The U.S. Military’s Presence in the Greater Caribbean Basin: More a Matter of Trade Strategy and Ideology than Drugs

By: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez

Washington’s initiative to have access to at least seven Colombian military facilities has been criticized as an extension of the controversial Plan Colombia and as a breach of fealty to its sister republics. Suspicion also has surfaced that the base deal was fundamentally a move against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and would prove a recurring obstacle to fulfillment of U.S. policy goals in the region. Two of the facilities soon to be available to the U.S. are located in the Caribbean region – the military port in Cartagena and the air base in Malambo – and will serve the needs of the U.S. Navy.

The new Caribbean coast facilities will join an array of existing U.S. military establishments in the region dating back to 1903. Up to now, the official raison d’etre for a U.S. presence in the Caribbean was to combat drug trafficking. However, the proliferation of security threats, in particular developments possibly against the interests of Chávez’s Venezuela, has led some to argue that no matter how much Washington’s officials deny it, an unspoken reason for the U.S. deployment to Colombia is to keep Chavez under check. With the Washington-Bogotá decision, it is necessary to discuss the relationship between masking antinarcotics efforts as a cover for a variety of U.S. security concerns and aspirations throughout Latin America, especially in the coming trade war over commodities.

Caribbean Bases-R-US

Up until the transfer of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government and the withdrawal of the U.S. Air Force equipment from Howard Air Base in 1999, American defense strategy favored large military facilities abroad. The strategy seems to have changed in recent years, with the Pentagon opting for smaller facilities and a more modest posting of personnel. Active U.S. bases in Latin America are known as “Forward Operation Locations” (FOL) or “Cooperative Security Locations” (CSL).

The decision by the Correa administration in Ecuador not to renew the lease on the U.S. military complex at Manta forced Washington to look for alternatives. Peru was interested in hosting one such base, as this was seen as aiding the country in its fight against the remnants of Sendero Luminoso and serve as a deterrent against its traditional strategic foe, Chile, which in recent years has been undergoing a military build-up.

In the end, Washington policymakers chose Colombia to be the U.S.’s primary regional base for operations in the northern tier of South America and the Caribbean. Access to the Colombian bases will likely mean new deployments of U.S. personnel above the 300 U.S. troops currently stationed there; however, the figure will not surpass the maximum of 800 troops (and 600 contract workers) as agreed upon by both countries. The two proposed bases where American troops will be deployed along Colombia’s Caribbean coast are Malambo (Air Base Alberto Pouwels) and Cartagena (ARC Bolívar). Interestingly, only one base on Colombia’s Pacific coast will be used, in Buenaventura in the Valle del Cauca. The bases in Malambo and Cartagena facilities will significantly add to Washington’s already formidable military presence in the Caribbean. This includes:

• El Salvador – According to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. Navy routinely flies P-3 MPA and E-2C AEW out of Comalapa International Airport. The base is used for counter narcotic operations in the Eastern Pacific. A 2001 International Relations Center report explained that there is “no limit on the number of U.S. personnel who have access to any ports, air space, and unspecified government installations that the U.S. deems pertinent.” The bill accepting U.S. deployment in El Salvador was passed in 2000 under the presidency of Francisco Flores amid protests by the FMLN, a left-leaning political movement that was created by former leftist rebels who participated in the country’s civil war and who now hold the country’s presidency. U.S. Forces in the region are under the command of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), whose senior officer is also the head of the Fourth Fleet. At the same time, the Comalapa CSL is part of the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF) based in Key West, Florida.

• Honduras – The Palmerola/Soto Cano base is the home of Joint Task Force-Bravo. Around 500 U.S. military personnel are deployed there, in addition to 600 U.S. contract civilians, both Americans and Hondurans. The mixed bag of American military troops includes the 612th Air Squadron. In recent years the Honduran government expressed interest in taking over Soto Cano and transforming it into a civilian airport (so Tegucigalpa wouldn’t have to bear the expense of building a new one). If that were to transpire, the American military probably would be forced to move to an undisclosed area in the Honduran rainforest. It is unclear, with the ongoing events regarding the ousted president Manuel Zelaya, if the future of Palmerola will be discussed anytime soon.

• Curaçao and Aruba – These Caribbean islands, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, host two bases used to interdict air and maritime drug shipments. The U.S. military at these locations works in coordination with the Dutch-assisted local Coast Guard units in the islands. Washington has a presence in Curaçao as it leases part of the airport for anti-drug operations. The detachment stationed there includes U.S. military personnel as well as DEA agents. AWAC aircraft are utilized for monitoring suspicious air and sea traffic involving Caribbean waters. According to a November 2008 article in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, in that year, 214 tons of cocaine, 166 tons of heroin and five tons of marijuana were intercepted by U.S. patrols taking off from the airbase on Curaçao.

• Cuba –It is easy to forget that Guantánamo Bay is actually a military facility, given its publicity in recent years as a prison for individuals accused of terrorism. However, the base has been operated by the U.S. since 1903, without an ending date for the American military presence there, at least as long as Washington continues to pay the lease. The base is intended to serve as a repair and refueling center for Coast Guard and Navy vessels. This part of Guantánamo is controlled by the U.S. Navy Station (reflecting the base’s original mission), currently commanded by Navy Captain Steve Blaisdell. The other component of Guantánamo is namely to accomodate detainees accused of terrorism, called Joint Task Force-Guantánamo. It is currently led by Rear Admiral Tom Copeman, with Army Brigadier General Rafael O’Ferrall as its deputy commander.

• Antigua – The U.S. military established a base in Antigua during World War II, which was named Coolidge Airfield. The Antigua Air Station exists today out of part of the former Coolidge AFB. A 2007 press release by the government of Antigua & Barbuda highlights a meeting of Prime Minister Baldwin Spence and the head of the U.S. station. The release explains that the U.S. Air Station “operates under a Government to Government agreement with the United States. … Under the agreement, the United States Air Force leases lands from the Government in the vicinity of the V C Bird International Airport.”

• The Bahamas – The Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) is located in Andros Island in The Bahamas. The center is utilized for testing of new types of weaponry. Globalsecurity.org defines it as “the Navy’s premier east coast in-water test facility.” AUTEC’s website explains that the center is “affiliated with the NATO FORACS [Naval Forces Sensor and Weapon Accuracy Check Site] program and the eight participating NATO member nations: Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

• The U.S. also is routinely utilizing facilities in Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a major port in Panama, for supplies and refueling.

Military exercises

Apart from leasing military facilities abroad, the U.S. armed forces have improved ties with other regional security forces by carrying out joint military exercises. Three of the most commonly known military exercises are Tradewinds, UNITAS and PANAMAX.

The Tradewinds military exercises are organized by the U.S. and carried out with Caribbean states on themes such as combating drug trafficking, dealing with terrorist threats and disaster relief. Tradewinds 2009 was held in March and April and included exercises staged in The Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Miami. According to SOUTHCOM’s website, more than 400 participants took part in the exercises, coming from the U.S., the U.K., and fifteen Caribbean Basin states.

The 50th anniversary of UNITAS, a multinational maritime exercise, took place this year at the Jacksonville Operational Area in Florida. The exercises this time were dubbed Unitas Gold – in order to commemorate the anniversary. SOUTHCOM has published a comprehensive report of UNITAS’ history which can be found on its website. The at-sea phase of the exercise took place this past April. As part of the live-fire exercises, the warships sunk, as planned, the ex-USS Connolly. According to an official release, in total, Unitas Gold brought together 25 ships, four submarines, more than 50 aircraft, 650 Marines and 6,000 sailors from 11 different countries. Latin American powerhouse Brazil sent two vessels, the frigate Constituiçao and the submarine Tikuna.

Fuerzas Aliadas (FA) PANAMAX is an annual multinational military exercise held in Panama to protect the Canal. PANAMAX’09 took place in mid-September, lasting 12 days with more than 4,500 troops from 20 countries. A U.S. Navy press release explained that “the multinational forces protecting the canal approaches will be organized under Multi-National Force-South and commanded by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Keith M. Huber, commander of U.S. Army South. This year, the exercises simulated a terrorist threat” against the Panama Canal, said Gerald W. Ketchum, U.S. Operation, Preparation and Mobilization sub-director from the Southern Command.

Finally, this past July, 600 military personnel visited Guyana for humanitarian and civic assistance exercises dubbed New Horizons 2009. The exercise, sponsored by SOUTHCOM and Air Forces Southern (12th Air Force), built a new clinic and a new school house, while carrying out other civic projects. What is curious about the situation is the importance Guyana is slowly gaining for SOUTHCOM ever since a 2007 incident in which Venezuelan military units entered Guyana. With New Horizons, Guyana, and the bases in Colombia, the American military now has (or has had, in Guyana’s case) some kind of military presence in all of Venezuela’s geographical corners, with the exception of Brazil. This may be the first time in its history as an independent state that Guyana has received such sustained attention from Washington. Usually, it is regarded as a largely poor state where corruption has been cited as the country’s primary obstacle to the creation of viable institutions and democratic processes.

Shiprider Agreements

In addition to an increasing military presence in the Greater Caribbean Basin, the U.S. has sought to combat drug trafficking by signing the Shiprider Agreements (full name: Agreement Concerning Co-operation in Suppressing Illicit Maritime Drug Trafficking). These agreements brought together a number of regional states, such as Barbados in 1996 and Jamaica in 2004. In certain cases, Shiprider allows the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy to board and detain vessels when going through the territorial waters of Caribbean states if there is evidence or well-founded suspicion that said vessels are committing a crime, such as drug trafficking. Depending on the nature of the bilateral agreement, U.S. agents can ride in local coast guard ships or vice-versa.

The Fourth Fleet and Overlapping Commands

As the deployment of American troops to Latin America continues to expand, important questions arise concerning the future of the Fourth Fleet. Established in 1943 and based in Mayport, Florida, the fleet’s historic mission to protect the Caribbean Sea from raiders during World War II, was disbanded in the 1950s. The reactivation of the Fleet in 2008 has been regarded as one of the most incoherent and unproductive decisions by the former Bush administration regarding the Western Hemisphere. Rear Admiral Victor Guillory, who is also the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, is the current commander of the Fourth Fleet.

In fact, the Fourth Fleet, at the present time, only exists on paper. No permanent ships have been assigned to it, nor will any be. According to the Fourth Fleet’s website, “no vessels or aircrafts will be permanently assigned to U.S. Fourth Fleet as part of the re-establishment. U.S. Fourth Fleet is an organizational fleet staffed to fulfill a planning and coordination mission.” Its objective is “strengthening friendships and partnerships and [it] will have five missions: support for peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief, traditional maritime exercises, and counterdrug support operations.”

Missions and Fantasies

A “U.S. Fourth Fleet Talking Points” sheet provided to COHA by the Fourth Fleet Press Office states, that “because of the complex operational environment and number of maritime missions in the area […] Fourth fleet will be able to provide more effective support to SOUTHCOM and the region.” However, given the wide array of bases and security initiatives mentioned earlier, it is unclear how the fleet will be of any help, especially considering that it exists only for organizational purposes and does not control actual warships. If anything, the first impression when looking at the Fourth Fleet is that it will bring more bureaucracy to a region that, as it stands, already suffers from too many different oversight organizations and procedures, joint task forces and bilateral agreements with regional states.

The Caribbean bases in Colombia will test the relationship between the Fourth Fleet and SOUTHCOM in regards to the use of warships in operations to counter drug trafficking. So far it seems that both names are interchangeable, and it is unclear what kind of operations the Fourth Fleet could carry out that SOUTHCOM, or one of its already established components, could not. This question further highlights the perception of the Fleet as an example of redundant bureaucracy.

According to a Summer 2009 issue of Surface Warfare, the Fourth Fleet has sponsored military exercises and operations such as Southern Partnership Station (U.S.-organized multinational amphibious exercises with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay) and Continuing Promise (relief services and civic assistance to Latin America and Caribbean states). The new fleet also was commander of PANAMAX 2008 and UNITAS 2009. However, it remains to be seen whether the reconstitution of the Fourth Fleet is improving the control of these operations when compared to their pre-Fourth Fleet level of performance.

Where are the enemies?

The multitude of initiatives of the U.S. military throughout the Caribbean raise several questions. For example, does the U.S. have a coherent overall policy towards the Caribbean? In recent years, drug trafficking has lent the rationale for Washington’s military presence in the Caribbean. However, it is important to keep in mind that the cost of overseas troops can be justified to a critical public only by the expression of a clear, practical goal, e.g. stopping (or at least trying to stop) the flow of drugs into the U.S. In a March 2009 testimony before Congress, Rear Admiral Wayne E. Justice of the Coast Guard, explained that “[there] has been a change in the primary smuggling routes to the Central America littorals where smugglers attempt to evade U.S. patrol efforts by operating in the territorial sea of partner nations. The Coast Guard has actively targeted this trend through a series of 27 maritime bilateral counterdrug agreements and arrangements with partner nations that include all or some of the following provisions: shipboarding and shiprider agreements; pursuit, entry and over-flight of the territorial sea; order to land for aircraft; and operation center information exchange protocols.” The aforementioned Surface Warfare issue includes a special section concerning the Fourth Fleet. The section includes interviews with former Rear Admiral Joseph Kernan and current Rear Admiral Guillory of the Fourth Fleet. Both of them identify the prevention of illicit trafficking as one of their top priorities. When it comes to the U.S. bases in Colombia, the reason de jure for their existence is, of course, to combat drug trafficking.

Due to the nature of their regimes, Cuba and Venezuela stood out as security threats for conservative American policymakers. However, despite these contentious views regarding both states, it is generally accepted that Venezuela, notwithstanding its surge of military purchases, could not possibly stand up to U.S. military might. Cuba poses even less of a threat; its armed forces do not have access to modern and well-functioning equipment and a high degree of training, and it primarily acts as an internal police force. Under no circumstances is Cuba an international threat, least of all to the United States. The cooperative defense deal between the U.S. and Colombia is presented by their respective leaders as an effort to directly help the South American country tackle its conflict with drug traffickers and guerrilla groups. However, it cannot be denied that these bases, combined with the two nearby bases in Curaçao and Aruba, will allow Washington to keep track of any clandestine activities conducted by the Venezuelan government, and other leftist developments occurring in the area. Considering Secretary of State Clinton’s recent warning that Chávez’s military purchases could spark an arms race in Latin America, Washington views the access to Colombian bases as a welcome development in an increasingly strategic region plagued by insecurity. Cuba poses even less of a threat; its armed forces and their aged equipment do not have access to modern and well-functioning equipment and a high degree of training, and its armed forces primarily act as an internal police force.

The Caribbean: Washington’s Lake once again?

It may be a stretch to argue that the U.S. has militarized the Caribbean. However, the new base agreement with Colombia, as well as the expansion of other facilities in the region, suggests Washington’s serious commitment to something above and beyond just combating narcotrafficking. The persistent drug trafficking and insurgent problem in Colombia, combined with Venezuela’s ongoing military purchases (mostly from Russia), were most likely the two major thrusts guiding the Pentagon to initiate the Colombian base agreement. While it arguably will aid local authorities with their fight against drug trafficking, it will at the same time also facilitate the monitoring of Venezuela and other South and Central American left-leaning countries.

Military exercises, although they carry with them a small sacrifice of sovereignty, will most likely continue to be necessary for small Caribbean states in order to improve mainly their own internal security so that they can tackle issues like drug trafficking, which an obsessed Washington will just not let go away. The Fourth Fleet, on the other hand, is not likely to pose a security threat to regional governments, and will probably result in bureaucratic redundancy as it will likely be serving little more than a symbolic image. The Fleet will have to prove in the coming years why a fleet without specifically designated warships can be useful for SOUTHCOM’s role in its operations.

American military presence in the Caribbean Basin has been steadily expanding, justified domestically as a necessary measure to combat ballooning drug production and terrorist movements. However, there is little indication that these military forces significantly have impacted the overall volume of illicit drugs entering the U.S. market from the south. Preventing speedboats from carrying cocaine off the coast Florida or stewarding drug mules operating at the Bogotá Airport with tickets to Miami or Madrid, may merely win small battles, but it will not win the war. By focusing on military efforts, American anti-drug policy has failed to address, for example, the key role that social problems play in the perpetuation of an illicit economy. Development projects that tackle poverty in producer countries, such as Colombia and Peru, and in transit countries, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and those in Central America, are badly needed. Unfortunately, the grand plan that the Pentagon and the DEA have proposed does not focus on improving social conditions, but merely on increasing U.S. military might. Despite these military advances, the current anti-drug policy cannot be expected to succeed, as it is unlikely that a satisfactory justification can be found for such an elevated military presence in the region when the target is so small-scale.