Sunday, July 25, 2010

Opposition mounts to increased U.S. military presence in Latin America

Last year I published several articles about the U.S.-Colombia agreement for U.S. use of seven Colombian air and military bases. As I wrote in those articles, opposition quickly mounted to the agreement from unions, opposition political parties, human rights groups, and more, for reasons as varied as worries over increasing regional tensions, U.S. personnel's legacy of sexual abuse in foreign outposts, and questions of legality.

Now, Colombia's Constitutional Court itself is stepping into the fray with its own concerns. In a draft opinion released Friday, Judge Jorge Ivan Palacios urged his colleagues to declare the bases agreement invalid and send the agreement to Congress for a chance to approve or reject it. Though the Court will not officially rule on the case brought by the José Alvear Restrepo legal collective until August 17, this draft opinion directly challenges President Alvaro Uribe's assertion that the agreement isn't actually a treaty and therefore does not require Congressional approval as dictating by Colombian law. If the Court follows Judge Palacio's suggestion, it will confirm a non-binding ruling by the State Council, and advisory body, that urged compliance with the Colombian law requiring Congressional approval of treaties.

Meanwhile, opposition to increasing U.S. military presence continues to mount in the region. When  the earthquake hit Haiti, the strong U.S. military contingent sent to the ravaged island large numbers. Then in July, the U.S. deployed 46 warships and 7,000 marines to military-less Costa Rica.

Though ordered before President Obama took office, the reactivation in June 2008 of the Fourth Fleet of the US Navy, deactivated since the end of WWII, also has many civil society organizations in the region on edge. Activists are concerned that the US military presence is in parts of a region rich in natural resources. The biodiverse Amazon basin and oil reserves in Southern Atlantic waters, for example, are believed to be likely targets. A leaked Pentagon budget document referred to the Colombia base agreement as a strategic opportunity to deal with "anti-American governments" in the region.

In response, civil society organizations throughout Latin America have joined forces to counteract this militarization. In January in Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the World Social forum, more than 75 international and national groups launched the Continental Campaign against Foreign Military Bases. Modeled after the Continental Campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas that successfully derailed the US government's plans for a region-wide free trade agreement, the campaign seeks the removal of U.S. and other foreign bases from Latin America and the Caribbean. The statement issued at the launch of the campaign called the intensification of US military presence "a clear attack against peace, security and sovereignty of all countries in the region."

The statement also calls for the campaign to collaborate with the fight against the criminalization of social protest and the domination and exploitation of the peoples of the region. Colombia provides clear examples of the criminalization and exploitation. One of several scandals that broke in late 2008 was that of extrajudicial executions. More than 2000 cases—and surely many more have gone unreported—of this macabre practice in which young men were lured from poor neighborhoods by paramilitaries, taken to rural areas, killed by the army, dressed up as guerrilla fighters and claimed as combat kills. The practice was also used in some cases to silence human rights defenders and community organizers. As a forthcoming report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) will demonstrate, many of the units that committed the largest number of these killings received substantial US military aid and therefore should have been vetted for human rights abuses under the Leahy Amendment, a U.S. law requiring human rights vetting of foreign military units receiving U.S. aid.

It is no wonder, then, that civil society organizations from Colombia to Honduras to Argentina oppose the further intensification of US military presence in the region. A ruling by Colombia's Constitutional Court invalidating the bases agreement in one of the U.S. strongest allies in the region would therefore lend much support to the civil society opposition and be a huge blow to the U.S.'s increasingly aggressive military policy in the region.

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