No U.S. Military Bases: Latin America's Call for Sovereignty

The inaugural ceremony of the Summit of the Americas currently taking place in Panama City, Panama. (Photo: Cumbre Panamá)

At a regional security meeting in Chile in November 2002, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke to South American defense ministers about an obligation to protect their territories from undesirable foreign influence. He was referring to the concern that Islamist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda could establish themselves on the continent. He had not imagined half of South America agreeing on the obligation to guard their sovereignty—from the United States.

"In a globalized world like today, one cannot ask for global game rules for the economy and maintain unilateralism for politics," Ernesto Samper, secretary general of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and former Colombian president (1994-98) said last week in response to current U.S.-Venezuelan relations, which have soured over the past two decades of Chavista government. Currently, the United States is concerned over what they view as reverse-democratization in Venezuela, while Venezuela blames the United States for its destabilization. The UNASUR head holds that "no country has the right to judge other's behavior or much less to impose sanctions or penalties on them."

Samper's stance represents a popular South American perspective rarely heard in Western media. However, it is one that may show itself in Panama during the highly anticipated Summit of the Americas—a series of meetings with all the leaders of the Americas. Many Latin American nations are petitioning to be seen as equals in bilateral trade and foreign policy, or as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff put it, to be seen "eye to eye." Last week, Samper stated, "A good place to begin the United States and Latin America's new agenda of relations would be no U.S. military bases in South America."

Less than a tenth of U.S. military bases worldwide are located in Latin America, clustered particularly in the region's most geopolitically strategic points (such as Colombia) and natural-resource-rich territories (the Andes region, the Caribbean, Chile and Brazil). But for the South American left, a single base is one too many and is an infringement on continental sovereignty, not to mention a reminder of past conflict. Bases in Chile and Argentina are relatively new, "This belongs to the Cold War era," Samper added. However, it apparently also belongs to the era of the War on Terror and maintaining oil alliances.

The governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela believe that when the United States is fighting the "War on Terror," it is a euphemism for a global war for resources—a fundamentally interventionalist strategy. The United States has established bases around water reserves—such as the Guaraní Aquifer in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil's Triple Frontier—as well as near oil reserves and projects with Western interests at stake. Colombia is a prime example, where the United States continues to focus support on the safety of pipelines, primarily the Caño Limón-Coveñas. U.S. armed forces have a strong relationship with Colombian security forces, and continue to fund and strengthen the local government in protecting this vital energy infrastructure.

Not every country is as cooperative as Colombia. After much antagonism, the government of Ecuador closed the U.S. base in Manta, despite losing U.S. aid. Moreover, a lawsuit continues in Ecuador against the oil company Chevron, which is headquartered in the United States. Furthermore, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela have been known to nationalize foreign energy companies for their own. This includes Argentina's takeover of YPF in 2013, Bolivia's takeover of Iberdrola in 2012, and Venezuela nationalizing the country's main oil and natural gas company, PDVSA. As NATO influence decreases, relations are complicated. Recently these three countries have made claims of U.S. interventionalism in the form of coup attempts (Venezuela in 2002 and numerous occasions since, and Bolivia in 2006), unfavorable judicial decisions regarding the repayment of bonds (Argentina's vulture fund troubles with U.S. banks and judiciary system) and agendas of destabilization.

Increasingly, South America is taking the reins of its governance and resources. New blocs have been formed, some leaving U.S. oversight behind. In 2011, CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations) was founded by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The organization includes all nations of the Summit of the Americas and OAS (Organization of American States) excluding the United States and Canada. Cuba, having been denied OAS participation since the 1960s, gained membership to this new bloc. As the "pink tide" of left-leaning Latin American governments has swept in over recent decades, Latin America has seen increasing continental integration.

And the United States—despite its focus on the Middle East—has taken notice. Perhaps as an effort to reclaim U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere, the Obama administration recently listed Venezuela as a security threat. Additionally, less than a week ago, the Republican-dominated Congress proposed that more bases be opened in Latin America during the next administration.

Meanwhile, some foreign presences are deemed more desirable than others. The leftist nations of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliances of the Peoples of the Americas) are embracing new foreign military powers while rejecting historical ones. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have welcomed the opening of Russian bases in the future. And in the new millennium, trade between China and Latin America has increased exponentially. Finally, the new BRICS development bank—an international anti-dollar alliance—intends to replace the Bretton Woods institutions. Should this trend continue, or are these Latin American nations exchanging one illusion of sovereignty for another?

Ailana Navarez is a writer, photographer and political analyst with a concentration in Latin America. She is pursuing a major in government with a specialization in international relations and a minor in psychology at Harvard Extension School. She is a South America regional specialist for Pulsamerica (a U.K.-based Latin America analysis firm) and has been featured in several international magazines and news outlets, including Telesur, Mercury Magazine and Casa Rosada.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Ailana Navarez.