Global Policy Forum

US Faces Eviction from Ecuadorian Base


By Sam Logan

International Relations and Security Network
January 12, 2007

Rafael Correa wants the US military to leave its base in Manta, Ecuador, and Washington is not overly concerned, though it would mean losing a strategic drug war position.

The Eloy Alfaro air base in Manta, Ecuador, is one of five primary air bases in the country. After Washington negotiated a ten-year lease agreement that would allow the US military to use a portion of the base, US operations there attracted little attention, at least until Ecuador's 2006 presidential election campaign, when President-elect Rafael Correa pledged not to renew the lease in 2009. It was a popular move among many of his constituents.

US Southern Command (SouthCom), the branch of the US military that oversees operations in the Western Hemisphere, claims that installations at Manta play an important role in counter-drug operations. As a Forward Operation Location (FOL), Manta is one of a number of air bases that replaced US facilities closed in Panama in 1999.

Yet, as a beach head for US activities in South America and with 2009 drawing closer, the base will find itself at the center of a new focus. Some experts believe that Ecuador may test the waters to see just how important the base is to the US by using its impending existence as a leverage point to gain preferential trade access to US markets.

Forward operations

Once the US government signed the ten-year lease, it promptly spent over US$70 million to prepare the base for US aircraft and personnel. A new runway was installed and upgrades were made to base facilities. Today, the base can accommodate up to eight aircraft - four large, four medium - and is authorized to house a maximum of 475 military personnel, according to Jose Ruiz, spokesman for US SouthCom.

"On average, [the base] is supported by 250 personnel from the US Armed Forces and US Customs and Border Patrol," Ruiz told ISN Security Watch. "An additional 65 US citizens and 180 Ecuadorian contractors support the FOL counter-drug operations," he said.

As US FOL at Manta is a counter-drug operation, a number of AWACS surveillance planes stationed there make two flights daily, according to a 19 December article by the UK magazine The Economist. Ruiz suggested that missions over the Eastern Pacific and the Andean mountains greatly aided the US' overall counter-drug strategy for the region. "Since 1999, the FOL has conducted more than 3,300 counter-drug missions, totaling over 18,000 flight hours and has contributed directly or indirectly to the seizure of more than 52,000 kg of illegal drugs with a street value exceeding US$2 billion," Ruiz said.

Ruiz pointed out that it was in the best interests of the US and its regional partners to continue monitoring narco-trafficking activities. When asked about options the US government would have in the event the base was closed in 2009, Ruiz replied that the US government would "continue pursuing, considering and assessing effective options for counter-drug activities."

Regional partners

The US FOL at Manta has attracted more attention among Ecuadorians because it is seen as part and parcel of Plan Colombia, the US-Colombia policy to combat narco-trafficking and terrorism inside Colombia. Correa's election suggests that Ecuador wants no part of Plan Colombia because he campaigned strongly against any Ecuadorian role. And as tensions between the two countries escalated in 2006, and again this year, a measure of Ecuadorian ill will aimed at Colombia is now being redirected to the US at Manta. "The nationwide position not to involve Ecuador in Plan Colombia is the first reason why Ecuadorians do not want the US military to remain in Manta," Fredy Rivera, professor and researcher with the Ecuadorian branch of the Latin American University for Social Sciences, told ISN Security Watch during a recent telephone interview.

Rivera explained that another reason why Ecuadorians did not want the base to remain was their belief that the base was only used for counter-drug missions. "The surveillance equipment can be used to watch activity in Colombia, Peru, parts of Venezuela and Bolivia, and of course Ecuador," Rivera said, adding, "this is official discourse."

Clearly, Ecuador does not regard the US as a close regional partner. And as the US draws ever closer to Colombia, holding on to what many consider Washington's last beach head in South America, it is possible Ecuador will consider Colombian and US foreign policy as one.

"The final reason why Ecuadorians do not want the base at Manta renewed is due to US and Colombian foreign policy," Rivera noted. During 2006, relations between Ecuador and Colombian were tense due to fumigation on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border and the presence of Colombian armed forces on Ecuadorian sovereign territory. On two occasions, the Ecuadorian ambassador to Colombia was called back to Quito for consultations - diplomatic signaling for a high level of discontent.

Also, mutual agreements of understanding that dictate a free-flowing information exchange between the two countries have not been honored by Colombia, according to Rivera. These sentiments inside Ecuador stand in a line parallel to the negative sentiments Ecuadorians feel for the US, and the most tangible piece of real estate that symbolizes these negative feelings has, over time, become Manta.

Negotiation and leverage

Since Correa's election, Washington has been worried about losing Ecuador to the Venezuelan sphere of influence. Whether or not Correa falls in step with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, analysts believe he will be reminded of his campaign promise to close the Manta base, and has already publicly considered using the base as an international airport to link South America with Asia.

It is still too early to gauge how far the US will go to keep Manta. Nor is it clear if Washington will use economic incentive to pressure Correa into renewing the lease agreement, but many believe he will see how much leverage he has for negotiation with the US.

"Correa has a campaign pledge to honor," John Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes and Drug Policy with the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch. Walsh argued that Correa had adopted a tough stance as the most logical negotiation position at this point. "If the US wants to prevent the base from being closed, then Correa should ask, 'What are you going to give me?'" he said.

"It makes sense for Correa to start with a very hard line. And if he extracts from the US aid or other kinds of concessions, perhaps something related to trade, then it's part of the bargaining," Walsh pointed out. "He has a while yet where he can take a tough stance and see what he can get for it," he said.

Little concern in Washington

Correa, however, may find that the US government holds low regard for the base. "When the base was first conceived and built-out, for SouthCom and the Pentagon in general, the drug war was a bigger deal than it is now," Walsh said. "It's no longer the top war on anyone's agenda."

Michael Shifter, Vice President of Policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, agrees. "The Manta base serves no larger strategic purpose for the US in Latin America, apart from some support in fighting the Drug War," Shifter told ISN Security Watch in a recent email interview.

Correa's attempts to use the base as leverage to improve his negotiation position with the US, after all the campaign promises and shouting, may be met with ambivalence, according to Shifter. Correa's closure of the base could very well come and go as little more than a minor blip on SouthCom's radar.

According to Shifter, "It is easy to imagine possible options for Washington in the region, especially if [other countries] were prepared to offer highly favorable terms." "The concern about the Manta base is overdrawn and unnecessary."

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