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Date: Thu, 23 Dec 1999 11:28:57 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: LATIN AMERICA: US Maintains Tight Grip On Areas of Influence
Article: 85437
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.14747.19991224091527@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

US holds on to areas of influence

By David Carrasco, IPS, 22 December 1999

PANAMA CITY, Dec 22 (IPS) - US control of the Panama Canal Zone has officially ended but Washington maintains a tight grip on the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba and is searching for other sites from which it could launch anti-drug operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The closure this month of the US military complex on the banks of the Panama Canal complied with the so-called Torrijos-Carter Canal Treaties, named after former Panamanian and US presidents, which were ratified in Washington on Sept. 7, 1977.

The dismantling of the bases and the evacuation of troops, however, has revived the demands of ultra-conservative factions in the US Congress who want the US government to maintain strategic interests in Panama.

Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso admitted that her administration was discussing the issues of security and information exchange with Washington but denied that implied a deal would be signed for new bases extending the US military presence here in the former canal enclave.

Previously, Panama was on the US list of countries that were not sufficiently cooperating in the war on drugs and Washington offered its support to create a joint force to address that issue.

The head of the White House's national drug control policy, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, has stated more effective measures are needed to combat narco-trafficking, particularly in the Caribbean where drugs estimated to be worth 57 billion dollars a year pass through to North America.

During a tour of South America in July, McCaffrey warned that the US withdrawal from Panama would undermine the war on drug smuggling, and stressed that the United States wanted to reestablish control with bases in Aruba, Curacao, Ecuador and Honduras.

The Ecuadorean government has proposed that the United States use the port of Manta, on the Pacific Ocean, to combat drugs, but opposition politicians in that country suspect that Washington really needs a base there so it can intervene in Colombia.

Washington already has a small observation post in Manta for regional anti-drug operations.

Should a 10-year bilateral accord be signed, as the Jamil Mahuad administration is hoping, a 200-strong US force would be established in Ecuador- including narcotics agents, and coast guard and military units.

Mahuad's support is based on the proximity of the bases to the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the coca growers in the Colombian department of Putamayo on the border with Ecuador, according to the country's defence minister, retired Gen. Jose Gallardo.

Indigenous groups, the Catholic Church and human rights and environmental organisations have questioned the deal. The base in Manta would be a major insult to our freedom, our autonomy, and above all, our sovereignty, said the bishop of the city of Cuenca, Luis Alberto Luna Tobar.

Fernando Manfredo, the first Panamanian to hold the post of sub- administrator of the interoceanic canal, told IPS that the United States constantly resorted to pretexts to maintain its military presence in the area, among them the failure in 1997 to install a Multilateral Anti-Drug Centre in Panama.

The Centre would have used Howard Air Base and the Rodman Naval Base in the Panamanian Pacific to coordinate continent-wide intelligence gathering and offensives against narco-trafficking and narco-terrorism.

The initiative collapsed when the government of then-president Ernesto Perez Balladares decided to walk away from the talks, after objections by other Latin American countries.

Manfredo said that since the dismantling of the Panamanian Southern Command, the United states had focused greater attention on its bases in Miami, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo, in the extreme east of Cuba, which form the so-called umbrella of defence of the interoceanic waterway.

The existence of Guantanamo, located within the territory of Washington's biggest enemy in the Americas, has been the source of frequent conflicts with Cuba, since Dec. 1903 when the battleship Kearsage fired a 21-gun salute to announce the US presence in that part of island.

US troops currently billeted in Miami, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo are armed with cutting-edge anti-missile technology to repel inter-continental attacks on the Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century, whose construction involved 75,000 laborers and lasted from 1904-1914.

But Manfredo stressed that never in the history of the Canal, during World Wars or the long conflict in Vietnam, had the waterway been subjected to any attack.

Sociologist Raul Leis, president of the Panamanian Centre of Studies and Social Action (Ceaspa), told IPS that the defense of the canal does not justify a return of the bases.

Leis stressed that the banks of the Canal, including the 34,000 hectares that form part of the defense sites and firing ranges, were suitable for economic and social development, and could be operated, maintained and defended by Panama.

In that respect, Manfredo refuted the claims of conservative groups that a single person armed with grenades, or the insurgents across the border in Colombia, could destroy or incapacitate the interoceanic waterway.

That argument is absurd, lacking in veracity and ignores the fact that there is an efficient security plan that covers the canal 24 hours a day, he said.

The Canal has earthen dams nearly two kms long on the bottom and its floodgates have two sets of reinforced locks that weigh from 400 to 700 tonnes each, making it practically invulnerable to conventional attacks.

According to Manfredo, the only potential threats to the Canal area were the collapse of earth on its banks, the growth of 17 species of weeds in Lake Gatun, which could damage the propellers of passing ships, and possible work stoppages by pilots or navigators.

One of the best legal instruments for safe passage remained the Neutrality Treaty which obliged the United States and Panama to defend the Canal.

Miguel Montiel, director of the Canal Institute of the University of Panama, told IPS that the Neutrality Treaty did not authorise military or political intervention by the United States, despite the various unilateral amendments introduced by the US Congress.

For Deputy Miguel Bush, of the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), the main challenge for Panama would be to repudiate the maritime security and information exchange accord that is being negotiated with the United States.

The Canal does not need bases that endanger the neutrality of the maritime waterway, Bush said. He accused the US military of leaving Panama with 3,200 hectares contaminated with explosives and un-detonated munitions - at the same time as talking about the danger of drug smugglers and guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia.

The deputy noted that official ceremonies connected with the hand over of the Canal bases avoided any reference to Omar Torrijos, who led the nationalist struggle to dismantle the colonial enclave in the old Canal Zone.

In spite of this, Bush said that the long struggle for sovereignty would continue with the rejection of foreign bases, which represented a new hostile power in Latin America.