Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
When the United States signed a deal to use seven Colombian military bases late last year, the Obama administration assured Latin American countries that the bases would not be used as launch-pads for operations in neighbouring states. Unfortunately for State Department spin-doctors, a Colombian journalist spotted a US Air Force document that had been sent to Congress months earlier, which showed this was exactly what US military planners
had in mind.
It stated that the Palanquero airbase in Colombia ‘provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America’ and listed ‘anti-US governments’ among the threats faced by US forces. ‘Full spectrum operations’ is a Pentagon term for dominating the battle space on land, sea, air and space, and can include nuclear weapons.
Although the text of the document has now been changed, it caused a sensation in Latin America because it seems to confirm fears that the Colombian bases deal is about cementing US military dominance in the region and maintaining its ability to interfere in any country it chooses.
Loosening the alliance
Latin American governments are right to be concerned, but the deal with Colombia is, paradoxically, a sign of US weakness in the region. Left-wing governments have swept to power across the Americas in the past decade and to varying degrees have rejected the crude free-market economics espoused by US dominated institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. These progressive governments are also loosening the historically tight alliance with the US military.
Latin American elites once gave US Green Berets free rein in their mountains and rainforests and schooled their own officers in US academies, where they learnt the latest counter-insurgency and torture techniques to be used against ‘subversives’. But today the ‘pink tide’ governments are pulling their officers out of US training schools. Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay have now withdrawn from the School of Americas, the notorious institution that boasts 11 Latin American dictators among its graduates. Ecuador and Nicaragua are likely to withdraw their soldiers and Costa Rica, which has no army, has pulled out its police cadets. The School of Americas used to be based in the Panama Canal Zone, but has now moved to Fort Benning, Georgia and has a new anodyne name: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co operation.
The US does not own any military bases in Latin America. Since US Southern Command left its headquarters in the Panama Canal Zone in 1999, it has had to rely on friendly governments to lend or lease it military bases in the region. After leaving Panama, it signed four 10-year leases on air-bases in Ecuador, El Salvador, Aruba and Curacao. The left wing president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, recently refused to extend the lease and US forces have left the Manta airbase. It has now been written into the constitution that US forces cannot be stationed on Ecuadorian territory.
The lease on the airbase in El Salvador was extended for five years, just before another left-winger, President Mauricio Funes, was inaugurated in January. So he was not given a chance to expel US troops, but the US will be concerned that its Salvadoran base does not have a long-term future.
In Paraguay, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars building a base with a state-of-the-art radar system, which opened in 2006. But to the consternation of US military planners, a progressive priest, Fernando Lugo, has won the presidency, so it looks as if the construction was a wasted investment.
Apart from the large numbers of US troops sited in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the most important US base in the region is in Honduras, where 500 troops of Joint Task Force Bravo are stationed. One reason why Pentagon hardliners have been sympathetic to the recent coup in Honduras is because the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, planned to start commercial flights from the base, compromising the security and secrecy of US operations on that vital installation.
Clawing back military hegemony
As it casts its eye around the region, the Pentagon has been finding it harder and harder to find military allies and has been forced to fall back on Colombia, the country with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. As it tries to claw back its once unassailable military hegemony, the US has re-activated the Fourth Fleet of the Southern Command Navy, which patrols the waters all round Latin America. The Pentagon is now planning to pay for the construction of new naval bases in Panama, where US military training may take place, according to the Center for International Policy.
Since the launch of Plan Colombia in 2001, nominally a counter-drugs strategy but with an obvious counter-insurgency element, US forces have gradually been sucked into the war against Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas and are already present on many of Colombia’s military bases. Declassified documents show that the US now spends almost half its military aid budget in Colombia on private military contractors, which obscures the true extent of the US presence there; ITT, for example, operates Colombia’s ground-based military radars.
This latest agreement allows US troops to use seven named bases. Of these, Palanquero airbase is the most important. The US will spend more than US$40 million on improving the runway so it will have the capacity for large transport aircraft such as C-17s, which have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan and can carry tanks, helicopters and large numbers of troops. Also noteworthy are the two naval bases, Cartagena and Malaga, not only convenient ports for the newly-activated Fourth Fleet, but vital gateways to both the Atlantic and Pacific, crucial to the US military’s global strategy, as well as operations in the Americas.
Coalitions of the unwilling
The militarisation of Latin America has provoked a swell of protest. Almost all the governments of South America have spoken out against the Colombian bases deal. In Colombia, a wide coalition of grass-roots movements, including the country’s largest trade union federations, is braving paramilitary repression to speak out against the bases – which, they say, not only violate the country’s sovereignty but will exacerbate the country’s human rights crisis.
In Ecuador a similar coalition successfully pressured the government to evict US forces from the Manta base. Both the Colombian and Ecuadorian movements are part of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases (or No Bases Network) that grew out of the social forum in India in 2004 and was formally established in Quito in 2007. The network, which now has hundreds of campaigners in all continents, aims to close the estimated 1,000 US and 200 European bases worldwide.
Latin America’s new anti-base movement has an inspiring example in Puerto Rico. There tens of thousands of people protested and took part in civil disobedience campaigns against the US Navy, which for decades carried out bombing exercises on the small island of Vieques. The test bombs contained depleted uranium and carcinogenic chemicals such as triocyl phosphate. In 2003, the US Navy finally left Vieques and the Pentagon closed all but one of its military bases in Puerto Rico. n
Grace Livingstone is the author of America’s Backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror (Zed, 2009)
No Bases Network: www.no-bases.org
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle