Latin America’s New Cold War?

Venezuela's and Colombia's ambassadors to the United States tell their sides of an increasingly tense story.


Nearly two decades after the global arms race of the Cold War ended, many Latin America watchers today are worried about a new military standoff: between Colombia and Venezuela. As before, Washington is integral to the debate.

Tensions on both sides of the border have run high for several years, but a joint U.S.-Colombia military cooperation agreement signed on Oct. 30 seems to have escalated them to new heights. Critics of the agreement, including Venezuelan officials, accuse the United States of imperial ambitions, while Colombia defends its decision as a means to combat drug trafficking and terrorism.

With accusations of bad faith multiplying, Foreign Policy decided to hear both sides of the story.

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A Bad Deal

By Bernardo Alvarez Herrera

After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s November deployment of 15,000 troops to the porous border with Colombia, some analysts have worried about the prospect of conflict between the two neighbors. It’s not the first time our countries have had disagreements. And, as usual, Venezuela is being blamed in Washington for this dispute. Some go as far as to claim that Chávez has used the conflict with Colombia as a means to whip up nationalist fervor.

But this isn’t about nationalism or petty disputes. As much as some in Washington want to think so, this is no mere spat between Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and our President Chávez. Those that say so just don’t understand the context underlying the tensions between Colombia and Venezuela and the central role that Washington has played in them.

A case in point is the October military agreement signed between Bogotá and Washington that would give U.S. military personnel, intelligence officials, and defense contractors access to military bases on Colombian soil. This agreement’s vague provisions and questionable motivations threaten regional stability and territorial sovereignty, alter the region’s military balance, and threaten to push more of the violence and drug trafficking that is endemic to Colombia’s conflict across its borders.

The current tensions between our countries are just one expression of the broader regional concern over this pact. When the agreement first came to light in July 2009, many countries in South America worried about the impact it would have on regional stability. In two summits of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), 11 of 12 member states united in their opposition to the military agreement and expressed concern that it would further externalize Colombia’s internal conflict. They also demanded guarantees that joint U.S.-Colombian operations would not violate the sovereignty of neighboring countries. More recently, the presidents of Argentina and Brazil released a joint statement of concern over the deployment of foreign troops in the region and the threat their presence could pose to regional countries’ territorial sovereignty.

South America has good reason to be particularly worried. In its fiscal 2010 budget request presented to Congress in May, the U.S. Air Force justified an air base development project in Colombia by explaining that "Development of this CSL [cooperative security location] provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-U.S. governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disaster." This document, which was not part of the agreement itself but still refers to an air base where U.S. troops will be stationed under the agreement’s provisions, gave an honest insight into how U.S. military officials envisioned future deployments in the region.

The U.S. Air Force subsequently removed any mention of "anti-U.S. governments" from the document, but did so only after the U.S.-Colombia cooperation agreement was signed and various countries expressed their strong reservations. Although the words disappeared, the language outlining the strategic value of the Colombian bases to broader U.S. military global strategic deployment did not. This agreement is a geopolitical foray into the region on the part of Washington.

Indeed, it has become clear that a U.S. presence in Colombia will have far larger implications for the region than just helping eradicate coca — as the failed Plan Colombia originally claimed to — or support the Colombian government in fighting insurgents. And it isn’t just Venezuela that sees this possibility. In July, Rafael Pardo, Colombia’s former defense minister, called the agreement analogous to "lending the balcony of your apartment to someone from outside so that he can keep watch of the neighbors." In a statement on the agreement, the well-respected Washington Office on Latin America noted: "This appears to be an agreement without borders, potentially allowing the U.S. military to conduct virtually any mission against virtually any perceived threat."

The concerns expressed by the region and by Venezuela’s recent defensive moves also have more practical foundations. In March 2008, Colombia launched an attack on Ecuadorean territory, bombing what the Colombian government claimed to be a FARC encampment. The attack was an unprecedented violation of territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the George W. Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. Suddenly, Venezuela faced not only a neighbor engaged in fighting an internal enemy but also a neighbor that was willing to take that fight across international borders on the thinnest of pretexts.

The new U.S.-Colombia agreement doesn’t do anything to assuage regional concerns that more violations of sovereignty won’t occur. While it does not contemplate operations in third countries, it does not explicitly prohibit them. Just as it would be for any country, this is an unacceptable threat to Venezuela.

You don’t have to like President Chávez to understand the hostile reality Venezuela and the region face. For decades, Venezuela has had to contend with an internal conflict in Colombia that has spilled across the 1,400-mile border. Now, the region also has to face a U.S. military presence that has been officially justified on the need to develop "full spectrum operations" throughout the region and act against the "threat" posed by alleged "anti-U.S. governments," as stated in the Air Force budget request.

The countries of the region will continue working together as they have in past months to address the crisis that the U.S.-Colombia agreement has provoked. Another UNASUR summit was held on Nov. 27 to discuss the agreement, but at the last minute Colombia’s foreign and defense ministers decided not to attend. The organization agreed to request a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the bases and additionally restated its opposition to any threats to regional stability or the sovereignty of UNASUR member states.

We hope that Barack Obama’s administration and members of the U.S. Congress who have supported the bases come to understand the grave implications their decision has had on regional stability — and choose to reverse it.

Next, Colombia’s ambassador responds:

Nothing to Fear

By Carolina Barco

Colombia is a country that has suffered from a lethal combination of drug trafficking and terrorism and is fully committed to countering these plights. The agreement signed by Colombia and the United States on Oct. 30 builds on a long-standing bilateral partnership against the trade of illegal drugs and terrorism and reflects a reality that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated candidly this week: "Trafficking is evolving into an ever graver threat that is affecting all regions of the world." He went on to call on member states to "work with each other" to counter it.

Our country has fought drug trafficking for decades. We have dedicated an important part of our resources to this effort. Most of the operations of the Colombian Navy, for example, are interdiction operations — all paid for by Colombian taxpayers. This year, the Navy will set a new record for cocaine seizures, around 110 tons. Similarly, the Air Force has managed to reduce illegal flights out of Colombia by 97 percent, thanks to the joint U.S.-Colombia Air Bridge Denial program, which is intended to target drug traffickers by intercepting suspicious planes.

Many brave soldiers and policemen have sacrificed their lives in operations against drug trafficking organizations. Their sacrifice prevents illegal drugs from reaching the United States and Europe and curtails the violence, corruption, and intimidation that narcotics bring to transit countries in Central America, the Caribbean, and increasingly, the African continent.

This fight has been successful in Colombia as well. After years of persistent action, results are more evident.

In their 2009 reports, the United Nations and the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have identified clear and substantial progress in reducing drug cultivation and production in Colombia. Comparing 2007 with 2008, the United Nations reports an 18 percent reduction in the area cultivated with coca crops and a 28 percent decrease in overall cocaine production. For the same period, the ONDCP reports a 29 percent reduction in the area cultivated with coca crops and a 39 percent decrease in overall cocaine production.

We have been even more effective against the drug trafficking networks. To date, 14 out of 15 of the top drug kingpins we identified in 2007 have been captured.

These results are the product of our increasingly capable and professional public forces, and they have dramatically changed the lives of ordinary Colombians. Thanks to these efforts, which have led to a massive improvement in security conditions, Colombians now feel they live in a country that is much safer — and where greater security is constantly being pursued. Bogotá has lower crime rates than many other capitals of the continent and, for most Colombians, fear is a thing of the past. This improved security has allowed social investment and institutions to enter areas where there had previously been no government presence. The education, health, and justice sectors are now accessible in all of Colombia, which is an immense change from just under a decade ago.

Although President Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy has been central to these achievements, Colombia’s transformation would not have been possible without the help of the United States. We take on this fight with our own soldiers, we capture drug kingpins with our own policemen, and our taxpayers finance 96 percent of the budget, but the support of the United States in critical areas has been instrumental in achieving these results. U.S. cooperation through the bipartisan program known as Plan Colombia is an unquestionable success. Plan Colombia began in 2000 and has proven an ideal framework through which to accomplish common goals in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism.

Our relationship with the United States has matured over the years, and the new cooperation agreement builds on and better organizes that relationship. The fight is not over yet. The extraordinary results we have achieved in drug interdiction, for example, owe a lot to ongoing cooperation between our two governments. Our partnership is not just important for our own efforts; it benefits Central America, Mexico, and the United States as well, because drugs are wreaking havoc up to the Rio Grande and beyond.

The agreement gives a clearer framework for what we have already been doing in a transparent and open manner; the full text has been posted on the Colombian and U.S. governments’ websites.

This agreement does not set up U.S. bases in Colombia. It does provide the United States access to Colombian bases, but command and control, administration, and security remains in Colombia’s hands. Combined U.S.-Colombia activities are mutually agreed upon in advance. The agreement does not result in any significant increase in the U.S. military presence in Colombia; the number of American service members and contractors has been and will remain under the U.S. congressionally mandated cap.

The agreement builds upon decades of cooperation in fighting terrorists and criminal and drug cartels, a common objective of all countries in the hemisphere and also one in which Colombia and the United States have a long history of cooperation. Colombia is eager to work with every country in fighting the criminal activity that has cost it so dearly.

The agreement explicitly recognizes the principle of sovereign equality of states as well as those of nonintervention and territorial integrity. These are very important elements for any agreement, not just with the United States; they are elements that Colombia has shared with its friends and neighbors in the hemisphere.

There are countries in this region and others that are now going through what we ourselves experienced a decade or two ago. U.S. cooperation in Colombia has allowed us to build our expertise and know-how to a level that we can now share with others. We are already providing training and advice to police services from Trinidad to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, as well as Mexico. Drug cartels are transnational in their reach and the fight against them must be so too.

The Colombian people know the stakes. According to a November 2009 Gallup poll, 67 percent of Colombians support the agreement between their country and the United States. It is time for other countries to join in and help solve these problems.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is Venezuela's ambassador to the United States.
Carolina Barco is Colombia's ambassador to the United States.