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POLITICS: Ecuador Rescinds Welcome Mat for U.S. Forces

WASHINGTON, Nov 7 2007 (IPS) - Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa says he will not renew the United States military’s lease on an Air Force base in Manta, a move viewed by some in Washington as evidence of a growing push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.

U.S. military jet refuels over the Pacific Ocean near the west coast of Ecuador as part of a Manta counter-drug mission. Credit: US Air Force

U.S. military jet refuels over the Pacific Ocean near the west coast of Ecuador as part of a Manta counter-drug mission. Credit: US Air Force

On a recent trip to Italy, Correa, who took office in January, reiterated his campaign pledge to close the base – unless the United States were to allow Ecuador to establish its own base in Miami, Florida.

“If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil, surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States,” he joked with reporters.

Located on Ecuador’s Pacific coast 338 kilometres south of neighbouring Colombia, the Manta Air Base was leased to the United States in 1999 for a period of 10 years.

Home to eight U.S. surveillance planes, the base has played a large role in U.S. efforts at stemming the flow of cocaine from Colombia. According to the U.S. embassy in Ecuador, planes operating out of the Manta Air Base helped in the seizure of 262 tonnes of illicit drugs last year.

Correa’s decision not to renew the lease has frustrated U.S. officials, and is the latest in a series of disputes that have placed Ecuador at odds with Washington.

In May 2006, the Ecuadorean government seized the assets of California-based Occidental Petroleum and revoked the company’s contract to operate in the country.

The election of the populist Correa later that year – who while campaigning famously referred to U.S. President George W. Bush as “tremendously dimwitted” – did nothing to soothe fears in Washington that South America was in the midst of a leftist revolution inspired by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But analysts say Correa’s opposition to the U.S. presence at the Manta base has less to do with his relationship with Chavez, who he considers a close friend, than it does with the political reality in Ecuador.

“It’s a mistake to underestimate Latin America’s desire for independence,” says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, “and that means independence from Washington and it means independence from Caracas.”

“In Ecuadorean politics this isn’t a very radical position… this is a sentiment that is widely held,” said Shifter. Many Ecuadoreans feel the U.S. presence violates their national sovereignty and has drawn them further into the ongoing conflict in Colombia, he told IPS.

Still some in Washington see Correa’s actions as evidence of an emerging alliance with Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Chavez.

Roger Noriega, a former U.S. State Department official who under President Bush helped formulate U.S. policy toward Latin America, argues Correa is following Chavez’s example of “bare-knuckles class warfare” with “reckless abandon”.

Noriega, now a fellow at the influential neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, views Correa’s efforts to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution as an attempt to roll back democracy, a process he sees as paralleling Chavez’s efforts to consolidate power in Venezuela – a charge often repeated in the U.S. media.

But observers of the region say it’s too soon to be drawing that comparison. “It’s clear he wants to assert his power,” says Shifter, “and it’s clear there are some aspects of his ideology that resemble those of Chavez. But Ecuador is not Venezuela.”

Unlike Chavez, Correa has no military background. A trained economist, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and has expressed a desire to improve commercial ties with the United States.

Experts say his pledge not to renew the U.S. lease on the Manta Air Base is in keeping with the feeling among many Ecuadoreans that their country has been taken advantage of by the United States.

Critics in Ecuador say the lease signed by the United States, agreed to by then-president Jamil Mahuad, is unconstitutional because it was never ratified by Congress as required by law. Mahuad was forced out of power a year later following a military coup.

It’s also widely believed in Ecuador that the United States has violated the terms of the Manta lease by assisting in the fight against guerillas in southern Colombia, rather than simply conducting aerial surveillance.

“My strong impression from conversations with people at the Pentagon is that [in the past] Ecuador did have a sort of look the other way policy about flights being used for [counter-guerilla] purposes over Colombia,” Adam Isaacson, an expert on South America at the Washington-based Centre for International Policy, told IPS.

Since 1997 Ecuador has received more than 243 million dollars in military aid from the United States for its efforts in fighting drug trafficking. That number has consistently decreased over the years, as aid has been redirected toward the conflict in Colombia. Isaacson expects the decision not to renew the U.S. military’s lease on the Manta Air Base will hasten that downward trend. “I think that there’s going to be distancing, aid is going to be a fraction of what it was,” he told IPS. “Ecuador will not be on the U.S. radar screen.”

But Shifter is not as pessimistic. He believes Washington will want to continue to count on Ecuador as an ally in the drug war.

In contrast to Chavez, who ended Venezuela’s cooperation in counter-drug activities with the United States two years ago, Correa’s government has increased its cooperation in fighting drug traffickers, according to officials in both countries.

A spokesman at the U.S. State Department described Ecuador’s assistance in counter-drug activities under Correa as “excellent”.

“It would be shooting the U.S. in the foot if it said ‘well, we’re not going to give you any more military aid because you didn’t renew Manta.’ I think [the United States is] going to want to continue to find ways to cooperate,” Shifter said.

U.S. State Department officials say they will respect Ecuador’s decision not to renew the lease, though they may consider an attempt at renegotiating the terms of the agreement before it expires in November 2009. Analysts speculate the United States could also choose to replace the Manta base with a facility in either Colombia or Peru.

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