Published on Monday, March 12, 2007 by CommonDreams.org
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
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
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