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Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on the U.S. Southern Command.

MANTA, Ecuador — Pentagon planners have invested more than $70 million over the last nine years at Forward Operating Location Manta and call the post a key hub for counternarcotics and humanitarian work in the region.

Ecuadorian lawmakers want them out.

President Rafael Correa, as part of his campaign promises two years ago, has pledged to force U.S. troops off the coastal base when the two countries’ operating agreement expires next year.

His allies have accused the U.S. of using the installation to aid Colombian military attacks on FARC camps inside Ecuador last month, a charge U.S. officials deny. Lawmakers rewriting the constitution recently inserted language barring foreign military bases within the country.

Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, head of the operational squadron at FOL Manta, said he has spent much of the last few months trying to convince Ecuadorian leaders and national media that the U.S. mission in Manta is a peaceful one and that leaving could hurt the Ecuadorian fight on drugs.

“But we’re not going to make an enemy out of Ecuador over the FOL,” he said. “It’d be a big investment, it’d be a shame if we leave … but that’s a decision for the Ecuadorian people.”

The incident is just the latest example of the strained relations the U.S. has with some of South America’s new leftist governments.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the region’s most outspoken U.S. critic, this month renewed discussions to form a South American NATO-type alliance.

Cuba remains under a 46-year trade embargo with the United States, and Bolivian lawmakers two years ago blocked U.S. efforts for a regional free trade agreement in solidarity with Chavez.

According to a Pew Research Center poll last summer, more than 72 percent of Argentinians have an unfavorable view of the United States, and more than half of Bolivian and Brazilian citizens interviewed voiced similar displeasure.

But in Chavez’s Venezuela, more than 56 percent of survey respondents said they have a generally favorable view of U.S. foreign policy, and SOUTHCOM officials say they believe the overall perception of U.S. military work in the region is improving.

“You obviously have countries that are politically not in agreement with our national policies,” said Army Col. Jorge Matos, deputy director for SOUTHCOM strategy and security.

“But countries that are on a democratic, mature level — like Chile and Brazil — are increasing their perception of positive views towards the United States. As long as we remain engaged with all of these countries, I think the perception will be a positive one.”

Leonard said that if U.S. counternarcotics operations are forced out of Manta, the mission won’t be too severely hampered.

“We have other countries that would love to have us come in,” he said. “I’d imagine our presence at future FOLs will be even less permanent than this, although they’re not going to be less successful.”

Col. Edwin Cardenas, commander of the Ecuadorian base, said the local community will feel a sizeable loss if the U.S. troops leave the country. Manta leaders have already lobbied the government on behalf of the American presence, in large part because of the benefit to the local economy and charity efforts U.S. troops participate in.

“My personal opinion about the American presence at the FOL is that it has fulfilled excellent work in the fight against the drug traffic,” he said. “From the operative point of view, FOL presence has not meant any problems for the development of our mission.”

But, he acknowledged the final decision is not his.

“The decision to continue or not with the agreement is an entire political subject,” he said.

The U.S./Ecuador operating rights for FOL Manta will expire on Nov. 12, 2009.

Stripes’ Rick Vasquez contributed to this story.

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