Unsettling Revelations Regarding U.S. Lease of Colombian Military Bases

U.S. Air Force Reveals Another Possible Explanation Behind Bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement

On Friday, October 30, U.S. and Colombian officials signed the controversial Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), granting the U.S. armed forces access to seven Colombian military bases for the next ten years. The deal has been the subject of anxious speculation and heated debate since talks were first confirmed over the summer, as many policymakers throughout the hemisphere are now grappling with the reality of a heightened U.S. military presence in South America.

Though details were not released to the public prior to the signing of the agreement, official statements from both governments have continuously affirmed that the leased facilities would be exclusively used to support counternarcotic and counterinsurgency initiatives within Colombia. However, a recently publicized U.S. Air Force document presents a far more ominous explanation for massive congressional funding for the forthcoming military construction at the Colombian bases. It emphasizes the “opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America” against threats not only from drug trafficking and guerrilla movements, but also from “anti-U.S. governments” in the region.

The day after the signing of the DCA, the Colombian newsweekly Semana publicized the document, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in May. The Budget Estimate Justification Data for the Military Construction Program of the U.S. Air Force was intended to defend the appropriation of $46 million to outfit and update the Palanquero air base, the largest such facility in Colombia and one of the seven to be leased through the DCA. Submitted long before the security accord was reached in mid-August, the Air Force budget justification document constitutes the first official declaration of the rationale for the agreement with Colombia, a statement of intent met with approval from the U.S. Congress. The document appears to validate the persistent reservations expressed by Colombia’s neighbors, particularly Venezuela, in regards to the real motivation and potential scope of the DCA, and has added further strain to the already tense relations that the U.S. and Colombia have with other South American countries.

Behind Closed Doors: The Defense Cooperation Agreement

Details of the agreement between the United States and Colombia have been shrouded in secrecy since the summer, when an article in the Colombian magazine Cambio first drew international attention to the $46 million appropriation earmarked by the House of Representatives to upgrade the Palanquero base, signaling possibility of a military deal between the two countries. In response to the article, three Colombian ministers held a press conference in Bogotá that marked the first in a series of attempts to offset speculation that the operations of U.S. military personnel and civil contractors on the leased bases may not remain limited only to countering security threats within Colombia. The session was also intended to reassure the public that the agreement would not permit unilateral U.S. operations nor the creation of new U.S. bases there. The ministers confirmed that the seven existing Colombian bases leased as a result of the deal— Palanquero, Malambo, Tolemaida, Larandia, Apíay, Cartagena and Málaga— would remain fully under Colombian jurisdiction. Days after the August 14 accord was reached, the State Department issued a statement confirming that the DCA, which was then under review, would “facilitate effective bilateral cooperation on security matters in Colombia, including narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, illicit smuggling of all types, and humanitarian and natural disasters.”

Colombia’s neighbors remain skeptical as to the objectives of the arrangement, and despite international pressure to publicize the terms of the agreement, transparency has been lacking. The DCA was only released to the public on Tuesday, November 3, nearly three months after the accord had been reached and days after it was signed by Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez and the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield. President Álvaro Uribe submitted the agreement to be reviewed by the Consejo de Estado (State Council), a non-partisan state advisory institution. However, Uribe ignored the Council’s recommendation to make the DCA open to congressional debate, even though the agreement unquestionably enjoys the support of the majority of Colombians. The Council urged further review in order to resolve critical concerns that make the agreement excessively “vague and unbalanced,” as well as potentially problematic for Colombia. Among these concerns are the agreement’s ambiguous wording regarding the cooperative relationship, time frame, legal status of U.S. personnel stationed in the country, use of satellites, and the role of third countries. Refusing to release the DCA to the already supportive Colombian public generated even more suspicion of the Uribe administration.

Justifying Strategic Interests: The Military Construction Budget Estimate
The U.S. Air Force construction budget for the Palanquero base, published by Semana magazine on Saturday, October 31, appears to validate existing regional anxieties regarding the implications of the long-obscured military base deal. The Budget Estimate Justification document, which outlines the specific destination and purpose of the funds, gave further weight to the questions first raised in July surrounding the pending deal and the purpose of U.S. military funding destined for the Colombian bases. In contrast to the Defense Cooperation Agreement, this document stands as a far more concrete declaration of intent for U.S. military presence in South America, as “an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America.” Contrary to public statements from both governments, this document confirms the potential of the military cooperation to extend beyond Colombian borders. Furthermore, it suggests that the base could be used for continental combat operations and to neutralize regional governments considered “anti-U.S.,” presumably Venezuela but also likely including Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Located near the Magdalena River 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogotá, the Palanquero base has the capacity to lodge over 2,000 personnel, hangar space for 50-60 airplanes, and the longest runways in the country, Palanquero is already Colombia’s largest military base and one of the most advanced in Latin America. Leasing this Colombian facility would provide the U.S. Air Force with “access to the entire continent.” According to the budget justification, the planned structural and operational improvements are intended to “leverage existing infrastructure to the maximum extent possible, improve the U.S. ability to respond rapidly to crisis, and assure regional access and presence at minimum cost.” The upgrade is also intended to “increase [the U.S. Air Force’s] capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).” Within this budget justification, stated interests in counternarcotic and counterinsurgency operations within Colombia are sidelined in favor of promoting strategic military and security throughout the hemisphere.

This explanation marks a critical departure from the public representation of the agreement embodied in official statements that have been made since the summer as well as in the recently released DCA. U.S. Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz dismissed the document as “budget, not policy,” maintaining that only the DCA would govern the activities of the U.S. military in Colombia. However, with so much left up to interpretation by the DCA itself, the budget justification document may represent “a more candid declaration of intent,” according to John Lindsay-Poland, co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin American and the Caribbean. Rather than a firm policy framework, Lindsay-Poland explains that instead the DCA is “an empty vessel that provides a structure for military cooperation, whereas the budget document is a declaration of the military’s intent for how that structure will be used.” He argues that the Pentagon is looking to gain strategic capacity in the region over the long term. Weak non-interference provisions in the DCA are unlikely to succeed where accords by the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States (OAS) have failed, as in the case of the U.S.-backed attack on Ecuador by Colombian forces in 2008. The vague terms of the DCA as well as the secrecy of the talks surrounding it have raised questions not only concerning its present intent, but also its future exploitability over its ten-year duration.

Escalating the Latin American Arms Race

In much of Latin America, the Defense Cooperation Agreement has been understood as a threatening act of aggression, especially in light of the combative language used in its budget justification. In the news article revealing the existence of the budget document, Semana magazine characterized the deal with the U.S. as an escalation of the ongoing arms race in the region, calling it the beginning of a “new Cold War.” Prior to the amplification of its strategic partnership with the U.S., Colombia lacked the capital to compete with the weapons arsenal accumulated by its neighbors, particularly Venezuela and Brazil. Former presidential security advisor Armando Borrero noted that with U.S. resources and support, Colombia no longer “had to involve itself in the regional arms race” that it could scarcely afford. According to Semana, for Colombian military leaders who had long sought a way to obtain the personnel and equipment to engage Venezuela on an equal military footing, “this accord seemed to fall from the sky.”

Since talks on the deal were first publicized over the summer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has perceived the amplification of U.S. military presence in the region as targeting his country for a possible attack. At the summit of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) in August, he denounced the agreement as a sign that the “winds of war are starting to blow.” Chávez has since used the bilateral pact as both an opportunity to question Colombia’s sovereignty, and more importantly to justify further arms purchases for Venezuela. In a speech on September 14, he reasoned, “what could we do if the Yanquis are establishing seven military bases?” On Thursday, November 5, following the signing of the DCA, Chávez carried out his promise to sever diplomatic ties with Colombia; he also froze trade between the two nations, which already had fallen by nearly half in September.

The U.S. Air Force document, which designates funding to “increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR),” gives substantial weight to Chávez’s fears of destabilization by the U.S. and Colombia, particularly in the wake of the Venezuelan government’s recent accusation of espionage by the Colombian intelligence agency (DAS). Speaking before the National Assembly on October 29, Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami presented documents allegedly originating from DAS, which showed that Colombia had sent spies to Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba as part of a CIA-linked operation. While Colombia heatedly denied the allegations, they did not refute the validity of the intercepted DAS documents. By pursuing this vague and open-ended deal with Colombia and approving the combative language of the budget justification document, U.S. officials have accelerated the simmering conflict between the neighboring South American countries by legitimizing Venezuela’s suspicions and precipitating the closure of vital channels of communication and exchange.

While international and regional governing bodies have neglected their mediating role in the face of the escalating conflict, Brazil has taken the initiative to engage the two countries in a constructive dialogue. On Friday, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced his intention to bring Uribe and Chávez together for a November 26 summit in the Brazilian city of Manaus. However, in order for talks to proceed between Colombia and Venezuela, the United States must better define the nature of the cooperative relationship established by the DCA and clarify the strategic regional interests suggested by the U.S. Air Force budget justification document. Transparency going forward is crucial to undoing the tangle of suspicion and antagonism fostered up to now by the U.S.-Colombian military cooperation deal.

21 thoughts on “Unsettling Revelations Regarding U.S. Lease of Colombian Military Bases

  • November 17, 2009 at 2:41 am
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    Cristina
    Reconozco su análisis sobre el acuerdo.Me parece que se está magnficando este tema gracias a que todos sin excepción nos hemos dejado arrastrar por las bravuconadas irresponsables del gobernante de Venezuela. Este acuerdo usted lo sabe Cristina es la continuación de uno existente entre dos países SOBERANOS. No entiendo porqué NUNCA se destacó el supuesto peligro hacia suramérica de la base Howard y otras en Panamá ,o las instalaciones en Puerto Rico que sí eran norteamericanas.
    De igual manera no se escuchó a ningún analista ( de izquierda o de derecha) hablar sobre Manta ,pero si se enfilan baterías contra un acuerdo que como dije anteriormente es entre dos países amigos. Los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica no tienen la culpa de ser una potencia económica, el problema es nuestro por asumir posiciones arcaicas frente al desarrollo del mundo y la solución es despotricar y desligitimar avances de culturas con espíritu investigador. En ese orden de ideas deberíamos criticar sin piedad a Bill gates por apoderarse del ciberespacio del mundo con su creatividad .
    En resumen y destacando su trabajo creo que estamos exacervando las relaciones entre países hermanos que como en todas las familias atraviesan momentos de dificultad.
    Como colofón es pertinente recordar que las famosas bases que se facilitarán en el DCA son COLOMBIANAS, construídas por colombianos y con dinero de Colombia, no hay que confundir al lector.
    Cordialmente
    Enrique Peña

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    • November 17, 2009 at 12:39 pm
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      The US bases in Ecuador, Panama and other Latin American nations have a different historical context then the agreement signed with the Colombian government. It is not possible to justify past actions with present context, on the contrary Enrique you must place the situation in the regional geopolitical realities of today. There is clear evidence of an arms race in the region; there is clear evidence that Chavez is defining the region in black and white tones and sees Colombia as an opposition government. Uribe on the other hand sees Venezuela as an ideological contender as well and find in its compatible relation with the United States an opportunity to further its own nation building agenda. Uribe is taking advantage of this opportunity to escalate its military strength without investing a cent; instead incrementally improving its military infrastructure via US funds. What his administration has ignored is the long term consequences of depending on the United States government for protection, considering that its administration will one day reach an end and that the possibilities of ideological change within the Colombian government exist. I understand you argument regarding sovereignty, however this is limited to construction and ownership rights. Nevertheless, when it comes to use of infrastructure, the agreement allows plenty of flexibility to the American armed forced to carry out military and defense policy that limits the national sovereignty of the Colombian government in terms of external affairs and defense decision making. Today, the incremental presence of American military personnel in the region represents a physical threat to left wing governments in the region.

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      • November 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm
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        Transparency is easy when you don't have anything to hide. Does it really take a political rocket scientist to discern reality here? A quick study of North and South American history since 1492 should reveal the USAI's intentions without any doubts and without any need to engage in futile "diplomacy" with those who speak with "forked tongues.' This ain't nuthin new, ya'll. Come on!

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    • November 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm
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      Bill Gates debería ser criticado enérgicamente por sus posiciones monopólicas en el mercado de PCs. Su poder hace que los usuarios paguen una y otra vez las correcciones de las ineficiencias de sus productos. Extendiendo este razonamiento, y volviendo contra su sofismo, sí, vale la pena cuestionar las intenciones de esas bases, más aún si aparecen escritas en los documentos del congreso. No hay que confundir al lector.

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  • November 17, 2009 at 6:18 pm
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    Yeah, Fidel knows a thing or two about hosting hostile bases…

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  • November 17, 2009 at 8:08 pm
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    Bueno Enrique… no puedes comparar la Base de Manta, ni la Base americana en Paraguay, ni Puerto Rico, con la presencia de 7 bases militares en 7 diferentes lugares estratégicos del país.
    Uno mirando al Amazonas, que es más que Venezuela y el pulmon del mundo. Otro Mirando al Sur, del Continente, literalmente. Otras dos miran a los océanos. En fin… creo que deberias leer el acuerdo firmado, ya que Colombia deja sus cielos y suelo abiertos para operaciones de EEUU. De la misma manera el acuerdo no favorece a Colombia en ninguna medida y de lejos es una peticion americana en contraprestación a la ayuda de los Planes Colombia y Patriota.
    De la misma manera, las bases en Colombia son una clara evidencia de Washington para frenar a como de lugar, empezando por la presión estratégica, el crecimiento del socialismo en el continente.

    Es un asunto que va más allá de narcotráfico y FARC. Eso está muy claro. Te recuerdo, que las instalaciones serán construidas por EEUU quienes toman todo la responsabilidad de construccion y adecuacion de las bases. De la misma manera EEUU queda con la opcion de usar suelo y tierra colombianas a su gusto en donde "cualquier aeropuerto podrá servir para el flujo del material empleado para efectos del tratado".

    Si bien EEUU es una potencia económica, estás empleando un termino equivocado, ya que debes mencionar que es una potencia militar y este es el punto del tratado, un tratado que va contra la propia Constutucion Colombiana, artículo 224. De la misma manera todo tratado "debe" pasar por el Congreso y este paso se lo saltó el actual gobierno.

    Como bien dices, Enrique, no hay que confundir al lector.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 8:35 am
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    Esta claro segun este acuerdo que EEUU no solo se pondra en Colombia a combatir el narcotrafico sino que tambien cualquier otro pais que se le antoje anti-americano, y eso sera el inicio de la polvora entre no solo Colombia y Venezuela, sino que tambien entre el resto de latino-America y Colombia. por lo tanto, Colombia no tendra nada que quejarse y debera afrontar las conse cuiencias si EEUU aparece como el maton de siempre, cuidando dictadores como lo ha hecho siempre desde el Siglo pasado.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 8:52 am
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    Today many parts of USA look like the third world
    if you have oil or any other commodity they covet they will come for you
    that you can bet on.
    Though the American people do not benefit of these operations the stupid American pays for the operations with blood and money while the elites get the prizes.

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    • November 18, 2009 at 5:44 pm
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      Amen Brother!
      Castro and Chavez. Thir names ring like a winning ticket for the potential 'Authentic Party.'
      US miltary presence in South America for any reason is a prelude to imminent imperilism. The imminence of invasion is why establishing USAI (I as in Israel) military bases in the region is being appropriately addressed as a "clear and present danger". Danger dictates a clear, present and preferably a prescient response. Nip this crap in the bud before the foothold becomes 7 military fully armed bases ready to launch an attack. They wouldn't have spent this much money to date if they were'nt up to "no good" (to put it mildly).
      P,S. A salute to Chavez with the comical, poetic reminder that "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

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    • November 19, 2009 at 3:08 am
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      Yea but the Elite put their money in tp mansions with runways, private jets, yachts, and super cars… and this drives innovation. And us normal folk get to build them.
      Socialism is rubbish cos it's in no ones interest to innovate, work or even car for anyone cos the state forces u.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 11:33 am
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    The warmonger amerikans have NO RIGHT TO BE IN ANY SOUTH AMERICAN NATION..NONE..THROW THEM OUT..

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  • November 18, 2009 at 11:56 am
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    The bases do indeed evince a degree of continuity with earlier policy, namely limiting financial expenditure and resources on tackling FARC and the cartels. In the 1990s this was done through "outsourcing" security to the paramilitaries (with atrocious results for HR abuses) in the 2000s it has been through Plan Colombia (with continued HR violations – see the "falsos positivos" and parapolitica scandals). Now it's the turn of direct US involvement.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 11:56 am
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    It must also be questioned to what extent the lease of these bases can be justified. Whether or not you support Uribe, his head-on approach to tackling FARC has paid dividends. On the question of the drugs production/trafficking/interdiction efforts we are more or less back to the status quo ante (Plan Colombia). Moreover, the last couple of years has witnessed the re-emergence of paramilitaries. The real significance of these bases really lies in the projection of the US considerable strategic capabilities across the continent (with the exception of Cape Horn, as the USAF document states!!!). This becomes all to clear when we consider the re-activation of the 4th Fleet. The crux of the matter, however, is this: to what extent does the tail wag the dog? As Stefano's comment highlights Obama will not be around for ever. He may even only be a one term president. So the question invariably arises: who takes his place? Palin? But also don't underestimate the extent to which Colombian political and military figures can manipulate and escalate a situation (border incursions, espionage) that would trigger US support.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 11:59 am
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    All in all, through acceding to the conditions attached to the treaties Colombia has effectively surrendered her sovereignty and become subject to suzerainty.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 3:47 pm
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    Lamentable…..Estados Unidos debió preocuparse de primeramente, mejorar su relaciones e imagen deteriorada con las Naciones Hermanas del Sur y así juntos comenzar una nueva etapa de real prosperidad basada en la honestidad y el buen corazón, que hubiese traído un inmenso progreso a todas Las Americas.
    Pero prefiere su acostumbrada forma de presentarse, con su mascara de guerra, beligerante y engañoso y así pretender infundir el respeto…..y establecer orden? Se aproximan los días en que todas las armas, especulaciones, manipulaciones e intereses de control no tendrán efecto….
    A quien sirven y cual es la lección para los arrogantes,embriagados en el poder y en la sangre de las vidas que sacrifican?
    Y después, eventualmente fusionaramos como Naciones Hermanas….el adelanto de los pueblos no radica en su avance belico-tecnológico ni en una economía basada en la especulación y el "invento" de formulas que produzcan dividendos. Aunque así hemos sido ensenadosa pensar y a creer por las academias. Dentro de cada uno en forma intuitiva sentimos (algunos no) que hay algo diferente, mejor, aparte de todos estos conflictos de poder y control…. ahi esta la respuesta.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 9:38 pm
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    Although this is a very interesting work, there are somethings which may be advisable to research, before publishing them online. First, the foreign military status has never been an issue for the Colombian Armed Forces, currently the Colombian has 400,000 men, which is 4 times the size of the Venezuelan army and a little less than the Brazilian army. however, while the Brazilian army has deployed 25,000 men throughout its part of the Amazons, the Colombian army has an entire division settled in the jungle, this means more or less 50,000 men. So the problem has never been a military race to beat the neighbours of Colombia. The country's borders are well settled and there are no long lasting historical or ethnical differences between Colombia and its neighbors. So warmonging between Colombia and Venezuela is really not an issue at this point, and that has been also agreed by certain Venezuelan officers.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 9:39 pm
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    The other correction I would humbly make is that Latin American history has taught important lessons regarding de US-Latin America relations throughout time. And, at this point, after the cold war has ended and there is a strong anti-northamerican felling in the region, it is not very academic to think that the US are still holding to the hope of invading or promoting political unstability on an anti-Us country; lets start by considering that a military strike, after learning the lessons of Afghanistan and Irak, is totally out of the question; and second, the most recent US attempts to promote ousting of presidents have been a total failure; the only place where this has been doubtfully successful is in Honduras, and that as well, is quite opened to debate. The US knows that it would be a risky bet trying to interfere within an anti-US country, so the best bet, and only bet, I believe, will be to have an ally in the region, which is Colombia.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 9:51 pm
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    The author of the article needs to go back and read diplomatic history. Bilateral agreements between countries do not have to be publicly released until the parties to the agreements wish. Second, there is nothing inherently threatening by the US having access and stationing personnel at the bases for mutual exercises. Third, the US with its long range aircraft and refueling capacity already has "azccess" to the countries of South America, witness the much longer flights from the US to the middle east and east which occur many times daily. We do not need a base in Columbia to allow action against a ruler in Venezuela. It is only a short flight from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and other southern states where the US has current air force and other bases.

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    • November 19, 2009 at 6:10 pm
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      The US could very well bomb Venezuela from the United States. However, an extra seven bases in Colombia would dissuade any Venezuelan military venture by that nation's increasingly erratic president. "Full spectrum operations" is not necessarily a hostile term, but rather a basic reflection of the use of the seven bases. Palmerola in Honduras is used for humanitarian missions into El Salvador and Nicaragua. Bases project power without necessarily violating other nations' sovereignty. It's funny how you never hear a peep out of COHA when Chavez announces that Russian bombers are welcome at any Venezuelan airstrip.

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  • November 18, 2009 at 11:26 pm
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    You would think the cerebral American President would understand by now that the rest of the world is sick to death of this constant stirring of the pot, this continual interference in other areas of the world. What will it take the Americans to understand that they are skirting disaster? Do they need another 911? This one emanating from some other sector of the world that has been destabilized by them. What will it take to convince them to pack up their damn bags and go home?

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