U.S. Military Base Near Venezuelan Border?

Despite
his record unpopularity, it would appear that President Bush wants to
go out of office with a bang. Having failed to overthrow Hugo Chávez
through an attempted coup, the White House now hopes to escalate
pressure on Venezuela’s President by other means.

By Nikolas Kozloff - CounterPunch
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Despite
his record unpopularity, it would appear that President Bush wants to
go out of office with a bang. Having failed to overthrow Hugo Chávez
through an attempted coup, the White House now hopes to escalate
pressure on Venezuela’s President by other means.

On
Saturday, a U.S. navy plane strayed into Venezuelan airspace.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel said that the aircraft
"practically flew over" the island of La Orchila - where Venezuela has
a military base and President Hugo Chávez has a residence - and another
island before turning back. U.S. officials claimed the plane had
“navigational problems.”

"This is just the latest step in a series of provocations," Rangel said.

From Orchila to the Fourth Fleet

Indeed,
tensions have been mounting in recent days. The Navy is now
reactivating its fourth fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, which will
include a nuclear aircraft carrier, will be based in Mayport, Florida.

The
fleet hasn’t seen any action in Caribbean waters since World War II.
In February 1942, the Germans sank a number of oil tankers full of
Venezuelan crude. The attack caused a nationalist outcry in Venezuela
and Caracas began to side more openly with the allies. In response to
the attacks the U.S. patrolled the area, hunting down Nazi submarines
which were wreaking havoc on allied shipping. After the war, with no
more German U-boats prowling Caribbean waters, the Fourth Fleet was
dissolved.

So, why resuscitate the fleet now?

The
navy claims the move is necessary to protect maritime security. The
real reason however may have more to do with Washington’s desire to
wage a kind of psychological war against the Chávez government and to
foment a climate of political tension.

From Laptops to Border Incursions

In
its quest to get rid of Chávez, the White House has also sought to
spark tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s a good chance
that the U.S. Southern Command passed crucial military intelligence to
the Bogotá government when the latter attacked an encampment of FARC
guerrillas inside Ecuadoran territory. After the March 1 assault,
which resulted in the deaths of guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes as well as
20 other insurgents, and which arguably constituted an act of
international terrorism, the Colombian authorities claimed that Chávez
and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s pro-Venezuelan President, were doing their
utmost to support the FARC.

As
evidence they produced documents allegedly found on FARC laptop
computers which remarkably survived the attack intact. The documents,
Colombia says, prove that Chávez has provided weapons, munitions, and
$300 million in aid to the FARC. After conducting its own
investigation, Interpol declared that Colombia did not modify, delete
or create any files, although the Andean nation did not always follow
internationally accepted methods when handling the computers. The
agency stated that the documents came from a FARC camp, but
investigators could not conclusively prove that the information
contained within the documents was totally accurate.

In
Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack pounced on
Interpol’s report, remarking that the laptop files indicating
Venezuelan support for the FARC were “highly disturbing.” Chávez has
rejected the accusations, calling the Interpol report a "clown show"
that "doesn't deserve serious comment." The Venezuelan leader said all
relations with Colombia as well as his country’s cooperation with
Interpol would undergo “deep review.” Seeking to rhetorically destroy
his adversaries, Chávez referred to Interpol chief Ronald Noble as a
"mafioso” and “an aggressive Yankee cop." In yet another memorable
outburst from the Venezuelan leader, Chávez added that Noble’s true
name was "Mr. Ignoble.”

As
if relations between Colombia and Venezuela could slip no further, on
Saturday, the same day that the U.S. navy plane passed into Venezuelan
airspace, Chávez accused Bogotá of sending its troops across the border
in an illegal incursion. The two South American nations share a
1,370-mile border that winds through mountains and thick patches of
jungle. In a written statement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás
Maduro said that 60 Colombian troops had been intercepted in
Venezuela's western Apure state, about 875 yards from the nations'
shared border.

Controversy Over Guajira

Amidst
ominous signs that the U.S. might be seeking to destabilize the
Venezuelan government, a new controversy is swirling. William
Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, recently remarked that the
U.S. would consider relocating its military air base at Manta, Ecuador
to Colombia. According to the New York Times, an area
mentioned in later reports was the Guajira region near the Venezuelan
border. Colombia’s foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, quickly denied
that Colombia had any plans to allow the United States to establish a
base in Guajira.

The controversy could not have come at a worse time.

Already,
tensions have risen as a result of secessionist efforts in the
westernmost state of Zulia which spans the Venezuelan Guajira region.
Recently, the Chávez opposition in Zulia proposed a feasibility study
for potential independence from the federal government. What’s more,
Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chávez in the December 2006
presidential election, announced his support for his state’s autonomy.

Speaking on his weekly TV show Aló, Presidente!,
Chávez warned opposition leaders that any move towards Zulia autonomy
would lead to confrontation. “I advise those individuals who want to
break up Venezuela to think it through very well. We won’t tolerate a
political fragmentation of our country,” he declared, adding that any
such attempts would be met with force. The Venezuelan leader went on
to say that Zulia autonomy constituted an “imperial plan” designed and
supported by the United States to take control of strategic oil areas.

An
impoverished region, the Guajira is home to Wayúu Indians who come and
go across the frontier. The area is full of barren desert and
straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Geographically remote, the
Guajira has historically been embroiled in diplomatic controversy. In
1928, Colombian authorities were so concerned about secessionist plots
in the region that Bogotá's House of Deputies met in secret session to
discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and
Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to
Zulia [in the midst of the Venezuelan oil zone] would form the Republic
of Zulia."

As
a result of the tangled history, any talk of installing a U.S. presence
in the area inevitably stirs nationalist passions. Chávez has stated
that "We will not allow the Colombian government to give La Guajira to
the empire,” referring to the U.S. As media reports surfaced, local
authorities in the Guajira raised their voices in protest. Eber
Chacón, a Chávez supporter and the Mayor of Páez, a local indigenous
municipality, called on the Wayúu in Colombia and Venezuela to
repudiate attempts by the Venezuelan opposition to divide them with
their "autonomist and separatist positions." Chacón added that
installing a U.S. base in Guajira would represent a potential threat to
hemispheric security.

From Manta to Colombia

How
did we get to the point where the U.S. is actually thinking about
closing its military base in Manta, Ecuador and opening a new one in
Colombia? That is a question I seek to answer in my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), just released in April of this year.

In
Ecuador it is difficult to ignore the public climate of hostility
towards the U.S. military base at Manta, which is used for drug over
flights of Colombian air space. The facility, located 160 miles
southwest of Quito on the coast, is a large installation which is
technically not controlled by the United States but belongs to the
Ecuadoran air force.

Many
Ecuadorans believe that the United States is trying to draw their
nation more deeply into the Colombian conflict, which has spilled over
the border. The air base at Manta was leased to the U.S. military for
10 years in 1999, and President Rafael Correa made it clear even before
he was elected that he did not plan to extend the lease once it expired
in 2009.

During
a trip to Quito, I found myself on the campus of the city’s Catholic
University. At a table, a woman was registering people to go on a bus
trip to the coast to protest the base at Manta. In the hallway, I met
Gualdemar Jiménez, a local activist.

U.S. Air Base at Manta: A Social Disaster

“Manta
used to be a purely fishing town,” he explained. “Now the fishermen
don’t have access to certain parts of the ocean, which are closed off
for security reasons.” On the sea, U.S marines had intercepted
Ecuadoran boats, even sinking some vessels. “The marines are not the
Ecuadoran coast guard,” Jiménez declared indignantly.

He
went on to tick off a number of other problems associated with the U.S.
airbase. For example, the base had gradually expanded over time. This
expansion had displaced campesino farmers from their
traditional lands. In addition, there had been environmental damage:
within the local area, hillsides had been destroyed in an effort to
acquire the necessary raw materials to mix asphalt and repave the
runway.

The
Manta air base contributes some $7 million to the local economy
annually, but activists are critical of the lack of real economic
development in the area. The marines don’t do any shopping in
Ecuadoran markets, nor do they utilize local transportation. “The only
thing they contribute to is local discos and prostitution,” Jiménez
explained bitterly.

“What you´re describing is hardly unique,” I remarked. “It reminds me of the history of other U.S. military bases.”

“It´s
a trend that is repeated around the world,” Jiménez said. “In Vietnam,
you had houses of prostitution springing up as well.”

Now
that Correa is likely to give the U.S. the boot, the Americans must
figure out where they may go next. The Defense Department doesn’t have
too many options: across South America, Pink Tide nations are unlikely
to host a prolonged U.S. military presence on their soil. About the
only country which might agree is Colombia, but for different reasons
such a move would prove perilous.

If
U.S. troops were deployed to Colombia, they would be stationed in the
middle of a war zone and would be exposed to attacks by the FARC.
Politically, opening a new base on Colombian soil would further
antagonize Chávez across the border. Whether the Pentagon decides to
station its base in Guajira amongst the Wayúu or elsewhere in Colombia,
the installation is likely to give rise to prostitution and other
negative social consequences for the local population, just like Manta.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave Macmillan,
April 2008).