Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Inter-American Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, Venezuela, War on Drugs

UNASUR: Amid bickering, García calls BS on Chávez Rant


Felipe Ariza, Presidencia – SP

Not surprisingly, the bilateral defense agreement to extend terms of US presence in Colombia has ruffled the feathers of a few Latin American leaders at the Unasur conference in the mountain oasis of Bariloche, Argentina this week.

In reality, most everyone who follows this agreement, and the two countries’ historic defense cooperation, realizes this is merely a formalization of affairs. It’s no secret the US had a definitive role assisting Colombian officials in the hostage dupe against the FARC (Operation Jaque) last year, nor that they continue to provide intelligence, logistics, and training to its officials in means to undermine insurgent opposition and disrupt narco factions.

However, by no means have we seen a surge of in US troop/contractor levels, ceding of Colombian sovereignty, nor direct engagement that even remotely presents a bellicose shift toward neighboring American states. Any quips of this nature are fabrications of pure ‘Pixar’ scale. Now, whether or not this extended agreement is truly an effective defense measure for either country, alongside Plan Colombia, is another debate entirely.

Nonetheless, verbal crossfire ensued between the ALBA-aligned nations and president Álvaro Uribe of Colombia surrounding the sealed agreement. While Uribe outlined the case of mutual responsibility in such partnership and preached its concrete results that extend beyond verbal apathy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa emphasized the ulterior motives of US force projection and the destabilizing nature of such a move.

This is rather ironic considering that it was Correa’s mandate to scrub the lower-profile U.S. base in Manta that spurred this broadened initiative. And, in literal terms of regional destabilization, Chávez has a wrap sheet of saber rattling, ‘covert’ support for illicit factions, and arms acquisition from Russia and elsewhere that clearly trump any augmentative facet of this development.

Perhaps the most amusing exchange in this reunion came from Peruvian president Alan García, in lieu of Chávez’s insinuation that the US was preparing to invade Venezuela for its vast energy resources:

“Man, why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?” Mr. García said. The remark drew laughter, though not from Mr. Chávez.”

For a solid video recap of the summit, check out BBC Mundo (in Spanish), or its article review (in English).

Also, for more on the Chávez front, check out the polarizing profile by former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Otto Reich, at ForeignPolicy.com.

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Colombia, Inter-American Relations, News, U.S. Foreign Policy, War on Drugs

US – Colombian alliance dying? Ah, not quite.


Presidencia – SP

Much has been made of a rift developing between Colombia’s Uribe administration and its US counterpart in the new Obama team. After all, the interstate free trade agreement (TLC) debuted on the Washington scene more or less dead-on-arrival, Plan Colombia funds face increased scrutiny and measures to reallocate distribution, and Colombia’s human rights reputation in the global sphere suffers in the shadows of organized extrajudicial killings. Don’t forget the background buzz of an audacious third presidential mandate for Uribe on the horizon. At face value, just a little bleak.

In truth, this distancing on some level was inevitable when one considers the synergy the Uribe and Bush administrations carried across his two terms. This in itself is not a gamebreaker, as the United States and Colombia entertain a longstanding partnership on multiple fronts. However, considering Bush’s wildly unpopular image across the Americas, preferential treatment at this point by the Obama team signals no shift in US diplomatic intentions, nor does its amplify the message of a new era previewed by Obama at this year’s Summit of the Americas. Diplomacy of now calls for a timeout on the dramatic award swapping and public displays of affection.

That being said, I see no tangible evidence of weakening in the US – Colombian strategic relationship. Its orientation will shift toward a more pan-regional approach, in security, energy and economic initiatives, but both countries have vested interests in maintaining strong ties and promoting this broader agenda.

Several realities back this notion. First, while Uribe and Obama were ‘walking the dog‘ in front of the press corp this week at the White House, jousting on the above mentioned tensions, Cambio magazine published an exclusive yesterday, citing a near finalized process to amplify US SOUTHCOM’s presence across five proposed bases in Colombia. Last April I outlined the initial whispers of DOD moving shop to its Andean neighbor after getting the boot from the Manta forward operating location in Ecuador. But, the scope of this proposed ten year lease would mark a shift in US defense and counternarcotics operations in scale, projection and orientation in the region.

While Colombian defense minister Freddy Padilla has made it clear that negotiations are indeed underway, he and others in the Uribe administration have made strident efforts to emphasize the more integrated nature of this agreement. In essence, the US presence would be on a shorter leash, operating in the context of collaborative guests, privy to limitations on immunity ordained to US personnel, military and civilian, that carry out mission objectives in Colombian territory.

Predictably, this remains a sensitive issue for US officials. It strongly objects to the trying of US citizens involved in state business under international jurisdiction. The advantages to this agreement however, would further force projection and narcotics interdiction efforts to include the Caribbean and Pacific sectors, and through the well equipped operations base, Palanquero, in central Colombia. Colombia would too benefit on some level from bolstered surveillance and counterinsurgency capabilities provided by US military aid.

Still to be determined is the legality of such an agreement under Colombian law. Critics question whether the nature of foreign force augmentation would require permission from its congress and/or supreme court. In any case, this move spells anything but toeing away from US security commitment to its Andean counterpart.

A second reality appears a bit more dubious for now, but nonetheless will come to pass. I’m fairly confident that the Obama administration would have no qualms in pushing the Colombian Free Trade Agreement out the door under a subdued political climate. Yet, much as during the election season, this move under our economic dry spell would equate to swift political suicide. Now it would not only do battle with labor unions, but the American taxpayer would also cry ‘job exodus’.

In reality, as many have pointed out, much of these free trade stipulations already exist and are actively utilized by multinationals– just in temporary form. The benefit of actually solidifying them would draw greater potential for foreign investment under the premise of economic security to Colombian industry. Between intermittent nationalization and waves in free trade initiatives, many international firms will simply not invest in Latin American infrastructure if there are marginal doubts of its sustainability in hard times. Bottom line, yes, labor conditions and security are issues, but not the principal factor halting the agreement.

Beyond these two dynamics stand many more complexities — but regardless of who draws numbers in the upcoming 2010 Colombian presidential election, they’ll likely recognize this alliance has, in reality, drifted little, even if now a bit more behind closed doors.

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Colombia, Locuras, Media

Last action hero— Uribe's prowess on the airwaves

Perusing the Colombian presidential site recently, I happened to stumble upon perhaps the most entertaining and self-aggrandizing highlight reel of Álvaro Uribe to date, donning a gushy tagline, ‘[A] fighter for democracy- 2008: A historic year’.

If the title doesn’t throw you a bone, the Tony Scott-esque, multi-hued quick cuts, and dramatic choir score all but drown you in Colombia’s political meld ’08. The short boasts a theatrical depiction of the year’s crises, to a theme vaguely reminiscent of Man on Fire— Uribe confronts Colombian injustice with a personal fervor, not afraid to rub elbows. Well, almost.

Running a hefty 20+ minutes, the recap of his administration’s advances in its ‘Democratic Security’ agenda marches to an obsessive crescendo rhythm: enter the ominous threat (be it FARC, ponzi schemes, etc.), pause for a reflecting lull, and alas, queue the over-the-top reverence of Uribe’s resolution (think teary Jerry Springer reunion of abandoned orphan siblings).

Apart from its telenovela sappiness, the video provokes its viewer and however awkwardly, highlights just a few reasons Uribe retains an impressive approval rating among Colombians. Not only has the president towed a line of security advances this past year, but he also showcases a cunning ability to leverage the media—both domestically and internationally.

It’s actually quite fascinating to observe the dichotomy of Uribe’s public demeanor in each sphere.

In declarations and interviews to the Colombian populace, he passes as intellectually calculating, authoritative, and rather inflexible to his agenda’s detractors (ie. branding his critics camouflaged communists or guerrilla sympathizers). Although undeniably a master orator, on many occasions he tends to polarize an audience with sharp rhetoric.

Whether it be at President Bush’s side in the Rose Garden, or at the table with Charlie Rose, Uribe has a lightened demeanor all together when addressing the international arena. Yes, iterating the complexities of one’s agenda in a foreign language dulls the scene, but more so, Uribe knows his audience, what he wants, and is quite witty in his varied approach to obtain it. He was an attorney after all.

While Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez often grabs headlines for the audacity of his media stunts and rants on his weekly television program, perhaps Bush, who awarded Uribe the Medal of Freedom this week, now wonders why he hadn’t sought a few media pointers from his more subtle, South American ally.

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Colombia

‘Firm hand, big heart’ really at play for Uribe?

César Carrión – SP

The FARC has been dealt a series of stiff blows in 2008— its founding father forfeits to the abyss, several of its principal commanders are killed, even betrayed, and actionable intelligence flows from a wave of demoralizing desertions. In its wake, president Uribe has refortified his campaign of ‘Democratic Security’, to unprecedented approval ratings among Colombians.

Yet, the rural insurgency slugs onward, low-level and diminished, but at a perpetual buzz. The state’s counterinsurgency campaign has for the time plateaued.

Uribe now faces a tactical crossroad. He’s rolled back force projection of the rebel faction and fractured its operational cohesion. Utilizing his venerable, Mano Firme (Firm Hand) tactics, he has calculatingly diminished the state adversary in both size and capacity, gleaning intelligence and pouncing when it yields actionable targets.

However, the promise always on the horizon, but almost impalpable to the pages of Colombian history— a demobilization of the guerrilla— might just hinge upon the latter part of the president’s catchphrase doctrine, Corazón Grande (Big Heart). Aptly, does the conflict now call for more carrot than stick?

To this end, Uribe reiterated this past week the government’s offer to grant ‘liberty’ to any guerrilla who chooses to abandon the cause and takes with them a hostage to be freed. This serves to undermine discipline through the FARC ranks, appear lenient to the public, and marks potential to draw hostages out by exploiting FARC’s weakest internal links.

In a stump speech from Popayán, Uribe articulated the policy in a rather round-about and ambiguous manner. One is left pondering what exactly the demobilization guarantees the FARC member and what it really means with regard to the judicial review of state crimes— listen below (in Spanish):

[audio:http://web.presidencia.gov.co/banco/2008/diciembre/voces/voz3469.mp3|titles=President Uribe on Demobilization of FARC w/ Hostages]

In summary, Uribe equates this offer to the preconditions of a humanitarian exchange, under which grave crimes against the state cannot be forgiven outright with impunity— they must enter the judicial process for investigation and rendered to due process of the courts. However, in highlighting the case of the recently defected guerrilla, alias ‘Isaza’, Uribe emphasizes an offer of fair treatment, leniency, and generous monetary compensation. Isaza fled a FARC camp with former congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano and has since been given medical attention and offered asylum in France under the wing of former captive, Ingrid Betancourt.

Uribe’s intended message? Pretty straight forward: flee your dire straits with a hostage and you will be compensated with a potentially respectable living– choose to continue waging the insurgency and you will end up in a body bag.

While I believe this psychological run is a very effective tactic in undermining the FARC, I remain skeptical due to the extremely ambiguous nature of the offer. These guerrillas face a certain death if caught attempting to desert. For a bite at the carrot, the state has to dangle something provocative. Beyond this, if judging by the ugly mess of contemporary paramilitary demobilization, there is much reason for both sides and their respective victims to remain skeptical of guarantees.

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Colombia, History, Inter-American Relations, War on Drugs

Plan Colombia — shock and…flaw?


Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald; U.S. Dept. of Defense

Colombian special forces and intelligence officials pulled off a polished, technically sound, albeit risky rescue mission this past week. Needless to say, the payoff was nothing short of monumental. The operational ruse yielded a swath of the FARC’s most politically significant captives, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Unless one was trekking the Amazon in search of the “lost tribe,” the aftermath played out center stage internationally— a sweeping political victory for President Álvaro Uribe.

For those who follow the Colombian counterinsurgency it should come as no great surprise that U.S. officials have played a deft but discreet role toward this poignant moment, perhaps the crushing blow to a once-formidable FARC. Officials of both countries have made it abundantly clear that Colombian forces planned, commanded, and executed this operation in full force. But, as Juan Forero of The Washington Post outlines in his piece this Wednesday, American assistance was pivotal in its combat support role. Actionable intelligence was exchanged, government consent provided, and U.S. Special Forces operators accompanied reconnaissance units they had been for years training in tracking the hostages’ positions along the Apaporis River of southern Colombia.

The professionalism and ingenuity of the Colombian armed forces and cadre of intelligence officers has truly been showcased this year. With remarkable breakthroughs in its long-winded counterinsurgency, it has now managed to ravage the ranks of the FARC secretariat, largely untouched for 40 plus years.

Riding the congratulatory wave, many officials here in Washington are eager to tout Plan Colombia as a beacon of American foreign aid, its largest package delivered outside of the Middle East. Highlighting the success of such initiatives, Senior Policy Analyst Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, asserts:

“The rescue is a powerful indicator that U.S. assistance and support for Colombia’s military through Plan Colombia continues to yield results in the campaign against the narco-terrorists of the FARC, stripping away their leaders and military cohesion, and now their ability to manipulate the headlines through exploitation of the plight of captives.” […]

“As [U.S.] Congress moves to debate continued funding for Plan Colombia, it should consider the rescue of Ms. Betancourt, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Howe, and Mr. Stansill as a demonstration of the effectiveness of Colombia’s military forces. Well-trained, professional and under civilian guidance, Colombia’s military is willing to partner with the U.S. to curb the depredations of kidnappers and narco-terrorists. “

While the bolstered state of the Colombian military indeed marks a solid affirmation and can be in part attributed to American assitance, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombian affairs from the Center for International Policy, points out the following (see link for statistics):

“According to this exercise, we estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. military aid in 2007 went to non-drug missions. The remaining aid – nearly two-thirds – has gone to the drug war, which – as is now general knowledge – has not affected the amount of coca grown, or cocaine produced, in Colombia and the Andes.” (emphasis original to author)

Here marks the fine line Plan Colombia has teetered upon since its induction by President Clinton and Pastrana in 2000. In large part, the comprehensive package had been cloaked as a counternarcotics initiative, partitioning the contribution of U.S. resources from that of domestic counterinsurgency operations. In this respect it has failed rather miserably. While many would argue over the years the two campaigns are indistinguishable, political considerations drove this agenda amid frustrations of field-grade American and Colombian officials. As such, until recently, American policy in Colombia defined Washington’s initiative toward the fabled War on Drugs.
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Colombia, Ecuador, Inter-American Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, War on Drugs

Ecuador gives Uncle Sam the boot — onward to a familiar neighbor?


Bernardo Londoy

It looks like Uncle Sam’s tree fort may be out of commission soon enough in Ecuador. In a familiar twist, the U.S. strategic footprint continues to ebb from yet another round of regional diatribe. Ecuadorian officials have fervently voiced opposition to renewing a bilateral agreement which currently permits a U.S. outpost on a national military base in the coastal city of Manta. Amidst the public jousting, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, acknowledged this past Friday that U.S. officials have lobbied the transfer of the FOL (Forward Operating Location) to the Pacific theatre of its northern neighbor.

According to the U.S. State Department, the current FOL stationed in Manta, Ecuador fulfills the following:

“The mission of the FOL is to help Ecuador protect the sovereignty of its territory against the transnational crime of drug trafficking. We are supporting efforts in the Eastern Pacific to intercept the flow of drugs that threatens the health, safety and economic stability of our hemisphere. Our cooperation with Ecuador is producing positive results.”

Translation: the post functions as a minor node for the fabled U.S. ‘War on Drugs’. Much akin to its counterpart in Colombia, U.S. civilian and military presence remains rather limited in its numbers and scope. Framed as a 10 year deal, the American FOL in Ecuador commenced in 1999 and is slated to expire, without renewal, in November 2009. The station is permitted at any one time to host up to 500 U.S. personnel, yet according to the State Department its current capacity employs far fewer:

“There are approximately 15 full-time U.S. personnel who work at the FOL to support the anti-drug flights. Depending on the number of flights at any given time, on average 150 pilots, crew members and other U.S. support personnel might be situated at the FOL for brief periods of a few days or weeks.”

These flights operate within the framework of aerial reconnaissance, essentially relaying intelligence for mobilization of Ecuadorian forces against suspected narcotics operations in their territories. Much of this is carried out by private contractors in the ‘grand’ Andean plan to eradicate the crop at its source.

While President Rafael Correa would like to wholly brand the outpost a bellicose infringement of sovereignty under the guise to dethrone his populist regime (though CIA appears active in country), it really amounts to King-Kong rhetoric among the region’s caudillos. The political move to rebuke the Gringos represents both an opportune moment to demonize complicity with American foreign policy, and to also undercut the Colombian position on FARC hits in Ecuadorian territory early March.

In recent years the traditional string of military assistance and training to pan-American countries has waned from levels of the 20th century fusion. Brazil, Panama, Argentina and Puerto Rico among others are ceasing to send their top commanders to the School of the Americas for operational training by U.S. forces. Among these countries, too have been the closing of U.S. operations centers positioned to maintain logistic projection of force and counter the surge of transnational organized crime (TOC) in the SOUTHCOM theater. The anomaly to this crescendo has been Colombia.

However, with the current freezing of the free trade agreement (TLC) in US Congress, it shall be a bit of a dance for President Álvaro Uribe regarding American operational expansion in country. Is he perturbed by the calls to further curb human rights abuses from U.S. public figures amid their very request to bolster American counternarcotics operations? While he entertains absurdly high approval ratings at home, his clout among the region’s trading partners dissipates with each passing confrontation. Can he afford ruffling the feathers yet again?

It seems likely that the already scant American presence in Ecuador will indeed wither by 2009, but it is yet to be gauged whether any strategic gain would merit either party with an outlying FOL on the Colombian coast. Perhaps more fundamentally it flaunts the U.S. loss of touch with the reality in Latin America.

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