The U.S. Military Bases: Will They Stay or Go?

September 25, 2007

Negotiations over the fate of the bases have sparked a heated debate in Panama about the trade-offs between national sovereignty and the economic benefits of the U.S. presence. On September 6, 1995, presidents Bill Clinton and Ernesto P6rez Balladares told the White House press corps that their two countries would pursue "informal talks" on whether to keep U.S. military bases in Panama beyond 1999, when the Torrijos-Carter Treaties call for their departure. The announcement caused not a ripple in the United States-the New York Times did not even men- tion it. It incited a flurry of intense debate in Panama, however. In a typical exchange, Nicolis Ardito Barletta, former Panamanian presi- dent and chief of the agency over- seeing the conversion of former U.S. bases, suggested that some military bases stay for ten years as a "security incentive for foreign in- vestors." "Is it not rather nineteenth century to use a foreign military to protect foreign investments?" retorted Charlotte Elton, of the Panamanian Social Action and Research Center. At stake in the discussion over the bases' future is not only Panama's decolonization, but the symbolic and actual role of the U.S. military in the region. BY JOHN LINDSAY-POLAND U.S. military bases in Panama were first established during the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914. Although defending the Canal has always been their pur- ported raison d'etre, the bases have historically served as a platform for U.S. military intervention, not only in Panama, but throughout the region. U.S. Marines steamed from Panama to fight in Mexico and Nicaragua in the 1910s and 1920s, and put down a renters' strike in Panama City in 1925. The U.S. Southern Command, responsible for relations with Central and South American militaries, estab- lished its headquarters in Panama after World War Two. During the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, radar facilities in Panama processed infrared photos taken of the Salvadoran countryside, which were used by the Salvadoran Air Force to direct bombing raids. The bases also supplied weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, and provided logistical support for the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Today, the bases in Panama are used to train both U.S. and Latin American mil- itaries, to support the drug war in the Andes and Central America, and for "civic action" operations in collaboration with other Latin American armies. The bases directly employ about 4,100 Panamanians, with another 11,000 employed through contrac- tors for services, goods, construc- tion, and personal expenditures by the 7,000 U.S. troops. Workers hired directly by the Defense Department are covered by U.S. labor law and minimum wages, making them privileged within Panama's labor sector. The U.S. military brought about $305 mil- lion into the Panamanian economy in 1994 (excluding pension pay- ments), accounting for 4.5% of the Gross National Product. The bases themselves are located in and around the terminal cities of Panama City and Col6n, where half of Panama's population lives and where most of the country's eco- nomic activity takes place. ny examination of current North American and Panamanian attitudes toward the military bases and the canal must consider the troubled history of the two nations' relationship. The fun- damental template for that relation- ship was the 1903 treaty which gave the United States control over the 10-mile-wide canal area "in perpetu- ity" and the power to police Panama's people. The Torrijos- Carter Treaties, signed in 1977 6NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS John Lindsay-Poland coordinates the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, and edits the quarterly Panama Update. 6 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASUPDATE / PANAMA U.S. soldiers patrol the Panama Canal. between presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos, reversed that template. Those treaties mandate the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999, by which time all military bases and facilities are also to be turned over free of charge. A proto- col signed after the treaties were rat- ified allows for a continued military presence if the two countries decide it is in their interests. The treaties were signed after protracted popular struggle by Panamanian nationalists, especially students who suffered the brunt of the repression during the "flag riots" in January, 1964. After stu- dents raised the Panamanian flag in the canal zone (consistent with a federal order), U.S. canal-zone workers tore it down, and U.S. troops intervened. That conflict, in which 21 Panamanians died, prompted the Johnson administra- tion to commit the United States to a fundamental recasting of its colo- nial powers in Panama, leading ultimately to the 1977 Canal Treaties. Concurrent with these political movements toward greater sover- eignty were economic changes that undercut that independence of action. Panama's economy, always shaped by its location at a global crossroads, grew more dependent on foreign capi- tal in the 1970s. An international banking sec- tor and the Col6n Free Trade Zone "-both heavi- ly dependent on foreign capital and trade-were rapidly devel- oped, while international loans financed the construction of populist projects. Since 1980, the country has been racked by the debt crisis, a two-year U.S. blockade in 1988-89, the U.S. invasion, and a series of structural-adjustment mea- sures. Panama now has one of the most unequal distributions of income in Latin America, behind Brazil and Chile. It also has one of the highest foreign debts per capita in the region. In this context, the Pentagon's plan to close bases, in some cases ahead of the 1999 deadline, induces mass anxiety among Panamanians, as it would in any community that believes itself to be heavily depen- dent on military spending. Polls consistently show about 70% of Panamanians favor a continued U.S. military presence, primarily for economic reasons. The continuation of some U.S. military bases beyond 1999 also fits neatly into the external economic policy of the governing Revo- lutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Economy Minister Guillermo Chapman and other cabinet offi- cials give priority to implementing neoliberal economic reforms to pave the way for Panama's entry into the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The forced reform in August, 1995 of Panama's Labor Code, for example, was carried out largely to attract foreign investment, on the premise that Panamanian capital alone can- not pull the country out of its eco- nomic ills, nor make productive use of former military bases. Other sectors of Panamanian soci- ety are, however, staunchly opposed to keeping the U.S. bases. "The Panamanian Army was eliminated from our Constitution, so how can we reject a native army and accept the presence of a foreign one?" asks Radil Leis, a Panamanian sociologist who managed singer Rub6n Blades' presidential campaign in 1994. The base talks helped coalesce an array of human rights, student, religious and labor groups into united fronts. Father Conrado Sanjur, coordinator of a coalition of 20 organizations opposed to a base extension, said that instead of discussing a contin- ued U.S. military presence, Panama "should negotiate compensation for victims of the 1989 invasion and the clean-up of toxic waste on the cur- rent U.S. bases." Some bases are sure to close in any case. The report last fall that a post-1999 presence would employ only about a thousand local citizens was a rude awakening for many Panamanian pragmatists. To make up for the inevitable economic loss, Panamanian authorities have demanded that the United States begin to pay rent for use of the properties. Ironically, former President Guillermo Endara, him- self sworn into office on a U.S. base, came out emphatically against keeping the bases beyond 1999, arguing that the United States will never agree to pay rent. P6rez Balladares' own party is divided. The old guard of the party- including PRD president Gerardo Gonzalez, former Assembly presi- dent Balbina Herrera, and chair of the Assembly's Foreign Relations Committee Oyd6n Ortega-publicly oppose a new base agreement Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1996 7UPDATE / PANAMA because they favor Panama's com- plete demilitarization and they see greater economic benefits from civil- ian use of the bases. Nicolds Ardito Barletta, the conversion agency chief, claims that civilian use of the bases should generate 150,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in revenue for Panama. A num- ber of progressive businesspeople also want the bases to leave to allow for new economic and urban development, includ- ing tourism and mar- itime services such as ship repair. Panama's national- ist elites have formu- lated a number of ideas about how to convert the former bases. An Inter- American Devel- opment Bank loan to Panama financed the creation of a master Over 100,000 F plan for the bases formal signing being transferred to Panamanian control. Fernando Manfredo, Jr., a former canal administrator who was involved in putting together the plan, advocates developing a second "free zone" across the canal from Panama City, based on the multi-billion dollar Col6n Free Zone, a warehouse facil- ity where goods are not taxed. Manfredo also supports using mili- tary housing to help meet Panama's dire housing deficit. In fact, many poor families have already set up squatter communities in military areas, some still under U.S. jurisdic- tion. PRD opponents of the bases spearheaded a unanimous resolu- tion by the Legislative Assembly to move the offices of the Organization of American States (OAS) to the former military bases. A high-level contingent of two dozen officials accompanied P6rez Balladares to the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan in the fall, where the first item on their stated agenda was grooming potential investors for the "reverted areas." The "low road" of inviting Taiwanese or other foreign compa- nies to set up low-wage industrial parks with 50-year renewable leases 'anamanians hailed President Carter and Gene )f the Panama Canal Treaties on June 16, 1977 -the probable fate of Ft. Davis, one of two bases that reverted to Panamanian control last September -is met with chagrin by nationalist groups working for U.S. military withdrawal. "We have fought for a century for sovereignty over our lands, and now we are going to turn over those lands to a foreign country for another 70 years?" asks Olier Avila of the Service for Peace and Justice in Panama, a human rights organization. Given the country's 30% under- and unemployment rate, the gov- ernment is pursuing options like maquiladora zones because it is under pressure to generate jobs on the former bases. Moreover, key government officials may personal- ly benefit from low-wage export zones established there. These pres- sures could crowd out long-term strategies that consider environ- mental and social-justice concerns. T he United States is also divided about keeping the military bases. The turnover of the canal on December 31, 1999 is not in debate. Through a tripartite commission with Panama and Japan, however, the United States continues to exer- cise strong influ- ence over decisions about the future construction of a third set of locks for the present canal or of a sepa- rate sea-level canal. Even though Congress does not have the authority to negotiate mili- tary-base agree- ments, Senator Jesse Helms has agitated for a new base agreement- if not outright abro- eral Torrijos at the gation of the Canal Treaties--ever since the treaties were ratified in 1978. Helms' efforts are countered by concerns in U.S. political circles that it is politically dangerous to maintain bases in Panama while many U.S. communi- ties struggle with the effects of domestic base closures. Southern Command chief General Barry McCaffrey proposed last summer to keep 5,000 troops in Panama. McCaffrey-who has since been appointed drug czar by the Clinton Administration- argued that the bases were impor- tant for defending the canal in case of war and for the regional drug war (about a thousand drug-surveil- lance flights were staged from Howard Air Base in 1994, and multinational military exercises are carried out on another air base in Panama). The U.S. Air Force coor- dinates a radar system from Howard to locate unauthorized planes flying between the coca 8 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 8UPDATE / PANAMA fields of Peru and Bolivia and labs in Colombia. Some Army officials at first resisted McCaffrey's proposal, though they eventually backed down. They contended that Panama is not vital to the drug war. Indeed, the United States suspended the radar program for ten months in 1994 because of concern that the U.S. government might be held liable if data were used to shoot down the wrong plane. Others argue that guerrilla threats to the canal could occur whether U.S. forces are there or not. "If some sapper decides to take out Culebra Cut [the canal's most narrow pas- sage], there's nothing we can do about it," says one Army official. The White House also favors using the bases in Panama to deploy "humanitarian missions" throughout Central and South America. Using National Guard units that rotate into the region for a few weeks, the Southern Command annually runs dozens of projects to build roads, dig wells, and repair school buildings. The value of these civic opera- tions was seriously questioned by a General Accounting Office (GAO) report in 1994, which cited shoddy work, lack of long-term goals, and use of unqualified personnel for construction. Leaders in a Pan- amanian town where the Southern Command built a road told GAO investigators that the U.S. govern- ment was only using the road pro- ject as a propaganda tool. Another road project was criticized by Panamanian environmental groups as ecologically damaging. Complicating the transfer process is the issue of toxic waste on the bases. The experience of domestic bases shows that military toxic contami- nation often stalls or thwarts the development of military facilities for civilian use. Unlike their domestic counterparts, overseas bases are not governed by U.S. laws requiring clean-up. A provision of the canal treaties requires the United States to remove hazards to human health and safety "insofar as may be prac- ticable" before departing. The wording leaves a wide margin for interpretation, which the Pentagon Complicating the transfer process is the issue of toxic waste on the bases, which may thwart their development for civilian use. has shrewdly exploited. No one doubts that unexploded mortars and rockets are hazardous to human safety, but to find and dig up the munitions is expensive, and if not done properly, it risks erosion and silting of the canal. Other potential contamination problems on the bases include leaking underground fuel tanks, PCBs from electrical transformers, and other chemicals that Panamanians say have left mysteriously barren areas on other- wise lush lands. The Southern Command has been reluctant to turn over informa- tion on the toxics problem request- ed by the Panamanian government. Colonel Donald Holzwarth, archi- tect of the Southern Command's environmental strategy, said that releasing some environmental doc- uments "begs a thousand ques- tions" and is "inherently stupid." Yet without a clearer idea of the environmental condition of the facilities it is inheriting, Panama can neither plan intelligently for the bases' use nor negotiate a clean-up agreement with the United States. A Defense Department policy issued last October discounts any clean-up of a property after transfer unless it has been explicitly agreed to beforehand. The present negotiations between Panama and the United States regarding a future U.S. military presence are hardly between equal partners. Panama's head of state was, after all, removed during the 1989 invasion-the largest U.S. military operation at that time since the Vietnam War, and one which killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians. It was the current ruling party which was ousted from power by the action. On other issues, P6rez Balladares, a banker educat- ed at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, has already bowed to implicit pressure to negotiate for what he thinks the United States wants. Within days of entering office in 1994, the President agreed to a U.S. request to house up to 10,000 Cuban "boat people" on a U.S. base, a measure which became tremendously unpopular among Panamanians after the Cubans riot- ed and tried to escape confinement on the base. Given this uneven playing field, the coming period will test the United States' commitment to decolonization. In any event, U.S. officials want the issue resolved expeditiously. "We don't want a dragged-out Philippines-style pro- cess," said one National Security Council official. On the other hand, the 1996 U.S. elections could dis- tract administration and Con- gressional officials from an issue perceived as secondary. If the bases' future is not resolved by November-a probable scenario- the elections may replace Clinton with a Republican president more sympathetic to the notion that the banks of the canal are a part of the United States.

Tags: Panama, US military bases, nationalism, canal zone, toxic waste

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