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A New Network Forms to Close U.S. Overseas Military Bases
by Medea Benjamin
In a new surge of energy for the global struggle against militarism, some 400 activists from 40 countries came together in Ecuador from March 5-9 to form a network to fight against foreign military bases. The conference began in Quito, then participants traveled in an 8-bus caravan across the country, culminating in a spirited protest at the city of Manta, site of a U.S. base.
While a few other countries such as England, Russia, China, Italy and France have bases outside their territory, the United States is responsible for 95% of foreign bases. According to U.S. government figures, the U.S. military maintains some 737 bases in 130 countries, although many estimate the true number to be over 1,000.
A network of local groups fighting the huge U.S. military complex is indeed an “asymmetrical struggle,” but communities have been trying for decades to close U.S. military bases on their soil. Their concerns range from the destruction of the environment, the confiscation of farmlands, the abuse of women, the repression of local struggles, the control of resources and a broader concern about military and economic domination.
The Ecuadorian groups who agreed the host the international meeting had been fighting against a U.S. base in the town of Manta. The U.S. and Ecuadorian governments had signed a base agreement in 1999, renewable after 10 years. The purpose of the base was supposed to be drug interdiction, but instead it has provided logistical support for the counterinsurgency war in Colombia, placing Ecuador in a dangerous position of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbor. The base has also affected the livelihoods of local fishermen and farmers and brought an increase in sex workers, while the promised surge in economic development has not materialized.
During Ecuador’s presidential race in November 2006, candidate Rafael Correa criticized the base and after winning the election he quipped, “We can negotiate with the U.S. about a base in Manta, if they let us put a military base in Miami.” His comment displayed the stunning hypocrisy of the U.S. government, a government that would never deign to have a foreign base on its soil but expects over 100 countries to host U.S. bases.
In a great boost to the newly-formed network to close foreign bases, President Correa sent high-level representatives to the conference to express support, and he himself, together with the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Relations, met with delegates from the network to express their commitment to closing the Manta base when it comes up for renewal in 2009.
But the Ecuadorian government’s courageous stand is unfortunately not echoed in most countries, where anti-bases activists usually find themselves fighting against both the U.S. bases and their government’s collusion.
Indigenous representatives attending the conference talked about the destruction of indigenous lands to make way for bases. In the island of Diego Garcia, the indigenous Chagossian people have been driven off their lands, as have the Chamorros from Guam and the Inuit from Greenland. Kyle Kajihiro, director of the organization Area Hawaii, explained that the U.S. military occupies vast areas of Hawaiian territory, territory which was once public land used for indigenous reserves, agricultural production, schools and public parks.
The delegation from Okinawa, Japan, has been trying to dismantle the U.S. bases for the past 50 years. One of their main complaints has been the violence against women. Suzuyo Takazato, the director of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, has compiled a chilling chronology of sexual abuse against Okinawan women by U.S. soldiers, including the rape of a nine-month old baby and a six-year-old girl. “We publish these horrible crimes to break the silence and impunity of U.S. soldiers who, according to the base treaty, cannot be judged in Okinawa.” Even when groups are not successful in closing the bases, at least they are pushing for U.S. soldiers to be subject to the laws of the host country.
The representative from Guam talked about the environmental devastation—the dumping of PCBs, Agent Orange, DDT, heavy metals and munitions, as well as fallout from the detonation of 168 nuclear bombs in the North western Pacific between 1946 and 1958, leading to high rates of radiation-linked cancers on his island. Activists who have been successful in closing bases warned that it is critical to force the U.S. to clean up before leaving. The Filipinos who won the closure of the Subic and Clark bases in 1992 after years of popular pressure are still fighting to force the U.S. military to clean the site and compensate the affected population.
One of the most compelling success stories came from Vieques, Puerto Rico, where a U.S. base was installed in 1948 in this island paradise of lagoons and sand beaches. The military used the base to build, store and test bombs and chemical substances, like cancer-causing Agent Orange. For decades the local people, especially the fisherman, protested the base, but the anti-base struggle was catalyzed in 1999 when a bomb killed a local civilian, David, Sanes. Activist Nilda Medina spoke with great passion about how they set up permanent protest camps, thousands performed acts of civil disobedience, and others went on hunger strikes. After residents occupied the test area for 13 months, the Navy finally agreed to close the base in May 1, 2003. Now the local people, as in so many other sites, are fighting to clean up the land and treat those who have been exposed to harmful chemicals.” We’re so proud of what we accomplished and want to tell our story to encourage others,” said Nilda Medina. “We understand that this is part of a worldwide struggle against the militarization of our planet.”
Post-9/11, this militarization has become even more entrenched as part of the “war on terror.” Representatives from Cuba at the conference complained bitterly about the use of the Guantanamo base as a center for illegal detention and abuse of prisoners. Activists from Japan, Turkey, Italy and Germany said their countries had been used to facilitate the invasions and ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Delegates from Germany said they have 81 U.S. bases, more than anywhere in the world, and that Germany had became a central rotation point for U.S. soldiers on their way to and from Iraq. They complained that the use of U.S. bases as a launching pad for hostile military operations makes their country vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
This is why over 100,000 people came out for a demonstration in February 2007 in the Italian town of Vicenza against a proposed new military base. “We don’t want the noise, the pollution, the taxing of our infrastructure,” said local organized Cinzia Bottene. “But most of all, we don’t want to be accomplices to Bush’s war and a target for reprisals.”
Many U.S. groups sent representatives to the conference, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, AFSC, United for Peace and Justice, Southwest Workers Union, WILPF, Global Exchange, CODEPINK and the Marin Interfaith Task Force. U.S. delegates said that the bases did not make them more secure; just the contrary. “One of the reasons the U.S. was attacked on September 11 was because of U.S. foreign bases in Saudi Arabia,” explained Joe Gerson of AFSC. “But while the U.S. military has since abandoned the bases in Saudi Arabia, it has replaced them with even more bases throughout the region, creating more animosity towards Americans.” The U.S. delegates made it clear that the network to close U.S. foreign bases was in line with the efforts of the U.S. peace movement, which would like to see our military used for defensive, not offensive purposes. U.S. delegates also emphasized how the billions of dollars now being spent to maintain this empire of bases would be better invested in people’s needs for health, education and housing.
The new global network will help local groups share experiences, learn from one another, and provide support for the local efforts. It will conduct research, maintain a global website (no-bases.org), publish an e-newsletter, and convoke regular international meetings to assess progress.
Luis Angel Saavedra, head of one of the Ecuadorian organizations sponsoring the conference, was thrilled with the outcome. “We’ve been working against the base in Manta for the past seven years, and this conference feels like the culmination of this entire campaign,” he said. “It will strengthen President Correa’s position to close the base. Our people are better educated after all the publicity we’ve received. And we now have a network to exchange strategies and experiences with people all over the world. I’d call that a great success.”
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. To learn more about the Network to Abolish Foreign Military Bases, go to www.no-bases.org.