- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Obama administration is exploring its options after the highest court in Colombia — the U.S.’s closest Latin American ally — voided an agreement that would have allowed a continued U.S. military presence at seven bases across the country.

“This is part of a legal process within Colombia,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. “We expect it will be resolved in interaction among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Colombia. We will consult closely with the Colombian government, understand the issues that are involved in this legal matter and look to the Santos government to take appropriate steps to make sure that we can sustain our bilateral relationship.”

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement could only be ratified if President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office Aug. 7, received legislative approval — a prospect seen as less than likely given the country’s recent efforts to patch up relations with Venezuela.

The quarrelsome neighbors restored diplomatic relations on Aug. 10, following a four-hour meeting between Mr. Santos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the Colombian port town of Santa Marta.

Venezuela had severed ties on July 22 after Colombia made a multimedia presentation at the Organization of American States offering evidence that the Chavez government had been harboring anti-government rebels from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — a charge Caracas vehemently denied.

News of the basing agreement last year prompted Mr. Chavez to tighten trade restrictions on Colombia that he first imposed in response to its March 2008 airstrikes on a FARC base in Ecuador, a move carried out when Mr. Santos was defense minister under then-President Alvaro Uribe.

As president, Mr. Santos has prioritized restoring trade with Venezuela, which plummeted from $7 billion in 2008 to $2 billion this year. A free-trade agreement between Washington and Bogota, signed in November 2006, has yet to be ratified by the Senate.

Mr. Crowley called the U.S.-Colombia defense relationship “very important” and said that the countries’ shared interests — combating drug trafficking, dealing with threats of terrorism — “aren’t changed because of this court ruling.”

“We expect to be able to continue to cooperate,” he added. “But obviously, we’ll work with Colombia to determine what it plans to do in light of this court ruling.”

Since 2000, under the auspices of “Plan Colombia,” Washington has supplied Bogota roughly $7.3 billion in aid, earmarked primarily for military and counternarcotics purposes.

Mr. Santos expressed optimism Wednesday that the Court’s decision would not adversely affect aid levels, saying that “the consequences of the ruling for the help we have been receiving from the United States are minimal, if not none.”