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Ruling Against US Access to Bases Helps Ease Colombia’s Isolation

BOGOTA, Aug 18 2010 (IPS) - When the Colombian government announced in November that it had reached a deal to give the U.S. armed forces access to seven military bases, the news provoked surprise and protests, like when an unfair clause is discovered in a contract that was blindly signed.

Except that in this case, the Colombian people were not even aware that any agreement had been signed.

The opposition invoked article 173 of the constitution, according to which Congress must authorise the presence of foreign troops in the country.

But the government of former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) argued that it was a “simplified agreement” arising from the extension of a 1974 military treaty with the United States, and thus did not require congressional approval.

Opposition politician Carlos Gaviria, who is a former Constitutional Court magistrate, argued however that it could not be considered a “corollary” to a broader treaty, but was a treaty in its own right.

Analyst Hernando Gómez Buendía said the agreement “does not form part of the U.S. programme of military aid to Colombia, but represents the start of Colombian military aid to the United States.”

In the verdict handed down Tuesday, the Constitutional Court ruled that the deal is not a “simplified agreement” but a treaty that involves new obligations on the part of the Colombian state, as well as an extension of previous obligations, which means it has to be submitted to Congress for approval and reviewed afterwards by the Constitutional Court.

The Court thus struck down the agreement on the argument that it was unconstitutional.

But the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office Aug. 7, may put the accord before Congress.

The magistrates listed some of the commitments undertaken in the agreement: it authorised access and use of military installations by foreign military and civilian personnel; allowed the free circulation of foreign ships, aircraft and tactical vehicles in the national territory without the possibility of inspection or oversight by national authorities; and authorised the carrying and use of weapons by foreign personnel in the national territory.

It also granted diplomatic immunity and privileges to contractors and subcontractors, and to people overseeing U.S. personnel, while setting vague time frames for the leasing of the bases.

The Uribe administration turned a deaf ear towards the complaints of other South American nations and the protests of many Colombians.

The verdict, which was written by Judge Jorge Iván Palacio, referred to the concerns, fears, protests and arguments that had been set forth, such as the worry that the agreement would shift the balance of power in the region.

The main effect of the Court decision is that it strengthens Colombia’s relations with the rest of the region.

When the countries of South America expressed their concern as a bloc that U.S. access to the seven bases posed a threat, Colombia became the most isolated country in the region.

Despite the Uribe administration’s attempts to ease the worries of its neighbours, the bases were seen as a platform that would allow the United States to keep a close eye on the nations of South America.

The government’s promise that U.S. forces would only use the bases to fight “drug trafficking, terrorism and other threats” failed to convince, especially after Colombia’s March 2008 bombing attack on a Colombian guerrilla camp across the border in Ecuador, in which U.S. military technology was used.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa believes a U.S. plane and other technology as well as advice allegedly used in the attack on the FARC rebel camp came from the Manta air base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, which was leased to the United States from 1999 to 2009.

Opponents of the bases say that if it needs to carry out counter-narcotics actions, the United States already has the Tres Esquinas and Larandia bases in southwest Colombia and the Arauca base in the northeast, as well as the network of radar stations installed after the U.S. military forces pulled out of Panama in 1999.

The terms of the treaty, read closely by presidents in neighbouring countries, are not reassuring. The objectives mention the fight against “terrorism” — without defining the term — as well as continued impunity for regular officers and troops operating at Colombian bases.

These aspects, seen from the outside, made Colombia look like a servile ally of the United States, in an agreement running counter to regional security and to the new foreign policy focus of the countries of Latin America.

Just as the Aug. 10 agreement between Santos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to renew ties between the two countries cleared up relations with one of Colombia’s biggest trading partners, the Constitutional Court ruling may help clear up tension with other countries in the region.

The treaty was an attempt by the Uribe administration to draw the United States further into the armed conflict with the leftist guerrillas. Referring to the rebels as “terrorists,” when U.S. President George W. Bush (2001-2009) had called on the entire world to get involved in the “war on terrorism,” was one of the tactics aimed at reaching that objective.

The terminology used by the government to describe the leftist insurgents — “communists”, “drug traffickers”, “appalling crimes” — was aimed at “selling” the war against the guerrillas to the United States.

The U.S. military technology and presence worries governments on which the resource-rich Amazon jungle depends. The loud protests against the military base agreement voiced by Chávez were partly motivated by fears of what would happen to Venezuela’s Orinoco heavy oil belt.

The Court’s ruling that the accord is unconstitutional helps ease such concerns and is seen as good news by the governments of Colombia’s neighbours.

The Ecuadorean public recalls the Manta air base for the hundreds of conflicts generated by the U.S. military in their relations with the native population.

There were attempts to calm fears that such conflicts would be multiplied by a factor of seven in Colombia, with promises that the U.S. troops would not enjoy impunity from prosecution.

But the situation is quite complex: the United States has 735 bases around the world, and each one is a potential source of conflicts with the local population, which, if they were handled in accordance with the laws of each country, would completely undermine the constitutional duty of U.S. authorities to protect their citizens.

The Constitutional Court verdict also helps ease the humiliating sensation of seeing U.S. military personnel get off scot-free or, at the most, be tried in the United States.

But there is no need to get ahead of ourselves. President Santos, who helped draft the agreement as Uribe’s defence minister, may still submit it to Congress, where he has a healthy majority. Uribe would have done so.

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