Ecuador Giving U.S. Air Base the Boot

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 2008

MANTA, Ecuador -- When U.S. officers stationed in this humid coastal city give reasons they should continue their decade-old airborne surveillance mission, they talk not only about fighting drug runners on the open seas but about the $71 million they've spent to renovate and maintain the city's airport, and the $6.5 million they inject each year into the local economy.

But the government of Ecuador has decided, and Washington has apparently agreed, that one of the most important foreign outposts in the United States' war on drugs will close. The 450 U.S. Air Force personnel and contractors stationed at a military base that shares the airport's runway will be leaving next year.

This decision reflects both the prevailing political climate here -- standing up to the United States tends to be widely popular -- and a new economic reality. With major projects underway in Manta by the Venezuelan government and a Hong Kong company, the U.S. dollars don't amount to much.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stood alongside President Rafael Correa of Ecuador in July to announce a jointly financed $6 billion oil refinery to be constructed on the outskirts of Manta. And Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings has begun building what will be among the largest deep-water ports on the west coast of South America, a $523 million project with piers, cranes, tuna-boat terminals, roads, and the capacity to eventually handle 1.6 million shipping containers a year at the continent's closest point to Asia.

"The U.S. stopped being the benchmark of what is good for Latin America," said Gustavo Larrea, Ecuador's security minister. "Because Latin America did everything that the U.S. asked it to do and wasn't able to get out of poverty, the North American myth lost political weight."

In the waning days of the Bush administration, governments in Latin America are rejecting many U.S.-funded programs, particularly anti-narcotics efforts, with rhetoric championing sovereignty and denouncing "imperialism" from the north.

In Venezuela, anti-drug officials say, cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has deteriorated sharply. In Bolivia, coca farmers decided in June to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development from part of the country amid accusations that it was conspiring against President Evo Morales.

The pushback resonates well politically in many parts of Latin America, where U.S. policies are often seen as security-obsessed Cold War vestiges or bitter economic pills forced down the throats of unwilling governments.

The leading spokesman of such anti-Americanism is Chávez, but other South American leaders often join in.

During his campaign for president, Correa said he would not renew a 10-year agreement reached with the United States in November 1999 that allowed the U.S. military to operate from the base at Manta. In late July, Ecuador's Foreign Ministry officially notified the United States that it must evacuate by November of next year.

The air base serves as a launching pad for surveillance flights over the Pacific Ocean to spot seaborne drug traffic and over Colombia to spot unauthorized planes. According to U.S. figures, the missions resulted in the seizure of about 230 tons of cocaine in 2007.

Whether the Americans stay or go "is a political thing," said Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, who recently completed a tour as commander of the U.S. contingent in Manta. "I don't think it's necessarily tied to our successes or the impact to the local folks. It's just a political thing."

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