US bases deal fuels Ecuador-Colombia conflict

By Zoe Kenny

The inauguration of re-elected Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in the nation’s capital Quito on August 10 became a focal point for a discussion about the rising tensions in South America  between the growing number of elected left-wing governments on the continent and moves by Washington to increase the number of its military bases in Colombia, which is ruled by the right-wing government of President Alvaro Uribe.

Correa himself is an example of the increasing radicalisation throughout the continent. During the inauguration ceremony, he declared that his “citizen’s revolution is for everyone”, echoing one of the popular slogans of the Venezuelan revolution: “Venezuela — ahora es de todos” (“Now Venezuela  is for everyone”). Correa is hugely popular in Ecuador, winning re-election on April 26 with the support of 52% of the 7.1 million votes cast. His closest rival, former president Lucio Gutierrez, was only able to secure 28.4% of the vote.

The popularity of the leftist Correa government stands in contrast to the three previous Ecuadoran governments, two of which were forced from office by mass protests against their neoliberal economic policies. The government of Jorge Mahuad, elected in 1998, was forced to resign two years later after a week of demonstrations by indigenous Ecuadorans and a military revolt led by Colonel Gutierrez. Under pressure from Washington, and lacking support from most of the population, the military junta that replaced the Mahaud government was dissolved by army chief General Carlos Mendoza and the Congress named Mahuad’s vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, as president of the country.

In 2002, Gutierrez, who had been jailed for six months after the 2000 army coup, defeated banana magnate Alvaro Noboa for the presidency in a second round with 55% of the popular vote. Gutierrez alienated many of his supporters by supporting the US-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). He was forced into exile after several weeks of mass protest in April 2005. Gutierrez’s vice-president, Alfredo Palacio, took his place and remained in office until the presidential election of 2006, in which Correa defeated Alvaro Noboa in a runoff election.

During Correa’s first term of office, his government drafted a new constitution which was adopted in a national referendum in September last year with 64% voter approval. Correa has also refused to renew a 10-year lease on the US airbase in Manta and has increased social spending by 71%. With his re-election, Correa is promising to deepen the progressive reform agenda undertaken during his first term in office. Perhaps most significantly, on June 24, he  joined Ecuador to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), an economic alliance initiated in 2005 by Cuba and Venezuela that is based on cooperation and solidarity rather than free trade. Correa had previously held that Ecuador would only join ALBA if Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would agree to rejoin the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), a trade bloc based on free trade. Venezuela withdrew from the CAN in April 2006.

ALBA is a vitally important strategic counter to the influence of Washington’s neoliberal “free market” policies that have dominated the continent since the 1970s and which have been responsible for a huge transferral of property from the governments and people of Latin America to mainly US- and Western Europe-based corporations. Since 1994 Washington has sought to cement the unequal relationship between imperialist North America and the semi-colonial capitalist nations of Latin America through the FTAA, which aims to eliminate or reduce the trade barriers among all countries in the Americas, except socialist Cuba (subject to a US trade embargo since 1962). With Ecuador’s admission, ALBA now has nine member-states.

Cuba’s and Venezuela’s initial ALBA agreement involved an exchange of the services of 30,000 Cuban doctors and teachers for US$1 billion worth of Venezuelan oil. ALBA now incorporates the ambitious goals of providing free health care and education to the people of all ALBA member-states, to promote land redistribution and state-owned enterprises, and to develop alternative media so as to counter US media domination.

With the strengthening of ALBA, the US capitalist rulers are becoming increasingly worried about the long-term ramifications of the political influence of the revolutionary socialist governments of Cuba and Venezuela throughout Latin America, a region of the world they have traditionally regarded as their “backyard”. Their desire to roll back the left-wing tide in Latin America was clearly shown by the June 28 coup against popularly elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who had terrified the pro-US Honduran business elite with his declared intention of joining ALBA.

While Washington has formally protested against the coup, it has refused to bring significant pressure on the illegal government of Roberto Micheletti through economic sanctions or the suspension of military ties. Nor has the Obama administration  unambiguously called for Zelaya’s full reinstatement. Instead it has sought to mediate a “compromise” between Zelaya and the coupsters through Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

The Obama administration is also stepping up its direct military intervention into the region through a strengthening of its alliance with the Colombian government. Washington has announced plans to establish seven military bases throughout Colombia. At the August 10 summit of the Union of South American Nations in Quito, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned that the “winds of war” are starting to blow in South America, stating that the bases deal was  tantamount to a “declaration of war against the Bolivarian Revolution”. On August 25, the Ecuadoran parliament approved a resolution saying that US use of the Colombian military bases would undermine peace in the region.

Colombia has long acted as a proxy in the region for Washington, and is one of the largest recipients of US military aid. Under the auspices of Plan Colombia, which was instigated in 2000 and ostensibly aimed at tackling drug trafficking, Colombia has received more than $5 billion in US military aid. The purpose of this military aid is to wage a war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement, as well as using the anti-FARC war to suppress militant trade-union and ostensibly lawful social movement activity. Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in the world and, according to Amnesty International, “torture, massacres, ‘disappearances’ and killings of non-combatants are widespread and collusion between the armed forces and [right-wing] paramilitary groups continues to this day”.

However the Colombian military’s repressive activities have not been confined to within its own borders. On March 1 last year, a Colombian military attack on a FARC camp on Ecuadoran soil killed 24 people, including one Ecuadoran. In response, Correa broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia, accusing the Uribe government of undermining Ecuadoran sovereignty. The US-Colombia bases agreement has coincided with the release of a video showing a FARC commander discussing the donation of funds towards Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign.

Ecuadoran foreign minister Fander Falconi has accused the Colombian authorities of “manipulating” the video. He has  also noted that it was released on the same day (July 17) that the Ecuadoran government recovered full sovereignty of the Manta airbase as well as the day that Colombia announced its increased military cooperation with the US. On July 27, Falconi said the Correa government would soon “present the entire content [of the video] to the public” so that the Ecuadoran people could make up their own minds about what the FARC commander is alleged to have said.

In response to the increased hostilities from Colombia, Ecuador has sent a further 1200 soldiers to reinforce the existing 10,000 soldiers and police already patrolling the country’s 720-kilometre border with Colombia. Correa’s government has also imposed restrictions on the import of hundreds of Colombian products, leading to a 15.5% drop in Colombia’s exports to Ecuador this year. In his August 10 inauguration speech, Correa said: “The great challenge in this new phase of the revolution is to create ... in each neighborhood a committee to defend the national government … and to prepare for those who wish to destabilise us.” Four days later, Ecuadoran Citizen Participation Minister Doris Soliz told Ecuador TV that revolutionary committees in each neighbourhood were needed to defend the national government against coups like the one that deposed Zelaya in Honduras, or against outside agitators, noting US military plans to use Colombian bases.