Activists gathered in Quito, Ecuador the first week of March in an International Conference for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases. The International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases is a global network of individuals, organizations, social movements, and coalitions working for the closure of foreign military bases and other forms of military presence worldwide.
The no-bases coalition which organized the conference began to converge three years ago at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India. The conference brought together 300 activists from 40 countries from around the world united in a common concern for the proliferation of military bases, primarily those operated by the United States. At the same time, others strongly urged broadening the network's scope to include the actions of other countries, particularly the French and Brazilian military presence in Haiti.
The week-long conference began with three days of meeting in the capital city of Quito and was designed to strengthen coordinating efforts. Speakers presented perspectives from around the world on the impacts of military bases, and the struggles of social movements to abolish them. Panels focused on the impact of military bases on the environment, gender, human rights, peace, democracy, and sovereignty. Discussions included struggles against military bases in Vieques, Japan, Korea, Hawaii, and the Philippines. A series of film screenings on struggles against military bases and broader peace issues also ran throughout the event.
On Thursday, March 8, International Women's Day, activists joined a Women for Peace Caravan from Quito to Manta with intermediary stops demanding the closure of foreign military bases. Local organizers emphasized that the dates were specifically selected to correspond with International Women's Day. The week culminated with a march calling for the withdrawal of United States troops from the Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta, and a festival celebrating the successes of the no-bases campaign.
The gathered delegates drafted a declaration that condemned foreign military bases for their role in "wars of aggression [that] violate human rights; oppress all people, particularly indigenous peoples, African descendants, women and children; and destroy communities and the environment." Delegates demanded a closure of existing bases, cleanup of environmental contamination, and an end to legal immunity for foreign military personnel. The statement concluded with support and solidarity for "those who struggle for the abolition of all foreign military bases worldwide."
Ecuador was selected as the location for the conference because of a growing movement to evict United States troops from the US military base in Manta. When the United States withdrew its Southern Command from Panama, it began to search out alternative methods of maintaining a military presence in the region. Since 1999, the United States has used the Manta base as a so-called Forward Operating Location, purportedly to halt drug trafficking from neighboring Colombia. Some opponents consider former president Jamil Mahuad's signing of the lease which gave the US military permission to use the land in Manta to be unconstitutional and a violation of national sovereignty. Rather than wait until the lease runs out in 2009, they would prefer to have the troops withdrawn now.
Nieve Solórzano from the Ecuador No-Bases Coalition noted how surprised many in the country were by Mahuad's agreement, and the negative impact that the foreign military presence had on the city of Manta. The majority of the country is against the base. Instead of impeding drug trafficking, it converts Manta into a trafficking center and increasingly draws Ecuador into regional conflicts. Solórzano welcomed the international gathering as strengthening the local struggle against the base.
A Transnational Institute study documents Manta as just one of about one thousand foreign military bases around the world. The majority of these bases are United States institutions. The United States disputes these figures, claiming instead that they only have 34 permanent bases, and that the rest are just bilateral cooperative agreements that allow for a small military presence. In addition to the United States, several European countries also maintain extra-territorial military bases. Activists criticize foreign bases for their violations of human rights and negative ecological impacts. United States bases in particular have become targets for strong anti-imperialist sentiments.
Correa once famously quipped that it would be ok with him for the United States to maintain a military presence in Manta if in exchange Ecuador were allowed to have a base in Miami. The unlikeliness that the United States government ever to allow a foreign government to maintain troops on its soil highlights the fundamentally unequal nature of international relations, and the hypocrisy of United States pressure on local governments to host such institutions.
Critics charge that the presence of U.S. troops in Manta is dragging Ecuador into a growing regional conflict, and that the mission has expanded into other unrelated activities–especially that of providing surveillance on Colombia's internal political conflicts and interdiction of immigrants leaving Ecuador. Manta represents more than just a landing strip: it is a vital and strategic position in Bush's global war.
The Abolition of Foreign Military Bases conference was planned well in advance of left-populist Rafael Correa's election last fall to the presidency of Ecuador. The timing, however, provided to be very convenient for the success of the conference. Correa rode a rising tide of anti-imperialist sentiment into office, including campaigning on promises to close the Manta base.
The conference opened on Monday, March 5 at the Catholic University in Quito with an inaugural panel that presented a mixture of ceremony and an opening salvo of forceful statements against foreign military bases. Quito's mayor, retired General Paco Moncayo, welcomed delegates to Quito, and then Manuel Corrales, the university's rector, presented a welcome to the university. Correa was invited but unable to attend. In his place, to the cheers of the audience, Subsecretary of the Ministry of Defense Miguel Carvajal confirmed that the Ecuadorian government will not renew the United States lease on the Manta base when it expires in 2009. Correa himself publicly ratified that decision later in the week.
After a full day of speeches, the mayor arranged for a tour of Quito's historic center and a reception in the City Museum. A mayor's representative greeted Lindsey Collen from the Mauritius Islands as an honored guest of Quito, and in turn Collen accepted the honor in the name of all of the delegates. A folklore ballet then entertained delegates with traditional Andean songs and dance.
In Manta, Manabí's governor Vicente Veliz defended Correa's action to terminate the lease agreement. Veliz condemned the oligarchy that extracted wealth from the country, and congratulated Correa as being the first president in Ecuador since Eloy Alfaro, one hundred years ago, to stand up to the international finance system. Veliz applauded Correa's support for education and health programs that benefit the Ecuadorian people.
At the conference Correa's advisor, Fernando Bustamante, reiterated that government would not be renewing the Manta base lease. Bustamante called for respect for Ecuador's sovereignty, and articulated political stances for peace and ecology instead of militaristic and war-based policies. In particular, Bustamante outlined a peace plan for Ecuador's northern border to contrast with Plan Colombia.
Activists debate whether efforts to terminate foreign military bases are better directed at local host governments or at United States policy. Some argue that the United States government needs to be targeted since it pressures host governments to accept the agreements. Others point to the examples of Vieques and Ecuador, where determined local movements could evict bases, and say that efforts are better targeted there. The cause of the creation of foreign bases is not only imperialism, but also domestic neoliberal policies.
At the conference, Filipino anti-base activist Baltazar Pinguel argued that the movement needs to build on both levels: targeting U.S. policy as well as pressuring local host governments to terminate military agreements. The two struggles are directly linked on a variety of levels, including the cost of the bases to people on both foreign and domestic fronts. Pinguel also pointed to the importance of international coalitions and meetings such as the World Social Forum to build a strong movement. This sentiment echoed throughout the conference.
"The problem is global," Corazon Valdez Fabros from the international no-bases committee emphasized, "and we need to fight it globally." Fabros saw this meeting as a step in the right direction. However, some participants cautioned against jumping from national to global struggles and ignoring work on a regional or continental level that could also significantly strengthen the movement.
Miguel Moran, from the local Ecuadorian organizing committee, noted that this was the first international anti-imperialist conference of the new century. He emphasized the importance of the conference as a meeting of peoples, rather than governments, to plan the future of humanity. Chilean activist Javier Garate echoed the necessity of attacking the no-bases issue on various levels and through various strategies, including engaging issues of pacifism and economic profiteering. Baltazar Pinguel noted that the caravan was an effective tool which allowed international and local activists to connect with each other to build a stronger movement. He also encouraged increased anti-base activism in the United States in order "to become an active force for peace right in the eye of the storm."
Throughout the conference, delegates connected their local struggles with Manta. For example, Nilda Medina from Puerto Rico noted the common links between the struggle at Manta and in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where local pressure forced the United States Navy to withdraw from its base in 2003. Women organized against the base, Medina emphasized, and the government could not stop them. However, "evicting the military is only half the struggle," Medina emphasized, because recovery and cleanup remain as unfulfilled tasks. "We have to keep walking together," she declared, "because victory will be ours."
Kyle Kajihiro pointed to the heroic example of the Vieques struggle as a symbol which encourages Hawaiians to struggle more determinately in the face of oppression. "We cannot just fight on one level," Kajihiro emphasized, "because this will just move the opposition to another level." The conference facilitated the development of these networking connections on multiple levels.
Similarly, a delegate from Cuba stood in solidarity with Correa and declared that the Guantanamo and Manta bases are not isolated phenomena, but part of Bush's international war pattern. Other activists linked Manta with the one hundred year presence of U.S. troops in Panama; the long military presence in Germany, Korea, and Japan; and growing involvement in Paraguay's triple border region. Finally, Leslie Cagan from United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) denounced the Bush administration for its occupation of Iraq and construction of massive bases in that country.
Despite the apparently overwhelming presence of foreign military bases around the world, delegates seemed far from defeated. Rather, activists pointed to the fact that foreign military bases are being met with oppositional movements world-wide. The examples of Vieques and Manta illustrate that, through the use of a variety of tactics, foreign military presences can be overcome.
Marc Becker is a Latin America historian and a member of Community Action on Latin America (CALA) in Madison, Wisconsin. Contact him at marc(at)yachana.org