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The US-Colombian Alliance

December 9, 2009

Colombian-Venezuelan relations are severely strained.  Venezuela is opposed to the Colombian alliance with the US, including the military cooperation agreement signed in October.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of American foreign policy, recently dispatched 15,000 troops to the Colombian border as a show of strength.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, the confict over the stationing of US forces in Colombia was discussed by Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the US, and Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador in Washington.  Not suprisingly, Mr. Herrera argues that the US presence in the region is destabilizing and Ms. Barco says that is beneficial.

The Venezuelans claim that US assistance to Colombia will cause Colombia’s internal conflicts, such as the government campaign against the FARC, an insurgent group involved in the drug trade, to spill over into neighboring countries.  Venezuelan officials point to the Colombian air force’s bombing of rebel bases inside Ecuador earlier this year as evidence of this.  But it is very hypocritical of Venezuela to make that argument considering the government of Hugo Chavez has provided assistance to the FARC, including weapons, and given the group safe haven.  As for the attack inside Ecuador, the Colombian military would likely have bombed insurgents there regardless of its relationship with the US.

Although Ms. Barco cites statistics that joint interdiction efforts have put a major dent in the international drug trade, it is uncertain if they have actually impacted drug usage in the US and other places.  However, American counterinsurgency/counterterrorism assistance, which includes money, training, equipment and intelligence support, has certainly helped the Colombian government reduce the level of violence in the country compared to the 1990s when drug lords wreaked tremendous havoc and seriously threatened the political establishment in Bogota (Mark Bowden’s book “Killing Pablo” provides an interesting account of the situation in Colombia when drug kingpins like Pablo Escabor were at the height of their power).

It is understandable why many in Latin America are wary of US involvement in the region given America’s history of imperialistic behavior in that part of the world.  It is also obvious why Latin American politicians use anti-American rhetoric to drum up popular support.  But US involvement in Colombia has been beneficial overall, even though elements of the counternarcotics strategy might have been counterproductive.  America should continue to support the efforts of Colombian officials to secure their nation because doing so serves US and Colombian interests and has a positive humanitarian effect.