Amid UNASUR Summit, Brazil Likely to Emerge a Winner, With Colombia a Questionable Beneficiary

On August 28, the presidents of the members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – a supranational entity modeled after the European Union encompassing all of South America – convened in the Argentine resort city of Bariloche to discuss a range of regional security issues, though the uproar revolving around the recent Colombian-American basing deal eventually dominated the meeting.

The ten-year deal, which represented what could be a grave miscalculation on the part of the Obama administration, was completed on August 15 and allows the American military to utilize five Colombian airbases as well as two naval installations — one on the country’s Pacific coast and the other on the Caribbean. Under the terms of the accord, American military forces are to operate strictly within Colombian territory under an antinarcotics and antiterrorism mandate. Washington and Bogotá have both stated that the deal would merely update Plan Colombia, an existent military agreement between the two nations. Even before the deal was finalized, details of the negotiations had leaked and governments throughout the continent had expressed their concern and opposition.

Leading Up to the Summit

Despite a demonstrably ineffective tour earlier in August by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and American officials to allay concerns regarding the deal, a marked polarization has developed in the region among most of the governments, which seemed to divide themselves into three camps. On one end, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have at different times ferociously attacked the deal, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez claiming that the military bases accord amounts to a “declaration of war” against his Boliviarian Revolution and that they could serve as a launching pad for future American military actions across South America. In fact, a U.S. Air Mobility Command document titled Global En Route Strategy released in early April, and later obtained by Chávez, could serve to justify some of Chávez’s fears. This white paper states that the Palanquero airbase — one of the facilities included in the deal — has the potential to morph into a “cooperative security location” from which “mobility operations could be executed,” as “nearly half the continent can be covered by a giant C-17 (military transport) aircraft without refueling.” In other words, the airbase could potentially serve as a staging ground for operations by airborne expeditionary forces elsewhere in the hemisphere, potentially providing Washington with a means to project its coercive capacity at will in South America at some time in the future.

On the other end is the lone supporter of the pending U.S.-Colombia deal, Peru, whose president Alan Garcia has defended the pact as a sovereign decision on the part of Bogotá. But given Garcia’s reputation as a shabby survivor who is very unpopular at home, he could be considered a very great prize. The remaining countries in the region, led by Brazil, but also including Chile and Argentina, have taken a moderate position, expressing their misgivings as they promise to promote constructive dialogue with the United States in order to remedy the situation. In particular, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva urged his American counterpart, in a half-hour phone call, to attend the brief UNASUR summit in order to allay some of the region’s concerns.

Brazil: The Winner

Although President Obama ultimately declined to attend the summit, his administration’s still relatively formless Latin America policy has taken shape around an increasing recognition of, even deference to, Brazil’s paramountcy in the region. The White House has since signaled that it might have been a major blunder not to allow the details of the pending base deal to be vetted by the South American giant. Thus, to rectify this error, the administration dispatched National Security Advisor Jim Jones to explain the basing accord first to Brazil and then to the other regional governments. Amid the widespread fears and at times tart rhetoric of the UNASUR participants in response to the U.S.-Colombian base deal, this potentially grave miscalculation by the Obama administration may have inadvertently accelerated the growing Brazilian presence in the region. Having Colombia as its not-so-docile servitor is no compensation to Washington if it means that Colombia is revealed to its South American sister republics as a company scab. By adopting a singularly moderate position on the bases, Brazil, while everyone knows how rankled it was over the bases, has been able to curry influence with all camps in the region. This represents an important development for the nation, especially in regards to the ALBA bloc, an area where Brazil has either suffered an erosion of influence, or has not been able to effectively expand it in a number of months. Furthermore, analysts note that the perceived ominous expansion of the American military presence around the continent may give Brazil a convenient pretext to increase its military profile. In short, this perplexing situation has presented Brazil with an unanticipated ample opportunity to increase its soft and hard power in the region, thereby furthering its goal of becoming a larger player not only on the international stage, but in its own backyard.