In August, a deal was announced in which the U.S. military will be granted the use of five military bases in Colombia, in addition to the two it already uses, to fight drug trafficking and guerrillas. This is the latest move in which the U.S. military has raised its profile in Latin America, coming a year after the Bush administration reactivated the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet, which continues to patrol Latin American waters under President Obama.
Military spokesman Frank Mora told the Associated Press that the United States would not maintain any “offensive capacity” at the bases. “There’s not going to be F-16s flying in or tanks or anything of the sort,” he said reassuringly. Yet the main problem is not that the few hundred U.S. troops newly stationed in Colombia will necessarily represent a direct threat to Colombia’s immediate neighbors, Ecuador and Venezuela. Rather, the threat is that the U.S. military presence will exacerbate tensions between Colombia and the rest of the region.
While almost all presidents of South America questioned Colombia’s acceptance of greater U.S. military presence in its country, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez went much further. After Colombia attempted to justify its decision by repeating its claim that Venezuela supports Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Chávez temporarily withdrew his ambassador, threatening to cut off trade with Colombia and to nationalize Colombian companies operating in Venezuela. Thus in no time did the announcement of an increased U.S. military presence in the region contribute to the latest and potentially most damaging crisis in relations between Venezuela and Colombia.
Of course, many blame Venezuela for this crisis, arguing that it is Chávez’s supposed support for the FARC that makes heightened tensions inevitable and greater U.S. involvement necessary. Over and over again Colombia’s military intelligence service brings forth new electronic “evidence” that Venezuela is supporting the FARC. Leaving aside the highly questionable source of this evidence—laptops recovered from a bombed-out FARC camp—no one has been able to show that Chávez has any interest in supporting Colombia’s guerrilla groups. To begin with, Chávez has on several occasions called on the FARC to lay down its arms and declared that a negotiated settlement is the only way to end the Colombian conflict. Chávez knows that Venezuela has nothing to gain but trouble from the continuation of Colombia’s civil war.
Yet this is what having more U.S. troops in Colombia is sure to accomplish: heating up the country’s civil war, which has spilled over into neighboring countries for years. Venezuela is already home to one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with an estimated 4 million Colombians living there who fled their country’s violence. Moreover, the conflict regularly causes border clashes between the Venezuelan and Ecuadoran armed forces and Colombian armed groups (military, paramilitary, and guerrillas). It also contributes to lawlessness and crime throughout the Colombian border region.
If mounting tensions lead to a cut-off in trade between Colombia and Venezuela, both economies will suffer—Colombia’s probably more so, since it sells about six times as much to Venezuela than vice versa, and since it is generally more difficult to find new markets than it is to find new suppliers. Furthermore, trade is one of the best guarantors of good relations. Without it, the possibility is much greater of a conflict erupting between the two countries, a conflict far more serious than has yet taken place.
Together with the Obama administration’s tepid opposition to the coup in Honduras, the increased U.S. military presence in Colombia indicates that the United States is more interested in continuing its long history of fomenting division within Latin America.
Gregory Wilpert is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government (Verso, 2007). He is a member of NACLA’s editorial committee.