Leftist Leader Wants to Remove US Base That is Key to Anti-Drug Efforts

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires (CNSNews.com) - The U.S. military is looking for a new location in South America, after Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced he is not renewing the current lease he holds for a base in Manta, along Ecuador's shoreline.

In 1999, the U.S. and Ecuador signed a bilateral agreement that allows the U.S. to use a portion of the Ecuadorian Eloy Alfaro Air Force Base in Manta as a "forward operating location" (FOL) for counter-narcotics operations. The agreement expires in November 2009.

When he ran for election last year, Correa said on the campaign trail, "Before I renew that contract, I'll cut my hand off. Not one more foreign soldier in our land from 2009 onward."

Correa is among the region's leftist presidents who are open supporters of anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Correa has followed many of Chavez's policies, including most recently pushing for a constitutional assembly to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

The base falls under the U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for South and Central America and the Caribbean.

U.S. agencies say that more than 60 percent of illegal drug seizures last year -- 262 tons and representing a street value of over $5.2 billion -- took place thanks to information gathered by counter-narcotics flights from the Manta base.

Linda Jewell, U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, says on the embassy website, "The mission of the FOL is to help Ecuador protect the sovereignty of its territory against the transnational crime of drug trafficking. Our cooperation with Ecuador is producing positive results."

Attempts to get comment from the embassy and Southern Command were unsuccessful.

"Ending the lease would be another step towards the Chavista policy of cutting ties with the U.S.," James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Center for International Trade and Economics, told Cybercast News Service.

"Acting on advice from Chavez, Correa seems to want to reduce and eventually eliminate U.S. influence in Ecuador and, indeed, in all of Latin America," Roberts said. "Meanwhile, Chavez and Correa are expanding their political and economic ties with authoritarian countries such as China, Iran and Russia."

Roberts noted that the latest State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement report about Ecuador mentions the value of the overall U.S.-Ecuador counter-narcotics program, yet does not mention the Manta base by name - "probably because of political sensitivities."

Peru may be one possible new location for a U.S. base. During a recent visit to that country, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "the United States and Peru have traditionally enjoyed a friendly, cooperative defense relationship, and we hope to be able to work even more closely together in the future."

The Peruvian news agency Andina quoted Peruvian Defense Minister Allan Wagner as saying during the visit that the two countries were looking into greater cooperation in fighting crime and narcotics trafficking and improving patrolling of rivers and seas.

John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace advocacy group, said the organization has been actively participating in campaigns against foreign military bases in the region.

"The United States will have cultural, economic, social and diplomatic presence in Latin America, with or without the Manta base," he told Cybercast News Service. "Our goal is to prevent the imbalance [in local politics] that this military base may directly or indirectly generate."

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