Eyes on US Troops in Paraguay as Bolivian
The recent shift to the left among Latin American governments has been a cause for concern in the Bush administration. The White House has tried in vain to put this shift in check. Presidential elections in Bolivia on December 18th are likely to further challenge U.S. hegemony. Evo Morales, an indigenous, socialist congressman, is expected to win the election. How far will the U.S. go to prevent a leftist victory in Bolivia? Some Bolivians fear the worst.
In the past year, U.S. military operations in neighboring Paraguay have complicated the already tumultuous political climate in the region. White House officials claim the operations are based on humanitarian aid efforts. However, political analysts in Bolivia and Paraguay say the activity is aimed at securing the region’s gas and water reserves and intervening in Bolivia if Morales wins.
Five hundred U.S. troops arrived in Paraguay on July 1st with planes, weapons and ammunition. Reports from a journalist with the Argentine newspaper, Clarin, 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. (1)
Earlier this year, Paraguayan lawmakers granted U.S. troops total immunity and have given the Pentagon access to the Estigarribia base, which was built by U.S. technicians in the 1980s and is larger than Paraguay's international airport in Asunción, the country’s capital. (2)
In addition to the military activity, the FBI also has plans for Paraguay. On October 26, FBI Director Robert Mueller arrived in the country to "check on preparations for the installation of a permanent FBI office in Asuncion…to cooperate with security organizations to fight international crime, drug traffic and kidnapping." (3)
Bruce Kleiner, U.S. press attaché in Asunción, said that joint exercises between the U.S. and Paraguayan military have been going on since 1943. He said the current exercises usually involve less than 50 personnel, and last for two weeks at a time. According to Kleiner, there are no U.S. military personnel at Estigarribia. (4)
"I don't believe in the arguments being put forth by the Secretary of Defense or the Embassy in Asuncion," said Jorge Ramon de la Quintana, a former Bolivian military officer and current political analyst. "The military presence in Paraguay reflects a series of perceived threats by U.S. Southern Command…this is the return of the Domino Theory." (5)
Orlando Castillo, a Paraguayan activist involved in the struggle against the U.S. military presence in his country through the human rights group Service, Peace and Justice said the goal of the U.S. military in Paraguay is to secure the region’s vast water reserves, "debilitate the southern bloc, to set up offices of U.S. security agencies primarily to monitor the region, and from Paraguay be able to destabilize the region's governments, especially if Evo Morales wins the elections in Bolivia." (6)
Paraguayan and U.S. officials contend that much of the recent military collaborations focus on health and humanitarian efforts. However, a recent Washington Times article reported that "of the 13 military exercises at the base in Mariscal, only two involved medical training." (7)
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 that "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." (8)
Terrorists in the Triple Border Region?
Milda Rivarola, a Paraguayan political analyst, said the U.S. operations in Paraguay are focused on "getting closer to the triple border [where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet] which the U.S. believes is involved in terrorism." (9)
Allegations of terrorist activity in the region were backed up on November 19, when prosecutors identified Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a member of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, as being the suicide bomber who blew up a Jewish community centre in Argentina in 1994, killing 85 people. Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor in the case, said investigators believe the attacker entered Argentina via the triple border area. The announcement came after years of investigations by Argentine intelligence and the FBI. Hezbollah has denied the charges. (10)
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S.-backed police operations swept up roughly 20 terrorist suspects in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, a city on the triple border. They also investigated $22 million in over 40 accounts suspected of links to terrorist groups, according to a report from the Washington Post. (11)
Gustavo Moussa, a spokesperson for The Islamic Organization of Argentina in Buenos Aires, said that many South American Muslims feel Washington has unfairly labeled the triple border as a terrorist ally. "They made those claims without evidence," he said. (12)
Luiz Moniz Bandeira, a Brazilian-U.S. foreign affairs analyst, said "I wouldn't dismiss the hypothesis that U.S. agents plant stories in the media about Arab terrorists in the Triple Frontier to provoke terrorism and justify their military presence." (13)
In an interview with Brazilian television, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the Bush administration is using its war on terrorism as a pretext to suppress leftist movements in the region.
U.S. military operations in Paraguay have raised controversy throughout the presidential race in Bolivia. Bolivian Workers’ Union leader Jaime Solares has warned of U.S. plans for a military coup to frustrate the elections. Solares said the U.S. Embassy backs rightwing Jorge Quiroga in his bid for office, and will go as far as necessary to prevent any other candidate’s victory. (14)
Jim Shultz, the director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia said that a "source of mine here claims that the U.S. government has been carefully cultivating relationships with "anti-Evo [Morales]" forces in the Bolivian military, presumably for some sort of U.S.-backed coup down the road." (15)
The top two contenders in the presidential race are Evo Morales and Jorge Quiroga, a right-wing businessman with close ties to the Hugo Banzer dictatorship, and whose platform includes the privatization of the country’s gas reserves and a hard line approach against leftist protestors.
There are eight candidates in the race, and Morales is currently in the lead with 32% support in the polls, and Quiroga trailing behind with 27%. The Bolivian constitution requires that the winner receive more than 50% of the votes in order to secure the presidency. If not, congress decides between the top two contenders.
If Quiroga doesn’t win a majority he said he’ll drop out. If Morales wins a majority by even one vote, he’ll lead protests demanding that congress ratify his victory. Even if Quiroga wins outright, protests against his presidency and subsequent policies are expected to ensue.
The socialist Morales is unpopular among international investors, and when he ran for president in 2002, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia warned that the U.S. might cut economic ties if he won. The result was a sharp increase in support among voters which drove him to second place, just 1.5% behind the winner, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Morales has referred to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, as "an agreement to legalize the colonization of the Americas." He’s not interested in protecting U.S. interests, because he believes that "they have failed to resolve the problems of the majority in our country." Morales says the U.S. war on drugs in Bolivia is a pretext, and that what the U.S. really wants is Bolivia’s gas reserves, which are the second largest in Latin America. As president, he would work to decriminalize the cultivation of coca and move to nationalize the country’s gas.
If he wins, Morales will join the growing ranks of left-of-center Latin American leaders who, instead of bowing to the interests of exploitative foreign corporations, the International Monetary Fund and the Bush administration, have made it a priority to address the needs of the people with social programs in education, agrarian reform and health care.
During an interview with Morales, I asked him about the pressure he may receive from the U.S. government if he is elected president. "We, the indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance, are retaking the power," he said. "[We are] changing presidents, economic models and politics. We are convinced that capitalism is the enemy of the earth, of humanity and of culture. The U.S. government does not understand our way of life and our philosophy. But we will defend our proposals, our way of life and our demands with the participation of the Bolivian people."
Dangl has traveled
and worked as a journalist in Bolivia and Paraguay and is the editor of
an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.
(1) Benjamin Dangl, "US
Military in Paraguay Prepares to Spread Democracy," Upside Down
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