BOGOTA – The Colombian and U.S. governments signed an agreement on Friday giving U.S. troops access to at least seven military bases in the Andean nation, officials told Efe.
The document was signed by Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, in a closed-door ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in this capital.
Colombia’s Defense Minister Gabriel Silva and Interior and Justice Minister Fabio Valencia were also present for the signing ceremony, the officials said.
The 10-year agreement, which Bogota says complements an earlier treaty on military cooperation that dates back to 1974, was a priority for the United States after Ecuador’s leftist government this year refused to renew Washington’s lease on an air base used for counter-narcotics operations.
The Palanquero air force base in central Colombia will be the main facility and one of seven to which the U.S. military will have access, according to details of the accord released by both governments in past weeks.
But the document states that the Americans will be able to use other facilities as necessary for activities to combat drug trafficking and “terrorism” in Colombia, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
“For us it’s very positive, for us it’s also necessary and it benefits the region as well,” Colombia’s armed forces chief, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, said outside the hall where the accord was signed.
Unlike Colombia President Alvaro Uribe’s government, which, despite the recommendations of a Colombian high court, the Council of State, decided that the document did not need to be debated and approved by Congress, Brownfield said the White House is legally required to send the agreement to the foreign relations committees of the Senate and House of Representatives.
The Council of State’s opinion – excerpts of which were published Friday by El Espectador newspaper – states that the accord leaves the country in the role of a “mere cooperator,” with the United States determining the activities to be carried out, and for that reason is “unbalanced for the country.”
It also criticized the fact that the “form and limits” of the access to the military bases are not specified and said the agreement should clearly state the “procedures for the entry, overflying and landing of planes.”
The high court – which made clear that its 40-page report was non-binding – also recommended that the parts of the agreement affording immunity from prosecution for the 800 U.S. troops and 600 U.S. civilian contractors allowed on Colombian soil be renegotiated.
Finally, it said the agreement should be reviewed by Congress – which the Uribe government said Thursday was not necessary because it does not involve the movement of foreign troops over national territory for offensive purposes – and the Constitutional Court.
The Colombian government insists that at all times the country’s own soldiers and police will be responsible for combating drug traffickers, leftist guerrillas and other illegal combatants and that the United States will only pro
vide technical assistance.
Since the start of negotiations on the basing deal, other countries in the region – particularly Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and even U.S. ally Brazil – have raised concerns about the potential impact on the sovereignty and security of Colombia’s neighbors.
Venezuela’s socialist leader, Hugo Chavez, a fierce foe of U.S. “imperialism” and the survivor of a 2002 coup that former President Jimmy Carter said enjoyed at least tacit support from Washington, has gone so far as to say the accord could spark a war in the region.
And Friday’s signing is sure to add fuel to the fire started Thursday by Caracas’ claims to have uncovered a CIA-supported Colombian espionage effort targeting Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba.
But Colombia and the United States say other countries have nothing to fear and that the agreement is necessary after Ecuador refused to renew Washington’s lease on that Andean nation’s coastal Manta air base. EFE