Open Forum: Resisting US Military Bases and Pentagon Strategies in Latin America

The anti-bases movement in Latin America is strong and a manifestation of the people’s will.

“The United States appear to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” Those words were written by Simón Bolivar, 189 years ago. The Great Liberator understood that liberation and the U.S.’ concept of liberty are not the same. When imperialists talk about liberty, they mean access to land, water, and other natural resources for private development and profit.

Ana Esther Ceceña, in a piece published by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense in 2013, describes the objectives of the United States in Latin America and the world. She says the U.S. has “two general objectives: to guarantee the maintenance of capitalism and within it, the primacy of the United States; and to guarantee the availability of all the riches of the world as the material base for the functioning of the system, assuring that its hierarchies and dynamics of power are maintained.”

Six years before Bolivar penned his prescient words, the Monroe Doctrine said to European governments that any attempt to interfere in Latin America would be deemed “dangerous to our peace and safety….. we could not view any interposition…by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

By emphasizing this interference as “an unfriendly disposition toward the United States,” the Monroe Doctrine portrayed Latin American independence within a context of U.S. interests and influence. Since the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. history in Latin America has been marked by invasions and occupations and proxy wars and outright theft of land such as occurred in the War against Mexico. This has made it difficult for the U.S. to establish full-on military bases in Latin America. The Mexican public especially maintains an aversion to U.S. military presence within its borders. Unfortunately, the country’s oligarchy ignores this aversion and betrays the people’s national pride.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has been successful in establishing bases in several countries throughout Latin America, with formally recognized bases in El Salvador, occupied Cuba, Aruba, Curacao, Antigua and Barbuda, Andros Island in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and even a micro-base, or “Lily Pad” in Costa Rica that the Costa Rican government officially denies.

However, until recently, the momentum had been against U.S. bases. Starting in 1999, when the U.S. lost the Howard Air Base in Panama, the number of U.S. bases had steadily declined. In 2008 the Colombian government had agreed to grant U.S. access to seven bases, but this was struck down by the constitutional court in 2010. The reality is that the U.S. continues to access and use these bases based on other agreements. The court decision was against a permanent foreign presence, but “permanency” is a somewhat amorphous concept open to interpretation. It is safe to say that U.S. access to these bases is relatively unfettered and continuous. And in 2008 the government of Ecuador booted the U.S. from its Manta base. Ernesto Samper, head of Unasur (the Union of South American Nations) has said that U.S. military bases should “leave the continent.”

Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, which is one reason we need this anti-bases movement. The coup in Honduras in 2009 occurred shortly after the elected president Manuel Zelaya had proposed converting the Palmerola (or Soto Cano) Air Force Base into a civilian airport. The U.S. and Honduras had both used the base since the 80s when it was an important component of the Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Since the coup, the U.S. has undertaken new construction on the base and increased the number of troops, including stationing some 250 U.S. Marines there. Today there are more than 1,300 U.S. military and civilian employees, dwarfing the population of 300 persons at the Honduran Air Force Academy. Also since the coup, the U.S. military has built a base at Catarasca in Honduras’ Mosquitia region, and in Guanaja, the U.S. Navy has built a facility for the Honduran Navy that reportedly hosts both US and Honduran aircraft.

And that is just Honduras. At the end of 2016, Peru’s regional government in Amazonas approved a partnership with SouthCom, the U.S. military’s Southern Command, and Pentagon Contratistas to build a new base in that country. With the legislative coup against the government of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and the right wing electoral victory in Argentina, both those countries are growing closer to the U.S. military, showing an openness to new U.S. military bases. Brazilian President Michel Temer has invited the U.S. to use the Alcantara missile and rocket launching base. (Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes, Brazil’s former General Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Strategic Affairs, posits that “The Americans’ main objective is to have a military base in Brazilian territory with which it can exercise its sovereignty outside the laws of the Brazilian authorities…. The location of Alcantara in the Brazilian northeast facing West Africa is ideal for the United States for its political and military operations in South America and Africa.”) In Argentina, neoliberal President Mauricio Macri reached an agreement with the U.S. in May, 2016, to let the U.S. build two bases, one in Tierra del Fuego and the other, the Guaraní base, on the triple border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, in the area of the world’s largest reservoir of drinkable, fresh water.

Speaking of water and natural resources, if we look at how the bases and military activities and presences are spread throughout Latin America, we can see that they are located in and around concentrations of mineral and oil deposits, big agribusiness centers, and large reservoirs of water. The combined water resources of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru dwarf the resources of the next most water-rich countries and regions.

Despite these setbacks, the anti-bases movement in Latin America is strong and a manifestation of the people’s will. Furthermore, these bases not only threaten Latin America and especially Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and the ALBA countries that form a bulwark against U.S. interventionism. They threaten the world. From the Palenquero base in Colombia – one of the seven Colombia bases where the U.S. is constantly… but not “permanently”… present, with no or just one refueling stop, jets can reach any country in Latin America, as well as Africa and the Middle East.

The presence of U.S. military bases is only one component of the infrastructure of Empire. We know that U.S. military invasions, occupations, base constructions and accords are almost always followed by the passage of laws undermining traditional farming, the diversion of water resources, the exploitation of mineral and oil wealth, the militarization of police and borders, and the construction of and redesign of penitentiary systems on a U.S. mass incarceration model.

In terms of U.S. military activities in Latin America, the issue of the bases is really the tip of the iceberg. We must also consider the reactivation of the 4th Fleet in the Caribbean, the rapid increase in joint military exercises throughout the hemisphere which often result in the deployment of temporary, and therefore mobile, bases, and the constant flow of military advisors. One of the most effective methods to get around the anti-bases movement is via what might be called a puppet sovereignty, wherein nations pursue activities, policies, and accords that appear independent of the U.S. but in reality further U.S. strategies and designs.

Ana Cecena writes about how the Pentagon’s global command system guarantees “… a more detailed supervision of the lands, seas, glaciers, and populations that make up the Earth in its entirety.” These commands effectively put the militaries and security apparatuses of most other nations under the coordination of the Pentagon.

These “Commands” only represent one aspect of this phenomenon. As is so often the case, Colombia is the testing ground for this puppet sovereignty. For instance, in 2012, the U.S. and Colombia signed an agreement of military cooperation that has had Colombia undertaking joint patrols with the U.S. in Central America and West Africa. The U.S. has promoted a partnership between NATO and Colombia. Colombia has become heavily involved in the training of military, police, court, and prison personnel around the world. Over the last decade, Colombia has trained well over 25,000 persons in other countries. Half have been in Mexico, with the other leading recipients being Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. It must be added that when we speak of “puppet sovereignty,” this is not meant to imply that the Colombian military is less capable or less professional than their U.S. military colleagues. Clearly, Colombian military personnel are quite educated and experienced in their craft and equal to their U.S. counterparts. In fact, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars in tax monies precisely to ensure the development of the Colombian military as a highly effective stand-in for U.S. objectives.

General John Kelly is President Donald Trump’s current Chief of Staff and was formerly head of Homeland Security. Before that, he was the commander of Southcom. Testifying before the U.S. Congress on April 29, 2014, Kelly made a startlingly honest and revealing statement: “The beauty of having a Colombia – they’re such good partners, particularly in the military realm…. When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking. And they’ll do it on their own… That’s why it’s important for them to go because I’m–at least on the military side–restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that.”

The U.S.-Colombia relationship has been so successful, it has become a model for U.S. relations with Mexico. This includes the development of Plan Mexico and the North American Alliance for Security and Prosperity, a military accord that binds Canada and Mexico more closely to the Pentagon.

The Mexican military has a history of nonintervention internationally. But at a conference in October 2016, Rebecca Chavez, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Obama administration and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, revealed that “Both the United States and Mexico…have taken steps that have resulted in a transformation of the strategic relationship.” Chavez explained that Mexico as the 15th largest economy in the world, has a growing role in world affairs, including the military sphere. She noted that Mexico has expanded its military mission with attaches in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, South Africa, and several other countries and that it participated in peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Lebanon. Chavez sites Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto for reevaluating the role of the Mexican military, saying, “Even before the shift, Mexico engaged in approximately 40 external activities to support around 25 different partners…. Our first step has been to expand the dialogue and relationship from just a narrow internal security focus… Other potential areas of cooperation are Central America and working together to strengthen the Inter-American Defense System.”

It is a very good idea for us to participate in the global movement against foreign U.S. and NATO military bases. But any victories we win will be short-sighted if we don’t connect to the larger movement against imperialism and for liberation. The designs of the Pentagon are adaptable. Military agreements, joint exercises, coordinated commands, are among the ways to augment and even replace the expansion of foreign bases.

Ultimately, our struggle against foreign bases must be part of an even larger and overarching struggle, the struggle for liberation from Empire. If we get rid of the bases, but not the Empire, we are merely changing its forms. In the final analysis, the only answer is to shake off the yoke of U.S./capitalist domination and put something better in its place, that is with participatory democracy and socialism.
Whenever we raise the cry of No More Bases, then let us answer that cry with a shout of solidarity with Venezuela, solidarity with Cuba, solidarity with Bolivia, solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and every occupied territory – solidarity with every popular movement and government that stands in the way of the forward march of Empire until that Empire is utterly and completely dismantled.

James Patrick Jordan is the National Co-Coordinator, Alliance for Global Justice and member of the People’s Human Rights Observatory-PHRO.   Anahit Aharonian, a PHRO member from Uruguay, provided important background material and edited the Spanish version.

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