US military presence in Paraguay worries Bolivian left

Controversy is raging in Paraguay, where the U.S. military is conducting secretive operations. 500 U.S. troops arrived in the country on July 1st with planes, weapons and ammunition. Eyewitness reports prove that an airbase exists in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay, which is 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia and may be utilized by the U.S. military. Officials in Paraguay claim the military operations are routine humanitarian efforts and deny that any plans are underway for a U.S. base. Yet human rights groups in the area are deeply worried. White House officials are using rhetoric about terrorist threats in the tri-border region (where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet) in order to build their case for military operations, in many ways reminiscent to the build up to the invasion of Iraq. (Upside Down World, Aug. 1)

The tri-border area is home to the Guarani Aquifer, one of the world’s largest reserves of water. Near the Estigarribia airbase are Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America. Political analysts believe U.S. operations in Paraguay are part of a preventative war to control these natural resources and suppress social uprisings in Bolivia.

Argentine Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel commented on the situation in Paraguay, “Once the United States arrives, it takes it a long time to leave. And that really frightens me.” (Inter-Press Service, Aug. 4)

The Estigarribia airbase was constructed in the 1980s for U.S. technicians hired by the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and is capable of housing 16,000 troops. A journalist writing for the Argentine newspaper Clarin, recently visited the base and reported it to be in perfect condition, capable of handling large military planes. It’s oversized for the Paraguayan air force, which only has a handful of small aircraft. The base has an enormous radar system, huge hangars and an air traffic control tower. The airstrip itself is larger than the one at the international airport in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital. Near the base is a military camp which has recently grown in size. (Clarin, Sept. 11)

Coup Warning in Bolivia

The proximity of the Estigarribia base to Bolivian natural gas reserves, and the fact that the military operations coincide with a presidential election in Bolivia, has also been a cause for concern. The election is scheduled to take place on December 4 2005. Bolivian Workers’ Union leader Jaime Solares, and Movement Toward Socialism (M.A.S.) Legislator Antonio Peredo, have warned of U.S. plans for a military coup to frustrate the elections. Solares said the U.S. Embassy backs rightwing ex-President Jorge Quiroga in his bid for office, and will go as far as necessary to prevent any other candidate’s victory. The most recent national poll conducted showed leftwing M.A.S. congressman Evo Morales barely one point behind Quiroga in the race. Solares said there were calls in June 2005 for a military coup during the massive protests that toppled President Carlos Mesa. Recent U.S. military operations in neighboring Paraguay would facilitate such an intervention. (Prensa Latina, Sept. 13)

The Tri-Border Terror Theory
In March, William Pope, the US State Department’s principal deputy coordinator of counterterrorism, said that 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed is believed to have visited the tri-border area for several weeks in 1995. Defense officials say that Hezbollah and Hamas, radical Islamic groups from the Middle East, “get a lot of funding” from this tri-border area, and that further unrest in the region could leave a political “black hole” that would erode other democratic efforts. (Washington Post, Aug. 17; National Defense, June)

Military analysts from Uruguay and Bolivia maintain that the threat of terrorism is often used by the U.S. as an excuse for military intervention and the monopolization of natural resources. In the case of Paraguay, the U.S. may be preparing to secure the Guarani water reserves and Bolivia’s natural gas. (Foreign Policy in Focus, July 18)

In spite of frequent attempts to link terror networks to the tri-border area, there is little proof of the connection. However, this did not prevent the U.S. from “liberating” Iraq in 2003. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld argued during the debate over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, “Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” (Upside Down World, Sept. 6)

Paraguayan and U.S. officials contend that much of the recent military collaborations are based on health and humanitarian work. (EFE, Aug. 30)

However, State Department reports do not mention any funding for health works in Paraguay. They do mention that funding for the Counterterrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) in the country doubled for 2005. The report explained, “”Bilateral relations between the U.S. and Paraguay are strong, with Paraguay providing excellent cooperation in the fight against terrorism…CTFP provided funds for Paraguayans to attend courses on the dynamics of international terrorism, and the importance and application of intelligence in combating terrorism.” (Upside Down World, Sept. 6)

(Benjamin Dangl for Toward Freedom, Sept. 15)

See our last posts on Paraguay and the tri-border region.