Despite recently signing a base agreement with the U.S., Colombia stands isolated and defenseless in the latest row with Venezuela. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of the agreement signed in October to allow the American military to operate out of some Colombian bases was that solidifying bilateral military relations would help ward off the increasingly erratic and aggressive Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. The deal, according to its Colombian proponents, would make Chavez think twice before attacking Colombia.
In the weeks since the base deal was signed, however, it seems only to have had fuelled the Chavez fire. Tensions were high even before violence along the Colombia-Venezuela border triggered a rhetorical war between the two countries’ leaders last week. Fortunately for Chavez, the base deal also distanced Colombia from other South American leaders. Many throughout Latin America have begun to believe the Venezuelan president’s claims that Colombia and its North American ally are not to be trusted. Therefore, despite the fact that Chavez continues to wage a dangerous and mostly one-sided campaign of insults and threats against Colombia, South American leaders have remained largely passive and impartial. In short, the agreement has strengthened Chavez’s position in his ongoing squabble with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Meanwhile, as the political crisis with Venezuela has escalated, the U.S. has been strangely quiet. Rather than defend Colombia, the American leadership has offered to act as a mediator, seeming to ignore its central role in the recent quarrel.
Why has the American government been so reluctant stand by its most loyal ally in Latin America? One reason is that, from the start, its position on the base agreement was unclear. As the Defense Department began to work on the details of the agreement with Colombia, the State Department – America’s version of a Foreign Ministry – struggled to justify or explain the deal to South American leaders who were understandably apprehensive about the presence of U.S. soldiers in Colombia. In fact, the regional anxiety about the base deal seemed almost to catch America’s top diplomats by surprise.
The roots of this incoherence lie in an underlying tension in U.S. policy toward Colombia between the American military establishment on the one hand, and the more progressive State Department and Democratic Congress on the other. Just this week, as the base deal once again threatens to bring Colombia and Venezuela to the brink of war, Democrats in Congress circulated a letter to President Obama asking to reduce military aid to Colombia due to the country’s poor human rights record.
Indeed, American policy toward Colombia may be in a period of transition. For the time being, at least, the country that was once Uribe’s strongest ally now seems schizophrenic. Some in the U.S. government, particularly in the security and anti-drug establishment, want to strengthen America’s commitment to the so-called war on drugs. In contrast, liberal politicians want the U.S. to distance itself from the controversial Colombian president and play a less polarizing role in hemispheric politics.
In response to the most recent crisis, which has seen Hugo Chavez ask his country to prepare for war, American diplomats seem to have missed the fact that an American base deal is at the heart of the growing tensions. Its offer to “mediate” between Colombia and Venezuela seems either absurdly ignorant or blatantly duplicitous. Either way, this bizarre and unexpected American position has allowed Chavez to prolong his recklessness.
Just two weeks after it was signed, the base deal has already failed in two ways. Not only has it emboldened and strengthened Chavez, but, worse yet, has failed to secure American political support for Colombia. In this latest regional crisis, perhaps more than in any other, Colombia is weak and isolated. The country risked alienating its neighbors in order to deepen military ties with America, but those sacrifices have not paid off. The more that Colombia invests in its partnership with the U.S., at the expense of relations with other Latin American countries, the more it risks further isolation.