U.S. Military Bases in Latin America
and the Caribbean
by John Lindsay-Poland, Foreign
Policy in Focus
www.fpif.org/, August 2004
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.
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
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
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
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
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 Spanish-American-Cuban
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 region).
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 jurisdiction.
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
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
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.
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.
John Lindsay-Poland is coordinator of
the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America &
American Empire page