(MILITARY TIMES) QUITO, Ecuador — South American presidents expressed deep concerns Monday with a planned U.S. military expansion in Colombia but failed to reach consensus on a joint statement rejecting U.S. long-term leases on Colombian bases.
The leaders agreed to hold a presidential summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, later this month to discuss the matter after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez raised it during a ceremony to inaugurate Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa as temporary president of the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, and Ecuador’s Correa also expressed unease with the plan.
“I don’t want to sabotage your ceremony, Rafael, … (but) we are very worried,” said Chavez, who added that he believes the bases will destabilize the region.
“This could provoke a war in South America,” Chavez said. During his weekly television and radio address Sunday, the Venezuelan president told his military to be “ready for combat” in case of a Colombian provocation.
U.S. officials haven’t released details, but Colombians have said U.S. forces would have access to at least seven Colombian bases. They say there would be no more than 1,400 American personnel and contractors in the country.
About 600 U.S. military personnel already work in Colombia, and advisers have trained thousands of Colombian troops since 2000.
Unasur foreign ministers could not reach a joint statement regarding the U.S. bases late Sunday, prompting Monday’s impromptu debate, which also failed to produce a consensus.
Silva called on President Barack Obama to meet with the region’s presidents to explain the plan.
“As president of Brazil, this climate of unease disturbs me,” Silva said Monday. He agreed to a presidents’ summit, to be held Aug. 27 following a meeting of foreign and defense ministers to study U.S. military presence in Colombia, which was agreed upon in pre-summit meetings late Sunday.
“I think we should directly discuss our discontent with the American government — directly with them,” he said.
Silva said he was concerned with “information we receive about [U.S.] ambassadors that still intervene in internal electoral processes in their countries” and the reactivation of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet.
The Fourth Fleet, originally dissolved after World War II, was resurrected in April 2008. Based in Mayport, Fla., as part of U.S. Southern Command, it deploys Navy ships, aircraft and submarines on humanitarian and counter-drug operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Last week in Brazil, the U.S. national security adviser, Jim Jones, acknowledged the deal could have been explained better to the region’s leaders and said the U.S. would send military officials to interested countries “to make sure everybody understands what this is and what this isn’t.”
Colombia’s vice foreign minister defended the bases Monday, saying they will not affect outside nations.
“The bases will continue to be completely under Colombian jurisdiction and sovereignty,” Clemencia Forero said.