Simon Romero / New York Times – 2008-04-22 21:41:47
MANTA, Ecuador (April 21, 2008) — Chafing at ties between American intelligence agencies and Ecuadorean military officials, President Rafael Correa is purging the armed forces of top commanders and pressing ahead with plans to cast out more than 100 American military personnel from an air base here in this coastal city.
Mr. Correa — who this month dismissed his defense minister, army chief of intelligence and commanders of the army, air force and joint chiefs — said that Ecuador’s intelligence systems were “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA.”
He accused senior military officials of sharing intelligence with Colombia, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America.
The dismissals point to a willingness by Mr. Correa, an ally of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, to aggressively confront Ecuador’s military, a bastion of political and economic power in this coup-prone country of 14 million people.
Mr. Correa’s moves mark a clear break with his predecessors, illustrating his wager that Ecuador’s institutions may finally be resilient enough to implement such changes after more than a decade of political upheaval.
The gambit also poses a clear challenge to the United States. For nearly a decade, the base here in Manta has been the most prominent American military outpost in South America and an important facet of the United States’ drug-fighting efforts. Some 100 antinarcotics flights leave here each month to survey the Pacific in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with drug traffickers bound for the United States.
But many Ecuadoreans have chafed at the American presence and the perceived challenge to the country’s sovereignty, and Mr. Correa promised during his campaign in 2006 to close the outpost.
So far Ecuador’s armed forces, arbiters in the ouster of three presidents in the last 11 years, have bent to the will of Mr. Correa, a widely popular left-leaning president who has sought to assert greater state control over Ecuador’s petroleum and mining industries while challenging the authority of political institutions like the country’s Congress.
Still, tensions persist over his clash with top generals, which emerged after Colombian forces raided a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador last month. The raid against the rebel group, the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, put Ecuador and its ally Venezuela on edge with Colombia. Twenty-five people were killed, including Franklin Aisalla, an Ecuadorean operative for the group, known as the FARC.
The face-off between Ecuador and Colombia ended at a summit in the Dominican Republic, but it has begun again over revelations that Ecuadorean intelligence officials had been tracking Mr. Aisalla, information that was shared not with the president, but apparently with Colombian forces and their American military advisers.
The leak became evident when video and photo images surfaced in Colombia and Ecuador showing Mr. Aisalla meeting with FARC commanders.
“I, the president of the republic, found out about these operations by reading the newspaper,” a visibly indignant Mr. Correa said last week during an interview in the capital, Quito, with foreign correspondents. “This is not something we can tolerate. He added that he planned to restructure the intelligence agencies so he would have greater direct control over them.
In a rebuke of senior military officials, Mr. Correa named as defense minister his personal secretary, Javier Ponce, who was an outspoken critic of the armed forces in his previous careers as a poet and an editorial writer at some of Ecuador’s largest newspapers.
That move and other dismissals stand in contrast to Mr. Correa’s conciliatory policies toward the military after he took office last year, which included salary raises for soldiers; a 25 percent increase in the 2008 military budget, to $920 million; and lucrative highway construction contracts for companies controlled by military officials.
Unlike the armed forces of most other countries in Latin America, Ecuador’s military has retained substantial economic might since a military junta transferred power to a civilian government in the 1970s.
Through holding companies, the armed forces still control TAME, one of Ecuador’s largest airlines, and enterprises in the munitions, shrimp fishing, construction, clothing, flower farming and hydroelectric industries, making the military one of the country’s most powerful economic groups.
Mr. Correa has not challenged these financial interests. But he and his political supporters are moving forward with efforts to shift the military away from its traditional reliance on training and assistance from the United States and toward strengthening ties with the armed forces of other South American countries.
The first indication of his plans to shift the country’s focus was his promise to end the American presence at the Manta base once the United States’ lease expired in 2009.
This month his supporters, in an assembly convened to propose a new constitution, took up the cause, approving a measure that would go a step further and effectively outlaw foreign military bases in Ecuador after the lease expires.
Since the American post at Manta is the only foreign military outpost in Ecuador, it was clear the move was a deliberate and very public swipe at the United States, which spent more than $60 million to build the facilities here for Awacs surveillance planes and crew members.
The “forward operating location,” as the American post is called, came into existence in 1999 in a 10-year deal with Ecuador after the Pentagon and Panama’s government failed to agree on the use of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. The agreement, negotiated under extreme economic distress by a Ecuadorean president who was overthrown months later, includes no rent for Ecuador.
Mr. Correa has long been irked by the agreement, but his government’s unease intensified in recent weeks after reports that the Manta base may have been used for support by American military personnel in Colombia’s bombing raid of the FARC camp last month. United States Air Force officials here have denied the reports.
“The only aircraft of ours that was flying at the time of the raid was a Coast Guard four-prop that was a thousand miles over the Pacific,” Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, the ranking United States military officer in Ecuador, said in an interview in Manta, while acknowledging that the Pentagon was already looking at alternatives to the base outside Ecuador.
Colombia and Peru are the countries most often mentioned as potential new sites for the American surveillance aircraft, which track small planes, speedboats and semisubmersibles 2,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean, but no other agreement has been reached.
Meanwhile, the assertions that American intelligence agencies were exerting too much influence in Ecuador have raised concerns among Mr. Correa’s critics in Ecuador that he could take a radical turn like that of Mr. Chávez in Venezuela. Mr. Correa has been relatively moderate in his policies so far during his presidency.
American officials gloss over the tension with Mr. Correa when speaking publicly.
“Such relations are completely transparent via official and appropriate channels, and based on mutual interests,” Arnaldo Arbesú, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Quito, said of ties between American intelligence officials and their Ecuadorean counterparts.
For now, at least, the last word on the issue may rest with Mr. Ponce, the rumpled poet thrust into the public eye as Mr. Correa’s new defense minister.
In an interview in Quito, Mr. Ponce, 59, mentioned the moderately leftist governments of Brazil and Chile as potential partners for increased military cooperation, subtly suggesting a reluctance to depend heavily on Venezuelan aid, as countries like Bolivia have done. But he was also clear about relying far less on the United States.
“We must get past our legacy of relying too much on military relations with the United States, with President Bush showing little regard for national borders or sovereignty,” Mr. Ponce said. “The risk of remaining too close to such a partner is one of ideological contagion.”
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