- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

MANTA, Ecuador — President-elect Rafael Correa has promised to oust the United States from an Ecuadoran air base in the coastal city of Manta as soon as an agreement expires in 2009.

The United States’ “forward operating location” has been in use since 2000 to fly anti-drug missions that helped to seize about 249 metric tons of cocaine this year.

Mr. Correa, a leftist ally of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, says he will keep his popular campaign pledge despite strong base support from the local community, which receives about $6.5 million annually from the American presence.

“If the U.S. has troops in Ecuador then we should be allowed to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami,” Mr. Correa said throughout his campaign.

Mr. Correa, 43, handily won Ecuador’s Nov. 27 election, joining Latin America’s growing list of leftist leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The American presence in Ecuador consists of fewer than 250 troops and about six planes, all used to find and interdict drug traffickers.

Nevertheless, Mr. Correa says the presence of Americans on Ecuadoran soil is an infringement on national sovereignty.

The future president has taken great pains to distance Ecuador from involvement in neighboring Colombia’s 30-year guerrilla war. Many in Ecuador believe the United States is using the base to track Colombia’s guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia when it flies missions over Colombia.

“There is a sense that Ecuador is being dragged into a conflict with Colombia and it puts Ecuador in a much more vulnerable position,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue. “Its not just a view held by Correa and his constituents, but a more widespread belief.”

The U.S. military contingent in Ecuador, along with similar deployments in El Salvador and the Caribbean island of Curacao, use high-tech American aircraft to spot small planes and fast boats favored by drug smugglers.

“In the early ‘90s everything was done by air,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Javier Delucca at the Manta base. “Now we only run maritime missions.”

In an effort to avoid detection, the traffickers have pushed farther out to sea on a 4,000-mile arc that starts on the west coast of South America, refueling en route to southern Mexico.

“Manta is very valuable,” said Steve Lucas, public affairs officer at Southern Command in Miami. “If we lose Ecuador, it will decrease our ability to effectively and efficiently look into our source zone.”

Despite training Ecuadoran firefighters across the country, contributing to local community programs and rebuilding the Manta airfield to handle large military plans at a cost of $71 million, Manta’s mayor said the city’s economy will be just fine without the Americans.

“Nobody can think we are dependent on the base,” said Jorge Zambrano, mayor of the city of 200,000, “but we want the president-elect to respond to local pressure.”

Correa supporters say Manta will grow based on fishing, tourism and a new port being built by a Chinese company that hopes to replace Guayaquil as the most active shipping center in the country.

“The conflict is on ideological grounds,” said Lt. Col. Domingo Bruzzone, lead Ecuadoran commander at the Manta air base. Col. Bruzzone describes the American presence as “invaluable.”

U.S. ties were already in question after Mr. Correa’s heated anti-American rhetoric. He pledged not to sign a free-trade agreement and backed Ecuador’s decision in May to banish the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp.

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