Who is the U.S. targeting in Colombia?

September 1, 2009

The planned expansion of U.S. bases in Colombia was the most controversial topic at the Union of South American Nations summit in Argentina August 30.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has threatened to break diplomatic and economic ties with neighboring Colombia, charging that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is collaborating with the U.S. to prepare for a military intervention in Venezuela. But even the moderate government of Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva has been critical of the U.S. buildup, seeing it as a violation of the sovereignty of Latin American nations.

Raúl Zibechi, a political analyst and journalist in Uruguay, looks at the U.S. military agenda in Colombia and South America.

THE IMMINENT agreement between the United States and Colombia over the use of seven military bases by the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) forms part of the major dispute over commonly held resources throughout the South American region.

First, a few recent updates:

Venezuela has become the number one country in the world in potential oil reserves, following the announcement by the Venezuelan state-owned petroleum company PDVSA that locates an estimated 314 billion barrels in the Orinoco Heavy Oil belt. According to PDVSA, the findings show Venezuela knocking Saudi Arabia down to number two in the world with 264 billion barrels. [1]

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), affirms that the oil crisis will hit much sooner than previously expected. "The world is heading for a catastrophic energy crunch that could cripple a global economic recovery, as most of the world's major oil fields have passed their peak production." Birol maintains that the figures the IEA had previously used were incorrect, and he predicts that peak oil production will be reached in 10 years (2020 rather than 2030).

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

Birol points out, "The first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three-quarters of global reserves, has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked, and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace calculated just two years ago." The decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 percent per year compared to the 3.7 percent decline the IEA had estimated in 2007. [2]

Twenty years ago, China was the 12th largest trading partner with Latin America, with a commercial volume that totaled slightly more than $8 billion. Since 2007, China has become the number two partner, more than tripling that figure and recently reaching a volume greater than $100 billion. China has been establishing strategic partnerships with Brazil since the '90s, followed by agreements with Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

This year, China has negotiated agreements that would double a development fund in Venezuela to $12 billion, lend $1 billion to Ecuador for the construction of a hydroelectric plant, give Argentina access to $10 billion for several projects and give another $10 billion to the Brazilian state-owned oil company. According to official Brazilian figures, the volume of bilateral trade between Brazil and China reached $36.4 billion in 2008, a 55.9 percent increase over the previous year.

In April of this year, China became Brazil's number one trading partner, usurping the United States. China's admittance as a donor country within the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) last April (after 15 years of negotiations), was a major indicator of its growing commitment to strengthen relationships in the region. [3]

An important turning point has occurred in terms of Brazil's political economy and its relation to the United States. From August 2008 to May of this year, in the midst of the exploding global financial crisis, Brazil reduced its investment in U.S. bonds by 17 percent--the largest reduction made by any of Washington's 15 biggest creditors. In contrast, within the same period, Russia increased its purchase of Federal Reserve issue bonds by 20 percent and China made a 40 percent increase in its purchases. [4]

The Chinese state-owned petroleum company (CNPC) decided to step up its acquisitions in Africa and Latin America because "the relatively low prices of overseas assets this year have offered us unprecedented opportunities." One of these opportunities could be the purchase of 84 percent of Repsol YPF's stakes in its Argentine unit for $17 billion, in a deal with China's third largest oil company CNOOC. The deal would be the largest overseas investment made by China. [5]

These recent events, reported in the international press, demonstrate the intense competition for natural resources in the region among the world's economic powerhouses. In parallel, the region's most important countries (Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela) have begun conducting transactions in currencies other than the U.S. dollar and establishing partnerships with Asian countries and other emerging powers.

The weight of economic factors linked to hegemonic powers is evident in the decision to increase U.S. military presence in Colombia. President Barack Obama is demonstrably making more strategic decisions of this kind.

ACCORDING TO the United States, the new military relationship is basically a substitute for the presence it previously maintained at its base in Manta, Ecuador. The United States will technically have to abandon its post there in November, though it has already done so.

President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia has stated that the increase in bases used by the United States is part of the strategy of Plan Colombia, or the continuing war against the FARC leftist guerrillas and the pursuit of drug trafficking. Bogotá and Washington are in complete agreement on this point, in addition to the fact that for the Colombian military commanders, an increase in U.S. military presence within Colombia is a good way to resolve any possible difficulties in relations between the two countries.

The reactivation of the U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet last year is now completed by the chain of seven bases that can be used by SOUTHCOM whenever it is deemed convenient. Of course, the White House and the Palacio de Nariño--the home of the Colombian president--are working to maintain the argument that none of these bases will in fact be U.S. military bases; they will continue to be under the control of the Colombian state and armed forces; there will be no increase in the 800 U.S. soldiers and 600 contractors that are currently operating in the country.

This line of argument is only partially true. Within the new context of war, the type of military bases that existed during the Cold War--huge concentrations of people and equipment, fixed and immobile--are giving way to a more flexible model as outlined in the U.S. Air Force's "Global en Route Strategy" report of April 2009.

The report refers to the ability to utilize these installations above all for air transport, making it possible to have control from a distance and act as a dissuasive force, leaving direct intervention only for exceptionally critical situations. As such, the superpower's greatest interest is to be able to count on the cooperation of governments in the region to allow the installation of surveillance systems, and the use of seaports and airports. This ongoing cooperation is much more important than direct military presence, as current military technology allows troops to concentrate in any given area within a matter of hours.

However, the latest deployment of SOUTHCOM has gone in a different direction. For Juan Gabriel Tokatlián, professor of International Relations at Argentina's Di Tella University, "The main message is for Brazil and not for Venezuela." [6]

He has a point, but we should add a few details. To say "Brazil," according to Washington's prevailing logic, is to say "the Amazon," and by association, "natural resources." Secondly, the imminent agreement on the use of the seven Colombian bases by SOUTHCOM could be related to the growing relationship between China and Brazil, which implies trade goods passing physically through the Andean region.

AN UNDERSTANDING of this situation depends on where it is observed from. As such, in Brazil, the decision to enhance the military presence of SOUTHCOM in the region came as a shock. Chancellor Ceslo Amorim and the adviser on international affairs, Marco Aurelio Garcia, were very explicit. "What worries Brazil is a strong military presence whose objective and capabilities have the potential to go beyond Colombia's internal needs," stated Amorim in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

He added that there is a contradiction between Bogotá's statement that the FARC has been practically annihilated, and an increase in U.S. military presence to combat them. "It is important that we have transparency and clarity in the region. Perhaps this has been lacking. One could have, for example, formal guarantees as to how the bases will be used," Folha concluded. [7]

President Lula, for his part, has linked the bases in Colombia and the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet with the existence of enormous oil reserves, located at a depth of 7,000 meters off the coast of the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and Espíritu Santo. So great are these reserves that they make Brazil independent of other sources of oil.

Through this logic, Lula seems to be aligning himself with an old concern of Brazilian strategists and the military, known as the "Geopolitica del Cerco" (Barrier Geopolitics). In fact, in 2002, the Army Intelligence Center, located in Brasilia, carried out three studies that mapped out U.S. military presence in South America. The conclusions indicated that in 2001 and 2002 there were 6,300 U.S. soldiers constructing runways and outposts in a militarized "belt" around Brazil. [8]

One of these studies, "United States Presence in South America," headed by then-Infantry Col. José Alberto de Costa Abreu, currently the military chief of Brazil's Northeast, concluded that one of the major consequences of this is "the diminished Brazilian capability to predict regional power dynamics due to the existence of a 'belt' of North American [U.S.] installations near Brazilian borders, especially in the Amazonian region." [9]

In the series of reports published on the Brazilian military website Defesanet, they point out that 25 percent of the oil consumed by the United States comes from Andean countries, and that the Amazon is the hottest issue for the region as well as a very sensitive issue for Brazil.


[1] Agencia Xinhua, August 13, 2009.
[2] The Independent, August 3, 2009.
[3] Diario del Pueblo, August 11, 2009.
[4] Folha de Sao Paulo, August 2, 2009.
[5] China Daily, August 12, 2009.
[6] Página 12, August 7, 2009.
[7] DPA, Brasilia, August 2, 2009.
[8] Defesanet, January 18, 2006.
[9] Ibid.

First published by the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy Web site.

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