Colombia: a new phase in US global militarization

Expelled from its Manta military base in Ecuador from 18 September, the US has reorganised its military infrastructure in South America so that Colombia becomes the regional hub for operations. On 14 August, it concluded a secret deal with Colombian President Uribe, allowing US Southern Command the use of seven military bases – three naval, and two each for the US air force and army. South American states immediately called an emergency meeting of UNASUR to discuss their response to this threat to their security.


Military changes

The new agreement increases the 250 US military operatives now officially in Colombia to 800 plus 600 ‘civilian’ contractors. The Palanquero air base will support P3 surveillance and E3 early warning aircraft, and C17 military transports, able to reach across half the continent without refuelling. The Puerto Salgar air base will be capable of receiving more than 2,000 soldiers, its runway will be the longest in Colombia at 3,500 metres. Three airplanes will be able to take off simultaneously. It will have its own casinos, restaurants, supermarkets, theatres and hospital.

All of this is part of a build-up of US military power in the region. Between April and May 2006, the US Navy conducted exercises involving four ships with 60 fighter planes and 6,500 soldiers. The US Fourth Naval Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia's military incursion into Ecuador, with ‘responsibility’ for the Caribbean, Central and South America. In May 2008, US soldiers of the Task Force ‘New Horizons’ arrived in Peru, the US’s only other close ally in the region, under the pretext of humanitarian operations. In October 2008, heavily armed soldiers from the Task Force with Chinook helicopters supported 990 US soldiers in an operation 575 kilometres southeast of Lima, where the US is negotiating for a military base. Meanwhile, the US has requested that Uruguay and Paraguay allow US forces to operate from bases in the two countries.

Venezuelan President Chavez is clear that the US intention in Colombia is to expand its covert intelligence operations across the region and control natural resources. The US has already supported three coups d'etat in Latin America since 2000: Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, and most recently, Honduras.

Despite an initial refusal, Uribe attended the UNASUR summit hosted by Argentina on 28 August. Its aim was to strengthen South America as a ‘peace zone.’ During the discussion, Chavez brandished ‘The White Book of Aerial Mobility Command and the Global Strategy of Support Bases of the United States’ prepared in April 2009 and based on the US’s doctrine of ‘Global Engagement’. The final UNASUR statement agreed that its Defence Council would study it. Afterwards Chavez said that, ‘The Colombian representative had the audacity to excuse themselves for not presenting the document of agreement that they have signed with the United States, saying they couldn't show it because they needed the permission of the US government.’ Since the start of Plan Colombia in 2000, the Colombian army has received $4.35bn, making it South America’s best equipped army.

On 16 September the defence and foreign ministers of UNASUR agreed in Quito to exchange military information, make their defence spending transparent, consult about military activities in border areas, both consult and cooperate around unanticipated military action, and fulfil previous agreements. Uribe rejected the first three – slavishly saying, ‘Colombia needs the United States more than the United States needs Colombia.’! He objected to President Correa’s motion at UNASUR asking US President Obama to explain the agreement.

As far back as 2002, Brazilian army intelligence identified 6,300 US soldiers constructing runways and outposts in a militarised ‘belt’ around Brazil and concluded that this diminished Brazil’s military options, especially in the Amazonian region. Before 2004 Latin America was the region that spent the smallest proportion of its GDP on arms. To fend off US threats this is changing and countries are buying arms from non-US sources: Venezuela, for instance, from Russia. In 2008 Brazil announced a new defence strategy and has negotiated a $12.5bn deal with France for submarines, aircraft and land vehicles, notably advanced technology.

The economic question

Every imperialist state depends on oil imports. The US receives 25% of the oil it consumes from Andean countries; antagonism towards its extraction and competition compels the US to prepare for physical intervention. Venezuela and Brazil have enormous oil reserves which make them more independent. Further, the US has deteriorating trade relations with Latin America. Between August 2008 and May 2009 Brazil reduced its investment in US bonds by 17% – the largest reduction made by any of Washington’s 15 biggest creditors, further weakening the US’s grip on the most powerful country in Latin America. Argentina had already relieved itself of US debt through the help of Venezuela and China. Bolivia has followed suit.

China has now leapt to first place in Brazil’s export partner league. The growing relationship between China and Brazil, with goods passing through the Andes to Ecuador on the Manta-Manaus highway, is a strategic concern of the US. China’s growing investment, trade and influence throughout South and Central America causes further alarm. China has offered $10bn to Venezuela to exploit the Orinoco oil fields, a sum not far short of US recent annual foreign direct investment (FDI) in Venezuela. The Chinese presence in Panama is so huge that the Congress there passed a law making the teaching of Mandarin obligatory.

However, it is not just the US that is a threat to South American peace and prosperity.  European investments and the profit they extract distort and poison the development of the continent. The EU is making every effort to displace the US in every possible market. Net flows of FDI into Brazil between 1997 and 2008 saw the US’s 21% eclipsed by that of four European countries (Netherlands, Spain, France and Italy) at 43%. For Argentina, between 1997 and 2006, US share of FDI inflows was 27%, Spain’s was 43% and France, Netherlands and Italy together a further 19%. The US’s dominant position in investment, loans and trade has been eroded by EU states over the last 10 years. In this we find the explanation for US imperialism’s new military strategy.

Alvaro Michaels

FRFI 211 October / November 2009