Writing for Toward Freedom Aug. 2, Benjamin Dangl provides an overview of regional press coverage of the new US troop presence in Paraguay. Dangl finds that the troop contingent—ostensibly sent in support of humanitarian missions like road-building—is actually about policing neighboring Bolivia, where militant indigenous and popular movements are threatening government plans for corporate gas and oil exploitation. According to a July 7 article in the Bolivian newspaper El Deber, a US base is being developed in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay, 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia. The base will permit the landing of large aircraft and is capable of housing up to 16,000 troops. A statement released that same day from the US embassy in Paraguay said the US has “absolutely no intention of establishing a military base anywhere in Paraguay” and “has no intention to station soldiers for a lengthy period in Paraguay.” (Translation at Information Clearing House)
On May 26, 2005 the Paraguayan senate approved the entrance of the troops, granting them total immunity, free from Paraguayan and International Criminal Court jurisdiction. On Dec. 18, 2004, the Miami Herald reported that the US has been pressuring Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Paraguay into signing a deal which would grant immunity to US military. The Bush administration threatened to deny the countries up to $24.5 million in economic and military aid if they refused to sign the deal. Paraguay was the only country to accept the offer.
According to a May 13 report in Argentina’s Clarin, Paraguay Vice President Luis Castiglioni visited Washington DC, where he met with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, just before the US troops began to arrive, to discuss defense and security in South America and the “international war on terrorism.” Rumsfeld said the US would be sending experts to Paraguay from the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, to develop a “planning seminar on systems for national security.” Rumsfeld promised to visit the country and expressed his “full support for the coming exercises between the American and Paraguayan armed forces.” The paper quoted activist Orlando Castillo of Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ), who stated, “The U.S. has strong aspirations to convert Paraguay into another Panama for their troops, and they’re not far from controlling the southern cone and extending the war in Colombia.”
If the new U.S. base does in fact exist, its location makes sense. It will put U.S. troops within easy striking distance of the Bolivian provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija, home to the second largest gas reserves in South America. Bolivian business leaders interested in privatizing and exporting the country’s gas have spearheaded a move in these resource rich provinces for a secessionist referendum, which will take place on August 12th. If the region votes for autonomy, it’s likely the gas will be privatized, an unpopular plan that’s generated massive protests in the country since 2003. If new civil unrest occurs over the gas issue, the U.S. military will be in a strategic position to intervene, in part to protect the interests of U.S. energy corporations.
The US certainly seems to be preparing for unrest in Bolivia. According to a July 16 report on Narco News, the State Department recently asked riot gear manufacturers to submit proposals for equipment shipments to the Bolivian government. The US is seeking 3,700 upper body tactical padding suits, and 3,700 pairs of shin guards. The US Army has also issued a separate bid to build an emergency operations center in La Paz, which will consist of a “2-story building…with reinforced concrete floors, masonry walls and a reinforced concrete slab… Estimated cost range of the project is from $100,000 to $250,000.”
El Deber quoted Bolivian author and military analyst, Juan Ramon Quintana, who said the US military’s activities in Paraguay are a subject that concerns the entire region. “We should be very worried. It is a most negative sign, dramatic in the fact that there exists the possibility of intervention in strategic areas linked to energy and a regional project.”