By Hugh Bronstein
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia and the United States signed a pact on Friday increasing U.S. access to military bases in the South American country, deepening its standing as Washington’s main ally in the region.
Left-leaning leaders in neighboring countries object to the deal, which gives U.S. troops access to seven bases in an effort to boost anti-drug and counter-insurgency operations.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the pact will destabilize the region and could set the stage for a U.S.-led invasion of his oil-rich country, a claim that Bogota and Washington dismiss.
“The pact is based on the principles of total respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity and not intervening in the internal affairs of other states,” said a statement issued by Colombia’s foreign ministry.
U.S. and Colombian officials say the American military presence in the Andean country will not exceed caps previously set by the U.S. Congress of 800 military personnel and 600 contractors.
Washington is relocating its regional anti-narcotics hub to Colombia after the leader of Ecuador, Chavez ally Rafael Correa, refused to extend the U.S. mission in his country. Bolivia and Nicaragua also oppose the U.S.-Colombia deal.
The U.S. government already has appropriated $46 million to fund the new arrangement. Most will go to refurbish the Palanquero air force base near Bogota.
Colombia, the most reliable U.S. ally in South America, has received around $6 billion in mostly military aid from Washington since 2000.
U.S. ALLY URIBE
Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe decided not to send the pact to Congress for consideration as recommended last week by a Colombian court. The accord has been criticized locally for granting U.S. troops immunity from criminal prosecution in Colombia.
Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, also a candidate for president, blasted the pact as invalid for not having been approved by Colombian lawmakers.
“Uribe signed on because he is completely subjugated to the geopolitical strategy of the American extreme right,” Petro said.
But polls show most Colombians back the deal.
Uribe is a hero to many for his tough stance against Marxist rebels widely loathed for their practice of kidnapping. The country’s biggest guerrilla army — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — is fighting a 45-year-old insurgency funded since the 1980s by the cocaine trade.
Uribe may run for a third four-year term in office if his supporters manage to amend the constitution to allow him to stand in the May election. He is seen by Washington as a buffer against Chavez and Correa, both of whom have extended their periods in power through changes in election laws.
Uribe has not said if he plans to run in May. Polls show he remains by far the country’s most popular politician.