Friday, April 8, 2011

Colombia-US Military Relations

On Thursday 7 April, an event was held at the Nogal Club in Bogota to launch the book Relaciones Militares: Colombia – Estados Unidos, jointly authored by former Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and Democratic Pole Party Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo. The book is part of the Cara y Sello series (Heads or Tails) by Norma Publishing, which presents opposing views on different issues.

Ramirez and Robledo presented their positions on some of the issues that are addressed in the book, in a debate chaired by Semana Magazine editor Alvaro Sierra.

The defense cooperation agreement (DCA), by which the United States military would be allowed to use seven Colombian bases, polarized the region and sparked considerable debate in Colombia. The following is a running summary of what was said during the debate:

[Alvaro Sierra] Should Colombia cooperate with the United States in the military field?

[Marta Lucia Ramirez] Colombia both needs cooperation from other countries and can offer cooperation to other countries. The subject of drug trafficking is one that transcends national borders and as such it requires international answers. In Colombia drug trafficking has been a problem of such magnitude that it has threatened democracy and the institutions of the state.

[Jorge Enrique Robledo] Colombia should not aim for isolation, but the country should question the way that it handles its relations with the United States. Colombia has not made much effort to change the nature of this relationship.

[Sierra] How would you change the relationship?

[Robledo] I would stress the need for a relationship between equals, with respect for sovereignty and non-intervention.

[Ramirez] I ask what would have happened to Colombia if the country had not been the beneficiary of Plan Colombia. Both Plan Colombia and the DCA were initiatives of the Colombian Government. The proposal to allow the US Military to use Colombian bases was intended to have dissuasive effects.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia did not just address strengthening for Colombia's military, it included a series of other conditions, such as the management of the economy and how peace accords with the guerrillas should be handled. Should the free trade agreement (FTA) that President Santos is discussing with President Obama include other conditions? Colombia should manage its affairs by itself.

[Ramirez] Colombia's military strategy has never depended on outsiders. Plan Colombia strengthened Colombia's military. The Colombian Government is responsible for overseeing the objectives of cooperation and it feels that the benefits of this cooperation have been worthwhile. The US military presence in Colombia under the DCA would be for training, not operations.

[Robledo] The social aspects of Plan Colombia have been a failure. The impact on drug trafficking is dubious too. According to the economic theory, reducing the supply would boost prices and therefore enable fewer people to consume narcotics; the reduced supply, did boost prices, but this kept income steady for drug traffickers.

[Ramirez] As an international problem, drug trafficking should be fought with an international approach. The number of hectares where coca is grown has been reduced by half. From 700 tons of cocaine being processed per year, the amount has fallen to 260 tons, although ideally the amount should be none. Production is declining in Colombia, although it is on the rise in other countries. Plan Colombia was a Colombian Government initiative, with social and development objectives; not just a plan to fight the drug trade. Nonetheless, it has not been as effective as it should have been in promoting and developing industry and production.

[Robledo] Plan Colombia undermined agriculture in Colombia because the policy of economic opening and competition caused Colombian farms to fail.

[Ramirez] The problems in rural Colombia are the result of four decades of neglect, abandonment, and the lack of state presence.

[Sierra] Was the DCA the continuation of the previous military agreement, or was it a new agreement that needed to be approved by the Colombian Congress?

[Robledo] According to the Constitution, the presence of foreign bases on Colombian land would be considered unconstitutional. Under the DCA, the United States would have established FOLs (forward operating locations), which would be autonomous US bases, as part of the "US strategy for the control of Latin America and the world."

[Ramirez] These would not have been US bases; the agreement was to allow US presence on Colombian bases, and under Colombian command.

[Robledo] Any foreign soldier in a country represents the interests of his country, and follows his country's established chain of command. These are not "Vatican bases" that we are talking about. The Constitutional Court ruling that disallowed the DCA made it clear that the US forces would have operated with full autonomy on the bases and without Colombian control.

[Sierra] What would be the price of the DCA in terms of Colombia's diplomatic relations in the region?

[Robledo] The bases would signify a threat to the entire region because they represent the US strategy to exercise control in Latin America and the world.

[Ramirez] The bases were a political strategy for dissuasion. Limits and controls exist on what sort of US actions would be allowed. Surveillance operations should be permitted. Colombia also has military cooperation agreements with several border countries and that allow joint military operations. Colombia needs military strengthening to fight the guerrillas, drug trafficking, and to ensure security for Colombians.

[Robledo] Colombia's relationship to the United States is colored by the fact that the United States is an "empire" with empirical strategies. The challenge for Colombia is to find a different way of relating to the United States, because right now all aid comes with conditions, and the aid that Colombia has received has led to the decline of agricultural and industrial production.

[Ramirez] It is the job of diplomacy to defend the interests of the state, and without warring with the neighbourhood. The state has the responsibility to guarantee the life, freedom, and wellbeing of it citizens, and guaranteeing security is the basis for this. Colombia needs more and better cooperation, with Colombia setting the agenda.


My Commentary

Both speakers made some good points. Like Robledo, I agree that it in ingenuous to believe that the US military mission in Colombia would be limited to merely serving Colombia's need, rather than pursuing the intelligence and, more likely than not, the operations inherent to the US agenda. That being said, Ramirez is correct in stating US military cooperation has enabled Colombia to become more effective at fighting the guerrilla movements and the drug trade.

Robledo's criticism that US aid has led to the impoverishment of the Colombian countryside because of conditions concerning economic and trade policy is debatable. The shift toward economic opening began in the early 1990s, predating Plan Colombia, although IMF and World Bank policy at the time were clear in their goals of eliminating trade barriers and fomenting free market competition. Still the transition to competition comes as a rude shock: It takes investment, training, strategy, and infrastructure to make a country competitive, but that's the Colombian Government's responsibility. Furthermore the debate on whether free trade benefits a country overall was not the subject of the debate, which was military cooperation.

Ramirez rightly noted that the countryside cannot thrive and prosper when basic safety and security are not guaranteed. Reinforcing the state military apparatus in Colombia has enabled the government to restore control to areas that were out of its hands, and bring in social programs that it previously could not provide. You cannot serve the population unless you have secured the area.

Diplomacy does not happen in a vacuum. It is tricky is to make nice with the neighbors and stay on the good side of the United States, while being clear about national priorities. But President Santos seems to be on the right track.

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