Possibility of US military presence
raises fears in Paraguay
Visit by Rumsfeld stirs speculation
on military base
by Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times, December 25,
ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Are the Americans
That question continues to reverberate
in this sleepy capital four months after a ''courtesy call"
visit by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld unleashed a torrent
of speculation about Washington's reputed ''secret agenda."
US officials have categorically denied
having plans for a military base here, describing the episode
as a misunderstanding over ongoing US-Paraguayan military exercises.
Despite the denials, talk of detachments
of Marines taking up residence in this nation in the heart of
South America has entered the continent's political discourse.
''No Yanqui Troops in Paraguay!" read banners hoisted by
protesters at last month's Summit of the Americas in Argentina.
For Paraguayans who lived through a 35-year
dictatorship that was long backed by the United States, the daily
images from Iraq have stirred memories of American interventions
in Latin America, one of the battlegrounds of the Cold War.
''We don't need armies, especially foreign
armies," Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace
prize laureate and leftist icon, declared during a recent visit
here. ''It's important to remember that once the troops of the
United States enter a country, they never leave."
To many, the lingering controversy also
illustrates the political and social frailties of a long-isolated,
landlocked nation still in the formative stages of democracy 16
years after the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner ended.
''Paraguay remains a country in gestation,"
said Oscar Torres, a legal scholar here. ''We still haven't reached
national maturation. We are in our adolescence, and, consequently,
full of fears and ghosts."
The current president, Nicanor Duarte
Frutos, is generally viewed as a centrist, free-market advocate
who has become aggressively pro-Washington. The former journalist
became the first Paraguayan head of state received at the Oval
Office, and his vice president, Luis Castiglioni, also visited
Washington -- trips that raised eyebrows here. No one disputes
that Washington has interests here and maintains a substantial
presence at its well-fortified embassy.
Paraguay is known as a smuggling and drug-trafficking
corridor and is suspected as a conduit for terrorist financing
from the so-called triple border region of Paraguay, Brazil, and
Argentina, an area that has a substantial Arab population. US
officials have publicly declared their concern about illicit drugs
and terrorist funding allegedly flowing from Paraguay.
US authorities call the military exercises
standard and largely humanitarian in nature, involving no more
than two dozen or so US troops at a time in this California-sized
nation. Paraguayan officials approved 13 joint exercises last
spring, lasting through the end of next year, but it wasn't until
Rumsfeld's visit in August that the maneuvers ignited a firestorm,
especially in neighboring Brazil.
Not all have condemned the notion of a
tilt toward the United States. Some here have applauded the idea
of enhanced political, commercial, and even military ties to the
United States, complaining that Brazil -- an economic colossus
here -- has had an unhealthy stranglehold on this nation of 6
million, which suffers from high unemployment and has little industry.
Stolen cars, contraband cigarettes, and high-quality marijuana
are among Paraguay's best-known products.
''Why shouldn't Paraguay have cooperative
agreements with the United States, which is one of the world's
principal markets?" said Senator Eusebio Ramon Ayala of the
opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party, who favors expanded
relations. ''Paraguay is not a new Iraq, and Asuncion is not a
new Baghdad. . . . The Cold War is over, the economy is ever more
globalized. . . . Why should we rely so much on Brazil?"
On the newly resurgent left, critics charge
that Washington is keen to use Paraguay as a springboard to grab
water, gas, petroleum, hydroelectric power and other regional
resources, while keeping an eye on troubling political movements.
''The bases, the water, the power, the
oil -- it's all connected," declared Ignacio Gonzalez, a
28-year-old sociologist and leftist activist, who spoke in front
of a busy McDonald's, frequently displaying printouts from the
Internet to bolster his points. ''It's all part of a much bigger,
perfect strategy to protect and expand American interests."
President Duarte and his aides, while
open to the idea of expanded commerce, have repeatedly denied
any plans to allow a US base here or turn the country into a strategic
asset for Washington. But public perception has trumped the president's
''Let's face it: Donald Rumsfeld doesn't
come to Asuncion to observe how much it rains," said Benjamin
Fernandez, a radio commentator here, who spoke in his office as
yet another deluge drenched this steamy capital. ''It makes sense
for the United States to try and define friends and enemies in
the Southern Cone with respect to matters on its agenda."
Many here also see an over-arching political
motivation: to send a message of American might to the continent's
leftist governments, especially Venezuela's anti-US president,
According to this theory, the US moves
here are particularly aimed at neighboring Bolivia, where Evo
Morales, a populist and admirer of Chavez, is the apparent leader
in the Dec. 18 presidential election.