Quito, Ecuador (UPI) Aug 12, 2009
The Quito summit of the Union of South American Nations has highlighted divisions among the leaders on how to view the Colombian-U.S. military collaboration against heavily armed drug-trafficking cartels, but that has not prevented Venezuela from mounting a diplomatic initiative to counter Colombia.
In a much publicized trade agreement with Argentina, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presented Buenos Aires with a generous purchase order for Argentine automobiles to replace vehicles bought until recently from Colombia. The deals signed this week are worth $1 billion, Argentine media reported.
Chavez is in the forefront of a diplomatic campaign, supplemented by his fiery rhetoric, to secure Colombia's isolation in Latin America over the country's military collaboration with the United States.
He mounted a major diplomatic offensive against Colombia at the Quito summit. Colombia stayed away from the summit not only because of Venezuela's verbal attacks and but also due to a diplomatic impasse with the host, Ecuador. The two countries severed relations after Colombian forces crossed the border in pursuit of armed rebels in March 2008.
The combined efforts of Ecuador, Venezuela and ally Bolivia at the Quito summit could not produce a joint statement condemning Colombia for its collaboration with the United States, and the talks ended with the participants divided over the summit's outcome.
"The Yankees have started to command Colombian military forces," Chavez told fellow participants in the conference.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last week the Colombia-U.S. plan would merely update an existing accord, Plan Colombia, whereby U.S. military personnel already help the Colombian forces fight drug traffickers and their left-wing insurgent allies.
Chavez says "the winds of war are beginning to blow" across the region because of the Colombia-U.S. military ties, and maintains the ultimate target of the joint effort in Colombia is Venezuela. Colombia has denied the charge and President Alvaro Uribe toured the region ahead of the Quito summit to assure neighbors and to seek their assurances they understand Colombia's position.
Conference sources said Uribe's efforts appeared to have paid off to some extent, as indicated by the failed attempt to secure an anti-Colombian declaration at the summit.
Chavez kept up pressure on Colombia as he played host to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Caracas and awarded Argentina new import contracts. Among the deals is Venezuela's agreement to import 10,000 cars from Argentina, instead of Colombia, plus farm machinery and equipment and food products.
Venezuela is Colombia's second-largest trading partner, with total volume of trade in 2008 said to have reached $7 billion, according to official figures.
"This bilateral meeting today is aimed at deepening our vital integration," President Fernandez said. She visited Caracas at the head of a 70-strong team of senior officials and business leaders from Argentina.
Economic and trade collaboration between the two countries includes projects with the participation of Renault Argentina and Argentine units of Ford Motor Co., Daimler AG's Mercedes, Toyota Motor Corp. and Fiat Spa, officials said.
Meanwhile, public and private sector leaders in Ecuador say they, too, expect to capitalize on the close relations with Venezuela to seek a slice of that country's oil wealth.
earlier related report
"With God's help, this weekend everything will be agreed upon," said General Freddy Padilla, the head of the Colombian armed forces.
He said a Colombian delegation would travel to Washington to hammer out the final details of the deal, which has been attacked by neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador and criticized by other Latin American leaders.
In Quito, the Ecuadoran military announced the deployment of an additional 1,200 troops to a border province, saying the move was prompted by an increase in smuggling and crime in area.
Speaking Monday in Quito at a regional summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned that the "winds of war" were beginning to blow in the region because of the accord between Bogota and Washington.
That blast came a day after Chavez accused Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the Colombian military of entering Venezuelan territory, a charge that Bogota denied.
Padilla made his remarks during a visit by a group of Colombian lawmakers to one of the bases US troops will use, in this case Palanquero, 180 km (112 miles) west of Bogota.
"We are not handing over bases to them: the flag and the sovereignty at these locations will continue to be Colombian, the commanders will be Colombian, and the operations that are carried out will be in Colombia's interests," namely fighting terrorism and the drug trade.
Under the pending deal, US planes and ships would use Colombian air bases in Palanquero, Apiay and Malambo; army bases at Tres Esquinas and Tolemaida; and naval bases at Cartagena and Bahia Malaga.
Colombia raised concern throughout the region, which has a troubled history of US military interventions, when it announced July 15 that it was negotiating a deal that would give US forces access to the bases.
US use of the Colombian facilities was to allow the United States make up for the loss of its use of Ecuador's base at Manta.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa decided not to extend the agreement allowing US forces there.
Chavez has led a diplomatic offensive against the bases agreement in recent weeks, saying he feared the move amounted to preparations for an invasion of his country by a "Yankee military force."
Colombia and the United States have insisted the bases are meant only to expand the US fight against drug trafficking in Colombia.
But in a speech last week, Correa said, "I hope the installation of these bases... does not strengthen the warmongering policies of the (Colombian) government and the fight, not against drug trafficking, but against the insurgent governments of our America."
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