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Based out

Foreign bases have been a mainstay of global US military domination for decades. But in Latin America they have been closing fast and a new deal to use seven Colombian military bases is, paradoxically, a sign of US weakness in the region, writes Grace Livingstone

June 16, 2010
7 min read

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 Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay have now withdrawn from the School of Americas, the notorious institution that boasts 11 Latin American dictators among its graduates.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

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