U.S. Military Eyes Paraguay
Rumors of an American base raise
fears that the United States is there to stay
by Adam Saytanides
In These Times magazine, November
Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales,
speaks to a crowd of miners in the town of Huanuai on October
6, 2005. (Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky)
In June Paraguay's legislature gave the
green light to the U.S. military for a series of 13 joint exercises
to run through December 2006.
Then the rumors began appearing in the
Latin American press: The United States was moving to establish
a military base at Mariscal Estigarribia, a town in Paraguay just
124 miles from Bolivia's southeast frontier and within easy striking
distance of Bolivian natural gas reserves, the largest in the
Americas. Anywhere from 400 to 500 U.S. troops were said to be
In late July, Brazil reportedly launched
military maneuvers along the Paraguayan border, a move seen as
an expression of Brazilian discontent with Paraguay. More vocally,
Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorin drew a line in the sand:
"Paraguay must understand that the choice is between Mercosur
and other possible partners."
Brazil and Argentina lord over Paraguay
in the Mercosur trading bloc with a dominant import-export relationship.
They don't want to see their leverage compromised if Paraguay
gains preferred access to the U.S. market for its textiles (hinted
at recently) and drops out of the Mercosur trade partnership.
But Bolivia has the most to fear from
a U.S. military base in Paraguay. With national elections slated
for December 5, the Andean nation is expected to become the next
Latin American flashpoint. Since October 2003, widespread indigenous
peasant uprisings have ousted two presidents. Quechua and Aymara
Indians make up the majority of the Bolivian populace, and they're
pressuring the central government to halt the forced eradication
of coca cultivation and to nationalize the country's natural gas
reserves. Evo Morales, presidential candidate for the Movement
Towards Socialism, or MAS party, made a meteoric rise onto the
international political stage by supporting these goals, in open
defiance of Washington. Considered by many analysts to be the
frontrunner, Morales' main competition is former president Jorge
Quiroga Ramírez, the preferred candidate of the United
Both the U.S. Embassy and Paraguayan President
Nicanor Duarte Frutos emphatically deny plans for a U.S. base.
"There have been these joint exercises
since 1943," Bruce Kleiner, U.S. press attaché in
Asuncion, told In These Times. "The only difference is this
time they authorized 13 at one time, for expediency."
Kleiner says U.S. military personnel have
been given no special treatment, and no blanket immunity. The
joint training exercises generally involve less than 50 personnel,
and last for two weeks at a time. And he adds, "There are
no U.S. military personnel at Estigarribia, and no exercises planned
The hand-wringing grew more intense in
August, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Asuncion
and met with Duarte Frutos, partly to discuss Cuba and Venezuela's
"unhelpful" and growing influence in Bolivia. As a senior
defense department official told reporters, "The challenge
is to help the Bolivians steer this situation to a democratic
Rumsfeld's comments fueled suspicions
that the United States was making a move to block Morales' rise
to power, or at least stifle any move he might make to nationalize
gas reserves at the expense of U.S. corporations. U.S. officials
have also said that the three-borders region, where Paraguay,
Brazil and Argentina meet, is home to financiers of Islamic terrorist
groups, but presented no strong evidence to back this.
Jorge Ramon de la Quintana is a former
Bolivian military officer who spent three years in the Defense
Ministry conducting political analyses of national defense strategies.
He says the confluence of all of these factors is ominous.
"I don't believe in the arguments
being put forth by the Secretary of Defense or the Embassy in
Asuncion," Quintana told In These Times. "The military
presence in Paraguay reflects a series of perceived threats by
U.S. Southern Command."
Quintana says the main motivation to invade
Bolivia would be to stop the spread of socialism. With Hugo Chávez
enjoying broad support internationally, and left-leaning presidents
at the helm in Brazil (Lula da Silva) and Argentina (Néstor
Kirchner), Washington is finding its backyard increasingly insubordinate
and difficult to control. The last thing the State Department
wants to see is Morales, a good friend of Chávez, taking
over. Strong socialist movements might develop next in increasingly
unstable Peru and Ecuador. "This is the return of the Domino
Theory," says Quintana.
But Paul Sondrol, an academic expert on
Latin America at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,
says all this talk of impending intervention is rubbish. "There
are no designs on Bolivia's natural gas: it's an urban legend,"
he says. However, Paraguay does have a legitimate problem with
outlaws in the tri-border area. According to Sondrol, Paraguayan
military officers sell everything from weapons systems to hot
Mercedes sedans on the black market here.
"Paraguay's democracy isn't stable,
and it's probably getting worse," Sondrol said. "I'd
guess Paraguay is asking the U.S. to come in as much as the U.S.
is asking 'Can we send some troops down there?' "
Council on Hemisipheric Affairs Director
Larry Birns, a personal acquaintance of President Duarte, has
backed off initial reports of the presence of 500 U.S. troops.
He told In These Times there are no plans at this moment to build
a big U.S. base in Paraguay, but he worried that the denials being
issued sound identical to the ones that predicated an escalation
of U.S. military activity at the airbase in Manta, Ecuador.
"Paraguay is interesting for what
it could become," says Birns.
Bolivia's MAS party has been careful not
to add to the chorus of shrill protestations. "Though I have
heard many things, it's important to look at this with a cool
head," says Álvaro García, Evo Morales' vice-presidential
running mate. "I've seen no evidence to suggest they have
an intention of setting up a base in Paraguay."
García says the information he's
seen indicates that the airstrip at Estigarribia lacks the support
infrastructure needed to become a full-blown military base, such
as taxiways, hangars and barracks. However, he admits that the
airfield's proximity to Bolivia's natural gas reserves is "worrying."
"But what gives us greater worry
is, we don't know if this is merely joint exercises, or the beginning
of establishing a greater presence or base," Garcia said.
He echoed, perhaps unwittingly, the sentiments of Argentine Nobel
laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquibel, who remarked: "Once
the United States arrives, it takes a long time to leave and
that really frightens me."