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The U.S. Amasses Its Troops and Mercenaries at Brazil’s Doors

It would be easy to make fun of President Bush’s recent fiasco at the 4th Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. His grand plan for a free trade zone reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego was soundly rejected by nations fed up with the economic and social chaos wrought by neoliberalism.

At a press conference, South American journalists asked him rude questions about Karl Rove. And the President ended the whole debacle by uttering what may be the most trenchant observation the man has ever made on Latin America: "Wow! Brazil is big!"

But there is nothing amusing about an enormous U.S. base less than 120 miles from the Bolivian border, or the explosive growth of U.S.-financed mercenary armies that are doing everything from training the military in Paraguay and Ecuador to calling in air attacks against guerillas in Colombia.

Indeed, it is feeling a little like the run up to the ’60s and ’70s, when Washington-sponsored military dictatorships dominated most of the continent, and dark armies ruled the night.

U.S. Special Forces began arriving this past summer at Paraguay’s Mariscal Estigarribia air base, a sprawling complex built in 1982 during the reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

Argentinean journalists who got a peek at the place say the airfield can handle B-52 bombers and Galaxy C-5 cargo planes. It also has a huge radar system, vast hangers, and can house up to 16,000 troops. The air base is larger than the international airport at the capital city, Asuncion .

Some 500 special forces arrived July 1 for a three-month counterterrorism training exercise, code named Operation Commando Force 6.

Paraguayan denials that Mariscal Estigarribia is now a U.S. base have met with considerable skepticism by Brazil and Argentina . There is a disturbing resemblance between U.S. denials about Mariscal Estigarribia, and similar disclaimers made by the Pentagon about Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta , Ecuador .

The United States claimed the Manta base was a "dirt strip" used for weather surveillance. When local journalists revealed its size, however, the United States admitted the base harbored thousands of mercenaries and hundreds of U.S. troops, and Washington had signed a 10-year basing agreement with Ecuador .

The Eloy Alfaro base is used to rotate U.S. troops in and out of Colombia, and to house an immense network of private corporations who do most of the military’s dirty work in Colombia.

According to the Miami Herald , U.S. mercenaries armed with M-16s have gotten into fire fights with guerrillas in southern Columbia, and American civilians working for Air Scan International of Florida called in air strikes that killed 19 civilians and wounded 25 others in the town of Santo Domingo.

The base is crawling with U.S. civilians – many of them retired military – working for Military Professional Resources Inc., Virginia Electronics, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest arms maker), Northrop Grumman, TRW, and dozens of others.

It was U.S. intelligence agents working out of Manta who fingered Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader Ricardo Palmera last year, and several leaders of the U.S.-supported coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spent several months there before launching the 2004 coup that exiled Aristide to South Africa.

"Privatizing" war is not only the logical extension of the Bush administration’s mania for contracting everything out to the private sector; it also shields the White House’s activities from the U.S. Congress. "My complaint about the use of private contractors," says U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsy (D-IL), "is their ability to fly under the radar to avoid accountability."

The role that Manta is playing in the northern part of the continent is what so worries countries in the southern cone about Mariscal Estigarribia. "Once the United States arrives," Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez commented about the Paraguay base, "it takes a long time to leave."

Life at the Triple Frontier

The Bush administration has made the "Triple Frontier Region" where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet into the South American equivalent of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.

According to William Pope, U.S. State Department Counterterrorist Coordinator, the United States has evidence that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed spent several months in the area in 1995. The U.S. military also says it seized documents in Afghanistan with pictures of Paraguay and letters from Arabs living in Ciudad del Este, a city of some 150,000 people in the tri-border region.

The Defense Department has not revealed what the letters contained, and claims that the area is a hotbed of Middle East terrorism have been widely debunked.

The U.S. State Department’s analysis of the region – "Patterns of Terrorism" – found no evidence for the charge, and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) study found the area awash with money smuggling, but not terrorism.

It is the base’s proximity to Bolivia that causes the most concern, particularly given the Bush administration’s charges that Cuba and Venezuela are stirring up trouble in that Andean nation.

Bolivia has seen a series of political upheavals, starting with a revolt against the privatization of water supplies by the U.S. Bechtel Corporation and the French utility giant, Suez de Lyonnaise des Eaux.

The water uprising was sparked off when Suez announced it would charge between US$ 335 and US$ 445 to connect a private home to the water supply. Bolivia’s yearly per capita gross domestic product is US$ 915.

The water revolt, which spread to IMF enforced taxes and the privatization of gas and oil reserves, forced three presidents to resign. The country is increasingly polarized between its majority Indian population and an elite minority that has dominated the nation for hundreds of years. Six out of 10 people live below the poverty line, a statistic that rises to nine in 10 in rural areas.

Bolivia in Focus

For the Bush administration, however, Bolivia is all about subversion, not poverty and powerlessness.

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Paraguay this past August, he told reporters that, "There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways."

A Rumsfeld aide told the press that Cuba was involved in the unrest, a charge that even one of Bolivia’s ousted presidents, Carlos Mesa, denies.

A major focus of the unrest in Bolivia is who controls its vast natural gas deposits, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. Under pressure from the United States and the IMF, Bolivia sold off its oil and gas to Enron and Shell in 1995 for US$ 263.5 million, less than 1% of what the deposits are worth.

The Movement Toward Socialism’s presidential candidate Evo Morales, a Quechuan Indian and trade union leader who is running first in the polls, wants to renationalize the deposits. Polls indicate that 75% of Bolivians agree with him.

Failed States and Intervention

But the present political crisis over upcoming elections December 18, and disagreements on how to redistribute seats in the legislature, has the United States muttering dark threats about "failed states."

U.S. General Bantz J. Craddock, commander of Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee: "In Bolivia , Ecuador , and Peru , distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-U.S., anti-globalization, and anti-free trade demagogues."

Bolivia has been placed on the National Intelligence Council’s list of 25 countries where the United States will consider intervening in case of "instability."

This is scary talk for Latin American countries. Would the United States invade Bolivia? Given the present state of its military, unlikely.

Would the United States try to destabilize Bolivia’s economy while training people how to use military force to insure Enron, Shell, British Gas, Total, Repsol, and the United States continues to get Bolivian gas for pennies on the dollar? Quite likely.

And would the White House like to use such a coup as a way to send a message to other countries? You bet. President Bush may be clueless on geography, but he is not bad at overthrowing governments and killing people.

Will it be as easy as it was in the old days when the CIA could bribe truckers to paralyze Chile and set the stage for a coup? Nothing is easy in Latin America anymore.

The United States can bluster about a trade war, but the playing field is a little more level these days. The Mercosur Group of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay embraces 250 million people, generates US$ 1 trillion in goods, and is the third largest trade organization on the planet. If the American market tightens, the Chinese are more than willing to pick up the slack.

A meeting last month of the Ibero-American heads of state turned downright feisty. The assembled nations demanded an end to the "blockade" of Cuba . The word "blockade" is very different than the word "embargo," the term that was always used in the past. A "blockade" is a violation of international law.

The meeting also demanded that the United States extradite Luis Posada to Venezuela for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 76 people.

If the United States tries something in Bolivia (or Venezuela), it will find that the old days when proxy armies and economic destabilization could bring down governments are gone, replaced by countries and people who no longer curtsy to the colossus from the north.

Conn Hallinan is a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a lecturer in journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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  • Show Comments (12)

  • Guest

    arabspy
    I would wonder how long the Chavez government will be able to hang on in the face of the aggressive stance of the US hawks towards her. It will only be a matter of time before we see a deposed or assasinated Hugo Chavez. I find it an absolute shame that such a revolutionary leader such as Chavez can only look forward to an early grave for his efforts.In my studies of democracy I have found that land reform was always a key factor in the limitations of democracy. As well the power center held by the rich or aristocray was an equal problem that limited the participation of the poor in the democratic process. For Chavez to tackle both of these is a landmark move in the long standing history of democracy in the worl. I take my hat off to a man who will go down in my books as a revolutionary hero who is a champion for the poor. However, also in my studies the consuls that stood for the same principles also met with a early grave. Salut hugo! Maybe I can come and be of service to your efforts and also share in a democratic revolution.

  • Guest

    Carallho!!! Tira o Bush da America!
    Meus amigos esse presidente de merda vai acabar com os USA, tirem ele do poder antes que ele acabe com todo o mundo!

    Marcelo – Brasil.

  • Guest

    Wow!
    It seems that the only person in this entire article that is making sense is the individual who wrote “Brasil could do more?” With out exception, all the others, Sr. Hallinan included, come across as either a bit deluded, irrationally paranoid, or just non-sensical. People, please think before you write.

    W.R.

    Then again… maybe I’m missing something….:
    “The United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning. “I’m so concerned about what the consequences might be of starting an intergalactic war, that I just think I had to say something.” – Paul Hellyer, Canada’s Defence Minister from 1963-67

  • Guest

    Brasil could do more?
    Can’t Brasil do something to help Bolivia and Paraguay? Instead of looking down upon our neighbors, maybe we should step in and help when they need it. I think the world sees Brasil as helpless, and that shouldn’t be. It’s bad enough that the world thinks every child in Brasil is starving and that all we export is sex and HIV. If there wasn’t such a vacum along Brasil’s borders, maybe the US wouldn’t rush down to fill it. When Uruguay starts to worry about Brasil, maybe Brasil should worry more about Brasil too. I don’t know, just thinking.

  • Guest

    This is one good article!
    Congratulations to the author.

  • Guest

    Be Afraid
    The USA is desperate for energy resoures, as that is why they invaded Iraq. Be very, very careful about crossing them, as they will invade again.

  • Guest

    Shame
    It’s very easy to be ashamed to be an American right now. But aside from the television-addled fools who seem to comprise the American electorate there are those of us who hold the Bush junta with nothing less than pure contempt.
    Those of us who have, somehow, retained our sanity need yet time to restore our country to what our founding fathers, not an illegitimate supreme court, intended.
    Bush is on the ropes. The only way out is war. I can only hope there are those in the world comminity who can still remember not all of us support Bush’s malevolence. Perhaps someday those of us who still believe in real freedom will prevail

  • Guest

    the article is ALL wrong and only pure l
    Latin America countries say they dont want neoliberalism, so why do they want the developed nations to open even more, as they are today, their borders to Latin America Agricultural countries ?
    Of course without opening more their own borders to industrialised goods and services from developed nations.
    They are already quite positive in their trade balances. So if we invoke their arguments as appropriate, developed countries should NOT open more their borders to Latin America agriculture. Right ?

    Dont tell me that the US cannot or dont want to invade Bolivia due to their state of military.
    Bolivia is such a poor country that in just a few hours the country could be easily invaded without much resistance and without damage to the US military forces.

    As to the water and connection problem in Bolivia, instead of criticizing, why Brazil, Chile orAargentina dont offer to do the same job for US$ 50.- or 100.- per connection ? And you will see by yourself how much they will lose per connection ! Latin america are so smart, competitive and fair why dont they just do it ?

    As to the training of military personel, there is nothing wrong if it is to fight guerillas and drug. All the countries you mention have democratically voted for their government. You even officially recognized all of them. Therefore nothing wrong if they ask for help to the USA.
    But here again, why Brazil or another Latin america country has not offered help to these countries ? Are you in favor of guerillas and drug only outside your own coun try but not inside ? Strange.

    Concerning the Bolivian gas, let me just remind you that the country that uses the most of the Bolivian gas is BRAZIL. So all your rethorics and critics should be against BRAZIL. Your critics just put an autogoal to BRAZIL !

    Concerning the extradition, let me remind you that Brazil always refused to extradite for 35 years the British man who was responsible for the world biggest train robbery in the UK in the 60’s !
    Lybia has done the same for those Lybians that bombed 2 foreign planes.

    I could continue for hours to demonstrate how non relevants are the comments in your article.

    No doubt that you are an intellectual communist. Why dont you go to North Korea. There your lies will be trusted as press and media is controlled by the government

  • Guest

    Typical leftist diatribe. Plenty of half truths, inuendos and skewed facts.
    Example: There is no “blockade” of Cuba. There is an economic embargo which bars trade between the US and Cuba. However, Cuba is free to trade with the rest of the world. The fact that the Cuban economy continues suffering is the result of Castro’s flawed policies and has nothing to do with the US. The article does not address the reality of the comment.
    Overall, there was plenty of evidence of leftist interference that I was able to see first hand when I participated in “Fuertes Caminos” as a member of the US armed forces. I have no reason to beleive there is any less now. However, people like Mr. Hallinan are always silent and selective on those issues. I suppose he also supports drug-financed crime and rebellion as a “fundamental human right”.

  • Guest

    Close the door!
    Yeah! Those silly Gringos! Always trying to kick somebody’s butt to improve their own lives! It isn’t going to last forever! Someday, some South American country will get its act together, take better care of their people, treat the peasants with more respect, fight their own drug wars, throw the criminals in jail, create better conditions for business, and then, maybe then, the Gringos will emmigrate to South America instead of the South Americans busting their butts and risking their lives to get to the States. The truth of it is, I’m sick of what’s happening! For the life of me, why can’t South America do more for itself? It’s embarrassing! Gringos go home. Will someone please close the door?

  • Guest

    response to get a life
    Many of the US’ problems have come about because of it’s invasions of other countries. To the best of my knowledge, very few Cubans actually attempt to flee Cuba. The risks are just not worth the rewards. Those that do generally have relatives & a support structure egging them on from Miami. The Left (China) is actually moving into Cuba & Venezuela for trade & investment (for better or for worse).

  • Guest

    Get a life
    USA has a enough problems without invading other countries. I will say one thing about some people they are parnoid and can’t leave things alone. Maybe some leftists who think Cuba is the place to be should wonder why their workers risk their lives to come the USA. If the left likes countries like Cuba and Venzuela so much move there and help there people.

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