Jorge G. Castañeda
Backed Into a Corner
By Jorge Castañeda
Published Sep 5, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Sep 14, 2009
Rarely has there been such a show of unanimity in Latin America. Last week, in response to a new agreement between Washington and Bogotá that grants U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia, almost every member of UNASUR—the South American group that some would like to replace the Organization of American States (perhaps because it excludes the U.S., Mexico, and Canada)—used a summit meeting to lambaste U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
Some did it graciously, like the leaders of Brazil and Chile; others, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Evo Morales of Bolivia, did it stridently, as is their wont. But everyone seemed to agree there was more to the arrangement than meets the eye. Despite U.S. and Colombian insistence that the deal will be limited to drug-enforcement and antiterrorism measures, most Latin leaders see it as an attempt to increase the U.S. military presence in the region. In this they are both right and wrong.
The agreement—at least the parts that have been made public—does stick to these issues, and does not call for an increase in U.S. personnel in Colombia (currently capped at 1,400). Nor does it entail the stationing of more U.S. aircraft, weapons, or surveillance equipment than was previously at the Drug Enforcement Administration base in Manta, Ecuador. Yet therein lies the crux of the problem. When the U.S. lease on Manta expired this year, Correa shut it down. Reasonably enough, Washington sought alternatives. Colombia seemed ideal, precisely because there is already a small U.S. military presence there.
As a result, however, Colombia now finds itself in exactly the state of isolation that Chávez warned would result at the UNASUR meeting. Colombia is threatened from the east by Chávez, who not only has initiated an arms race by purchasing huge amounts of Russian planes, tanks, Kalashnikovs, and personnel carriers, but also tolerates safe havens for Colombian FARC guerrillas on his side of the border. Many experts, and the Colombian government, claim that he also provides money, weapons, training, and medical treatment to the FARC. To the southwest, Colombia faces a similar menace from Ecuador, which also supports the narco-insurgents and grants them sanctuary. And at home, Uribe faces the challenge of trying to wipe up the rebels, who are mortally wounded but remain active in many parts of the country.
Given these constraints, Uribe reacted logically by tightening his bonds with Colombia's only real ally in the hemisphere (even Mexico has been lukewarm in its support). But the result is that Uribe and Obama are now pretty much on their own in Latin America—not at all what the U.S. president had in mind when he took office and hoped to initiate a new era of relations. On the surface, it seems that neither Obama nor Uribe had much choice.
In fact, they did have options. To recapture the diplomatic initiative, Uribe could and should take a bold step and decline to seek another term as president (his tenure expires in 2010). This would place all of Latin America's populists, who are seeking to perpetuate their own power, on the defensive. Second, Uribe and Obama should stop simply reacting to Chávez's diplomatic antics, and go on the offensive by showing the region and the world exactly how Venezuela and its allies are polarizing their societies and the hemisphere, as well as constantly meddling in everybody's domestic affairs.
They should make it clear that such activities, as well as growing ties with Russia and Iran, threaten regional peace and security—because of the increasing arms race, Iran's nuclear program, and Chávez's incessant rhetorical broadsides, which risk eventually escalating beyond the verbal. Ever since 1999—under three administrations—Washington has, to one degree or another, constantly turned its military, ideological, and diplomatic cheek every time Caracas provoked it. Uribe, by contrast, has fought back and then pulled back. The time has come for maintaining a "no-drama Obama" military posture while taking the diplomatic initiative. The two countries cannot scrap their agreement, but they should not go beyond its limited military scope. Meanwhile, they should work to reduce their isolation and increase Venezuela's. Otherwise Chávez will keep dragging the region with him—and Uribe and Obama will find themselves increasingly alone.
Castañeda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico, is Global Distinguished Professor at New York University and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.