Americas Program Policy Brief
Military Bases in Latin America and the Caribbean
by John Lindsay-Poland | August 2004
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.
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 Colombia.
Base operations and maintenance are increasingly being contracted to
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.
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.
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.
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 Rico.
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.
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 U.S. personnel.
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.
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 detention center.
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.
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
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
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
Bases represent a commitment of resources that could otherwise be
used for constructive social and environmental programs.
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 cleanup.
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 War.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Short of such a foundational
shift, base agreements should require specific missions, fixed
periods, discussion by civil society, and approval by U.S. and
Environmental justice requires
assuming responsibility and dedicating funding for cleanup of
contamination on U.S. bases abroad.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Lindsay-Poland is coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
Task Force on Latin America & the Caribbean.
Resources for More Information
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news list focuses on drugs and militarization in Latin America and
frequently includes information on the U.S. military presence.
of Defense Base Structure Report, Fiscal Year 2003 Baseline,
The Fellowship of Reconciliation’s
newsletters and reports offer news and analysis on U.S. bases in
Panama and Puerto Rico at:
Institute, “Forward Operating Locations in Latin America:
Transcending Drug Control,” Drugs and Conflict Debate Papers,
no. 8, September 2003 at: