrero noted that with U.S. resources and support, Colombia no longer “had to involve itself in the regional arms race” that it could scarcely afford. According to Semana, for Colombian military leaders who had long sought a way to obtain the personnel and equipment to engage Venezuela on an equal military footing, “this accord seemed to fall from the sky.”

Since talks on the deal were first publicized over the summer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has perceived the amplification of U.S. military presence in the region as targeting his country for a possible attack. At the summit of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) in August, he denounced the agreement as a sign that the “winds of war are starting to blow.” Chávez has since used the bilateral pact as both an opportunity to question Colombia’s sovereignty, and more importantly to justify further arms purchases for Venezuela. In a speech on September 14, he reasoned, “what could we do if the Yanquis are establishing seven military bases?” On Thursday, November 5, following the signing of the DCA, Chávez carried out his promise to sever diplomatic ties with Colombia; he also froze trade between the two nations, which already had fallen by nearly half in September.

The U.S. Air Force document, which designates funding to “increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR),” gives substantial weight to Chávez’s fears of destabilization by the U.S. and Colombia, particularly in the wake of the Venezuelan government’s recent accusation of espionage by the Colombian intelligence agency (DAS). Speaking before the National Assembly on October 29, Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami presented documents allegedly originating from DAS, which showed that Colombia had sent spies to Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba as part of a CIA-linked operation. While Colombia heatedly denied the allegations, they did not refute the validity of the intercepted DAS documents. By pursuing this vague and open-ended deal with Colombia and approving the combative language of the budget justification document, U.S. officials have accelerated the simmering conflict between the neighboring South American countries by legitimizing Venezuela’s suspicions and precipitating the closure of vital channels of communication and exchange.

While international and regional governing bodies have neglected their mediating role in the face of the escalating conflict, Brazil has taken the initiative to engage the two countries in a constructive dialogue. On Friday, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced his intention to bring Uribe and Chávez together for a November 26 summit in the Brazilian city of Manaus. However, in order for talks to proceed between Colombia and Venezuela, the United States must better define the nature of the cooperative relationship established by the DCA and clarify the strategic regional interests suggested by the U.S. Air Force budget justification document. Transparency going forward is crucial to undoing the tangle of suspicion and antagonism fostered up to now by the U.S.-Colombian military cooperation deal.