BARILOCHE, Argentina (Reuters) - South American leaders failed Friday to ease diplomatic tensions set off by a Colombian plan giving U.S. troops more access to its military bases for joint operations against cocaine traffickers and leftist rebels.
The differences over Colombia’s military alliance were on full display during a tense regional summit that lasted for more than six hours and was broadcast live across most of South America.
The agreement between Washington and its closest Latin American ally has strained relations between Andean nations and is testing efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to improve ties with the region, where leaders openly criticized the Bush administration and have welcomed Obama’s message of change.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe defended the plan during Friday’s meeting of Unasur, a grouping of South American leaders, saying the military cooperation would help his country overcome years of conflict.
“We are not talking about a political game, we are talking about a threat that has spilled blood in Colombian society,” he said after holding up pictures of victims of attacks by leftist FARC rebels.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened this week to break off diplomatic ties with Colombia over the deal, which allows the U.S. military access to seven Colombian bases for joint efforts to fight traffickers and rebels in the world’s leading producer of cocaine.
A fierce critic of Washington, Chavez lashed out at the plan and said it was sowing “seeds of war” in the region. But Venezuela’s socialist leader did not refer to his diplomatic threats against Colombia, which could disrupt $6 billion worth of annual trade between the two countries.
“This is part of a global strategy of domination by the United States,” Chavez said.
The United States and Colombia say the agreement builds on an existing accord but Chavez and his allies, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales, have repeatedly criticized it.
Moderate Latin American governments have also expressed concerns. Tempers occasionally flared during the summit, including a flash of frustration from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over the direction of the talks.
With regional powerhouse Brazil spearheading diplomatic efforts to lower tensions, Lula encouraged the leaders to seek a meeting with Obama to discuss U.S. intentions at the Colombian bases and several of them voiced support.
“It would be important if we could meet at the G20 or during the United Nations meeting so Obama can make it clear what kind of relationship he wants with Latin America,” Lula said, referring to gatherings set for next month.
Many Latin Americans are wary of U.S. intervention, recalling Washington’s backing of right-wing military dictatorships decades ago.
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.
As disagreements over the plan hung over the summit, Uribe dismissed worries it threatened peace in the region. At times, he traded accusations with Correa and Chavez.
“We don’t have any hypothesis of war games against our neighbors,” Uribe said. “However, on various occasions Chavez has said he is revving up Sukhoi fighter airplanes.”
The Colombian leader also said two high-ranking FARC commanders were inside Venezuela, questioning Chavez’s cooperation with his effort to battle the guerrillas.
Chavez views an increased U.S. military presence in Colombia as an attempt to isolate his government or 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 in the country.
Additional reporting by Damian Wroclavsky and Jorge Otaola in Bariloche; editing by Kieran Murray and John O'Callaghan