Minister Rodrigo Rivera has announced that in the first week of February he will travel to Washington DC to consult his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on Colombia’s U.S.-backed efforts to combat drug trafficking.
During his visit, Mr. Rivera’s discussions will focus on violence sparked by nacrotrafficking organizations. The administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been retooling its counternarcotics strategies since the beginning the year when two students from a prestigious Bogotá university were found murdered by suspected drug traffickers near a beach on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Mr. Rivera’s U.S. trip will follow his visit next week to Venezuela, where he will hold meetings with Venezuelan Defense Minister Jose Mata Figueroa to discuss border security and the possible intensification of military border operations to fight illegal armed groups.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday began a four-day trip to South America, where he attended a regional meeting of defense ministers in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, this weekend. Mr. Gates’ first stop was Chile, where he met with Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet to discuss disaster preparedness in the region. Chile is among Washington's "closest partners in the hemisphere" and the two countries share "a mutual desire to develop regional mechanisms to support disaster relief," Pentagon Press Secretary, Geoff Morrell told reporters.
On Sunday Mr. Gates arrived at the IX Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, a gathering held every 18 months that aims to improve cooperation among the militaries in the hemisphere. On the agenda at the conference included issues such as how to promote greater openness in defense budgeting, the role of women in the military, disaster response, and transparency in arms sales and purchases.
On the subject of growing Iranian influence in Latin America, Mr. Gates said, "I think the countries negotiating with Iran in this field should be very cautious and very careful about how they interact with the Iranians about their real motives and what they are really trying to do." Bolivian President Evo Morales countered those comments, saying Bolivia will create alliances with any country that it chooses regardless of U.S. opinion. Gates responded, "As a sovereign state Bolivia obviously can have relationships with any country in the world that it wishes to," Gates expressed on Sunday. "I think Bolivia needs to be mindful of the number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that have been passed with respect to Iran's behavior."
Even now that Bogotá and Washington concluded their talks over the U.S.-Colombian military deal on Friday, questions linger over how and why it sparked so much controversy. The general consensus—even by the Pentagon’s own admission—is that Bogotá and Washington mangled the public message.
Now that more details are coming out about the deal, it’s clear that it didn’t need to be such a lightening rod. And even if it did, why did the U.S. allow Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to twist in the wind?
The core of the deal is to grant the U.S. access to seven of Colombia’s military bases (five air and two naval) to help build up Colombia’s current assets and capability (particularly on surveillance and intelligence gathering). The deal seeks to “provide to the Colombians that what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have,” as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General James E. Cartwright said at a Pentagon briefing on August 13, 2009.
This is NOT about increasing the ceiling for U.S. personnel in Colombia, or in South America.
Under current law, the U.S. cannot have more than 800 military and 600 contract personnel in Colombia. Last year, there were only 71 military personnel and some 400 contractors in Colombia. More importantly, the U.S. Congress has little appetite to increase the number of U.S. troops stationed there.