BARILOCHE, Argentina (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking to shore up opposition to a Colombian plan giving U.S. troops more access to its military bases under an accord that has sharply divided South American leaders meeting for a regional summit.
The agreement between Washington and its closest Latin American ally has heightened diplomatic tensions and will be the focus of the meeting of South American presidents that starts at this Patagonian lakeside resort on Friday.
The plan is testing efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to improve Washington’s relationship with Latin America, where leaders were openly critical of the Bush administration and have welcomed Obama’s message of change.
Many in the region are wary of U.S. intervention, recalling Washington’s backing of right-wing military dictatorships decades ago. But U.S. antagonist Chavez has led leftist allies in blasting the plan as “imperialist” aggression.
The socialist leader threatened this week to break off diplomatic ties with Colombia in his latest condemnation of a deal that allows the U.S. military access to seven Colombian military bases for joint operations to fight drug traffickers and leftist rebels.
The United States and Colombia say the agreement is an expansion of an existing accord, but it has drawn heavy criticism from such Chavez allies as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales and more moderate Latin American governments like that of regional powerhouse Brazil.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is expected to face public skepticism from other leaders as he defends the agreement and attempts to allay concerns it could threaten the sovereignty of his Andean neighbors.
“He’s going to be put on the stand,” said Vicente Torrijos, an expert in international relations at the University of Rosario in Bogota.
Uribe is also expected to address the FARC rebel presence in other countries and arms smuggling. Bogota’s dispute with Chavez was fueled in part by Colombian charges Venezuela had helped arm the rebels.
Uribe, who did not attend a summit where the issue dominated earlier this month, urged leaders not to see the disagreements as an ideological conflict.
“We believe there are artificial and polarizing divisions that the region should overcome,” he said in Colombia.
Under the deal, U.S. military aircraft will be allowed access to Colombian bases, but the number of military personnel will not go above the already permitted limit of 800 troops and 600 civilian contractors. About 260 U.S. military officials are now in Colombia.
The summit of the Unasur group could also be a test for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the country seeks to ease the diplomatic crisis in the Andes.
Chavez, a fierce critic of Washington, has cast the plan as a provocation that could spark war in South America. He views an increased American military presence in Colombia as an attempt to isolate his government or an attempted grab at his OPEC nation’s massive oil reserves.
Obama has said Washington has no intention of significantly increasing its troop numbers in Colombia or establishing a U.S. base there.
On Thursday, Chavez published a letter in an Argentine newspaper calling on leaders to oppose the plan.
“We want to denounce right here and now that this is part of a political and military plan ... to go after the infinite natural resources on our continent: the black gold, our petroleum, the blue gold, our large water reserves and the green gold, our Amazon.”
Additional reporting by Damian Wroclavsky and Jorge Otaola in Bariloche, Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Patrick Markey and Peter Cooney