Ecuador's Government Cautiously Takes its First Steps

Roger Burbach

The leftist government of Rafael Correa has moved assertively in its relations with the United States during its first month in office. The Minister of Foreign Relations, María Fernanda Espinosa, in a meeting with the Foreign Press Association in Quito declared that Ecuador intends to close the U.S. military base located at Manta. “Ecuador is a sovereign nation, we do not need any foreign troops in our country,” she said. The treaty for the base expires in 2009 and will not be renewed.

The largest U.S. base on South America’s Pacific coast, it was ostensibly set up to help monitor narcotrafficking over the ocean and in the nearby Amazon basin. But it has become a major operations center for U.S. intelligence gathering and for coordinating counterinsurgency efforts against leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. The base’s air runway, built at a cost of eighty million dollars, is capable of accommodating the largest and most sophisticated U.S. spy and intelligence gathering aircraft. Manta is also used as a port for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific. Upwards of 475 U.S. military personal are continually rotated between Manta and the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Florida.

Popular sentiment in Ecuador overwhelmingly supports the closure of the U.S. base at Manta. Since the establishment of the base in 1999, Colombia’s civil war has spilled over to Ecuador, bringing refugees, violence and social conflict, particularly in the Amazon region. Aerial sprayings of herbicides from planes by military contractors eradicate food crops and has deleterious health effects on Ecuadoran children and adults. The Colombian and U.S. governments claim that the defoliants are only sprayed on the Colombian side of the border and that there are no flights over Ecuador. But President Correa vehemently disagrees: “We will not permit the continual violation of Ecuadoran air space by planes, that are not even Colombian, but from the United States. They enter our country, and then fly back to Colombia.” Correa has ordered the Ecuadoran air force “to intercept any planes that violate our air space.”

The Correa government is preparing a case for the World Court at the Hague against the Colombian government for the conflict and damages in northern Ecuador. Foreign Minister Espinosa is emphatic in saying that this is a “violation of human rights. It is not only a question of the health effects, but also of the psychological traumas caused by the constant over flights and the terrorization of the local population, particularly among the children who hear planes flying overhead and are subjected to war-like conditions.” Special teams comprised international health and human rights representatives are being formed to investigate the conditions on the border. “We want to replace the conflictive conditions with a Plan for Peace and Development in the region,” says Espinosa.

Last week the Vice-President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, in a trip to Caracas, Venezuela, stated that the Colombian government “should act more as a friendly neighbor and not respond only to the orders of the empire.” Commenting on the upcoming trip in March of President Bush to Latin America that excludes Ecuador, Moreno added: “Every time Bush comes to visit our region we worry because we don’t know what proposals he comes to impart and what sorts of statements he will make.” His comments caused an uproar, and in an effort to calm the diplomatic waters, Espinosa said that Moreno’s remarks were not officially sanctioned. “We want cordial, normal relations with the U.S. Embassy and government in order to resolve any issues between us,” she said.

The Correa government is also moving adroitly to break with the neoliberal trade and commercial policies that have been imposed on Ecuador by Washington and international lending agencies. In line with his campaign platform, Rafael Correa has made it clear that he will never sign the Free Trade Agreement with the United States that was being discussed with previous governments. At the same time, Ecuador is negotiating special bilateral trade and economic agreements with Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Venezuela has agreed to refine Ecuadoran oil and provide financial assistance for social programs in Ecuador, while the Bolivian government has concluded an agreement to import food commodities from small and medium producers in Ecuador.

For the moment Correa has not opted to join the People’s Trade Treaty signed last year between Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela. But as René Baéz, an economic analyst at the Catholic University of Ecuador says: “The treaty is really a series of special accords and financial agreements, and in that sense Ecuador is already an informal member of this alternative bloc.”

The financial news that captured the headlines last week was the announcement of Economy Minister Ricardo Patiño that Ecuador would make a scheduled debt payment of $135 million to foreign bond holders. Known for his long-held belief that paying off the foreign debt undercuts critical social spending programs and keeps Ecuador in a state of perpetual poverty, Patiño’s decision came just two days after he had announced that Ecuador would not make the $135 million payment.

Informed sources close to the government say that after high level discussions, Correa opted to pay the bond holders, preferring to concentrate on the upcoming negotiations with international creditors over a reduction in the schedule of debt payments and on the annulment of part of the debt that was the result of corrupt practices by prior Ecuadoran governments and foreign creditors. In René Baéz’s view, “The Correa government decided to be selective in the battles it is taking on for the moment. A default now would have caused an international reaction and possibly provoked a domestic financial crisis, just as the government is trying to get its legs under it.”

Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, California. He has written extensively on Latin America, including, The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.” He is also the co-author with Jim Tarbell of: “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.”

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