Ecuador’s President Takes Tough Stand




E

cuador’s leftist government
—led by Rafael Correa who won the presidency in a November
runoff election—has moved assertively in its relations with
the United States during its first month in office. Minister of
Foreign Relations, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, in a meeting with the
Foreign Press Association in Quito, declared that Ecuador intends
to close the U.S. military base located at Manta. “Ecuador
is a sovereign nation, we do not need any foreign troops in our
country,” she said. The treaty for the base expires in 2009
and will not be renewed. 








The
largest U.S. base on South America’s Pacific coast was ostensibly
set up to help monitor narcotrafficking, but has become a major
operations center for U.S. intelligence gathering and for coordinating
counterinsurgency efforts against the leftist guerrillas in neighboring
Colombia. The base’s air runway, built at a cost of $80 million,
is capable of accommodating the largest and most sophisticated U.S.
spy and intelligence gathering aircraft. Manta was also being used
as a port for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific. Upwards of 475
U.S. military personnel are continually rotated between Manta and
the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Florida. 


Popular sentiment in Ecuador overwhelmingly supports the closure
of the base at Manta. Since its establishment in 1999 the civil
war in Colombia has spread to Ecuador, bringing refugees, violence,
and social conflict, particularly in the Amazon region. Aerial spraying
of herbicides by planes originating in Colombia eradicates food
crops and has deleterious health effects on Ecuadorans. The Colombian
and U.S. governments claim that the defoliants are only sprayed
on the Colombian side of the border and that there are no flights
over Ecuador. But President Correa disagrees: “We will not
permit the continual violation of Ecuadorian air space by planes
that are not even Colombian, but from the United States. They enter
our country and then fly back to Colombia.” Correa has ordered
the Ecuadorian air force “to intercept any planes that violate
our air space.” 



T

he Correa government is preparing
a case for the World Court against the Colombian government for
the conflict and damages in northern Ecuador. Foreign Minister Espinosa
is emphatic in saying that this is a “violation of human rights.
It is not only a question of the health effects, but also of the
psychological traumas caused by the constant over flights and the
terrorization of the local population, particularly among the children
who hear planes flying overhead and are subjected to war-like conditions.”
Special teams comprised of international health and human rights
representatives are being formed to investigate the conditions on
the border. “We want to replace the conflictive conditions
with a Plan for Peace and Development in the region,” Espinosa
said. 


In February Ecuadoran vice president, Lenin Moreno, on a trip to
Caracas, Venezuela, stated that the Colombian government “should
act more as a friendly neighbor and not respond only to the orders
of the empire.” Commenting on President Bush’s March trip
to Latin America that excluded Ecuador, Moreno added, “Every
time Bush comes to visit our region we worry because we don’t
know what proposals he comes to impart and what sorts of statements
he will make.” Moreno’s comments caused an uproar and,
in an effort to calm the diplomatic waters, Espinosa said that Moreno’s
remarks were not officially sanctioned. “We want cordial, normal
relations with the U.S. embassy and government in order to resolve
any issues between us,” she said. 


The Correa government is also moving to break with the neo-liberal
trade and commercial policies that have been imposed on Ecuador
by Washington and international lending agencies. In line with his
campaign platform, Correa has made it clear that he will never sign
the free trade agreement with the United States that was being discussed
with previous governments. At the same time, Ecuador is negotiating
special bilateral trade and economic agreements with Presidents
Chavez of Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia. Venezuela has agreed
to refine Ecuadorian oil and provide financial assistance for social
programs in Ecuador while the Bolivian government has concluded
an agreement to import food commodities from small and medium producers
in Ecuador. 








For
the moment Correa has not opted to join the People’s Trade
Treaty signed last year between Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela. As
Rene Baez, an economic analyst at the Catholic University of Ecuador,
says, “The treaty is really a series of special accords and
financial agreements and in that sense Ecuador is already an informal
member of this alternative bloc.” 


The financial news that captured recent headlines was the announcement
by Economics Minister Ricardo Patino that Ecuador would make a scheduled
debt payment of $135 million to foreign bond holders. Known for
his long-held belief that paying off the foreign debt undercuts
critical social spending programs and keeps Ecuador in a state of
perpetual poverty, Patino’s decision came two days after he
had announced that Ecuador would not make the $135 million payment. 


Informed sources close to the government say that after high level
discussions, Correa opted to pay the bond holders, preferring to
concentrate on upcoming negotiations with international creditors
over a reduction in the schedule of debt payments and on the annulment
of part of the debt that resulted from corrupt practices by prior
Ecuadorian governments and foreign creditors. As Rene Baez said,
“The Correa government decided to be selective in the battles
it is taking on for the moment. A default now would have caused
an international reaction and possibly provoked a domestic financial
crisis, just as the government is trying to get its legs under it.”





R


oger
Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas in
California. He has written extensively on Latin America, including



The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global
Justice

and (with Jim Tarbell)

Imperial Overstretch: George
W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.