After the Lease on the Ecuadorian Military Base at Manta Expires, Where Will the U.S. Turn Next?

On July 29, the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry officially notified the U.S. Embassy that Washington’s ten-year lease on the Ecuadorian military base at Manta would not be renewed after it expires in November 2009. The statement, which declared that U.S. military aircraft and personnel must vacate the Manta air base starting in August 2009, echoed a recent revision of the nation’s constitution, which bans foreign military bases in the country. The declaration released by Ecuadorian officials has recently revived speculation over the future of U.S. military presence in Latin America as a number of progressive regional leaders continue to distance themselves from any form of U.S. military presence on their territory.

The U.S. recently denied that it was pursuing any alternative to Manta, specifically referring to rumors of deals with neighboring allies like Colombia, Panama and Peru. Yet Admiral James Stavridis, the Commander of U.S. Southern Command, stated in April 2008 that if the Manta lease was not renewed, the U.S. military would replace Manta with another drug-surveillance facility, known as “Forward Operating Locations” (FOLs). On that occasion, Stavridis added that both Colombia and Peru had expressed some interest in housing a future U.S. base. During recent negotiations between the U.S. and the aforementioned countries, local authorities disclosed that such facilities were not on the agenda, which contradicted some U.S. officials’ statements.

On July 25, Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Washington to engage in talks with the U.S., purportedly to discuss the possibility of a U.S. military base on Colombian territory, an allegation Santos has since denied. In June, the well-known Buenos Aires daily, Página 12, claimed that, despite Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s denial of negotiations with the U.S., a representative of the country’s armed forces stated that the construction of a facility was being negotiated for the area of Ayacucho.1 Panama also recently has expressed interest in welcoming a U.S. military base in the country as part of a broader remilitarization effort now under way. On May 6, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos traveled to Washington to meet with President Bush, allegedly to discuss increasing U.S. military presence in Panama in order to fight drug trafficking in the region.2

Critics of U.S. militarization in Latin America are skeptical about the U.S.’ anti-drug efforts and its lack of transparency in regional operations. Although the drug trade is a serious issue in the Andean area, it is questionable if a U.S.-controlled base will necessarily improve addressing the drug problem, or if it rather would serve as a mechanism to pursue a wider agenda of U.S.-interests in Latin America. In March, the Inter Press Service reported that the Manta air base was also being used for clandestine operations against leftist guerrillas operating in Colombia, who were connected to the March 1 raid on a FARC camp by the Colombian military. This claim, if true, might justify verbal attacks by leftist governments. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, spoke out against the alleged U.S. plans for any base in Colombia, near its border with Venezuela. It remains to be seen if any renegotiation of a base site will be aimed at increasing U.S. anti-drug operations, or if it merely will perpetuate Washington’s antagonistic ideological struggle against left-leaning states in the area.