Closing bases

17 November 2009

The closure of the US military base in Manta is a huge victory for both the Ecuadorian activists who have been campaigning for a decade against the US military presence in their country, and for the international No-Bases campaign.

Manta is a lively city with 200,000 residents, on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. Because of its harbour, it is a major hub of Ecuadorian tuna fishing industry. The city is home to an airport used only for domestic and regional flights.

In 1999, it was this airfield that made Manta the perfect location for a base for the United States military, as the US was looking for new hosts for its Forward Operations Locations (FOL) – military facilities for monitoring, tracking and intercepting drug trafficking from Colombia. Soon, those locations were found in El Salvador, The Netherlands-Antilles and in Ecuador.

This July, US military planes lifted off from the Eloy Alfaro Airbase, for the last time. After ten years of maintaining a base in Manta, the US was asked to end its military presence on Ecuadorian soil.

This was a huge victory for the Ecuadorian activists who have been campaigning for a decade, against the US military presence in their country that jeopardised Ecuador’s sovereignty and security. It was a big victory, too, for the international No-Bases campaign that started in 2003, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. As the US military was kicked out of Ecuador, the joy was shared by around 450 No-Bases campaign chapters worldwide.

As it happens often, the Ecuadorian population originally welcomed the US military, having been told by the government that the US base would bring international recognition for Manta along with new investments, new jobs and increased tourism. To top it off, the US promised that it would improve the local infrastructure and the harbour. Back then, few people worried about the unclear mandate and mission of the military base, or, the effects of such military presence – what it would do to the city.

In reality, new jobs were minimal – mostly low-paid work or temporary construction work. The fate of the people did not change as much as they were promised. The US promise to spend big on infrastructure in the region turned out to be one road, leading from the base to the city. In addition, many Mantanese were shocked to see the American presence result in a steep rise of night clubs, sex trade, drug dealing and crime.

Public opinion shifted dramatically throughout Ecuador, when the US base was allowed to expand encroaching the lands of local farmers without proper compensation, and, when the US military sunk several fishing boats because they sailed too close to the safety perimeter around the base.

Protests grew further, when it was exposed that the Manta base was involved in the chemical spraying of coca-fields in Colombia. Many Ecuadorian farmers, living close to the Columbian border, saw their fields and crops ruined.

The disappointments and problems experienced by the people of Manta are shared by many around the globe who face the everyday realities of a foreign military presence in their city or region.

The US alone maintains a global network of over a thousand such installations, in over a hundred countries. With this network of military bases and accompanying bilateral treaties with host nations in every continent, the US has built a permanent global military presence that, in the words of the Pentagon, enables it “to strike at a moments notice in any dark corner of the world.” And, that is excluding the temporary military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, former European colonial powers – current members of Nato – operate another 200 foreign military bases around the globe. The British can be found in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The French presence is strong in Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. To complete the picture, Russia maintains about half a dozen bases in former Soviet republics while India has a airbase in Tajikistan.

The most common problems experienced by the people living close to these military installations are pollution, noise-related stress and high crime rates. Also, the legal immunity awarded to military and civilian personnel operating from these bases ensures that any crimes committed by them go unpunished.

Manta and other FOL sites in El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles are leased from the host governments. The Status of Forces Agreement in all these cases includes not only provisions for legal immunity for the servicemen, but also, provisions that strictly limit the use of the facilities. The Manta base, for example, was only to be used for monitoring drug transports from Colombia to the North American market. Therefore, Plan Colombia – missions connected to the civil war in Colombia – was specifically excluded from its mandate.

Although in the Netherlands and El Salvador, the government’s attitude is that the US deserves to be trusted on these matters, in Ecuador it soon became clear that this was a rather naïve position. For ten years, the US military used the Manta base for counterinsurgency missions in Colombia, helping the Colombian government in its war against the Farc and other guerilla groups. Worse, in 2008, the US military coordinated the extrajudicial killing of Farc leader Reyes from Manta, guiding Colombian troops into Ecuadorian territory to do the killing. In other words, the US used its base in Ecuador to help the Colombian army to violate Ecuadorian territorial integrity.

Such breach of agreement is repeated over and over on a global level. Lacking proper control mechanisms, the host countries are usually unable to keep the country operating the base stick to the original deal. That is why joint intelligence bases are often used to spy on host countries (like in Europe); drug interception operations develop into reconnaissance and counterinsurgency missions; and, bases originally set up to provide security to a host nation develop into jumping boards for military interventions and invasions – for example, in Europe, the US military bases originally set up to provide common defence against the Soviet threat are now crucial infrastructure for invasions in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Once a foreign base is established in a country, it is not easy to send back the guests home. In Manta, it took ten years of growing public pressure and a victorious election to convince Washington to close its base. The traditional political parties in Ecuador ignored the rising protests against the base among their own constituencies since they prioritised on remaining a loyal ally to the US. This led to the remarkable victory for Rafael Correa – the only candidate who promised to shut down the Manta base in his campaign – in the 2006 presidential elections.

In March 2007, just three months after the inauguration of the new government, the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases organised its first global conference, in Quito and Manta. The pressure from Washington on the new Ecuadorian government was tangible. The US tried to bully and bribe the government into extending the lease of the Manta base. To repudiate the No-Bases campaigners in town at the time of the conference, the US embassy was busy organising press trips to the Manta base, to show the press that Manta was “not really a base.” However, that only emphasised the importance of Manta.

The No-Bases conference helped solidify a wide consensus among the Ecuadorian population that it was time for the US military to leave. Also, the conference helped to keep the pressure on the new government to not give in under the tremendous pressure from Washington to keep the base open.

The closure of the Manta base was a victory for all Ecuadorians, a victory shared by hundreds of similar campaigns around the globe that have been working together since 2003. Through international solidarity, campaigners found out that they are not alone in their long struggles for justice and security. By sharing information they learned from each other’s tactics, and, through joint actions, the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military bases has been successful in putting the bases issue on the agenda of many international movements for peace and socio-economic justice. The campaign is slowly creating more space for political debate on the issue, both in the host nations and on an international level.

The next step for the network is to campaign for an international treaty regulating – and strictly limiting – the opportunities for countries to export their military might through foreign bases. At the same time, the No-Bases network will continue unabatedly to fight for citizens around the world whose rights to livelihood, safety and justice are jeopardised by a foreign military presence.♦