The Bush administration took two big hits this month in Latin America. Not only did demonstrations dog the president across five nations, but the U.S. military, claiming 95 percent of the world’s foreign bases, was in the dock at the first International Conference for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases which opened March 5 in Quito, Ecuador.

Joined by peace groups, indigenous organizations and environmental activists, the Global No Bases Network organized the conference attended by 1,000 people from 40 countries, including government officials and representatives of social and political movements.

President Rafael Correa assured conferees that 475 U.S. troops stationed at Ecuador’s Manta air base would be leaving as of January 2009. No longer would the base be used as a hub for operations against Colombian insurgents, coca growers and migrants.

Workshops and plenary sessions at Quito’s Catholic University highlighted testimony on decades of struggle against U.S. bases in Australia, Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Latin America and Italy. Speakers called for stepped-up data collection in response to U.S. secrecy.

According to official sources, 737 U.S. installations — bases, airfields, and monitoring stations — are situated in 130 countries, not counting over 100 others in the Middle East. Some 200,000 U.S. civilian and military employees, and 80,000 foreign nationals, work at the bases. The U.S. military controls 5.3 million acres of foreign land and 32,327 buildings.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists focused on waters and soil poisoned by bases, and agricultural land removed from cultivation. Manta’s expansion led to 800 families being removed from 50,000 acres of land. Local fisheries were destroyed. In a panel discussion, Al Marder from Connecticut called the struggle of Manta’s people “one of the most significant of our era — a huge initiative for sovereignty and peace.”

Activists from Okinawa, the Philippines and Ecuador reported on the abuse and exploitation of women living near U.S. bases. The 10-year struggle to close down the large Vieques base in Puerto Rico in 2003 was held up as a model of tenacity.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the conference became a 300-person Women’s Caravan for Peace, migrating 160 miles to Manta where it closed on March 9. The entourage, led by Ecuadorian women’s groups, stopped for welcome ceremonies at towns along the way.

In a workshop, Lisa Sullivan of the School of the Americas Watch organization argued for closing the school that has trained 64,000 Latin American soldiers. “As a North American citizen who has lived for several decades in Latin America, I have seen too many deaths, too much suffering caused by soldiers trained at this school,” Sullivan said. She has urged Ecuador’s Ministry of Defense to follow the lead of Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina, and no longer send troops to the U.S. facility in Georgia.

The connection between military build-up and economic domination was a recurring theme. Mexican human rights activist Ana Esther Ceceña referred to a “politics of two arms for Latin America” joining an ”economics of appropriation,” with military bases “for the control and monitoring of insurgencies.” In a press interview, Sullivan noted that an SOA student usually doesn’t realize that “what he is really doing is defending the economic interests of the United States.”

The final conference declaration concluded that, “The foreign military bases and all the other infrastructure used for wars of aggression violate human rights and oppress peoples, particularly the indigenous, descendents of African slaves, and women and children. They destroy communities and the environment.”

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