BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia's defense minister on Tuesday backed away from a suggestion by President Juan Manuel Santos that the country might be looking at membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a comment that had alarmed some other South American leaders.
The minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, told W Radio that the country merely plans to sign a deal with NATO for cooperation in human rights, military justice and the education of troops.
"Colombia cannot be a member, does not want to be a member of NATO," he said. The ministry later reinforced that message with a news release.
In separate remarks to the Bogota daily El Tiempo, Pinzon said the deal "does not imply military bases, nor troops or anything that would put security and peace in the region at risk."
Santos, himself a former defense minister, announced over the weekend that "NATO is going to sign an agreement with the Colombian government, with the Ministry of Defense, to start a whole process of reaching out, of cooperation, also with a look at entering that organization."
That puzzled NATO officials because Colombia, as a country close to the equator, does not meet a NATO rule restricting membership to North Atlantic nations. It also prompted reproaches from the leftist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, which have had good relations with Santos despite his administration's close ties to Washington.
A NATO official, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to address the issue on the record, said, "There is no immediate plan for establishing a formal partnership between the alliance and Colombia, but we are exploring the possibility of carrying out specific activities together."
The official noted that Colombia participated in a NATO program to promote transparency and accountability in military forces, "and we are currently developing a security of information agreement which would allow the exchange of classified information between the alliance and Colombia."
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro said Santos' original announcement about possibly joining NATO was worse than Colombia's agreement to allow U.S. troops to work in the country, where they closely assist in the government's war with leftist rebels, and he called on regional political alliances to respond.
"They want to bring military power, what is decided in Washington, for the continent," he said. "That is a threat to the continent."
John Marulanda, an international consultant on defense and security issues, suggested that Santos' announcement resulted from "an excess of enthusiasm."
Colombia and the United States signed a military cooperation agreement in 2009 that would have granted U.S. armed forces greater use of Colombian bases.
But after vociferous objections from neighbors led by Brazil, Santos decided to abandon it and not seek congressional approval.