A New Network Forms to Close U.S. Overseas Military Bases

14 March 2007
Medea Benjamin

In a new surge of energy for the global struggle against militarism,
some 400 activists from 40 countries came together in Ecuador from
March 5-9 to form a network to fight against foreign military bases.
The conference began in Quito, then participants traveled in an 8-bus
caravan across the country, culminating in a spirited protest at the
city of Manta, site of a U.S. base.

While a few other countries such as England, Russia, China, Italy and
France have bases outside their territory, the United States is
responsible for 95% of foreign bases. According to U.S. government
figures, the U.S. military maintains some 737 bases in 130 countries,
although many estimate the true number to be over 1,000.

A network of local groups fighting the huge U.S. military complex is
indeed an "asymmetrical struggle," but communities have been trying
for decades to close U.S. military bases on their soil. Their
concerns range from the destruction of the environment, the
confiscation of farmlands, the abuse of women, the repression of
local struggles, the control of resources and a broader concern about
military and economic domination.

The Ecuadorian groups who agreed the host the international meeting
had been fighting against a U.S. base in the town of Manta. The U.S.
and Ecuadorian governments had signed a base agreement in 1999,
renewable after 10 years. The purpose of the base was supposed to be
drug interdiction, but instead it has provided logistical support for
the counterinsurgency war in Colombia, placing Ecuador in a dangerous
position of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbor. The
base has also affected the livelihoods of local fishermen and farmers
and brought an increase in sex workers, while the promised surge in
economic development has not materialized.

During Ecuador's presidential race in November 2006, candidate Rafael
Correa criticized the base and after winning the election he quipped,
"We can negotiate with the U.S. about a base in Manta, if they let us
put a military base in Miami." His comment displayed the stunning
hypocrisy of the U.S. government, a government that would never deign
to have a foreign base on its soil but expects over 100 countries to
host U.S. bases.

In a great boost to the newly-formed network to close foreign bases,
President Correa sent high-level representatives to the conference to
express support, and he himself, together with the Ministers of
Defense and Foreign Relations, met with delegates from the network to
express their commitment to closing the Manta base when it comes up
for renewal in 2009.

But the Ecuadorian government's courageous stand is unfortunately not
echoed in most countries, where anti-bases activists usually find
themselves fighting against both the U.S. bases and their
government's collusion.

Indigenous representatives attending the conference talked about the
destruction of indigenous lands to make way for bases. In the island
of Diego Garcia, the indigenous Chagossian people have been driven
off their lands, as have the Chamorros from Guam and the Inuit from
Greenland. Kyle Kajihiro, director of the organization Area Hawaii,
explained that the U.S. military occupies vast areas of Hawaiian
territory, territory which was once public land used for indigenous
reserves, agricultural production, schools and public parks.

The delegation from Okinawa, Japan, has been trying to dismantle the
U.S. bases for the past 50 years. One of their main complaints has
been the violence against women. Suzuyo Takazato, the director of
Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, has compiled a chilling
chronology of sexual abuse against Okinawan women by U.S. soldiers,
including the rape of a nine-month old baby and a six-year-old girl.
"We publish these horrible crimes to break the silence and impunity
of U.S. soldiers who, according to the base treaty, cannot be judged
in Okinawa." Even when groups are not successful in closing the
bases, at least they are pushing for U.S. soldiers to be subject to
the laws of the host country.

The representative from Guam talked about the environmental
devastation—the dumping of PCBs, Agent Orange, DDT, heavy metals and
munitions, as well as fallout from the detonation of 168 nuclear
bombs in the North western Pacific between 1946 and 1958, leading to
high rates of radiation-linked cancers on his island. Activists who
have been successful in closing bases warned that it is critical to
force the U.S. to clean up before leaving. The Filipinos who won the
closure of the Subic and Clark bases in 1992 after years of popular
pressure are still fighting to force the U.S. military to clean the
site and compensate the affected population.

One of the most compelling success stories came from Vieques, Puerto
Rico, where a U.S. base was installed in 1948 in this island paradise
of lagoons and sand beaches. The military used the base to build,
store and test bombs and chemical substances, like cancer-causing
Agent Orange. For decades the local people, especially the fisherman,
protested the base, but the anti-base struggle was catalyzed in 1999
when a bomb killed a local civilian, David, Sanes. Activist Nilda
Medina spoke with great passion about how they set up permanent
protest camps, thousands performed acts of civil disobedience, and
others went on hunger strikes. After residents occupied the test area
for 13 months, the Navy finally agreed to close the base in May 1,
2003. Now the local people, as in so many other sites, are fighting
to clean up the land and treat those who have been exposed to harmful
chemicals." We're so proud of what we accomplished and want to tell
our story to encourage others," said Nilda Medina. "We understand
that this is part of a worldwide struggle against the militarization
of our planet."

Post-9/11, this militarization has become even more entrenched as
part of the "war on terror." Representatives from Cuba at the
conference complained bitterly about the use of the Guantanamo base
as a center for illegal detention and abuse of prisoners. Activists
from Japan, Turkey, Italy and Germany said their countries had been
used to facilitate the invasions and ongoing occupations of Iraq and
Afghanistan. Delegates from Germany said they have 81 U.S. bases,
more than anywhere in the world, and that Germany had became a
central rotation point for U.S. soldiers on their way to and from
Iraq. They complained that the use of U.S. bases as a launching pad
for hostile military operations makes their country vulnerable to
terrorist attacks.

This is why over 100,000 people came out for a demonstration in
February 2007 in the Italian town of Vicenza against a proposed new
military base. "We don't want the noise, the pollution, the taxing of
our infrastructure," said local organized Cinzia Bottene. "But most
of all, we don't want to be accomplices to Bush's war and a target
for reprisals."

Many U.S. groups sent representatives to the conference, including
the Fellowship of Reconciliation, AFSC, United for Peace and Justice,
Southwest Workers Union, WILPF, Global Exchange, CODEPINK and the
Marin Interfaith Task Force. U.S. delegates said that the bases did
not make them more secure; just the contrary. "One of the reasons the
U.S. was attacked on September 11 was because of U.S. foreign bases
in Saudi Arabia," explained Joe Gerson of AFSC. "But while the U.S.
military has since abandoned the bases in Saudi Arabia, it has
replaced them with even more bases throughout the region, creating
more animosity towards Americans." The U.S. delegates made it clear
that the network to close U.S. foreign bases was in line with the
efforts of the U.S. peace movement, which would like to see our
military used for defensive, not offensive purposes. U.S. delegates
also emphasized how the billions of dollars now being spent to
maintain this empire of bases would be better invested in people's
needs for health, education and housing.

The new global network will help local groups share experiences,
learn from one another, and provide support for the local efforts. It
will conduct research, maintain a global website (no-bases.org ),
publish an e-newsletter, and convoke regular international meetings
to assess progress.

Luis Angel Saavedra, head of one of the Ecuadorian organizations
sponsoring the conference, was thrilled with the outcome. "We've been
working against the base in Manta for the past seven years, and this
conference feels like the culmination of this entire campaign," he
said. "It will strengthen President Correa's position to close the
base. Our people are better educated after all the publicity we've
received. And we now have a network to exchange strategies and
experiences with people all over the world. I'd call that a great


Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace.

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