Absent in the discussion of the conflict brewing in the Andes over a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador to kill a guerrilla leader is the role of U.S. military in the conflict. It goes well beyond providing satellite intelligence on the location of guerrilla camps: the two countries have opposing responses to Washington’s attempt to militarize the hemisphere. Ecuador’s constituent assembly proposes prohibiting all foreign military presence, while Colombia seeks ever greater U.S. military hardware, intelligence and troops. The U.S. response has been quite undiplomatic.

While visiting Italy last October, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa made a modest proposal: if the United States allows his country to set up a military base in Miami, his government would renew the lease for a U.S. base in the coast city of Manta. Otherwise, U.S. troops and operations will have to leave the when the base lease ends next year.

Less than a month later, Correa passed through Miami on his way to China, and U.S. Customs police treated the president as an ordinary foreigner. It wasn’t the first time Correa and his vice-president had been denied diplomatic treatment. Ecuador’s foreign minister called the incident a “humiliation of a head of state, from arrogance by a country that believes itself above all others.”

Declining U.S. Influence

Latin Americans are increasingly saying “No” to the U.S. military bases that are spread through the region. The Pentagon uses vassal states in Central America – Honduras and El Salvador – as bases for drug-war surveillance, police training, helicopter sorties, and military-run charity programs. And Colombia, a key ally in the region, receives more military equipment and training than the rest of the hemisphere combined.

But U.S. influence in the region is declining, and the U.S. military presence is perceived as protecting a failed economic model. Instead of militarizing relations and building fortresses, the United States should address the reasons why majorities throughout the region are turning against U.S.-led models.

The widespread U.S. military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean has a long history. Bases resulted from and facilitated the hundreds of U.S. interventions to protect corporate property, coups, occupations, threats by gunboats, and other uses of force since the mid-1800s. Panama was carved out of Colombia in order to build the canal, with a series of bases and forts. In addition to protecting the canal, U.S. bases there served for training Latin American armies, preparing U.S. troops for jungle warfare in World War II and the Vietnam War, testing military equipment, including chemical weapons and preventing leftist forces from either winning or consolidating power in Central America.

Panama and Puerto Rico

Advantages thus obtained by Panama, including access to U.S. markets through the Canal Zone, always conflicted with a desire for independence and with resentment of U.S. arrogance, racism, and interference. A similar dynamic occurred in Puerto Rico, where the Navy moved in after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and remained in the colony for more than a century.

The 1978 ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, which required the United States to close its bases in Panama by the end of 1999, represented a watershed in U.S. policy, but Washington never renounced military hegemony in the hemisphere.

The enclave system of military basing in Panama and Puerto Rico – with thousands of troops, multiple military capacities, and internal societies alienated from the “host country” – has largely dissolved, with the possible and ironic exception of Guantánamo, as a result of popular resistance. But the United States has adapted by establishing more and smaller bases and “security locations,” by relying on proxy troops trained and supplied by the United States, and by using air and naval forces for intelligence.

Colombia, Honduras, and Guantánamo

The largest bastion of U.S. military presence is in Colombia, where 800 soldiers and 600 military contractors are supporting a counterinsurgency that targets civilians and destroying health and environment through aerial fumigation as part of the failed so-called “Drug War.”

Then the United States operates a base in Soto Cano, Honduras, set up in 1984. It’s a legacy of Reagan administration’s efforts to prevent a leftist revolution in El Salvador while fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua by subsidizing, in violation of a congressionally imposed ban, the armed contra insurgents. The Soto Cano base provides support for training and helicopter sorties. And there’s an air base and police training academy in El Salvador. And drug traffic surveillance facilities in Curazao and Aruba.

The infamous detention camp in Guantánamo, Cuba is in fact part of a longstanding U.S. naval base there, which enjoys a lease with no termination date. With an uninterrupted U.S. presence since 1903, Guantánamo has served as a rest and relaxation site for sailors and Marines, refueling site for Coast Guard ships and temporary camp for Haitian refugees. The military detention camp established for detainees of suspected Al Qaeda members, in violation of Geneva Convention norms, where documented torture and abuse are rife, currently overshadows the naval base, which is controversial in its own right. The base is a hangover from the earlier heyday U.S. imperialism a century ago, and Cuba has refused to deposit U.S. Treasury checks for the base’s below-market rent.

Widespread Withdrawal

Revulsion toward U.S. unilateralism and the torture methods used and taught by U.S. officials is leading to withdrawal from some U.S.-run military programs, such as the U.S. School of the Americas (relocated from Panama in 1984) now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

Bases set up in Puerto Rico and Ecuador, partly as a result of the closure of bases in Panama, are already closed or soon will be. The grassroots movement of civil disobedience, culture, and political action to stop the naval bombing in Vieques, Puerto Rico unified a colonized society otherwise fractured by attitudes towards relations with United States. Ecuador bowed out of hosting a multinational naval exercise last year, and several Latin American nations have refused to sign agreements that would exempt U.S. soldiers from prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

Argentina even led a multinational military exercise in October 2006 “to recover an airport that has fallen under the control of an extra-continental power, being used to fly in and deploy troops into the area.” The United States is the only such power with the capacity and political wherewithal to fly in troops in such an operation. Paraguayan soldiers participated in the exercise, dubbed “Operación Hermandad” (Operation Brotherhood).

Washington’s Response

Washington’s response to this rising tide of resistance increasingly has been to rely on Colombia, where President Alvaro Uribe is George W. Bush’s Latin political twin. Colombia harbors 1,400 U.S. soldiers and military contractors, as well as five radar sites, all operated by the ITT Corporation, and a “Forward Operating Site” in Apiay. Apiay is one of a handful of sites in Colombia where the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group trains thousands of Colombian soldiers every year. Washington has appropriated $5.5 billion in mostly military funds since 2000 as part of “Plan Colombia,” a bi-partisan initiative purportedly aimed at “going to the source” of cocaine production by fumigating coca fields. In reality it has been a project that helps Colombia’s military fight insurgents. Drug trafficking has continued apace since the plan’s inception.

Pundits repeatedly frame the prospect of reducing the U.S. military’s presence in Colombia or rejecting the corporate-sponsored free trade agreement with the country as “abandoning a friend.” “The danger for the United States is that if it abandons these Latin advocates of open markets, the beneficiaries will be radical supporters of Venezuela’s Chávez,” wrote David Ignatius in his Washington Post column. “Failing to ratify the [trade] agreement would be tantamount to abandoning a neighbor in its time of greatest need… We desire nothing more than to give Colombia a pledge of economic trust and friendship,” opined the Los Angeles Times in an editorial.

With Friends Like These…

But just what friends are these? Colombia’s armed forces have allied with paramilitary death squads that have forced millions of Colombians to flee in terror from lands that are then occupied by others, and the army itself is the most abusive in the hemisphere. More than 75 of Uribe’s circle of political colleagues and appointed officials are under investigation for working with paramilitary forces, while the Uribe government has worked out an amnesty for demobilized paramilitaries that has reinforced impunity.

Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with more of them killed in 2006 than the rest of the world combined. Uribe consistently responds to criticism by political opponents and human rights workers by claiming it comes from the guerrillas. This is the model that the White House has been touting on Congressional junkets to Medellín in its drive to win approval of the Colombia trade agreement.

Colombia’s militarization makes its neighbors nervous. The U.S. military base in Manta, Ecuador, set up with up to 500 US soldiers to run counter-drug flights when Panama threw out military bases in 1999, has become a controversial presence that a majority of Ecuadoreans want closed. The U.S. commander in Manta has also stated that the base is “very important” for Plan Colombia. U.S. officials defend the Manta base, asserting that drug traffic in Ecuador and the eastern Pacific has grown in recent years. But if drug traffic has grown since the base began operations in Manta in 2000, it suggests – at the very least – that it’s ineffective.

Cutting Off Manta

President Rafael Correa, who was inaugurated last year, pledged that his government would not maintain the lease for the Manta base, which expires in 2009, unless the United States allows Ecuador to have a military base in Florida. In a public letter to Correa, more than 40 peace, religious and solidarity organizations publicly declared their support in October for Ecuador’s decision to close the US military base in Manta. “Every dollar spent on military approaches to drugs represents a theft from programs for at-risk youth and treatment of addiction in the United States, for investment in reducing U.S. carbon emissions, and for payment of other debts our country owes to the world,” the groups said.

Keeping the air base in Manta is still on the table, say spokesmen at the Southern Command and U.S. Embassy in Quito. One arrangement that SouthCom is exploring would allow U.S. military or surveillance aircraft to land in Ecuador, but not at a fixed U.S. base.

The conflict that erupted between Colombia and Ecuador after Colombian forces bombed a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuadorean territory on March 1 was born of rising bilateral tensions. Previous Colombian military operations along the border spurred diplomatic protest notes last year. When Ecuador last May withdrew from annual naval exercises led by the United States that were scheduled to be held off its coastline, the U.S. Southern Command said that the exercises would be held instead in Malaga Bay on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The Manta base houses AWACS aircraft with a capability for detecting satellite phone calls. The location of the FARC guerrilla camp was reportedly determined by a satellite call regarding humanitarian exchange of prisoners made by guerrilla leader Raul Reyes to Senator Piedad Cordoba, leading Ecuadorean groups to call for an investigation into the role that U.S. and Colombian soldiers based in Manta played in the operation.

War on Drugs

The announced departure from Manta requires the Southern Command to go looking elsewhere in the region for a spot to base its air operations. The two candidates leaked to the media are Peru and Colombia. The United States already conducts extensive military activities in both countries. Peru hosts a key radar station used in the “War on Drugs,” and the United States has expanded the tempo of military maneuvers in the country. Moving the operations to Colombia would consolidate the country’s position as the Latin American country most militarized by the United States.

The failed militarized approach to traffic in illegal drugs hasn’t affected the availability or price of these drugs in U.S. communities, nor addressed the poverty and lack of infrastructure that leads some Latin American farmers to enter the illegal economy. A study by the Rand Corporation showed that spending on treatment of drug users is more than ten times as effective for reducing illegal drug use as interdiction of the sort conducted from the Manta base.

Good for DynCorp

The premise of the policy, that revving up the Colombian military to fight the guerrillas who protect coca plantations will affect the street price of cocaine, has been thoroughly discredited. So we might ask: Who, besides the corrupt Colombian military, has benefited from the $5.5 billion appropriated for Plan Colombia since 2000? The No. 1 beneficiaries in dollars are the U.S. companies that produce Blackhawk gunships and run the program of chemical warfare in Colombia’s coca fields. These include the companies providing the U.S. government with “services” to aid the Drug War.

DynCorp Interntational has signed contracts with the State Department for about $150 million annually since 2000 for its operations in Colombia. It also also handles most of the operations at the Manta base. The company’s corporate offices, like those of many of the growing band of mercenary outfits, are located in suburban Virginia, outside Washington. (The company’s headquarters are in Falls Church, which is adjacent to the Congressional district of Representative Frank Wolf, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Operations subcommittee that marks up the hundreds of millions of dollars in funds that Congress approves for DynCorp.) The company in turn has consistently given thousands of dollars to Wolf’s campaign. Such a blatant conflict of interest is another demonstration of Plan Colombia’s corrupt underlying dynamics, which should be cause for a fundamental re-casting of the policy.

If the 2008 elections yield a Democratic victory, renewing the party’s majority in Congress and winning the presidency, the next administration will get a chance to not only re-examine the premises of failed economic, military and narcotics policies in Latin America, but to re-shape those policies to engage the new majorities emerging throughout the region. Democrats, to be true to democratic values, should undertake such a fundamental shift in policy. But don’t hold your breath. Democrats and Republicans are likely to only react reflexively, unless people in the United States actively press them to do so.

John Lindsay-Poland, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean in Oakland, California, and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke University Press, 2003).

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