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, 2005


ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Are the Americans coming?

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 assertions.

''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, Hugo Chavez.

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.

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