Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ declaration that Bogota wants to increase relations with NATO – and hints that it may also want to join the transnational body — has sparked both debate and criticism across Latin America. (Unsurprisingly, most opposition came from Latin American heads of state that are generally anti-Washington.) But even though Bogota’s NATO bid is unlikely to become a reality, Santos’ statement – and the varied reactions it elicited — showcase the negative image held of NATO in many parts of the Western Hemisphere.
Amid the ambiguity of whether Colombia desires full membership or simply increased cooperation (i.e. sharing of intelligence information), several Latin American leaders quickly expressed their distaste for Santos’ provocative proposal.Bolivian President Evo Morales said “how is it possible that Colombia wants to be a member of NATO? What for? To have NATO commit aggression against Latinamerica[sic], so they can invade us, as they have done in Europe, Africa and Asia?” Meanwhile, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said, “that a Latin American country wants to join NATO; it will only be an instrument for a policy to debilitate and try to destroy the current union process that the region is undergoing.” The comments garnered more positive responses further north where the Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department, Roberta Jacobson, said that the U.S. could “support” a Colombian attempt to join the Alliance.
However, all the polemic may be for naught;NATO officials stated that the South American nation could not become a member of the Alliance for geographic reasons. And shortly after the president’s June 1 statement,Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon retracted his comments, explaining that Colombia “cannot be a member [and] does not want to be a member of NATO.” More probable is a shift towards increasingly close relations with NATO (short of full membership) in the near future. After all, Colombia is a close ally of the U.S. and its armed forces have played a growing role in multinational military operations (notably through deployment inU.N. peacekeeping missions). However, such a NATO-Colombia rapprochement is very unpopular in the region as it could entail the installation of NATO bases in the South American state. The issue has dominated social media in recent days, with hash tags trending on Twitter that said: #SiAUnasurNoAOtan (Yes to UNASUR – the Union of South American Nations, No to NATO).
Given that Colombia’s NATO membership bid is largely hypothetical, it would seem that Santos is trying to “test the waters” and see how some controversial foreign policy moves and statements will be received both at home and regionally. (Apart from declaring his NATO dreams, the Colombian president recently stirred up controversy by meeting with Venezuelan Governor Henrique Capriles.) Ultimately, Santos’ NATO allusion may have been directed at the Venezuelan government in order to lay out his own foreign policy alliances and interests. More broadly, however, his statement is a reminder that Latin America is far from being close to a united entity – the recent creation of regional integration blocs such as UNASUR and the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC) notwithstanding. What’s more, Colombia probably has a better chance of becoming a NATO member than does South American integration evolving to the point where regional agencies like UNASUR (and its defense wing, the South American Defense Council) form a military alliance. That’s to say, hardly any at all.