Despite his record unpopularity, it would appear that President Bush wants to go out of office with a bang. Having failed to overthrow Hugo Chávez through an attempted coup, the White House now hopes to escalate pressure on Venezuela’s President by other means.
On Saturday, a U.S. navy plane strayed into Venezuelan airspace. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel said that the aircraft "practically flew over" the island of La Orchila – where Venezuela has a military base and President Hugo Chávez has a residence – and another island before turning back. U.S. officials claimed the plane had “navigational problems.”
"This is just the latest step in a series of provocations," Rangel said.
From Orchila to the Fourth Fleet
Indeed, tensions have been mounting in recent days. The Navy is now reactivating its fourth fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, which will include a nuclear aircraft carrier, will be based in Mayport, Florida.
The fleet hasn’t seen any action in Caribbean waters since World War II. In February 1942, the Germans sank a number of oil tankers full of Venezuelan crude. The attack caused a nationalist outcry in Venezuela and Caracas began to side more openly with the allies. In response to the attacks the U.S. patrolled the area, hunting down Nazi submarines which were wreaking havoc on allied shipping. After the war, with no more German U-boats prowling Caribbean waters, the Fourth Fleet was dissolved.
So, why resuscitate the fleet now?
The navy claims the move is necessary to protect maritime security. The real reason however may have more to do with Washington’s desire to wage a kind of psychological war against the Chávez government and to foment a climate of political tension.
From Laptops to Border Incursions
In its quest to get rid of Chávez, the White House has also sought to spark tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s a good chance that the U.S. Southern Command passed crucial military intelligence to the Bogotá government when the latter attacked an encampment of FARC guerrillas inside Ecuadoran territory. After the March 1 assault, which resulted in the deaths of guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes as well as 20 other insurgents, and which arguably constituted an act of international terrorism, the Colombian authorities claimed that Chávez and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s pro-Venezuelan President, were doing their utmost to support the FARC.
As evidence they produced documents allegedly found on FARC laptop computers which remarkably survived the attack intact. The documents, Colombia says, prove that Chávez has provided weapons, munitions, and $300 million in aid to the FARC. After conducting its own investigation, Interpol declared that Colombia did not modify, delete or create any files, although the Andean nation did not always follow internationally accepted methods when handling the computers. The agency stated that the documents came from a FARC camp, but investigators could not conclusively prove that the information contained within the documents was totally accurate.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack pounced on Interpol’s report, remarking that the laptop files indicating Venezuelan support for the FARC were “highly disturbing.” Chávez has rejected the accusations, calling the Interpol report a "clown show" that "doesn’t deserve serious comment." The Venezuelan leader said all relations with Colombia as well as his country’s cooperation with Interpol would undergo “deep review.” Seeking to rhetorically destroy his adversaries, Chávez referred to Interpol chief Ronald Noble as a "mafioso” and “an aggressive Yankee cop." In yet another memorable outburst from the Venezuelan leader, Chávez added that Noble’s true name was "Mr. Ignoble.”
As if relations between Colombia and Venezuela could slip no further, on Saturday, the same day that the U.S. navy plane passed into Venezuelan airspace, Chávez accused Bogotá of sending its troops across the border in an illegal incursion. The two South American nations share a 1,370-mile border that winds through mountains and thick patches of jungle. In a written statement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said that 60 Colombian troops had been intercepted in Venezuela’s western Apure state, about 875 yards from the nations’ shared border.
Controversy Over Guajira
Amidst ominous signs that the U.S. might be seeking to destabilize the Venezuelan government, a new controversy is swirling. William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, recently remarked that the U.S. would consider relocating its military air base at Manta, Ecuador to Colombia. According to the New York Times, an area mentioned in later reports was the Guajira region near the Venezuelan border. Colombia’s foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, quickly denied that Colombia had any plans to allow the United States to establish a base in Guajira.
The controversy could not have come at a worse time.
Already, tensions have risen as a result of secessionist efforts in the westernmost state of Zulia which spans the Venezuelan Guajira region. Recently, the Chávez opposition in Zulia proposed a feasibility study for potential independence from the federal government. What’s more, Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election, announced his support for his state’s autonomy.
Speaking on his weekly TV show Aló, Presidente!, Chávez warned opposition leaders that any move towards Zulia autonomy would lead to confrontation. “I advise those individuals who want to break up Venezuela to think it through very well. We won’t tolerate a political fragmentation of our country,” he declared, adding that any such attempts would be met with force. The Venezuelan leader went on to say that Zulia autonomy constituted an “imperial plan” designed and supported by the United States to take control of strategic oil areas.
An impoverished region, the Guajira is home to Wayúu Indians who come and go across the frontier. The area is full of barren desert and straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Geographically remote, the Guajira has historically been embroiled in diplomatic controversy. In 1928, Colombian authorities were so concerned about secessionist plots in the region that Bogotá’s House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia [in the midst of the Venezuelan oil zone] would form the Republic of Zulia."
As a result of the tangled history, any talk of installing a U.S. presence in the area inevitably stirs nationalist passions. Chávez has stated that "We will not allow the Colombian government to give La Guajira to the empire,” referring to the U.S. As media reports surfaced, local authorities in the Guajira raised their voices in protest. Eber Chacón, a Chávez supporter and the Mayor of Páez, a local indigenous municipality, called on the Wayúu in Colombia and Venezuela to repudiate attempts by the Venezuelan opposition to divide them with their "autonomist and separatist positions." Chacón added that installing a U.S. base in Guajira would represent a potential threat to hemispheric security.
From Manta to Colombia
How did we get to the point where the U.S. is actually thinking about closing its military base in Manta, Ecuador and opening a new one in Colombia? That is a question I seek to answer in my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), just released in April of this year.
In Ecuador it is difficult to ignore the public climate of hostility towards the U.S. military base at Manta, which is used for drug over flights of Colombian air space. The facility, located 160 miles southwest of Quito on the coast, is a large installation which is technically not controlled by the United States but belongs to the Ecuadoran air force.
Many Ecuadorans believe that the United States is trying to draw their nation more deeply into the Colombian conflict, which has spilled over the border. The air base at Manta was leased to the U.S. military for 10 years in 1999, and President Rafael Correa made it clear even before he was elected that he did not plan to extend the lease once it expired in 2009.
During a trip to Quito, I found myself on the campus of the city’s Catholic University. At a table, a woman was registering people to go on a bus trip to the coast to protest the base at Manta. In the hallway, I met Gualdemar Jiménez, a local activist.
U.S. Air Base at Manta: A Social Disaster
“Manta used to be a purely fishing town,” he explained. “Now the fishermen don’t have access to certain parts of the ocean, which are closed off for security reasons.” On the sea, U.S marines had intercepted Ecuadoran boats, even sinking some vessels. “The marines are not the Ecuadoran coast guard,” Jiménez declared indignantly.
He went on to tick off a number of other problems associated with the U.S. airbase. For example, the base had gradually expanded over time. This expansion had displaced campesino farmers from their traditional lands. In addition, there had been environmental damage: within the local area, hillsides had been destroyed in an effort to acquire the necessary raw materials to mix asphalt and repave the runway.
The Manta air base contributes some $7 million to the local economy annually, but activists are critical of the lack of real economic development in the area. The marines don’t do any shopping in Ecuadoran markets, nor do they utilize local transportation. “The only thing they contribute to is local discos and prostitution,” Jiménez explained bitterly.
“What you´re describing is hardly unique,” I remarked. “It reminds me of the history of other U.S. military bases.”
“It´s a trend that is repeated around the world,” Jiménez said. “In Vietnam, you had houses of prostitution springing up as well.”
Now that Correa is likely to give the U.S. the boot, the Americans must figure out where they may go next. The Defense Department doesn’t have too many options: across South America, Pink Tide nations are unlikely to host a prolonged U.S. military presence on their soil. About the only country which might agree is Colombia, but for different reasons such a move would prove perilous.
If U.S. troops were deployed to Colombia, they would be stationed in the middle of a war zone and would be exposed to attacks by the FARC. Politically, opening a new base on Colombian soil would further antagonize Chávez across the border. Whether the Pentagon decides to station its base in Guajira amongst the Wayúu or elsewhere in Colombia, the installation is likely to give rise to prostitution and other negative social consequences for the local population, just like Manta.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).