A public uproar grows louder in proportion to how much each side ignores the other. The gap between North and South America is more stable than it appears after the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) frowned upon America and Colombia’s latest defense pact, but President Obama must be alert to the dangers of miscommunication.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez naturally dominates the headlines, but his legitimate concerns and confusing theories make him difficult to read. To many he appears insane, a walking contradiction who rails against the American empire while cashing its oil checks. But he's buying Russian MiGs and submarines with those checks. He criticizes Colombia for destabilizing the region when allegations point to him as a FARC supporter, yet called for FARC’s demilitarization in 2008, declaring, “The guerrilla war is history... At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.”
Chavez wasn't the only one to vent his rage; his crew has equal doubts. Bolivian President Evo Morales raised a declaration rejecting the deal, telling the summit, “As long as there are uniformed foreigners in a South American country, it's difficult for us to think there can be peace.” Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa stared down Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and warned, “You are not going to be able to control the Americans.”
Brazil and Chile raised further skepticism by demanding US guarantees that troops and hardware will only be used for combating drug production and FARC rebels. While their concerns are moderate, they establish further points of reference to examine the defense agreement. Argentina President Cristina Fernadez de Kirchner expressed the need to discuss the matter with President Obama, which Uribe rejected but President Obama should consider. South America wants and needs clarity.
Obama has tried to spread his message, telling Hispanic reporters several weeks ago, “We have had a security agreement with Colombia for many years now. We have updated that agreement. We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia.” This is what South Americans need to hear - often. What they don’t need to hear is, “There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric.”
For all of Chavez’s antics and alignment against America, he isn’t alone in his misgivings. America can’t afford to alienate Ecuador or Bolivia, quickly becoming the new cocoa factory as Colombia redistributes production. Peru may also need help fighting drug networks. Heavyweights like Brazil and Argentina trust the use of US troops, but equally don’t want them operating freely in the region like the Middle East. America’s dismal track record in Latin America hasn’t faded completely, and its assertiveness may be perceived as competition with an emerging China.
At first Chavez sounds insensible when he threatens, “the US global strategy for domination explains the installation of these bases in Colombia.” But many Muslims are well acquainted with a strategy that put bases in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and secretly operates out of Pakistan. America owns roughly 200 bases worldwide housing around 150,000 troops in 30,000 base structures, according to the 2008 DOD Base Structure Report. America must view the suspicion of imperialism through the eyes of others, not its own interests. Defense has a far horizon and deals of today may “update” into increased US presence in future decades.
South America has managed to keep the footprint light with only a limited number of American facilities in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. It likely wants to preserve the tranquility by keeping the region unspoiled, a preventative strategy.
President Obama must protect America’s model to combat FARC rebels and cocoa plantations even if the methods are flawed. A 2008 GAO report highlighted failures in Plan Colombia to meet drug reduction goals, though security had improved. This seems logical since $4.9 billion went to military assistance and only $1.3 billion to social and economic programs. Obama must heed South America's call to reexamine the war on drugs and consider alternative methods, but the military will always have its place.
Joint operations with the host government, at its invitation, is America's best option to militarily strike against drug producers, traffickers, and their cartel bosses. Keeping US troops low and under the authority of host governments minimizes anti-American sentiment, which Latin and South America are vulnerable to. President Obama must acknowledge, respect, and work with South American suspicions, not blow them off.
Chavez is just one of his opponents.