South American presidents have expressed deep concerns over a United States plan to increase its military presence in Colombia. They voiced their fears at a Union of South American Nations (Unasur) summit in Quito, Ecuador on August 10.
Full details of the US-Colombia military plan have not been released. However, the US is expected to have a significant presence at three air bases and two naval bases, as well as its existing two bases in Colombia.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez raised his concerns during a ceremony to inaugurate Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa as temporary president of Unasur.
"I don't want to sabotage your ceremony Rafael ... [but] we are very worried", Chavez said. He said he felt a "moral obligation" to warn about "the winds of war that are beginning to blow" in the region.
The bases constituted a "threat" to Venezuela and "could generate a war in South America", Chavez said.
Correa agreed, saying: "It is an issue that concerns all of us, because it can destabilise the region."
Bolivian President Evo Morales, supported by Chavez and Correa, introduced a motion to the summit to condemn Colombia's actions.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe refused to attend the summit because of his strained relations with Correa due to a Colombian military raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorian territory last year. He sent vice-foreign minister Clemencia Forero instead.
Staing his intention to not attend the summit, Uribe said it was "not the appropriate place" to discuss the US-Colombia military plan as "it is only an agreement between two nations".
Chavez said: "Some people do not want to talk. The Colombian government, for example, does not want unity. It is acting against unity.
"The Colombian government does not want South American unity because it is tied to the empire orders, it is subordinated."
Although Colombia signed the Unasur Treaty in Brazil in May 2008 — together with Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Surinam — the staunch US ally has had an uneasy relationship with the regional bloc.
Uribe refused to host the temporary presidency of the organisation and opposed the formation of the Unasur Defence Council — initially refusing to join it, but later changing his mind.
Uribe and US national security advisor James Jones undertook a seven-country tour of South America in early August to drum up support for the military agreement. They said the agreement was to help Colombia in its internal conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and to combat narco-trafficking.
Only Peruvian President Alan Garcia openly supported the plan.
During discussion at the Unasur summit, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he was "disturbed" by the "climate of unease" resulting from the Colombia-US plan.
However, he said Unasur should not convert itself into "a club of friends, surrounded by enemies", but should resolve the issue with Colombia through dialogue.
He called on US President Barack Obama to meet South American leaders to explain the plan. "I think we should directly discuss our discontent with the American government — directly with them", he said
Silva said he was also concerned over "information we receive about [US] ambassadors that still intervene in internal electoral processes in our countries", and the reactivation of the US Navy's Fourth Fleet to patrol Latin American waters.
Argentine President Christina Kirchner said the Colombia-US plan "is creating an unacceptable and unprecedented state of belligerency in the region".
However, she added she was worried about the tone adopted by other presidents at the summit towards Uribe.
No consensus was reached on the motion moved by Morales and it was not included in the summit's final declaration. However, the leaders agreed to hold a presidential summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late August to discuss the matter.
Kirchner said this would "take away any excuses" Uribe had for not attending the summit in Quito.
The Colombian vice-foreign minister told the summit: "The bases will continue being Colombian, entirely under Colombian jurisdiction and sovereignty."
However, Chavez disputed this claim in an interview with Colombian television station RCN on August 9. Chavez pointed out that, under the agreement, US forces are granted immunity.
"Do you think Colombia will be giving orders to US troops?", Chavez asked. "It is a lie, the US empire would never allow it."
Venezuela has broken off diplomatic relations with Colombia and cut subsidised oil to its neighbour over the military plan.
Relations between Colombia and its neighbours Venezuela and Ecuador have become increasingly strained in recent weeks.
A few weeks ago, Colombia said it had a FARC video proving the guerrilla group financed Correa's 2006 presidential campaign — a claim categorically denied by Correa.
Colombia has accused Venezuela of providing arms to the FARC, after Colombian soldiers found FARC was using rocket launchers allegedly from the Venezuelan military.
Venezuela and Ecuador have denounced the accusations as false, saying they are designed to justify the increased US presence in the region.
The leaders of the Unasur member states at the summit also called for the immediate and unconditional return of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, overthrown in a June 28 military coup. The leaders said they would not recognise the outcome of any elections held while the coup government remained in power.