Ecuador’s Leftist New Leader Sizes Up the U.S.

06 March 2007
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who is on the same political spectrum as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, is moving very calculatedly to distance his country from the US, writes Roger Burbach.
QUITO - Ecuador—President Rafael Correa’s leftist government moved boldly in its first month in office by declaring that it intends to close the U.S. military base located in Manta. "Ecuador is a sovereign nation; we do not need any foreign troops in our country," Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador’s foreign minister announced in a meeting with the Foreign Press Association. The treaty for the base expires in 2009 and will not be renewed. The largest U.S. base on South America's Pacific coast, the Manta installation was ostensibly set up to monitor narco-trafficking over the ocean and in the nearby Amazon basin. But it has become a major operations center for U.S. intelligence-gathering and coordinating counterinsurgency efforts against the leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. The base's $80-million runway, can accommodate the largest and most sophisticated U.S. spy aircraft. Manta is also used as a port for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific. Upwards of 475 American military personal are rotated between Manta and the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Florida. Popular sentiment in Ecuador overwhelmingly supports the closure of the Manta base. Since the base was set up in 1999 the civil war in Colombia has spread to Ecuador, bringing refugees, violence and social conflict, particularly in the Amazon region. Aerial spraying of herbicides by planes originating in Colombia eradicates food crops and has deleterious health effects on Ecuadorian children and adults. The Colombian and U.S. governments say the defoliants are only sprayed on the Colombian side of the border and that there are no flights over Ecuador. But Correa vehemently disagrees: "We will not permit the continual violation of Ecuadorian air space by planes that are not even Colombian, but from the United States. They enter our country, and then fly back to Colombia." Correa has ordered the Ecuadorian air force "to intercept any planes that violate our air space." Correa is preparing to file a case at the World Court in The Hague against the Colombian government for the conflict and damages in northern Ecuador. Foreign Minister Espinosa emphatically states that the incursions are a "violation of human rights. It is not only a question of the health effects, but also of the psychological traumas caused by the constant over-flights and the terrorization of the local population, particularly among the children who hear planes flying overhead and are subjected to war-like conditions." Special teams of international health and human rights experts are being formed to investigate the conditions on the border. "We want to replace the conflictive conditions with a Plan for Peace and Development in the region," says Espinosa. Last week Vice-President Lenin Moreno, on a trip to Caracas, Venezuela, asked the Colombian government "should act more as a friendly neighbor and not respond only to the orders of the empire." Moreno’s caused an uproar when, commenting on the upcoming trip in March of President Bush to Latin America that excludes Ecuador, he stated: "Every time Bush comes to visit our region we worry because we don't know what proposals he comes to impart and what sorts of statements he will make." To calm the diplomatic waters, Espinosa said Moreno's remarks were not officially sanctioned. "We want cordial, normal relations with the U.S. embassy and government in order to resolve any issues between us," she said. The Correa government is also moving against the neo-liberal trade and commercial policies that have been imposed on Ecuador by Washington and international lending agencies. In line with his campaign platform, Correa made it clear he would never sign the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which was being discussed with previous Ecuadorian governments. At the same time, Ecuador is negotiating special bilateral trade and economic agreements with Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Venezuela has agreed to refine Ecuadorian oil and provide financial assistance for social programs, while the Bolivian government has concluded an agreement to import food commodities from small and medium producers in Ecuador. For now Correa has not opted to join the People's Trade Treaty signed last year between Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela. But as Rene Baez, an economic analyst at the Catholic University of Ecuador says, "The treaty is really a series of special accords and financial agreements, and in that sense Ecuador is already an informal member of this alternative bloc." Meanwhile, financial news captured the headlines last week when Economics Minister Ricardo Patino that Ecuador would make a scheduled debt payment of $135 million to foreign bondholders after all. Known for his long-held belief that paying off the foreign debt undercuts critical social spending programs and keeps Ecuador in a state of perpetual poverty, Patino's decision came just two days after he had announced that Ecuador would not make the payment. Informed sources close to the government say that after high-level discussions, Correa opted to pay the bondholders, preferring to focus on the coming negotiations with international lenders over a reduction in the schedule of debt payments and the annulment of part of the debt that was the result of corrupt practices by prior Ecuadorian governments and foreign creditors. As Baez says, "the Correa government decided to be selective in the battles it is taking on for the moment. A default now would have caused an international reaction and possibly provoked a domestic financial crisis, just as the government is trying to get its legs under it." Published by New America Media ©