In September Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, delivered on an electoral promise and refused to renew Washington’s decade-old, rent-free lease on an air base outside the Pacific coast town of Manta, which for the past ten years has served as the Pentagon’s main South American outpost. The eviction was a serious effort to fulfill the call of Ecuador’s new Constitution to promote “universal disarmament” and oppose the “imposition” of military bases of “some states in the territory of others.” It was also one of the most important victories for the global demilitarization movement, loosely organized around the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, since protests forced the US Navy to withdraw from Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003. Correa, though, couldn’t resist an easy joke. “We’ll renew the lease,” he quipped, “if the US lets us set up a base in Miami.”
Funny. Then Washington answered with a show of force: take away one, we’ll grab seven. In late October the United States and Colombia signed an agreement granting the Pentagon use of seven military bases, along with an unlimited number of as yet unspecified “facilities and locations.” They add to Washington’s already considerable military presence in Colombia, as well as in Central America and the Caribbean.
Responding to criticism from South America on the Colombian deal, the White House insists it merely formalizes existing military cooperation between the two countries under Plan Colombia and will not increase the offensive capabilities of the US Southern Command (Southcom). The Pentagon says otherwise, writing in its 2009 budget request that it needed funds to upgrade one of the bases to conduct “full spectrum operations throughout South America” to counter, among other threats, “anti-U.S. governments” and to “expand expeditionary warfare capability.” That ominous language, since scrubbed from the budget document, might be a case of hyping the threat to justify spending during austere times. But the Obama administration’s decision to go forward with the bases does accelerate a dangerous trend in US hemispheric policy.
In recent years, Washington has experienced a fast erosion of its influence in South America, driven by the rise of Brazil, the region’s left turn, the growing influence of China and Venezuela’s use of oil revenue to promote a multipolar diplomacy. Broad social movements have challenged efforts by US- and Canadian-based companies to expand extractive industries like mining, biofuels, petroleum and logging. Last year in Peru, massive indigenous protests forced the repeal of laws aimed at opening large swaths of the Amazon to foreign timber, mining and oil corporations, and throughout the region similar activism continues to place Latin America in the vanguard of the anti-corporate and anti-militarist global democracy movement.