If there is, or should be, one rule of U.S. Latin America policy today, it is this: Don't give Hugo Chávez a freebie. Avoid handing the leftist Venezuelan President a reason to sound an alarm against Yanqui aggression in the western hemisphere. Chávez's reputation in Washington may be that of an oil-rich populist demagogue whose default political strategy is gratuitous anti-Americanism. But his rants often strike a chord with his more moderate counterparts in Latin America, whose decibel levels are lower but whose anxieties about U.S. designs in their region are still high.
The Obama Administration dropped the latest gift into Chávez's lap this summer when, in a manner most Latin governments call less than transparent, it completed negotiations with Colombia to let the U.S. military use seven military bases there. On the surface, the deal simply moves U.S. counterdrug operations to Colombia from a base in Ecuador, whose leftist President Rafael Correa has refused to renew the U.S.'s lease. But to neighboring countries, it appears to inflate U.S. military presence on the continent, especially since it also implies that U.S. troops will take up counterinsurgency work against Colombia's leftist guerrillas. Chávez predictably declared that the pact has "loosed the winds of war" on South America. But even centrist, U.S.-friendly Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said this week, "Our beloved South America is feeling very nervous."
Those concerns got aired on Friday at a meeting of Unasur, the Union of South American Nations, at the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche. One head of state after another grilled conservative Colombian President and U.S. ally Alvaro Uribe on the details of the new base plan and why they weren't better consulted about it. An oft expressed fear, based on recently disclosed U.S. documents (which the Pentagon insists are just academic studies), was that the U.S. might use the bases, especially Palanquero in central Colombia, to launch operations beyond Colombia and violate its neighbors' sovereignty. Two other moderates, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Peruvian President Alan Garcia, joined leftists like Chávez and Correa in insisting on a guarantee that U.S. missions will be confined to Colombia. Otherwise, "I would be very tempted to [oppose the base deal]," said Garcia.
Uribe came under criticism last year when his army commandos crossed into Ecuador to attack a Colombian guerrilla lair. But he assured the Unasur gathering that the base deal, far from allowing U.S. violation of South American sovereignty, will not give up a "millimeter" even of Colombian territory. Still, most Latin leaders feel the murky way in which Uribe and the U.S. have presented the base pact belies President Obama's encouraging pledges of U.S.-Latin partnership. "To them it doesn't square with the rhetoric they heard from Obama at the Summit of the Americas" last April in Trinidad, says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "What they heard then was a new beginning in hemispheric relations, that the U.S. would no longer be devising policy for Latin America but rather with Latin America."
The response also reflects a concern that Latin America's new 21st century self-reliance could be undermined by a continued dependence on American might to beat back drug traffickers and insurgents like the Marxist Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. Uribe is widely popular in Colombia for having neutralized the drug-financed FARC largely with the help of the U.S.'s $5 billion Plan Colombia. Mexico, though not allowing U.S. military presence, has had to open its doors to Washington aid to an unprecedented degree in recent years as it confronts its horrific drug-cartel violence.
But at the same time, if Uribe has to answer for his dealings, he and the U.S. insist Chávez has his own to explain. Colombia has long accused the Venezuelan leader of aiding the FARC, which he denies, and the charges have grown louder this summer with the discovery that a cache of Swedish antitank weapons and other arms Venezuela purchased in the 1980s had somehow ended up in guerrilla hands. Chávez denies his government gave them to the FARC, but confiscated FARC documents appear to trace them to a Chávez army general and intelligence chief. Either way, many of the same South American leaders pressing Uribe also feel Chávez should be more forthcoming or else risk looking as if he's using the Colombian base melee to deflect attention from his own cross-border transgressions.
In the end, Lula and other moderates at Bariloche backed off from the more excited rhetoric of Chávez, Correa and other leftists like Bolivian President Evo Morales, who say they'll go shopping for more arms now to defend themselves. Lula is urging Obama to meet with the South American heads of state, perhaps at next month's U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York City, to ease their angst. Lula, whose country's rising political and economic influence has made it the U.S.'s first real hemispheric counterweight, had envisioned the fledgling Unasur as a cooperative body in the style of the European Union. "But he feels Uribe, with the way he did his deal with the U.S., thumbed his nose at that idea," says Bruce Bagley, chairman of International Relations at the University of Miami. Lula and most of his 11 Unasur partners feel the U.S. did too. And that has loosed the winds of Chávez.