U.S. base agreement has placed Colombia in the diplomatic crossfire
between two hemispheric powers with dramatically different visions of
the region’s political future. The country’s leadership should tread carefully in the difficult days ahead.
are currently a number of ongoing disputes surrounding the base
agreement. In the U.S., several prominent Democratic senators have
questioned the Obama administration’s decision to strengthen ties with
the Colombian military, which has a questionable human rights record.
Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his closest allies in the region have
attacked the deal with sensationalist, even violent rhetoric.
Domestically, many Colombian politicians have criticized the relative
secrecy of the deal’s details and prior negotiations.
the most important debate, however, is a subtler, more diplomatic
struggle between an increasingly autonomous Latin America and the U.S.
government. Not too long ago, the U.S. had a strong military presence
in Latin America. In those days, the U.S.-Colombia base deal would have
been entirely unremarkable. Today, on the other hand, nearly every
Latin American leader has called on the U.S. to explain the agreement.
It is abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already obvious, that Latin
America is no longer America’s backyard.
The Emergence of Brazil
U.S.’s main rival in this new political landscape is Brazil. For years,
analysts have anticipated that Brazil could come to challenge American
hegemony in Latin America, but few predicted that it would happen so
quickly. America’s role as a hemispheric leader has gradually been
undermined by its waning relative power worldwide and its incompetence
and neglect with regard to Latin America, especially in the past decade.
Brazil has begun to grow into a global power and is quietly expanding
its influence in the region. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
often steps forward to resolve intra-regional disputes, take leadership
on issues of global concern and, in the case of the base deal, protect
South America from perceived foreign intervention. In short, Brazil
increasingly views itself as a far more appropriate regional leader
than the distant, confused Americans.
Brazil has begun to treat America as an equal in regional diplomacy. To
some extent, the Americans have reciprocated; Lula was the first Latin
American leader to be invited to Obama’s White House.
The U.S.’s Misunderstanding of a Changing Region
America’s vision of regional politics is dramatically different from
Brazil’s. The U.S. has made only a limited effort to explain the base
deal, rejecting, perhaps inadvertently, the region’s almost unanimous
calls for dialogue. From the point of view of the American government,
especially the military and anti-drug establishment, the base deal is
merely a small part of superpower’s global wars on drugs and terrorism.
a Washington Post editorial this week described the deal as
“unremarkable” and was surprised by the controversy surrounding it.
the American leadership seems to ignore, however, is the fact that many
Latin Americans think, and hope, that the days of “unremarkable”
American soldiers in the region are long gone.
In fact, most American observers, including those at the Democratic-leaning
Washington Post, seem to attribute regional reservations about the base
deal to Chavista propaganda and not a genuine feeling of regional
autonomy. Lula, who in fact has challenged
Chavismo’s takeover of the left in Latin America, is almost considered a secondary member of the Chavista bloc. Indeed, the Washington Post editorial failed to even mention President Lula, but instead focused on President Chavez.
Colombia’s Problematic Friendship
But, back to the central point, what does this all mean for Colombia?
Clearly, the country should rethink its relationship with the United States. Since
the emergence of Hugo Chavez, Colombia has viewed the United States as
a powerful bodyguard against regional rivals. In reality, America is
more like a strong but clumsy friend whose behavior has isolated him
from everyone else in the neighborhood. Colombia’s alliance with the
U.S. may bring some degree of protection against perceived threats, but
it also carries significant risks.
main risk is obviously that the “friendship” will drag Colombia into
isolation. As Latin America moves toward greater autonomy and
intra-regional cooperation, Colombia may find that its dependence on U.S.
support will be an obstacle to broader and deeper collaboration with
innovative, reasonable countries like Brazil and Chile.
the past, Latin Americans needed only to look North for trade, aid and
guidance. Today, the most successful Latin American countries are
increasingly looking toward each other and, just as importantly, to
and Europe. Attaching itself to an aging superpower while sacrificing
other opportunities for cooperation may be an unwise strategic move for
Uribe. The region as a whole, with very few exceptions, is moving in a
new direction, but Colombia is staying put.
be fair, Colombia does have a much more acute awareness of regional
politics than the U.S., partly out of necessity. President Uribe was
quick to schedule a symbolically constructive but otherwise
unsuccessful damage-control tour around the region to explain the base
deal. He seems to understand that Colombia cannot afford to become a
regional pariah and has done a decent job of countering Chavez’s
deliberate efforts to isolate Colombia.
Nevertheless, in the long run, Colombia is isolating itself. Although Lula
and Chavez do not see eye to eye on many issues, they at least agree
that Latin America could benefit from greater independence from the
United States and, in that sense, their general vision contrasts with
that of Uribe.
base deal is a complex and multidimensional issue, but Colombia would
do well to remember that its already delicate relationship with Latin
America as a whole is on the line.