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Bogota unlikely to redo U.S. base pact

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2010

A U.S.-Colombia military basing agreement that was blocked last week by Colombia's highest court is not likely to be renegotiated, Colombian officials told The Washington Times on Thursday.

Following a Constitutional Court ruling striking down the agreement, saying it required congressional approval, the Colombian government appears content to continue joint cooperation against narco-traffickers and leftist guerrillas under current arrangements without a new pact, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Even though the agreement would be able to go through Congress without a problem, it would cause a lot of problems," said one official, who noted the possibility of another blowup with neighboring Venezuela or an outcry from domestic opponents of the pact.

The basing agreement would have locked in the current arrangements for 10 years regarding the hundreds of U.S. military and civilian personnel stationed at seven Colombian bases. Negotiations began during the George W. Bush administration, and the deal was signed in October.

The official said his government is still evaluating different courses of action, but that he is "99 percent sure" the government would not seek legislative approval of the agreement during the current legislative session, which ends in December.

"There are a lot of other priorities, legislation-wise, which have to be dealt with more quickly," he said. "This is not at the top of the list."

Asked whether the Colombian government in Bogota might seek a renegotiation of the deal, he said, "The chances are not good in the near term. I would say it's 80 percent likely that there will be no new negotiations over the next year."

President Juan Manuel Santos, who was sworn in on Aug. 7, said last week that "the consequences of the ruling for the help we have been receiving from the United States are minimal, if not none."

Washington has supplied Bogota with roughly $7.3 billion in military and counternarcotics aid over the past decade.

"The government has reiterated the importance of the long-standing cooperation between both countries, in particular in issues related to drug trafficking and terrorism," said a second official, who echoed the assessment that a renegotiation of the pact was not likely in the near future. "The court's decision does not affect previous agreements between both countries, which will continue to operate."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Times that the Obama administration has been "in touch with the Santos government" about the court decision, but that "meanwhile, our close cooperation with Colombia will continue under pre-existing agreements."

Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that when news leaked about the impending agreement last year, there was a widespread impression across the region that "it allowed for the United States to establish bases in Colombia, that Colombia was going to be overflowing with U.S. troops."

"None of that was true," Mr. DeShazo said. "The idea of the defense-cooperation agreement was to streamline and bring up to date the agreements that were already in effect."

Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter said the administrations of Mr. Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had been eager to push through the deal to cement U.S.-Colombia security ties, and that "the Obama administration did not carefully consider the political and strategic implications of the agreement."

"It was carried forward from the Bush administration by bureaucratic inertia," he said. "The costs for the U.S. - with Brazil in particular, which had recently launched the South American Defense Council, could have been avoided through more skillful and effective diplomacy."

Mr. Shifter said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's strong reaction, which included a crippling trade embargo, was predictable and "probably would have been hard to moderate even with the best diplomacy."

"I believe the Colombians wanted a more expansive, formal accord to cover U.S. access to the facilities in their territory," said Roger Noriega, who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Bush administration. "They decided on modalities, and we were eager to continue our cooperation."

Mr. Noriega said a strong U.S.-Colombia relationship is beneficial for both countries and the region and that he thought a formal pact was inevitable. However, the court's decision "must be respected," he said.

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