US Military Bases in Latin America
and the Caribbean
By John Lindsay-Poland
Foreign Policy in
• Military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean are an
interlocking web that supports U.S. objectives for securing
access to markets, controlling narcotics flow, and obtaining
natural resources, especially oil.
The United States maintains a complex web of military facilities
and functions in Latin America and the Caribbean, what the U.S.
Southern Command (known as SouthCom) calls its “theater
architecture.” U.S. military facilities represent tangible
commitments to an ineffective supply-side drug war and to
underlying policy priorities, including ensuring access to
strategic resources, especially oil.
• Although the United States has closed bases in Panama and
Puerto Rico, it has opened an array of smaller bases throughout
the region, including several that support U.S. operations in
• Base operations and maintenance are increasingly being
contracted to private companies.
Much of this web is being woven through Plan
Colombia, a massive, primarily military program to eradicate coca
plants and to combat armed groups (mostly leftist guerrillas of
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). In the last five
years, new U.S. bases and military access agreements have
proliferated in Latin America, constituting a decentralization of
the U.S. military presence in the region. This decentralization is
Washington’s way of maintaining a broad military foothold while
accommodating regional leaders’ reluctance to host large U.S.
military bases or complexes.
After the U.S. military withdrawal from Panama
in 1999, military troops and commands were reconcentrated in
Puerto Rico, adding fuel to a nonviolent mass movement to throw
the Navy out of its bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico. On May
1, 2003, the Navy vacated the Vieques range (though it remains in
federal hands) and followed in March 2004 by closing the massive
Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Regional headquarters for the Army,
Navy, and Special Forces have moved out of Puerto Rico to Texas
and Florida; headquarters of SouthCom (the joint command) is
located in Miami.
The Navy continues to operate an “outer
range” of nearly 200,000 square miles to practice high-tech
naval maneuvers, an underwater tracking range for submarines, and
an electronic warfare range in waters near Vieques. The ranges are
used by the Navy and by military contractors to test sophisticated
ships and weapon systems. The Army also has access to a large
National Guard firing range, Camp Santiago, in Salinas, Puerto
In addition, the Pentagon is investing in
expanded infrastructure in the region, with four military bases in
Manta, Ecuador; Aruba; Curacao; and Comalapa, El Salvador, known
as “cooperative security locations,” or CSLs. These CSLs are
leased facilities established to conduct counternarcotics
monitoring and interdiction operations. Washington has signed
ten-year agreements with Ecuador, the Netherlands (for Aruba and
Curacao), and El Salvador and has funded the renovation of air
facilities in Ecuador, Aruba, and Curacao. SouthCom also operates
some 17 radar sites, mostly in Peru and Colombia, each typically
staffed by about 35 personnel.
The CSL and radar facilities monitor the skies
and waters of the region and are key to increased surveillance
operations in Washington’s Andean drug war. “The majority of
assets available to us are focused on the tactical fight in
Colombia,” SouthCom chief General Hill said in March 2004.
Approved by the short-lived government of Ecuadorean President
Jamil Mahuad in November 1999, the base in Manta hosts up to 475
All of the above is in addition to existing
bases, including a missile tracking station on Ascension Island in
the Caribbean, housing up to 200 U.S. personnel, and Soto Cano in
Palmerola, Honduras, which since 1984 has provided support for
training and helicopter sorties. Furthermore, the United States
has small military presences and property in Antigua, Peru,
Colombia, Venezuela, and on Andros Island in the Bahamas. The U.S.
military had used offices in Venezuela for more than 50 years but
was evicted from the site in May 2004.
Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, which enjoys a
lease with no termination date, serves as a logistics base for
counterdrug operations and, increasingly, as an off-shore
The Pentagon is moving to shift much of the
operation and maintenance of its military bases to private,
for-profit contractors. For example, the Air Force contracted the
operation of its Manta base to Dyncorp, and even “host-nation
riders” who accompany military flights over Colombia are
“outsourced” to a private U.S. military contractor.
In Panama, all U.S. military forces left the
country, and bases were closed at the end of 1999 in accordance
with the Panama Canal treaties. But the Pentagon continues to
enjoy access for military flights into and out of Panama on a
contract to transport cargo and passengers daily between Honduras,
Panama, and dirt strips in Colombia. In June 2002 the United
States signed an agreement with Costa Rica for an International
Law Enforcement Academy, but popular movements have so far
prevented the pact’s ratification.
Bases belonging to Latin American militaries
but built or used by U.S. soldiers, such as the Joint Peruvian
Riverine Training Center in Iquitos, Peru, are not considered U.S.
bases but often serve similar purposes. The up to 800 U.S.
military and contract personnel operating at any given time in
Colombia are also housed at nominally Colombian bases. The Bush
administration in March 2004 announced its intention to increase
the cap for such personnel to 1,400.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
• Bases represent a commitment of resources that could
otherwise be used for constructive social and environmental
The soldiers and contract employees that the U.S. military deploys
to bases in Latin America and the Caribbean far outnumber the
staffs of U.S. civilian agencies in the region. The presence of
more than 10,000 U.S. personnel on military missions abroad sends
a message that the United States prefers force over diplomacy to
settle the region’s problems, including problems that involve
conflict with the United States. In addition to their role in
facilitating military operations, U.S. bases are a symbol of
Washington’s history of armed intervention and of its use of
local armies to control the region’s people and resources.
Several U.S. bases in the Caribbean were explicitly acquired, not
by mutual agreement but through conquests in the 1898
• U.S. military installations operate in a legal limbo;
military personnel are not accountable to local law, and there
is little transparency. The United States is using its base in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to circumvent international law regarding
prisoners of war.
• Military bases overseas often leave behind ecological
damage, since there are no mechanisms to require environmental
Besides evoking the past, the bases are
contracted into a future beyond any articulated military mission.
Plan Colombia was originally envisioned as a two-year push into
guerrilla-occupied southern territories, with vague plans for
subsequent years. In contrast, the Pentagon has ten-year leases in
Ecuador, Curacao, and Aruba and a presence in perpetuity at its
naval base in Guantánamo. This permanent infrastructure generates
inequitable relations and invites intervention instead of
negotiation in a crisis situation, as it did in Panama and Puerto
Rico (historically, the sites for other long-term U.S. bases in
The cooperative security locations, purportedly
created to monitor drug traffic, have no mechanism for
transparency or monitoring by civil society in the host countries
and are thus subject to other missions. This is especially
disturbing in light of the expansion of U.S. objectives in
Colombia to include “counterterrorism.” As early as 1999, a
State Department official said that “the new counternarcotics
bases located in Ecuador, Aruba and Curacao will be strategic
points for closely following the steps of the [Colombian]
guerrillas.” Aircraft from the Manta base were even used to
locate and detain a fishing boat carrying Ecuadoreans who were
suspected of planning to enter the United States.
Similarly, the mission for troops at Guantanamo
Bay has morphed from orchestrating counterdrug operations to
providing an off-shore jail for migrants and, since late 2001,
prisoners of war. These operations have no accountability under
U.S. or international law and undermine Cuba’s sovereignty.
The dramatically increased U.S. military
involvement in Colombia and the spillover of conflict in the
border region have generated alarm among broad sectors of
Ecuadorean society—including the military—over the potentially
destabilizing role of the Manta base. One Ecuadorean officer
points out that the base’s electronic intelligence capability
provides information that can be used by Colombian
counterinsurgency units trained by the United States. Other
opponents of the U.S. presence note that Ecuador’s Congress
never considered or approved the base agreement, as the Ecuadorean
Constitution requires. Many also object to provisions exempting
U.S. on-duty military personnel from Ecuadorean criminal
The cooperative security location in Comalapa,
El Salvador, operated by the Navy since 2000, has no limit on the
number of U.S. personnel, who have access to ports, air space, and
unspecified government installations considered pertinent. In
2001, the opposition FMLN party argued that the agreement affects
Salvadoran sovereignty and thus requires more than a simple
majority vote by the legislature for ratification, but this claim
was rejected by Salvadoran courts.
In Puerto Rico, the remaining military bases
have additional political functions. On an island where the FBI
has compiled 1.8 million documents based on surveillance of
independence proponents and other political activists, the
presence of U.S. military bases plays a significant role in
enforcing Puerto Rican identification with Washington, thus
contributing to continued colonialism.
Similar problems of sovereignty dog the
proposed International Law Enforcement Academy, which—despite
its name—is designed to be completely under U.S. control. Costa
Rica would have to give diplomatic immunity to academy staff at a
time when the United States is aggressively opting out of the
International Criminal Court. As Gustavo Cabrera Vega of Service
for Peace and Justice, a Costa Rican human rights group, asks,
“If the United States doesn’t recognize the universal human
rights conventions, with what authority will it train and give
skills [to others] to combat international crime?” With Costa
Ricans balking at agreement, Washington is considering other
sites, including El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
The outsourcing to private companies of air
transport, base construction and maintenance, the host-nation
rider program, and other military activities overseas diminishes
the information available to those who would monitor such
activities and decreases the accountability for U.S.-sponsored
actions abroad. Only after an enterprising reporter discovered an
Internet-posted request for proposals did Panamanian civil society
learn that the Pentagon had been using airstrips in Panama for
“transportation services” into and out of Colombia, even after
U.S. troops had left Panama. The 1997 contract tapped Evergreen
Helicopters, a company with clandestine experience in the 1989
U.S. invasion of Panama.
Many military bases in Latin America—like
those in the United States and elsewhere—are leaving a
devastating environmental legacy. In Vieques, studies have found
high rates of cadmium, lead, mercury, uranium, and other
contaminants in the soil, food chain, and human bodies of the
island’s inhabitants. These toxins have lead to elevated rates
of disease among Vieques residents, who have a 26.9 percent higher
incidence of cancer than other Puerto Ricans. Despite Superfund
designation, Vieques remains a very contaminated island. In
Panama, the military left behind more than 100,000 rounds of
unexploded ordnance on firing ranges in the canal area, despite a
Canal Treaty provision for removing such dangers. Nearby
construction of a new bridge and road will bring an influx of
workers and occupants, who will be exposed to these hazards.
Yet U.S. bases abroad present special problems
for environmental cleanup, because sovereignty is always at issue.
Once the Pentagon is gone, the United States abandons
jurisdiction, thereby shirking responsibility for the
contamination its military has caused.
Toward a New Foreign Policy
• The United States should adopt a doctrine of hemispheric
relations that redirects resources from military installations
toward social programs.
To live up to its democratic ideals, the United States should
adopt a new security doctrine for relations with Latin America and
the Caribbean. Such a doctrine would value ties with civilians
more than ties with the military and would promote civil society
as the sphere where democratic decisionmaking must occur. This
approach would dedicate more resources to addressing the economic
causes of conflict rather than building installations designed for
the use of force. It would also commit the United States to
transparency about the purposes, activities, and effects of
existing U.S. military bases in the region.
• Short of such a foundational shift, base agreements
should require specific missions, fixed periods, discussion by
civil society, and approval by U.S. and host-nation
• Environmental justice requires assuming responsibility
and dedicating funding for cleanup of contamination on U.S.
U.S. military facilities represent tangible
commitments to underlying policies that are either outmoded, as in
the case of Cuba, or perniciously expansionist. According to
SouthCom, the command briefing guiding the Army’s military
presence in the region highlights access to strategic resources in
South America—especially oil—as well as other issues with
social and political roots, such as immigration and narcotics. A
rational U.S. security doctrine would redirect resources invested
in military bases to civilian agencies whose mandate is to address
such social and political problems, including nongovernmental
organizations, local and regional agencies of the hemisphere’s
governments, and programs of the United Nations. Such a focus
shift would imply changes in U.S. drug policy and would redirect
military and police assistance both toward alternative crop and
other development projects in the Andes and toward drug treatment
and health programs in the United States.
Short of such a re-examination of the policy
foundations for military bases in the region, the United States
should review existing agreements for foreign bases using
democratic criteria. Bases should not be maintained or established
without broad consultation with and agreement of the civil
societies and legislatures of the countries in which the bases are
located. Without such consultation and agreement, these bases
represent a usurpation of democratic control within the host
society. Objectionable contract provisions, such as broad U.S.
military access to the host-nation’s ports and air space,
diplomatic immunity for U.S. military personnel, and prohibitions
against access or inspections by local authorities, should be
deleted. Bases should only be established for fixed periods of
time, should have clearly defined missions, and should require
renewal by both U.S. and host congresses.
The United States should also not attempt
either to establish military access or to conduct controversial
military missions through private contract outsourcing. In Panama,
the United States should honor the substance of the Neutrality
Treaty, which forbids stationing U.S. soldiers and bases in
Panama, and should refrain from using local airstrips for military
sorties by either U.S. military or contract aircraft.
To ensure transparency and accountability to
host countries, base agreements should be amended to give both the
public health and environmental officials of host nations and
representatives of communities affected by U.S. bases the
authority to inspect all base facilities on short notice.
To address environmental problems generated at
U.S. military bases in Latin America as well as in other regions,
the United States should recognize its responsibility, and
Congress should establish an Overseas Defense Environmental
Restoration Account. The account should provide for cleanup of
both existing and former U.S. bases abroad—to at least the same
standards established for domestic U.S. military bases—and
should fund adequate study of contaminated lands and waters.
Regarding Vieques, Congress should appropriate
enough funds for a complete cleanup. The Navy and the
Environmental Protection Agency should implement a thorough
cleanup of Vieques and of the former bombing range in neighboring
Culebra, since both sites have been approved for inclusion on the
Superfund National Priorities List. The Navy should also settle
claims by island residents seeking compensation for damages to
their health and environment. Similarly, policy-makers ought to
heed the repeated appeals by Panama to remove the thousands of
explosives left in firing ranges in the canal area. Such measures
of environmental responsibility would demonstrate leadership that
is sorely needed.
About the Author: John
Lindsay-Poland is coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
Task Force on Latin America & the Caribbean.
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