US Military Bases, Quasi-bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America



Book review: US Military Bases, Quasi-Bases and Domestic Politics in Latin America. By Sebastian E. Bitar. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 204 pages. $104.56 (hardcover,

International Affairs

International Affairs. July 2016. Volume 92, Issue 4, Pages i–xii, 769–1039 (free access)

Starting with the loss of the Howard Air Base in Panama in 1999, the number of US military bases in Latin America has steadily declined. After Colombia signed an agreement with the United States offering the location for seven military bases, Colombia's constitutional court declared it unlawful in 2010 and prevented their materialization, a decision accepted by President Juan Manuel Santos, who had led the negotiations as Minister of Defense. Furthermore, the US military was expelled from Ecuador in 2009, where it maintained a facility in Manta. Peru and Panama started negotiations, but ultimately refused to host formal US bases.

The United States failed to open new military facilities in Latin America, and now only maintains formal bases in Central America and the Caribbean: In El Salvador (Comalpa), Cuba (Guantánamo), Aruba, Curação and Puerto Rico. However, it would be wrong to believe that this symbolizes the end of a US military presence in the region, Sebastian Bitar shows in his engaging analysis on the topic. He argues that Latin American domestic politics explain why the United States had to change tune, opening a series of informal and legally ambiguous base-like arrangements -- which he calls "quasi-bases" in almost every country in the Pacific coast of the Americas (Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia, among others) to combat drug trafficking and counter security threats. He questions the claim that US failure to increase the number of military bases can be explained by an erosion of US hegemony in the region -- after all, the phenomenon did not only occur in Ecuador, opposed to the US, but also in Colombia, a major ally. Questioning a frequently accepted consensus, he argues that "it is hard to conclude from this evidence that the era of US military power in Latin America has ended." (p.177)

This development has important implications for the way we think about the role of the US military in the region. Usually, analyses only consider formal, town-like military bases. With democratization in the region, the political cost of hosting formal bases has increased markedly, and well-organized civil society groups and courts oppose US bases due to the history of US intervention and the frequent misconduct of US troops and contractors. As a consequence, informal arrangements have replaced formal agreements, paradoxically complicating transparency and oversight, thus reducing the political cost for host governments. At the same time, they create uncertainty for the US military, since it is far easier to expel the US military from a quasi-base than to end a formal agreement.

Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel Colombia’s Defense Minister greet US soldiers before a military exercises at the Tolemaida military base, Colombia.

Such a trend is not limited to Latin America alone. A more flexible and less visible approach in Latin America is part of a broader adaptation of the US military, as Bitar explains -- not only to reduce the resistance in host societies, but also to escape scrutiny of U.S. Congress, civil society and media, which are often critical of expensive military deployments, a tendency particularly visible in times of economic crisis. This process is facilitated by the development of long-range operations and drones, which can be coordinated directly from the United States mainland or from aircraft carriers.

The book's case studies assessing US negotiations about military bases with Ecuador and Colombia are insightful, particularly because their domestic politics differ fundamentally. The latter case analyzes how the region reacted to the US-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA): Venezuela's President Chavez argued that "war was coming to the region". Brazil saw the deal as a threat to its regional leadership plans. Only when the Colombian delegation threatened withdrawing altogether from UNASUR did Brazil adopt a more supportive tone -- at the time a victory for Brazil's Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim over the more critical Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim. And yet, the court's decision to reject the agreement, Bitar says, must be understood in the context of Colombia's agile civil society and independent judiciary, rather than as a consequence to regional opposition.

In the case of Ecuador, Bitar writes,

The failure of the renewal of the lease for Manta base in Ecuador is not, thus, only a consequence of the transformation of the international system, but mostly a consequence of the domestic political transformation of the country. (p.40)

For US policy makers negotiating US military bases, the book's lessons are clear: the host country's domestic politics matter more than anything else. Does the local political opposition see advantages from supporting or opposing the basing agreement? The author writes that, even with a government favorable to a deal,

if the local opposition perceives that there are more political gains to be had from opposing the base, and if it is strong enough to pose an electoral threat to the government, formal bases will not succeed. Foreign military bases are a sensitive issue in Latin America, and despite their preferences, governments must take into account how opening formal US bases will affect the stability of their governments.

Even a weak opposition that poses no electoral threat to the government can block a deal, provided that it is capable of using institutional mechanisms to constrain the government -- in those cases, the only solution are quasi-bases.

Bitar's analysis is important because it provides sophisticated nuance to a debate that is polarized and often dominated by ideological arguments and prejudice. Not only it is useful for those interested in US-Latin American relations, but also for scholars studying regional dynamics in South America, where Brazilian attempts to promote a regional security architecture (in the form of UNASUR's South American Defense Council) have failed to materialize. Finally, it is a useful case study for International Relations scholars analyzing US and Chinese security arrangements and their respective regional strategies, forcing them to go beyond merely looking at the numbers of formal military bases to assess the United States' or China's military influence.

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