What’s behind Obama’s new military base in Chile?

The construction of a new US military base in Chile has some locals worrying – and wondering what it’s for.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on visit to Chile
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was recently dispatched to Chile to quell concerns over the new military base [EPA]

New York, NY – Even as the Obama campaign ramps up its operations for the 2012 presidential race and seeks to gin up its liberal base, the White House has become increasingly more assertive in pushing for a global network of US military bases. Indeed, if the progressive community was paying attention, it might be somewhat surprised to find that Obama has been even more militaristic in some ways than predecessor George Bush, the long-time bane of the US left. In particular, Obama has been quietly constructing American bases in the remote Southern Cone. It’s an intriguing news story which has received scant attention in the US media, much less the so-called progressive media.

In a recent column, I discussed the novel story of Obama’s new military base located in the Chaco region of northern ArgentinaOfficially, the Resistencia base forms part of a joint US-Argentine initiative which will provide joint emergency services and eventually deploy troops for “humaninatarian relief”. Local authorities have emphatically stressed that the installation is a civil base only, and will be subject to the oversight of provincial authorities. Nevertheless, the Argentine left claims that Resistencia amounts to a covert US intelligence operation, thinly disguised as humanitarian relief. One Argentine legislator has even called for an investigation into the “Yankee base in Chaco” and recently political and environmental activists held a demonstration against the installation.

If the Resistencia story was not outlandish enough, now comes word that the Obama administration has pushed for yet another base, this one located just across the border in Chile. The installation, which has cost the US taxpayer nearly a half million dollars to construct, is situated in the port city of Concón in the central Chilean province of Valparaíso. In Chile, the political debate surrounding the Concón base mirrors the previous fight over the Resistencia installation: while local authorities and the US military claim that Concón will be used for training armed forces deployed for peacekeeping operations, the Chilean left believes the base is aimed at controlling and repressing the local civilian population.

 Chile opens memorial to dictatorship victims

The social impact of US bases

For Chilean civil society, which has longtime experience with US interventionism going way back to the dark days of the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship, the Concón base raises eyebrows. Human rights groups charge that the actual design of the base – which simulates an urban zone with eight buildings as well as sidewalks and roads – suggests that the Chilean military is interested in repressing protest. According to United Press International, Concón “is growing into a major destination for regional military trainers and defence industry contractors”.

The facility is run by the US Southern Command, headquartered in Miami, Florida. The US, which has in recent years been losing some of its political and economic hegemony in the region, is interested in getting another foothold for its military operations. Indeed, ever since the nationalist/populist regime of Rafael Correa booted Washington out of its base in Manta, Ecuador, the US has been on a quest to find alternative sites in South America. 

Hopefully, the new US bases in the Southern Cone will not recreate the Manta experience which in many ways was socially undesirable for local residents. While researching my second book in Quito a couple of years ago, I asked Gualdemar Jiménez, a political activist organising against the Manta base, to fill me in on the particulars. He explained that the installation, which was located on the Pacific coast and used for drug overflights of Colombian airspace, had created a lot of friction. “Manta used to be a purely fishing town,” he explained. “Now the fishermen don’t have access to certain parts of the ocean, which are closed off for security reasons.” 

On the sea, US marines had intercepted Ecuadoran boats, even sinking some vessels. “The marines are not the Ecuadoran coast guard,” Jiménez declared indignantly. What is more, the base had gradually expanded over time and this trend had displaced campesino farmers from their traditional lands. In addition, there had been environmental damage: within the local area, hillsides had been destroyed in an effort to acquire the necessary raw materials to mix asphalt and repave the runway.

The Manta air base contributed some $7 million to the local economy annually, but activists were critical of the lack of real economic development in the area. The marines didn’t do any shopping in Ecuadoran markets, nor did they utilise local transportation. “The only thing they contribute to is local discos and prostitution,” Jiménez explained bitterly. “What you’re describing is hardly unique,” I remarked, “it reminds me of the history of other US military bases.” “It’s a trend that is repeated around the world,” Jiménez said, “in Vietnam, you had houses of prostitution springing up as well.”

Panetta dispatched to Santiago

Ecuador to shut US military base in Manta [17 May 2008]

Fast forward a couple of years and Washington is now desperate to secure additional bases after losing its foothold at Manta. In a sign of the importance which Washington now assigns to Concón, the Obama administration recently dispatched Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to Santiago for talks with the conservative Sebastián Piñera government. Seeking to allay the concerns of those who still remember the horrific repression and rampant human rights abuses of the US-backed Pinochet government, Panetta claimed that Concón was not a true military base but merely a “training camp operated entirely by Chile” designed to prepare armed forces for future peacekeeping operations.

Though surely high profile, the Panetta visit simply reinforces growing defence ties between the US and Chile. According to classified US State Department cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Chilean Minister of Defence José Goñi has been one of the most important figures spearheading this effort. As early as 2007, Goñi was working behind the scenes with the Americans to improve bilateral military ties. 

Hoping to reassure the Hugo Chávez bashing Bush administration, Goñi said that Chile was closely monitoring Venezuela’s support for the Bolivian military. There was a clear effort by Chávez and his “cronies”, Goñi continued, to influence other countries and so Santiago had been keeping close tabs on Venezuela’s military relations with Brazil. 

Minister Goñi and the School of the Americas

A year later, Goñi travelled to Washington and remarked that the US “was Chile’s most important defence and security partner”, adding that he was even interested in furthering joint ties with US Special Forces. During his trip, the Minister also visited the notorious Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Originally established in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946, the school later moved to Fort Benning, Georgia.  

Since its inception, the institution has instructed tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics. The Pentagon itself has acknowledged that in the past the School of the Americas utilised training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. After receiving their training at the institution, officers went on to commit countless human rights atrocities in countries throughout the wider region.

For years, human rights campaigners in both Latin America and the US have been pushing to close WHINSEC. To Goñi, however, such activists were apparently a nuisance as they stood to derail important military ties with Washington. Furthermore, the campaigners could embarrass Chilean military personnel who had taken classes at WHINSEC itself. Speaking to the Americans, Goñi lamented that there still remained “a small minority of opponents to WHINSEC in Chile (including some members of Congress)”.

Therefore, Goñi concluded, it would be necessary “to help educate this minority” in an effort to sell further WHINSEC ties. “To this end,” the US Embassy in Santiago wrote, “the Minister, at the recommendation of the [US] Secretary of Defence, has invited several Chilean Congress members and NGOs [non-government organisations] to visit WHINSEC in March 2009 in an effort to help opponents better understand exactly what WHINSEC is all about.”

WikiLeaks and the Mapuche Indians

 Chile remembers its 9/11

There’s no love lost between WHINSEC boosters and Chilean civil society, including restive students and the Mapuche Indians, Chile’s largest indigenous group. For years, the Mapuche have been persecuted by the Chilean state under draconian anti-terrorism laws dating from the Pinochet military era. The Indians claim that the security forces storm into indigenous homes, sometimes without a warrant. The authorities then destroy household items or objects of cultural value while simultaneously hurling racial epithets and mistreating children and the elderly. When it comes to using lethal weapons, the police reportedly do not hesitate.

At its root, the Mapuche conflict centres around corporate greed and connivance of the Chilean state which is bent on exploiting the country’s resources. Unfortunately for the Indians, such natural resources including mining, forests and salmon farming are to be found on Mapuche land. In line with its pro-corporate orientation, the Chilean government has provided incentives to logging companies seeking to operate on ancestral Mapuche lands. While it’s possible that the Concón “installation” – or military base as the case may be – will be merely used to train peacekeepers, Chilean civil society and the Indians have plenty of reason to be suspicious of US intentions. 

Recently, I wrote an eye opening piece about how the US Federal Bureau of Investigation collaborated with the Chilean Ministry of Interior to keep tabs on the Mapuche. The revelations are contained in a US cable dating from early 2008 and relate to a meeting between Bush-appointed US ambassador in Santiago Paul Simons and Chilean Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma. According to the document, the Interior Minister was concerned about “the potential radicalisation of Chile’s indigenous population”.

Speaking with US officials, Pérez said that Mapuche could be receiving financial support from the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Colombian FARC rebels or even ETA Basque separatists. The Americans were happy to offer expertise, noting that “the FBI is coordinating with the Carabineros [Chile’s military police] to assist in identification and potential prosecution of actors within Chile.” In another part of the cable, reference is made to US officials collecting intelligence not only on FARC and ETA but also Mapuche radicals “who might have potential links” to foreign groups. 

What’s behind the Chilean base?

In the upcoming presidential campaign, Obama will no doubt seek to appeal to his liberal base by pointing out how he extricated the US from an unpopular war in the Middle East. Yet, peer beneath the surface and the current Washington administration has been expanding its base of operations in other remote corners of the globe.

Moreover, WikiLeaks documents reveal a disturbing pattern of collaboration between US and Santiago security forces at a time of acute social and political tensions in Chile. Local civil society, which has uncomfortable memories of US-backed military dictatorship, is understandably quite perplexed about recent developments and wants to know what, precisely, Washington is up to in the Southern Cone.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

Follow on him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff