Brazilian military exercises heighten tensions with Paraguay

Brazilian military exercises along the border with Paraguay are escalating tensions between the South American neighbors. Operation Southern Border II mobilized 3,500 soldiers from the Brazilian armed forces Oct. 19 along the border, as part of a larger force of some 10,000 soldiers also deployed along the borders with Uruguay and Argentina. The troops are to remain in place until Oct. 24. Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo warned Brazil in a news conference in Asunción that “not even one millimeter of the territorial sovereignty of the country can be bothered”—or “the Paraguayan reaction will be swift.”

Paraguayan TV showed armed Brazilian troops occupying the “Friendship Bridge” separating the countries at Ciudad del Este. The maneuvers come amid a series of clashes between Paraguayan peasants and militias controlled by Brazilian farmers in the country. Brazilian officials insist the military operations, being carried out in the state of Alto Paraná, are aimed at drug interdiction and are not related to the land conflicts.

The April election of Preisdent Lugo, who spent 11 years working with landless peasants in the countryside, has emboldened many peasants to invade farms controlled by Brazilian soybean producers. Peasant organizations say the Brazilian-controlled enterprises are operating in Paraguay illegally.

Lugo acknowledged that Paraguay’s sovereignty has not been violated in the military exercises. But he emphasized that the maneuvers are viewed warily in Paraguay, which was overrun by Brazil in the 1865-1870 War of the Triple Alliance, leading to years of Brazilian military occupation.

A key plank of Lugo’s campaign platform involved efforts to renegotiate contracts with Brazil for the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, along the two binational border. Paraguay wants more money for the power produced at the jointly owned plant. Last weekend Paraguayan news outlets replayed a July interview with the commander of Brazilian border forces, Gen. José Carvalho Siqueira, who invoked a hypothetical occupation of the hydroelectric plants by peasant protesters. Carvalho Siqueira said the Brazilian armed forces would “carry out whatever mission in whatever part of the national territory; if the president determines that an action should be undertaken, then it should be carried out.”

The general’s July comments were made when Operation Southern Border I, a similar exercise, was underway. Two other such operations were also conducted in 2007. Brazilian authorities point to claims at the Tri-Border Region, where Brazil meets Paraguay and Argentina, is a hotbed of smuggling and criminal enterprises. (NYT, Oct. 24; ISN, Oct. 22)

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