by Benjamin Leiter
I had been to many protests over the past five years, but never on foreign soil. So, naturally I was a little nervous. Shortly after arriving, I lost the Global Exchange delegation with whom I was traveling and found myself walking next to a weathered local. Eager to get a resident’s perspective, I struck up a conversation. He was a fisherman from Manta, Ecuador, and the U.S. military base we were marching toward had greatly affected his livelihood and his community. The base, he said, brought an increase in sex workers, but not economic development, as had been promised. Just as I was about to ask the next question, organizers of the march began rushing through the crowd demanding that everyone get down. An eerie silence fell over the squatting mass of people and my heart began to race. Suddenly, everyone leaped to their feet and started running. Unsure of what was going on, I did the only sensible thing to do when engulfed by a crowd of runners: I ran too. After rushing forward for about 30 meters, we all slowed to a jog and then started walking again.
I soon discovered that the sit-stand-rush tactic in which we just participated was commonly used during marches by the antimilitary base movement in Okinawa, Japan. Although we were on the other side of the Pacific, veteran activists from Okinawa headed the march and were generously sharing some favorite protest techniques with their South American counterparts. Rushing forward turned an otherwise insipid march into a dynamic and forceful demonstration. “Brilliant!” I thought and, as I had been doing all week, I jotted down the new idea.
The march to the U.S. military base in Manta was the culmination of a five day international inaugural conference for the abolition of foreign military bases. The first few days of the conference, held from March 5-9, 2007, were in Quito, Ecuador. Months before, newly elected Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, sardonically declared that he would consider extending the lease on the U.S. base in Manta if the United States let Ecuador put a base in Miami.1 So far, the U.S. government hasn’t embraced the offer and Correa’s promise to not renew the lease remains firm. Still celebrating their victory, Ecuadorian antibase activists were eager to host the international meeting.
The first day of the conference was dedicated to studying the problem of foreign military bases; the second day focused on strategies for abolishing foreign military bases; and the third day was used to identify key priorities and objectives. Then, on March 8, participants traveled in an eight-bus caravan to Manta, the site of a U.S. air base. The conference was the first of its kind. Four hundred delegates from 40 countries gathered to share stories of their struggles and to plan a successful movement. There were plenty of stories to share.
The destructive consequences of U.S. military bases have wrecked havoc among peoples around the world. Since the end of the 19th century, Native Hawaiians have been pushed aside to make way for U.S. business and military interests. Cultural and environmental degradation has been the result. The 44,000 troops stationed on the islands comprise 17 percent of the Hawaiian population, demonstrating enormous military presence and influence. Consequently, military recruitment is abnormally high for Hawaiian youth. On the environmental front, Pearl Harbor, once a food basket for indigenous people, is now considered one of the most polluted places in the United States, according to the EPA. Natives are endangered by degradation of ocean and fresh water, toxic contaminants in the environment, destruction of traditional fishing grounds, and military occupation of once public land.
In Guam military bases have been the cause of severe environmental damage. Delegates from Guam told of the dumping of PCBs, DDT, heavy metal, and Agent-Orange into the sea. High levels of radioactive poison in the water prevent the public from eating the fish. The toxic pollutants have contributed to high rates of cancers, dementia, and neurological diseases among the native Chamorus people. A recent U.S. military buildup on the islands will likely worsen this environmental disaster.
In 1995 a 12-year-old girl was raped by three U.S. soldiers in Okinawa, Japan. While the people of Okinawa had been suffering from plane crashes, environmental destruction, and assaults by U.S. troops for over 60 years, this incident infuriated the citizens of Okinawa and incited an anti-military base movement. The following month, 85,000 people gathered to call for the removal of U.S. military bases in Okinawa and to launch what became a ten-year struggle. In 1997 the movement won a referendum to block a plan to construct a new base off the shores of Okinawa. However, the mayor of Nago, where the base was to be constructed, defied the majority vote and approved the plan anyway. Starting in 2003 antibase activists organized a series of “sit-ins on the sea,” using kayaks and fishing boats to obstruct construction of the base. Over 6,000 people participated in this water-borne protest and construction of the base was abandoned in 2005.
The Chagossian people, originally of Diego Garcia—a small island in the heart of the Indian Ocean—have not been as successful in opposing the militarization of their homeland. In the years leading up to 1971, they were forcibly removed from their island without compensation after Great Britain signed an agreement handing over the territory to the U.S. military. The Chagossian have won two court rulings regarding the illegality of their expulsion. Nevertheless, they still battle for their right to return. Ironically coined the “footprint of freedom” by the U.S. Navy, the base on Diego Garcia has been used frequently in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the International Conference called for the abolition of all foreign military bases, organizers noted that the United States is responsible for nearly 95 percent of all foreign bases. Most of the remaining 5 percent pertains to the British, French, and NATO overseas bases. The United States has over 700 military bases in some 38 countries, according to U.S. government figures.2 In Germany alone the United States possesses 81 bases. European countries that host U.S. bases rarely suffer the environmental degradation that less developed countries bear. European U.S. bases do, however, serve as launching pads for military operations carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading many Europeans to be concerned that this affiliation will make them targets for terrorist attacks.
In addition to the wealth of information shared at the conference, participants created concrete strategies and priorities for future efforts. The new global anti-base network will conduct research, maintain a website (www.no-bases.org), publish an e-newsletter, and continue to organize international meetings where local groups will be able to share experiences and support each other’s efforts.
The march ended at the U.S. military base several miles outside the city. Instead of making the trek back on foot, I elected to take a taxi. Once in the cab I asked the driver if there were many U.S. troops in Manta. He said that, naturally, there were, due to the base outside of town. I asked how they behave. “They’re very rude and don’t speak much Spanish,” he told me.
The taxi driver’s views closely reflect world opinion of the United States. A recent multinational poll found that the international community no longer trusts the United States to act responsibly in the world.3 With public ridicule on the rise, the United States needs less rude overseas representatives confirming negative perceptions of U.S foreign policy. Instead, the United States needs to train more ambassadors than soldiers and launch more diplomatic offensives than military missions. U.S. presence in this world must be felt through the construction of dialogue and respect, rather than more military bases. An improved foreign policy, based on cooperation and compassion, will not only benefit those who currently suffer the effects of U.S. foreign military bases, it will surely help the United States recover the respect and trust it has lost in the world.
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Ben Leiter (’06), the Manchester University Peace Studies Research Associate, attended the No Bases conference as part of a Global Exchange delegation.
1. Lally Weymouth, “Tough Talk From the Top,” Newsweek, October 8, 2007, 42.
2. Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), 154.
3. World Public Opinion.org, World Publics Reject US Role as the World Leader, 17 April 2007 <http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/home_page/345.php?nid=&id=&pnt=345&lb=hmpg1>(9 June 2007).
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