p o l i c y   b
r i e f
U.S. Military Bases in Latin America and the Caribbean
by John Lindsay-Poland
| October 2001
This brief was commissioned and originally distributed
by the IRC’s Foreign Policy
in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign
Policy in Focus&#151A Think Tank Without Walls&#151can be accessed online
at http://www.fpif.org
Key Points

The Pentagon has a new infrastructure in Latin America, with four new military bases.
Base closures in Panama gave way to a new array of facilities that surround Colombia.
Base operations and maintenance increasingly are being outsourced to private contractors.
The military’s new “hub” is in Puerto Rico, though the future of Navy training in Vieques is uncertain.

The explosion of U.S. military interest and funding for Plan Colombia, occurring in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from military bases in Panama in December 1999, has given rise to a proliferation of new U.S. bases and military access agreements in the region. The growth of these new, smaller bases constitutes a decentralization of the U.S. military presence in the region and has been Washington’s response to a reluctance by regional leaders to host large U.S. military bases or complexes.
What the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) calls the “theater architecture”
is a complex web of U.S. military facilities and functions in the region.
This interlocking structure has been in transition. U.S. military facilities
represent tangible commitments to underlying policy priorities, such as
ensuring access to strategic resources, especially oil, and to a supply-side
drug war that holds foreigners responsible for U.S. citizens’ addiction
to illegal drugs.
“Puerto Rico has replaced Panama for forward basing headquarters
in the region,” SouthCom General Peter Pace told Congress in March
2001. Puerto Rico serves as regional headquarters for the Army, Navy,
and Special Forces, while SouthCom headquarters itself is located in Miami.
But unlike U.S. bases in Panama, the function of Navy training in Vieques
has as much to do with U.S. military missions in Iraq and Europe as it
does with operations in Latin America, since battle groups deploy directly
from Puerto Rico to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, where they
conduct regular bombing runs. Until 1997, when facilities in Puerto Rico
were incorporated into SouthCom, the Vieques bases were part of the Atlantic
Besides the land bombing range on Vieques, the Navy also operates an
“outer range” of nearly 200,000 square miles, an underwater
tracking range for submarines, and an electronic warfare range in waters
near the island. The ranges are used both by the Navy and by military
contractors to test sophisticated ship and weapons systems.
The Pentagon is also investing in its own new infrastructure in Latin
America, with four new military bases in Manta, Ecuador; Aruba; Curaçao;
and Comalapa, El Salvador, all known as forward operating locations, or
FOLs. Washington signed ten-year agreements with Ecuador, the Netherlands
(for Aruba and Curaçao), and El Salvador, and Congress appropriated
$116 million in FY2001 for renovation of the air facilities in Ecuador,
Aruba, and Curaçao. SouthCom also operates some 17 radar sites,
mostly in Peru and Colombia, each typically staffed by about 35 personnel.
The FOLs and radar facilities monitor the skies and waters of the region
and are key to increased surveillance operations in Washington’s
Andean drug war. As part of the growing U.S. military contribution to
Plan Colombia and to President Bush’s Andean Counternarcotics Initiative,
they constitute a cordon around Colombia. Beginning in October 2001, AWACS
(Airborne Warning and Control Systems) aircraft are operating from the
air base in the Ecuadoran port city of Manta. Approved by the short-lived
government of President Jamil Nahuad in November 1999, the base in Manta
will host up to 475 U.S. personnel.
In addition, there are two older U.S. bases in the region: one in Soto
Cano, Honduras, a joint command base that since 1984 has provided support
for training and helicopter sorties, and a second in Guantánamo,
Cuba, a base that since 1903 has served as an R&R site for sailors
and Marines, a refueling base for Coast Guard ships, and, in recent years,
a temporary camp for Haitian refugees. There is no termination date for
the U.S. lease on the Guantánamo base.
The Pentagon is moving to outsource much of the operation and maintenance
of military bases to private contractors. The Air Force is contracting
out the operation of the Manta base, and even “host nation riders”
who accompany military flights over Colombia are to be recruited and employed
by a private U.S. military contractor, according to the implementation
plan for the base.
In Panama, all U.S. military forces departed, and bases were closed by
treaty at the end of 1999. But the Pentagon retains access for military
flights into and out of Panama, including a contract to transport cargo
and passengers between Honduras, Panama, and dirt strips in Colombia on
a daily basis.
Bases belonging to Latin American militaries but built or used by U.S.
soldiers are not considered U.S. bases, though they often serve similar
purposes. The Joint Peruvian Riverine Training Center in Iquitos, Peru,
has largely replaced the former riverine training base in Panama. In addition,
up to 800 U.S. military and contract personnel operating at any time in
Colombia are housed at nominally Colombian bases.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
Key Problems

Bases represent a commitment of resources in the region, displacing
assistance for civil society and social programs.
U.S. military installations are characterized by a lack of transparency
and accountability.
Bases in Puerto Rico distort islanders’ choices about political
status, while training in Vieques represents an extreme of undemocratic
Military bases overseas often leave behind ecological damage, with
no provisions for environmental cleanup.

The soldiers and contract personnel that the U.S. military deploys to
bases in Latin America and the Caribbean far outnumber personnel of U.S.
civilian agencies in the region. The presence of so many U.S. personnel
on military missions sends a message that the U.S. prefers force over
diplomacy to settle the region’s problems, including conflicts with
the United States. In addition to their role in facilitating military
operations, U.S. bases are a symbol of Washington’s history of gunboat
intervention and of its use of local armies to control Latin populations
and resources.
Most U.S. bases in the Caribbean were explicitly acquired through conquests
in the 1898 Spanish-American-Cuban War. The permanent infrastructure at
the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo is a continuing source of antagonism
with Cuba.
Besides evoking the past, U.S. bases are contracted into a future beyond
any imagined or 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 ten-year
leases in Ecuador, Curaçao, and Aruba, purportedly created to monitor
drug traffic, are brief compared with the perpetuity claimed for the naval
base in Guantánamo. This permanent infrastructure generates inequitable
relations and invites intervention in a crisis, instead of negotiation.
The bases have no mechanism for transparency or monitoring by civil society
in the host countries, and are thus subject to other missions. A State
Department official said in 1999 that “the new counternarcotics bases
located in Ecuador, Aruba, and Curaçao will be strategic points
for closely following the steps of the [Colombian] guerrillas.” And
consistent with SouthCom’s identification of illegal immigration
as a central security threat, aircraft from the Manta base were used to
find and detain a fishing boat suspected of ferrying illegal immigrants
to the United States.
The dramatically increased U.S. military involvement in Colombia and
the spillover of refugees and conflict in the border region have generated
alarm among broad sectors of Ecuadoran society—including the military—over
the potentially destabilizing role of the Manta base. One officer calls
the base “the eyes and ears of Plan Colombia,” and other opponents
point out that Ecuador’s Congress never considered or approved the
agreement, as the Constitution requires for treaties and military alliances.
Ecuadorans also object to provisions exempting U.S. on-duty military personnel
from Ecuadoran criminal jurisdiction.
The outsourcing of air transport, base construction, and maintenance
and the host nation rider program, like that of other military activities
overseas, diminish the information available—and thus the accountability—for
U.S.-sponsored actions outside U.S. borders. Not until an enterprising
reporter discovered an Internet-posted request for proposals did Panamanian
civil society become aware that the Pentagon had been using airstrips
in Panama for “transportation services” into and out of Colombia—even
after U.S. troops left. The contract had been held since 1997 by Evergreen
Helicopters, a company that also played a clandestine role in the 1989
U.S. invasion of Panama.
The FOL in Comalapa, El Salvador, operated by the Navy, has no limit
on the number of U.S. personnel who have access to any ports, air space,
and unspecified government installations that the U.S. deems pertinent.
The opposition FMLN party argues that the agreement affects Salvadoran
sovereignty and thus should have required ratification by more than a
simple majority of the legislature.
In Vieques, military bases have an additional meaning and a political
function, serving to reinforce what the United Nations Decolonization
Committee and many others have called Puerto Rico’s colonial status.
On an island where the FBI has compiled 1.8 million documents based on
surveillance of political organizations, the presence of large U.S. military
bases plays an important role in conditioning islanders’ choices
about Puerto Rico’s status—ranging from statehood to commonwealth
to full independence. It is difficult to imagine a truly free choice by
Puerto Ricans as long as thousands of U.S. troops operate there. That
is one reason why it is so important to heed the result of the July 29,
2001, Vieques plebiscite, in which 68% of voters called for an immediate
end to the bombings, a cleanup of the lands, and the transfer of these
lands to local authorities.
The Navy’s bombing in Vieques is increasingly challenged both in
U.S. federal court, with six environmental and civil rights lawsuits and
nearly 2,000 administrative tort claims, and by more than a thousand cases
of civil disobedience. Navy personnel have abused arrestees and have even
bombed areas visibly occupied by protesters.
Many military bases in Latin America—like those in the U.S. and
elsewhere—leave a devastating environmental legacy. In Vieques, studies
have found high rates of cadmium, lead, mercury, uranium, and other contaminants
present in the soil, food chain, and human bodies of island residents.
Vieques residents have elevated rates of disease, including a 26.9% higher
incidence of cancer than other Puerto Ricans. In Panama, the U.S. military
left behind more than 100,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance on firing
ranges in the fast-growing canal area, despite a Canal Treaty provision
for removing such dangers.
Overseas bases present special problems for environmental cleanup, because
sovereignty is always at issue. Once the Pentagon is gone, the U.S. abandons
both jurisdiction and responsibility for the contamination its military
has caused.
Toward a New Foreign Policy
Key Recommendations

The U.S. 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, U.S.
responsibility for environmental cleanup, and approval by U.S. and host
nation legislatures.
Democratic principles call for ending the bombing in Vieques.

To live up to its democratic ideals, the U.S. should adopt a new doctrine
of military policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Such a doctrine
would value ties with civilians more than ties with the military. It would
dedicate more resources to addressing the economic causes of conflict,
rather than to building installations designed for the use of force. It
would also commit the U.S. 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 outmoded—as in the case of Cuba—or perniciously
expansionist. The SouthCom briefing, which guides the Army’s military
presence in the region, highlights U.S. concern with access to strategic
resources, especially oil, as well as other issues with social and political
roots such as immigration and narcotics. A different doctrine would redirect
resources invested in military bases to civilian agencies whose charter
is to address such social and political problems, including nongovernmental
organizations, local and regional agencies of the region’s governments,
and agencies of the United Nations. This would entail important changes
for the Andean Counternarcotics Initiative, consistent with proposals
to redirect military and police assistance to alternative agriculture
and other development programs in the Andes and to drug treatment and
health programs in the United States.
Short of such a reexamination of the policy foundations for military
bases in the region, the U.S. should review existing agreements for overseas
bases using democratic criteria. Bases should not be maintained or established
without broad consultation and agreement of the civil societies and legislatures
in which these bases are located. Without such consultation and agreement,
the bases are a usurpation of democratic control within the host society.
Objectionable 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 on access or inspections by local authorities,
should be deleted. Bases should be established only for fixed periods
of time with clearly defined missions, and these mission mandates should
require renewal by both U.S. and host congresses.
The U.S. should also not attempt to establish military access or carry
out controversial military missions through private means, such as the
outsourcing of military operations. A good first step would be to enact
Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s bill to ban private contractors in the Andes
from military missions. In Panama, the U.S. should honor the substance
of the Neutrality Treaty, which forbids stationing U.S. soldiers and bases
in Panama, by refraining from using local airstrips for military sorties
by either military or contract aircraft.
In Puerto Rico, the U.S. should heed the clearly expressed wishes of
people in Vieques and the Commonwealth government to stop bombing. A study
by the Center for Naval Analysis demonstrated that the Navy can and does
use other facilities for the training conducted in Vieques, and a naval
commander recognized that training in Vieques has little to do with preventing
terrorist attacks. More fundamentally, if the U.S. used diplomacy instead
of bombing in conflicts with Iraq, Yugoslavia, and other nations, it would
not need to practice firing bombs in Vieques.
To ensure transparency and accountability to host countries, base agreements
should be amended to give the public health and environmental officials
of host nations and representatives of communities affected by U.S. bases
the authority to inspect these facilities on short notice.
To address environmental problems generated at U.S. military bases in
Latin America as well as in other regions, the U.S. 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 overseas to at least the same standards established
for domestic military bases, with adequate study of contaminated lands
and waters.
In Vieques, following a termination of bombing, a cleanup will be necessary
for the protection of public health. Congress should appropriate funds
for a complete cleanup. Similarly, policymakers ought to heed the repeated
appeals by Panama to remove the explosives and chemical weapons left in
firing ranges in the canal area and San Jose Island, respectively. Such
measures of environmental responsibility would demonstrate environmental
leadership that is sorely needed.
John Lindsay-Poland < forlatam@igc.org >
is coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin
America & the Caribbean.

Background Statistics

Major U.S. Bases in
Latin America and the Caribbean

Number of Military
Personnel Stationed or Maximum Allowed

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba


Soto Cano, Honduras


Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico


Manta, Ecuador






Comalapa, El Salvador

About 15 / but no limit

Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico


Sources for More Information
Acción Andina
Voice: (591) 425-2401
Email: andina@albatros.cnb.net
Caribbean Project for Justice and Peace
Box 13241
Rio Piedras, PR 00908
Voice: (787) 722-1640
Email: wandac@coqui.net
Center for International Policy
1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW, #312
Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 232-3317
Fax: (202) 232-3440
Email: cip@ciponline.org
Website: http://www.ciponline.org/
Fellowship of Reconciliation
2017 Mission St., #305
San Francisco, CA 94110
Voice: (415) 495-6334
Fax: (415) 495-5628
Email: forlatam@igc.org
Website: http://www.forusa.org/
Fellowship of Reconciliation, “Puerto Rico Update,” newsletters
and reports offering news and analysis on U.S. bases in Panama and Puerto
Rico. Available at http://www.forusa.org/TFLACframe.html
Gen. Peter Pace, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Southern Command, “Posture
Statement of U.S. Southern Command,” Statement before Senate Armed
Services Committee, March 27, 2001. Available at
Drugs & Democracy
A news list focused on drugs and militarization in Latin America that
frequently includes information on U.S. military presence.
U.S. Navy
Navy’s website dedicated to its version of its role in Vieques.
U.S. Southern Command
Vieques Libre
News and information on Vieques from an anti-Navy, often nationalist perspective.

This brief is a product of the Interhemispheric Resource
Center’s Global Affairs
and Americas Programs .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "U.S. Military Bases
in Latin America and the Caribbean," Foreign Policy In Focus Policy
Brief, vol. 6, iss. 35 (Interhemispheric Resource Center/Institute for
Policy Studies, October 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/briefs/2001/v6n35milbase.html