Scaring the neighbors

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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe set out on a tour of South America last week to reassure his counterparts that the looming U.S. military buildup in his country poses no threat to them. But it’s not just Uribe who needs to be soothing and -- dare we employ one of President Obama’s favorite words -- transparent. Washington too should be working hard to quell the fears it has raised in the region.

Details of an agreement giving U.S. personnel access to Colombian military bases are not finalized, but the United States is expected have a significant presence at three air bases and two naval bases, greatly increasing its capability to monitor not only local drug traffickers but neighboring countries.

Whatever goodwill Obama engendered when he went to the Summit of the Americas in April and promised a more respectful approach to the region is rapidly diminishing. The president had begun to make incremental progress, for example, in restoring diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Now nerves are rattled from the Andes to the Strait of Magellan. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has called for Obama to meet with South American nations, and Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, says the deal poses “a belligerent, unprecedented and unacceptable situation.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is openly touting the likelihood of war.


Ordinarily, Chavez’s bellicosity is not the best gauge of political sentiment in South America. But the United States’ history of backing coups and dictators in the region has not been forgotten, in part because too many leaders have personal reasons to remember it. Take Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet. In 1973, when a CIA-backed coup brought Augusto Pinochet to power, she and her mother were tortured and then exiled to Austria; her father, a general, was tortured until he died of a heart attack.

It was clear that the United States needed to relocate military personnel who had been deployed in Ecuador but who could not remain after leftist President Rafael Correa refused to renew the U.S. lease on the Manta air base. But the deal with Colombia doesn’t look like the mere shift in drug interdiction efforts that Uribe is selling to his neighbors. Worse, it gives Chavez cover for increased anti-American rhetoric, a nice distraction from his country’s economic woes.

Uribe maintains that the purpose of the deal is to help Colombia defeat its leftist guerrillas, who are also the backbone of the country’s drug trade. His assurances, however, can go only so far -- because the rest of South America isn’t afraid of Colombia, it’s afraid of the U.S.