Between the Lines: Q&A with Larry Birns

New U.S. Military Bases in Colombia Will Increase Regional Tensions
Melinda Tuhus
September 16, 2009

For more than 40 years, political violence has been a fact of life in Colombia, as left-wing and right-wing guerrilla groups have fought the government and each other. The U.S. government, under President Bill Clinton, increased the U.S. role there with the inauguration of Plan Colombia in 2000, at the end of Clinton’s second term. The stated goal was to help Colombia fight drug trafficking, which was, among other things, fueling the guerrilla movements.

Continued U.S. funding was supposedly contingent on improvements in Colombia’s human rights record. That nation is currently the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. In August, the Obama administration brokered a deal with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to increase the U.S. military presence in his country, much to the dismay of many other Latin American nations. Then, on Sept. 11, the U.S. State Department certified enough improvement in Colombia’s human rights record that it released an additional $32 million to be used to fight gangs and drug smugglers. This, despite the fact that extra-judicial killings in Colombia are still common, including 49 labor rights activists murdered in 2008, up from 39 killed during 2007, but down from the 78 killed in 2006.

In June, the United Nations reported that Colombian soldiers had killed hundreds of civilians, falsely identifying them as leftist guerrillas in order to increase body counts. Between the Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Larry Birns, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. He describes some of the background to these two recent developments and what they portend for the region.

LARRY BIRNS: President Uribe of Colombia has decided that he wants to be Washington’s pre-eminent ally in Latin America, together with Peru. And as a result of that he has gone out of his way to accommodate what he thinks are Washington’s security needs. What interests Uribe is the drug issue and the insurgency, led by the FARC, leftist insurgency that is decades old in Colombia. This relationship, under President Bush — although it goes back to President Clinton — the relationship has blossomed, and under Plan Colombia, which is a strategic concept originally thought up by President Pastrana of Colombia, but significantly altered by President Clinton and then very much expanded by President Bush. So at the present time, Colombia has received over $8 billion in U.S. military aid, making it the third largest recipient of such aid of any country in the world, after Israel and Egypt.

The present situation is that the U.S. resurrected its Fourth Fleet, which had been demobilized back in 1950, and the fleet was said to be tasked with missions of humanitarian aid, earthquake and other disaster relief, health, and “project US authority in the region.” That last phrase was very ominous. Now, up to now not much has been done with the revival of the fleet, but what has happened recently is that Colombia — anxious to come forth with gestures of good will towards Washington, particularly since Ecuador, with which Washington does not have a good relationship, has ended Washington’s lease on the Manta airbase which was used by the US for anti-drug activities. So the U.S. felt it needed a new base, so in effect what it got was the use of seven existing military bases, five of them being airports and two of them being naval bases, which are currently being used by Colombian authorities, but will be significantly expanded now to be dual use. So we’re going to see a significant, although not a vast increase, in the U.S. military presence in Colombia — it will not be more than, let’s say, 800 U.S. soldiers and 600 U.S. civilian contractors.

But people are worried not only about where this might go, but they’re also worried about what it’s going to do to the rest of the region. The origins of what you could see as an arms race taking place, with country after country beginning to make these very significant purchases of weapons.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Larry Birns, what’s your take on the Obama administration’s decision that Colombia has made so much progress in improving its human rights record that the U.S. is going to release an additional $32 million in military aid?

LARRY BIRNS: I just had a high official of the Colombian government come to my office to try to persuade me that Colombia has changed. The fact is that it has somewhat improved, but only somewhat. What we have here is that the U.S. is once again making a politicized judgment, based not upon any kind of scientific merit, or even a good counting of casualties that have occurred, but has certainly offended the trade union community in the U.S., which has been waging a very spirited struggle against the entrance into free trade until the murder of scores of labor leaders is ended. Colombia’s level of corruption and its human rights violations certainly towers over countries like Venezuela that have relatively benign records compared to Colombia.