Robert Gates does Colombia, Peru; calls for more bases, free trade

The Obama administration sought to boost security ties with hemispheric allies last month as Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Peru, Colombia, and Barbados. Before kicking off his tour in Lima, Gates and met with Brazil‘s Defense Minister Nelson Jobim at the Pentagon April 12, to sign the two countries’ first bilateral defense pact since 1977. In Bogotá, Gates voiced support for the stalled US-Colombia FTA. “I would hope we would be in a position to make a renewed effort to get ratification of the free trade agreement,” Gates said. “It is a good deal for Colombia; it is also a good deal for the United States.”

Gates arrived in Colombia on April 14, where he met with President Álvaro Uribe and Defense Minister Gabriel Silva—and credited Colombia with being an “exporter of security” for supporting Mexican and Peruvian anti-narcotics efforts and sending troops to Afghanistan. Gates also pledged that, no matter who wins the country’s May 30 presidential elections, Washington will continue to provide Colombia with aid. Uribe’s former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos currently polls as the frontrunner, but the Green Party’s Antanas Mockus has had a recent surge of support.

Despite Gates’ strong show of support in Bogotá, a wiretapping scandal linked to Colombia’s DAS secret police agency sparked a US aid hiccup that same week. Washington responded to the charges by temporarily suspending aid to DAS, though the funds were to be transferred to other Colombian agencies, such as the National Police. The Colombian government issued a statement denying that it authorized the illegal wiretapping, and pledging plans to restructure the DAS. US Ambassador William Brownfield said funding would be reinstated for the new intelligence agency.

A deal signed last year between Washington and Bogotá gave the US military access to seven Colombian bases. Both Gates and his hosts stressed that the accord is aimed at helping Colombia’s fight against drug-trafficking and armed groups, and is not an infringement of Colombian sovereignty. The accord must still pass muster with Colombia’s Constitutional Court, because it was not approved by the country’s congress.

Gates’ Colombia stop was bookended by visits to Peru and Barbados. Arriving in Lima April 13, he met with President Alan García and Defense Minister Rafael Rey to discuss cooperation in Peru’s fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. Gates described Peru as a “constructive influence” in South America and recommended that Peruvian military officials take advantage of human rights training provided by the US and Colombian militaries. (Sic)

In Barbados, Gates met with ministers from seven Caribbean countries to pledge support for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative pitched by President Barack Obama during the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. The program is to draw $45 million in 2010 funding. The Obama administration’s 2011 budget request calls for $73 million in military and economic aid for the program. (Americas Society, LAT, April 16; BBC News, April 15; El Tiempo, Bogotá, March 6)

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