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."
But Ecuadoran officials say there is little benefit in the base. For one, their country is a minor player in the Andean world of coca and cocaine production. And the U.S. surveillance flights do nothing to help them uncover drug labs hidden under vast stretches of forest canopy.
"This is a problem for us of sovereignty," Larrea said. "It's as if we had a base in New York. This would be incomprehensible for North Americans."
The original agreement was signed by President Jamil Mahuad shortly before street protests and a military revolt forced him from office in 2000. Many Ecuadorans say the terms heavily favored the Americans. The United States, for instance, does not pay rent for the base.
The agreement was negotiated "in a moment of anguish" by a government that needed a loan from the International Monetary Fund but did not get it, said Adrián Bonilla, director of FLACSO, a think tank in Quito, the Ecuadoran capital.
"The political cost of a foreign base is very high. And the national need is very low," he said. "The political culture of Ecuador is very nationalistic. And it is mistrusting of the United States. . . . It's very popular to throw out the gringos from the Manta base."
U.S. officials don't yet know where they might move after Manta. Colombia is often mentioned. In other neighboring countries, such as Panama, officials have publicly ruled out letting the Americans move in. The loss of Manta, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, would leave a "serious gap" in the U.S. drug fight.
But other officials, such as Leonard, say the U.S. planes could operate out of an existing base on the Caribbean island of Curacao for the time being and cover the same territory.
"The success will be slightly less. But I still think we'll have the coverage out there," Leonard said. "It's not like it will just disappear."
In Bolivia, the decision by the coca growers federation, still led by President Morales, to stop working with USAID in the Chapare region, was also motivated by a growing desire for self-determination. That part of Bolivia is home of the slogan "Long live coca, death to the Yankees." Residents express long-standing frustrations with U.S. efforts to eradicate the crop or persuade farmers to plant often-unviable alternatives.
"The famous macadamia nut? The cardamom? These were very expensive projects that resulted in what? In nothing," said Felipe Cáceres, Bolivia's vice minister of social defense and a former coca grower.
The USAID contingent, about 100 employees and contractors, whom Cáceres described as "all right-wingers," have left the Chapare. Morales has accused USAID of funding opposition groups to foment protests against him, allegations U.S. officials have denied.
Cáceres said last month that the Bolivian government plans to "nationalize" the war on drugs in Bolivia by controlling for itself how the aid money is spent. While Cáceres praised the cooperation between his government and the DEA, he ridiculed USAID projects as wasteful spending that often came with burdensome conditions.
From 1998 to 2003, Bolivian farmers could receive USAID funding for help planting other crops only if they eliminated all their coca, according to the Andean Information Network, a research group based in Bolivia. Other rules, such as the requirement that participating communities declare themselves "terrorist-free zones," simply irritated people, said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network.
"Eradicate all your coca and then you grow an orange tree that will get fruit in eight years but you don't have anything to eat in the meantime? A bad idea," she said. "The thing about kicking out USAID, I don't think it's an anti-American sentiment overall" but rather a rejection of bad programs.
Another factor cited by Bolivian officials is that the European Union and Venezuela have stepped in as major sources of development funding without so many strings attached. The E.U. has earmarked about $350 million for Bolivia for the period from 2007 to 2013. "Most importantly and in line with the Bolivian authorities, activities have not been made conditional on the eradication of coca," said an E.U. strategy paper on Bolivia from late last year.
Meanwhile, U.S. aid for Bolivia's drug fight has been steadily dropping, Cáceres said, from more than $100 million a year during the 1990s to $26 million this year. This government has done the best job of fighting drugs, he said, "but each year we are getting less."
To U.S. anti-drug officials, the impending loss of the base in Ecuador and the halt of USAID projects in the Chapare do not portend disaster but suggest a lack of commitment to halt the flow of cocaine.
"I think it's a setback in the interests of the American people and the people of Ecuador and Bolivia," said John P. Walters, the White House drug policy chief. "But again, we respect the sovereign authority of the leadership of those countries, and we'll try to make the partnership work the best we can."
Correspondent Juan Forero contributed to this report.