On June 1st, the Paraguayan Congress signed off on an agreement bringing over 400 U.S. troops to that country for "joint training and humanitarian operations." The deal, which is initially slated to last 18 months, sparked criticism and speculation among both watchdog groups and officials of neighboring South American governments, regarding possible motives behind the presence of U.S. troops in such large numbers in a country long renowned for its crime, corruption and contrabanding.
The first of what will be 13 such detachments numbering less than 50 U.S. military personnel arrived on July 1st, with a new contingent of 45 soldiers following on July 24. The initial reports that 400 troops would be arriving in Paraguay referred to the aggregate number of U.S. troops being sent to the country over the 18 months.
This confusion in the size of troop levels to be deployed had been distorted by the lack of clear information coming from the Pentagon regarding U.S. military actions in Paraguay through 2006.
The State Department has also noted that the two countries have conducted joint exercises since 1943, usually involving less than 50 U.S. troops at a time. Their mission in the country is to provide housing, road construction, educational and health services, and to train Paraguayan military counterparts.
While there have been no direct indications that the U.S. would repeat recent history and suddenly decide to construct a base in Paraguay – as it did at Manta, Ecuador, shortly after reaching a similar troop agreement with Quito in 1999 – it would not be surprising if the Department of Defense did seek to establish a permanent presence in Paraguay in accordance with its new "Lily Pad" strategy of constructing a number of small military facilities scattered in proximity to global hotspots.
The Pentagon’s Mission
The recent Paraguay flap stirred up an even broader debate over the presence of U.S military units in other parts of Latin America, including Colombia, El Salvador and several Caribbean islands, among others.
Analysts both in Latin America and the United States argue that the U.S. military presence in the area is ultimately intended to project Washington’s power throughout the region.
The introduction of a decentralized military structure throughout Latin America will allow Washington to bring its influence upon the area with fewer uniformed personnel and without casting a large shadow on the region.
The White House’s gradually increasing focus on militarizing the region shows that the U.S. remains better prepared to use force and the threat of intervention, instead of constructive diplomacy to resolve outstanding bilateral issues.
During the Cold War, the U.S.’ justification for its interventions in Latin America was the fear of communism; in the 1990s, it was the War on Drugs; and now the "Global War on Terrorism" is the central argument to ensure that American boots remain on the ground in the region. Whatever argument Washington chooses to present, it is clear that it wants to make certain that it is in control of its "backyard" by any and all means.
The U.S. diplomatic offensive involving Paraguay did not go unnoticed by Asunción’s immediate neighbors. Aside from Argentina’s tart reaction, Adam Saytanides observed that in late July "Brazil reportedly launched military maneuvers along the Paraguayan border, a move seen as an expression of Brazilian discontent with Paraguay."
He goes on to note that Brazil’s Foreign Minister was not amused when he sternly admonished the Duarte government, saying "Paraguay must understand that the choice is between Mercosur [the trade bloc of which Paraguay is a member] and other possible partners." Nevertheless, the U.S. appears determined to make sure that Paraguay does not "fall to the terrorists."
The summer agreement came after three years of increased contact between Washington and Asunción following the 2001 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. After 9/11, Washington directed its focus on possible new non-traditional venues for international terrorist activities around the world, including South America.
Its gaze quickly settled on Paraguay and, more specifically, the Tri-Border region, where that country abuts Argentine and Brazilian territory. This reputably lawless corner of the continent has long been known for high levels of contrabanding and corruption, and there has been widespread suspicion among many government officials and international bodies that Islamic terrorist groups have been operating there.
A recent New York Times article acknowledged that it is very likely that Paraguay is on a classified State Department list of the world’s 26 countries most "vulnerable" to terrorism.
In the early 1980s, following Lebanon’s devastating civil war, the Tri-Border area experienced a strong influx of Middle Eastern immigrants, mostly coming from Syria, Lebanon, and occupied Palestinian territories. The large Muslim population has led many to believe that Hezbollah and Hamas are active in the area, especially in Ciudad del Este, a city that practically straddles the Paraguay-Brazil border, where it merges with the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu at the Parana river.
According to Paraguayan authorities, of the 150,000 residents of Ciudad del Este, approximately 10% are of Arab decent. Despite Washington’s suspicions, reports released by the IMF, World Bank and even the U.S. State Department have found no explicit evidence of terrorist activity in the area.
Still, U.S. authorities believe that some of the area’s Muslim population were involved in the high-profile early 1990s deadly bombings at a Jewish Community Center and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, a finding to which Argentine officials are now open to believing.
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. became more involved in the efforts to crack down on drug deals, arms smuggling, money laundering and purported terrorist support activity in the region. In 2002, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and the U.S. formed the "3+1 Counterterrorism Dialogue" to collaborate in dealing with such problems in the area.
All sides have since taken steps to check crime in the region, with Brazil announcing the establishment of a Regional Intelligence Center in Foz do Iguaçu, while Argentina and Paraguay have made a commitment to appoint liaisons to the body as a way of institutionalizing what will soon be a multi-national effort. Moreover, President Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva discussed the Tri-Border area during Bush’s recent trip to Brazil.
Yet Paraguay’s mere collaboration is insufficient in the eyes of those analyzing the region’s militarization. The country’s infamous corruption, lack of democratic stability, and a traditional dearth of effective governance, have made it particularly susceptible to criminal influence.
Moreover, governmental institutions have not been able to display any degree of competence when dealing with issues like terrorism and crime. Furthermore, Paraguay is regarded by Transparency International as the most corrupt country in Latin America, which presents problems in all sectors of the government, including the highest reaches of power.
The government has achieved international notoriety as recently as 2002, when then-President Luis González Macchi had to resign his office after he purchased stolen cars, embezzled money, and shadily handled millions of dollars in Paraguayan currency. In the U.S.’ eyes, such inherent problems in the country make it a suitable place to intervene, if need be.
An Extension of U.S. Military Strategy
Under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Department of Defense has sought to remake the U.S. military into a quicker, lighter force that is less reliant on brute manual action and more inclined towards overwhelming speed and technological advantage.
As its centerpiece, this strategy calls for the establishment of Cooperative Security Locations or CSL – previously known as Forward Operating Locations – in strategic locations around the world, which allow for rapid mobilization and intervention at a moment’s notice. There are already various CSLs operating around the hemisphere, but none would have the strategic importance that a base in Paraguay could hold.
In the 1980s, U.S. technicians helped build an airbase at Mariscal Estigarribia, in the northern part of Paraguay, about 120 miles from the Bolivian border. The base is reportedly in excellent condition and has the capacity to handle large American cargo aircraft, making it a highly desirable location for the U.S. to set-up an operational center located in the middle of South America.
High-level Paraguayan representatives have met with U.S. officials in both Washington and Asunción, including an unprecedented August trip to South America by the Pentagon’s Donald Rumsfeld.
In fact, current President Nicanor Duarte was the first Paraguayan President ever to visit the White House. As the administration continually expands its "War on Terror," Paraguay looks more and more like a desirable location for amplifying Rumsfeld’s war doctrine.
What is at Stake
Initial reports regarding the somewhat secretive summer agreement declared that a first wave of some 400 troops would be arriving in Paraguay to participate in joint missions with that country’s military.
Those reports have since turned out to be misinterpreted, and various State Department and U.S. Southern Command officials have said that while the total number of troops used over the 18 month period will reach 400-500, only small groups of soldiers would be in the country at any given time.
Though some details of the agreement have been clarified, the relative secrecy surrounding the decision and the steadily increasing U.S. involvement in the region has caused some well-founded fears.
FBI Coming to Asunción
With the U.S. planning to have an FBI office in the U.S. embassy in Asunción sometime next year, Washington appears to be serious about fighting crime and terrorism in the region. It is not uncommon for the FBI to have an office in U.S. embassies, but the newest of these offices have been placed in countries that are cooperating with the U.S. in the "War on Terror," in places like Georgia and other Eurasian countries.
Such a commitment by the FBI implies that Washington is serious about vesting Paraguay with enhanced importance, increasing the likelihood that the military could become involved, shifting its traditional training and civic action roles to one which is more operational.
The military agreement, which notably includes immunity for U.S. troops (a real asset in a country as corrupt as Paraguay), has led many non-interventionalists to fear that the Mariscal Estigarribia landing facility could soon be converted into a major permanent U.S. base.
Nevertheless, the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Asunción have gone to great lengths to try to allay such concerns, but still some experts are worrying over the striking similarities between these denials and those being issued immediately prior to the sudden establishment of a base in Manta, Ecuador in 1999.
In that case, the U.S. announced the creation of a CSL just days after publicly and vigorously denying that they had any such intentions.
Looking Towards the Future
While there may be logical and relatively benign explanations for the U.S. actions in Paraguay so far, and official statements provide no indication that the U.S. harbors a desire for a permanent base there, at the present time it can not be ruled out that Mariscal Estigarribia will become the U.S.’ next South American "lily pad."
Even if the initial plans do not include any permanent and hardened facilities, the current program of stepped-up joint military engagement will inevitably lead to increased familiarity between the two sides, which only enhances the possibility that greater military integration could be near.
Considering the secretiveness of the current Bush administration, it would be no surprise if at any moment the U.S. military announced the establishment of a permanent military arrangement with the Paraguayan government.
Either way, it is evident that as South America becomes less stable politically, socially and economically, the U.S. might take advantage to extend its influence through all available means.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Julian Armington and You Lee Kim