From American Outpost to Petrochemical Hub

In September 2009, the US Air Force departed from what had been, for just under ten years, its largest forward operating location in the Western hemisphere. The military base in the western port city of Manta, Ecuador had served as the primary hub of all US-led anti-narcotics activity in the Western hemisphere since 1999. But the base was deeply resented by most Ecuadorians, who rewrote their national constitution in 2008 to formally outlaw all such foreign military bases and installations. While the vast majority of Ecuadorians approved of the constitutional change, which led to the non-renewal of the lease agreement with the Americans, residents of Manta itself complained bitterly that they had been betrayed by the neo-socialist government of Rafael Correa. “He’s just a little Chavez,” they scoffed when I asked about their then-new president. “No longer taking orders from the States, but he’s sure taking them from that Venezuelan dictator!”

Some five years later, the US radar planes no longer fly over the city and little remains of the American presence that ignited such passion among anti-military activists and such defensiveness among locals. In the years since, the world has changed dramatically—both on the ground in Manta and in anthropological scholarship on contemporary US Empire. While the 2000s witnessed new scholarship on what Chalmers Johnson called, without hyperbole, the expanding US “empire of bases,” there was also a growing recognition of the multiplicity of imperial formations with which communities throughout the world were being asked to contend.

In April 2011, funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Carole McGranahan and John Collins assembled a group of ethnographers at Union Theological Seminary to explore what it might mean to produce contemporary “ethnographies of empire.” Taking seriously Catherine Lutz’s 2006 call to produce “ethnographies of US empire,” and inspired by Ann Stoler’s scholarship on the ambiguous affects and interests that sustained (and then undid) European colonial administrations, the group came together to begin to think through the complexities of US imperialism not just in the archives, but in-the-making. Drawing on fieldwork with communities as diverse as deer-hunters in New Jersey and former CIA operatives in Tibet—as well as my own work in Manta—the aim was to think about that “moving target” that is contemporary American empire, asking difficult questions about its structuring of spaces both domestic and foreign, public and private, spectacular and quotidian.

Shortly after the group’s first meeting, I returned to Ecuador only to find the grumbling in the city of Manta undiminished, but differently directed.  Disturbing to many was the apparent arrival of yet another “overlord,” and one perhaps much more destructive than the Americans. Instead of the high-tech forward operating location with which the US Air Force had promised to “protect Ecuadorian sovereignty” from Colombian cocaine traffickers during the first decade of the 21st century, the residents of Manta were now being asked to live with Chinese-financed mega projects that Correa argued were necessary for the achievement of “energy sovereignty.” The most important of these projects—located some 30 kilometers from where the US military base was housed—is an oil refinery co-owned by Ecuadorian, Venezuelan and Chinese state oil companies and projected to be one of the largest petrochemical complexes in South America when it goes fully operational in 2017.

While some in the city welcomed the facility—much as they had welcomed the Americans—others remained concerned that beneath all the government’s talk of a new, indigenously-inspired form of development (sumak kawsay, or “good living”), the imperialist structures that had underwritten the American presence had not only not been dismantled, but had actually intensified. Beneath the tired slogans of “anti-imperialism” and “anti-capitalism” that the government has repeatedly invoked, the militarization of the country, many repeatedly told me, was worse than it has ever been. And there is a growing fear of the long-term effects of intensifying indebtedness to China, as more and more Chinese investors and companies move into the region. “There is more repression now than ever,” a professor of constitutional law in Manta explained to me. “We’ve just exchanged one patron for another. Instead of the International Monetary Fund, we have the Monetary Fund of China! This is not a government. It’s a government of capital accumulation for other countries!” This lawyer was suggesting, like many others, that the Ecuadorian government merely does the bidding of its Chinese investors—on whom Ecuador remains increasingly dependent for funding of its major hydro-electric and energy projects.  Though these projects did not occasion the sort of anti-imperialist outcry that culminated in the base’s eviction from the country in 2009, such murmured critiques and worries about the growing repression by the state on behalf of its East Asian allies—always offered in hushed tones—were constant throughout the time I spent in Ecuador. “It has never been worse for us,” I was told on more than one occasion. “Not even under the neo-liberals.”

Straddling empires of very different economic and military persuasions, Manta—like so many of the often invisible places explored by the “Ethnographies of Empire” group—is caught in a series of contradictions that point to ongoing processes of empire. In exchange for the US Air Force base, it will now be home to a largely Chinese-financed oil complex which will irrevocably transform this community of fishermen—for better or worse—as they become ever-more tightly integrated into the Asian-Pacific energy circuits. From a symbol of the country’s territorial violation by the “capitalists to the north,” the city has become—in the hands of the national administration—a progressive symbol of the recovery of the nation’s “energy sovereignty.” The socialist “citizen’s revolution,” despite its powerful social programs and promises, may, it seems, be extending and even deepening the militarization of the neoliberal era that caused such outrage among anti-base activists. It is these sorts of imperial multiplicities that will undoubtedly demand more urgent theorization in the years to come.

Please send ideas for future columns to the contributing editors, Leo Coleman at and Allison Fish at

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