Paraguay and the United States recently entered into an agreement that allows U.S. military personnel to enter Paraguay to train officials in counter-terrorism and anti-narcotrafficking measures. According to the Head of Social Communication of the Paraguayan Armed Forces Col. Elio Flores, these U.S. Special Forces units will be working with the National AntiDrugs Secretariat, the Presidential Escort Regiment and the Air Transport Brigade. The U.S. will also provide financial assistance to help stabilize Paraguayan agencies which will be collaborating with U.S. authorities and institute a military-led initiative to provide health care services to the country’s poor in the northeast region of Canindeyu. Jose Ruiz, Public Affairs officer for the U.S. Armed Forces Southern Command office, told COHA that “some military training will be operational in nature,” and the goal is to better equip Paraguayans to deal with the threats of narcotrafficking, terrorism, government corruption and poverty. A contingent of 500 U.S. troops headed by seven officials arrived in Paraguay on July 1 with planes, weapons, equipment and ammunition. This group is the first of at least 13 U.S. units set to enter Paraguay until the agreement expires December 31, 2006.
This agreement grants U.S. soldiers complete legal immunity from some of their actions while they are in the country, affording them the same privileges as diplomats as well as leaving them free from prosecution for any damages inflicted on the public health, the environment or the country’s resources. According to Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) Paraguay, the Paraguayan National Congress passed this resolution allowing for the entry of U.S. forces with no debate, behind closed doors and with the public largely unaware of the entire transaction. Joining with SERPAJ, other human rights groups also have voiced their concern, with U.S. military instructors being criticized by human rights activists for having a history of teaching torture tactics to thousands of Latin American mid-level military officers at the U.S.-based School of the Americas since shortly after World War II.
A sense of outrage and concern has flared up from neighboring countries. The U.S. forces are using the Mariscal Estigarribia airport base, which underwent construction by the U.S. in 2000 to allow for the reception of large numbers of troops and weapons and to also facilitate the landing of B-52 and Galaxy planes. With the facility having a capacity to hold 16,000 troops and its proximity to the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, Paraguay’s South American neighbors are questioning Washington’s intentions at Mariscal Estigarribia, fearing that they may include more than just drugs and terrorism. Asunción’s initiative with the U.S. is cloudy enough to put the reputation of President Nicanor Duarte at serious risk. Presenting himself as a new force in Latin America, Duarte had appeared to be dedicated to close cooperation with the South American countries pursuing a policy of autonomy from the U.S. Now, Duarte’s critics are questioning his willingness to accommodate Uncle Sam, picturing him as the South American equivalent of El Salvador’s President Antonio Saca.
Regional Powers Angered by Immunity Concession
The decision by the Paraguayan legislature to proceed with the agreement came as a shock to Paraguay’s more powerful neighbors Argentina and Brazil, who repeatedly have refused granting comparable immunity to U.S. military officials. According to the Buenos Aires daily, El Clarín, the inability of Paraguay to hold U.S. forces accountable for their actions while in the region greatly undermines the power of the International Criminal Court and the Paraguayan judicial system. Particularly unnerving is the proximity of the Paraguayan base to the highly controversial Triple Border Area, where the three countries meet. Notorious for accusations brought against it for being a staging ground for terrorist plots, this new arrangement is meant to give the U.S. military a more justified presence in the eyes of many would-be critics, and also could someday provide for a greater ease of entry of U.S. forces into Argentina and Brazil.
U.S. military presence in Latin America has been a given since the early twentieth century. It has come in many forms: covert and overt military aid, installation and support of a number of military dictatorships, training of military leaders who later were infamous for their cruelty, economic bribes and a number of other atrocities. U.S. influence throughout Latin America over the past century has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians and the violent militarization of many towns, cities and countries. Latin Americans are now extremely wary of Paraguay’s unprecedented agreement to provide the U.S. with legitimate, almost unquestioned authority so close to their own countries.
Bolivia’s Raging Fears
Paraguay’s entente with Washington has also caused alarm in Bolivia, whose border lies less than 250 km from the base at Mariscal Estigarribia. La Paz fears that the U.S. will use the base to transport large amounts of American-supplied weapons and personnel to Paraguay. The Bolivian media investigating the U.S.’ burgeoning presence in the region contends that Washington’s intentions are less directed to a military mission than that of influencing access to its neighbor’s natural resources. The Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based scholar-activist organization, observed that the response of the Bolivian press is understandable because there have been previous suspicions of outside forces wanting to exercise military control over the natural resources of the Chaco (Tarija) region.
Suspicion of the U.S. military in Latin America is nothing new. The U.S. Army already has four Cooperative Security Locations (CSL), or permanent military bases (formerly called Forward Operating Locations (FOL), the Pentagon recently changed the terminology to imply a more “cooperative” effort), located in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; Aruba-Curaçao; Manta, Ecuador; and Comalapa, El Salvador. Rumors have started that the Paraguayan base at Mariscal Estigarribia could become the next U.S. CSL. Despite Ruiz’s claims that the U.S. has “no plans of any kind” to remain in the region permanently and create another CSL, regional observers remain uneasy, recalling that the Pentagon initially used this same rhetoric to describe its presence at Manta, Ecuador when it at first minimized the facility as simply a “dirt strip,” only to later acknowledge its development into a major facility. Alejandro Valázquez, the agreeable “no problema” President of the Paraguayan senate’s Foreign Relations Committee stated in El Clarín on June 13 that “people fantasize a lot” about the possible negative effects of having the U.S. using the airport base. He then proceeded with attempts to assuage fears of a permanent U.S. military base by reminding the public that the U.S. and Paraguay are allies that need to defend each other.
Representative William Cardozo, a Bolivian Social Democrat from the Department of Tarija, urged Bolivia’s interim president Eduardo Rodriguez to launch an investigation regarding the U.S. presence in the region. Tarija, located near the border with Paraguay, contains one of the two largest petroleum and natural gas reserves in Bolivia. An even more critical stance comes from Luis Chaquetilla, a member of the Unitaria Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), a powerful labor group in Bolivia, who commented that Washington has launched a military intervention through neighboring countries with the specific goal of controlling the gas reserves.
Over 80 million dollars has been invested in the base in Manta, Ecuador which is now one of the best-equipped airports in Latin America. Yet much controversy has arisen over the influence U.S. military officials have in the region. At first, the Pentagon presented Manta as a dusty, archaic facility which it would operate solely for anti-drug and weather monitoring functions. Washington asserted that the base would function only for daytime use and would not permanently house U.S. personnel. Only a few days later the Pentagon clarified its original statement and outlined its full mission for Manta, which was to serve as a major U.S. military base tasked with a variety of security-related missions.
Indigenous, religious and human rights groups protested the arrival of U.S. personnel in 1999, alleging that the presence of the U.S. facility would strongly infringe upon the autonomy of the Ecuadorian state. These groups worry that the Paraguayan agreement is similar to the one concerning Manta because of its focus on counter-narcotics surveillance. Yet since the arrival of U.S. armed forces in Ecuador, human rights workers have observed U.S. personnel engaged in anti-immigration efforts and even played a liaison role in the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
After September 11 the United States government put pressure on Ecuador to allow expanded use of the Manta base to help fight the War on Terror, but no official agreement has been reached. While a CSL has yet to be established in Paraguay, the country will be more directly engaged in the War on Terror because at least some training of Paraguayan soldiers will be provided along with counter-terrorism tactics. Thus, while the U.S. military may not be using the Paraguayan base for offensive strategies, Asuncion’s forces are involved, assisted by those from Washington. The community of Mariscal Estigarribia, like Manta’s neighboring community Eloy Alfaro in Ecuador is a small and isolated area. While it remains unknown whether or not the U.S. will eventually turn the base into a CSL, it will no doubt become an important location involving substantial transportation of personnel, weapons, and training tools that will greatly affect the surrounding community.
The Transnational Institute, which has done considerable research on the Manta CSL, acknowledges the validity of the longstanding rumors concerning the possible establishment of another CSL in the Southern Cone region. South America, and notably Bolivia, has become increasingly critical of the U.S. role in economic development in the region. Evo Morales, the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, continues to gain popularity amongst the different indigenous groups and has aimed a strong anti-imperialist message at the United States. Morales is one of the key leaders of the Bolivian coco growers’ movement and has been episodically critical of Washington’s militarizing anti-drug efforts in South America. The U.S. troops training Paraguayans in anti-drug efforts will only add fuel to Morales’ fire and that of like-minded Bolivian critics of U.S. expansion activities in the area.
While it is clear that direct U.S. interests in the region subsided after the Cold War, and even came to a staggering halt after September 11, the United States is once again at work trying to build a quasi-military grid in Latin America. By entering into an agreement with Paraguayan officials, the U.S. will be able to successfully keep an eye out for the political unrest in Bolivia, maintain an influence in the highly sensitive Triple Border region and monitor activities of the de-facto left leaning alliance. Up to now Washington has expressed concern for the leftist regimes in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, with the likelihood that Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico (if Lopez Obrador triumphs in that country’s 2006 elections) might join. While Paraguay alone exclusively has made an agreement that could very well infringe on its judicial power and ultimate sovereignty, the entire South American region could soon feel the after-effects of its domestic decision. Argentina and Brazil have successfully held off the U.S. military forces from gaining immunity in the area, but after several failed attempts to acquire a South American base of power, the U.S. now has a road paved for them by Paraguay’s 18-month agreement.
Mary Donohue and Melissa Nepomiachi are Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization based in Washington, DC: www.coha.org.
Too Close for Comfort: El Salvador Ratchets Up its US Ties by Kathryn Tarker