Indigenous groups, the Catholic Church and human rights organisations in Ecuador are protesting against the proposed installation of a US military base in their port city of Manta, which they see as an affront to their freedom, autonomy and sovereignty, and a possible threat to the environment.

By Kintto Lucas

August 1999

Quito: The proposed installation of a US military base in the port city of Manta, Ecuador has won the support of the government of Jamil Mahuad, but is staunchly opposed by indigenous groups, the Catholic Church and human rights organisations.

The government of this Andean country argues that a US military base in the Pacific port city would serve as a back-up for the local armed forces, and authorised the first air operations in the area in May.

The need to find a new site for its troops stationed for the past century in the Panama canal zone has led the US government to speed up its efforts to transfer its bases to Ecuador, in South America, and Aruba and Curacao in the Caribbean.

The United States will hand the canal over to Panama on 31 December, in accordance with the 1977 canal treaties signed by then-presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos.

Indigenous leaders and spokespersons for other social movements in Ecuador told IPS they would object to the installation of the military base when they sit down at a round- table with the government in early August.

The government agreed to that forum for dialogue in an accord signed with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie), that put an end to a two-week nationwide rash of protests, roadblocks and occupations of TV and radio stations by native communities in July.

The round-table will discuss how the country could be modernised without the need for further privatisation, a rescheduling of the foreign debt, and the possibility of refusing the US government permission to install military bases in Ecuador.

The government agreed that it would not send draft laws to parliament nor emit any decree involving such issues before they were discussed with society, which means plans for the installation of the Manta base have been put on hold.

The base in Manta 'is an enormous affront to our freedom, our autonomy and, above all, our sovereignty', influential Catholic bishop of the city of Cuenca, Luis Alberto Luna Tobar, told IPS.

But Defence Minister Jose Gallardo argued that the US military presence in Ecuador 'does not affect the sovereignty of the country' and is simply an act of reciprocity. 'Our military vessels are allowed to use US military airports to refuel and change crews.'

Gallardo, a retired general, said a US military presence in Ecuador would provide the armed forces with support against possible incursions by the insurgent groups active in Colombia.

Gallardo said the armed forces were 'profoundly concerned' about the presence of rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as coca plantations in the area of Putumayo on the border between Colombia and Ecuador.

The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (Cedhu), however, fears that the heavy military emphasis in the fight against drug trafficking and Colombia's insurgents will rope Ecuador into continent-wide strategies that 'redefine the role of national armies in the region'.

Cedhu argues that the possible environmental impact of a military base must also be taken into account.

'The type and quantity of explosives and other contaminating elements used in military bases and firing ranges are unknown, as is the cost of the technology needed for a complete clean-up of such areas,' states a Cedhu bulletin.

In 1997, Rick Stauber, an expert commissioned by the Pentagon to carry out a study on the environmental impact of the military bases in the Panama canal, reported that tests involving chemical weapons and spent uranium had been held in the area.

Cedhu asked 'Who can ensure that the same thing will not occur in Manta?' and 'Who will clean up afterwards' if it does?

In early July, the head of the US army Southern Command, Charles Wilhem, met here with Minister Gallardo and other Ecuadorian military authorities.

He also decorated the head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces of Ecuador, General Carlos Mendoza, 'for his professional labour' in cooperation between the armed forces of Ecuador and the United States.

Wilhem was also presented with the results of the first air operations carried out in Manta, and verified in person the progress of the negotiations with Ecuador. In 1998, the Pentagon planned to hold 186 military operations in the region, 21 of which were to take place in Ecuador.

In mid-1998, Ecuadorian and US troops held anti-drug exercises in Ecuador's Amazon jungle region. Today, the armed forces of the two countries are jointly building an anti-drug base, and are planning three more in the jungle and seven in other areas of Ecuador.

Local historian Jorge Nunez pointed out that Washington's interest in territorial concessions and facilities to operate in Ecuador was not new.

'In 1812, in the Galapagos islands, the United States set up a naval base to attack English ships in the Pacific,' said Nunez. 'Later, it attempted to purchase or lease the islands. In World War II, it set up a base in the archipelago, which it abandoned in 1946.'

He added that the US South Pacific fleet reached the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil in 1834 'to back up Venezuelan General Juan Jose Flores, the first president of republican Ecuador, and squash the popular revolution of Chiguaguas'.

In 1986, the presence of General John Galvin, then-chief of the Southern Command, in Ecuador, and reports of a supposed agreement between the armed forces of the two countries to install a School of the Americas and military bases here triggered protest demonstrations.

In 1987, during the presidency of Leon Febres Cordero (1984-88), Task Force 1169, comprised of 6,900 US troops under the Southern Command, took part in a military operation in the Amazon province of Napo for six months. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Kintto Lucas is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with those permission the above article has been reprinted.