Brazil Sees US as Biggest Military Threat While Pentagon Increases Presence in Paraguay

On May 27, the Paraguayan National Congress signed an agreement with the United States that allows U.S. military personnel to train, work, and operate in different regions of the country for a period of 18 months. Within weeks the first U.S. troops began to arrive.

Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte said on August 30 that the U.S. government will never have a military base in Paraguay. But a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the South American country last August (16-18) and Paraguay’s decision to grant legal immunity to U.S. personnel on its soil have stirred the fears of its neighbors that a longer term U.S. military operation may be imminent. For now, the U.S. military plans to send some 400 U.S. troops there before the end of next year.

Lieutenant-Commander Alvin Plexico, speaking for the Pentagon, claims that U.S. operations in Paraguay are only temporary and restricted to training activities and humanitarian missions. The purpose of the U.S. presence in Paraguay is "to strengthen the U.S.-Paraguay military-to-military relationship and improve joint training," Plexico told the Council for Hemispheric Affairs, adding that, "[these deployments] are not a response to real world events."

There will be no more than 10-20 U.S. military personnel in the South American country at a time and they will not stay for more than a few weeks, said Jose Ruiz, a public affairs officer with U.S. Southern Command. While far from the 20,000 U.S. soldiers local papers had reported, many believe the new accord to be the groundwork for further U.S. penetration into South America.

Both U.S. and Paraguayan officials are emphatic in saying that there is no permanent base in the works, yet the construction of an airstrip in the northern region of the country suggests at the very least the possibility of a tighter military relationship.

The airstrip at Mariscal Estigarribia, located close to the borders of Bolivia and Brazil, is 3,800 meters long and 80 meters wide – large enough to handle large transport aircraft and bigger than the national airport in Asuncion, the country’s capital city.

U.S. support for the construction since the 1980s had gone unnoticed until recently, but the immunity agreement and military training program have increased suspicions that the United States is building a stronghold in a region that is increasingly being defined as strategic to that country’s interests.

New Operative Strategy for South America

Since before President George W. Bush’s first administration, the Pentagon began shifting its strategy for operating U.S. military bases on foreign soil. Under Rumsfeld’s direction, the Pentagon has pushed for a limited amount of large bases in exchange for numerous, smaller Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs), formerly called Forward Operating Locations.

These smaller military installations are referred to as "lily pads" for their capacity to permit leapfrogging from one location to another across the continent. This strategy reflects the Pentagon’s increased reliance on advanced technology, such as the Patriot missile and unmanned surveillance aircraft, and its desire to relieve the strain global policing places on an all-volunteer military.

Lightly staffed CSLs with often no more than a dozen permanent U.S. military personnel can maintain a discreet but potent U.S. presence over a much larger area, while minimizing political costs since the host nation formally retains control and ownership of the base on their land.

Logically, Latin America was the first area in which to put this new strategy to the test. The United States officially pulled out of Panama on December 31, 1999 in compliance with the 1977 accords signed by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter. At the time, rhetoric surrounding the War on Drugs was reaching a crescendo, and operations that kept close surveillance on movement in and out of Colombia were considered fundamental.

The U.S. military, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the CIA all wanted to keep pressure on drug traffickers who used the region surrounding Colombia as a corridor for cocaine and heroin shipments heading north, and for arms and munitions heading south.

The closed bases in Panama were replaced by a number of CSLs in the region: at Eloy Alfaro International Airport in Manta, Ecuador; Reina Beatrix International Airport in Aruba; and Hato International Airport in nearby Curacao. Another CSL was also placed at the international airport in Comalapa, El Salvador.

In November 1999, the CSL in Ecuador was secured by a ten-year lease, and in March 2000, the United States reached agreements with the Netherlands and El Salvador to secure a ten-year lease on the CSLs they had temporarily placed on their sovereign territories.

The United States has operated these CSLs from its Southern Command military base, located in Miami, Florida, for years without much negative attention or a need to expand its presence in the region. However, recent geopolitical developments have forced U.S. military contingency planners to think about the future of the U.S. military presence in South America.

New and Old Pentagon Concerns in South American Security

Establishing another CSL in the heart of South America appears to fit into the Pentagon’s overarching strategy for the region. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed with Paraguay’s president concerns of Venezuelan and Cuban influence in the Bolivian politics during his August visit, the Pentagon’s press service reported. (1 )

Cuba’s aggressive foreign policy agenda, bankrolled by Venezuelan dollars, is having an "unhelpful" influence in the region, Rumsfeld said. "Countries like Paraguay and other neighbors are all interested in being able to grow and function in a manner that’s free of external influence," the secretary said, but not referring to the United States’ intrusions.

Besides countering the moves of Chavez and Castro in Bolivia and elsewhere, U.S. officials have long been concerned about illicit activities in areas with weak law enforcement. It is widely known that the United States has deployed numerous CIA agents to the frontier region between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA).

Agents from the U.S. Treasury Department have also been deployed there to examine the money-laundering enterprise that continues to thrive in the Paraguayan border town of Ciudad del Este. U.S. government reports estimate that annual money laundering in the region was at US$ 12 billion in 2001, although this amount may have fallen after more stringent laws were put in place. (2)

U.S. officials have taken a keener interest in the area with the war on terrorism because of known ties between money laundering and terrorist groups Hezbollah and HAMAS as well as links to the region with the past bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish solidarity institution AMIA in Buenos Aires during the 1990s.

In early 2002, Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage claimed that terrorist cells were in the TBA: "We have got in the tri-border area a bit of a problem with al-Qaida itself and some Hezbollah elements," he told a House Foreign Operations Subcommittee. But later State Department documents put in doubt his claims of an al-Qaida presence:

South America’s Tri-Border Area (TBA) – where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge and which hosts a large Arab population – took on a new prominence in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Although arms and drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, document and currency fraud, money laundering, and pirated goods have long been associated with this region, it also has been characterized as a hub for Hezbollah and HAMAS activities, particularly for logistic and financial purposes. At year’s end, press reports of al-Qaida operatives in the TBA had been disproved or remained uncorroborated by intelligence and law-enforcement officials. (3)

Although there are no permanent terrorist networks or states that back terrorist activities in the hemisphere, Tom Barry writes that the Pentagon has conflated law enforcement, drug trafficking, money laundering, left-center governments, immigration flows, and social movements under the rubric of a regional terrorist threat.

He asserts that Southcom "has become the principal interlocutor in the region" to deal with "nontraditional threats" and thus supplanting the role of other agencies linked to development initiatives such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Agriculture Department. (4)

Local Opposition to U.S. Military Presence

Non-governmental organizations in Paraguay have protested the new U.S. military presence in their country, warning that recent moves could be laying the foundation for increasing U.S. presence and influence over the entire region. Perhaps the strongest words came from the director of the Paraguayan human rights organization Peace and Justice Service, Orlando Castillo, who claimed that the United States aspires to turn Paraguay into a "second Panama for its troops, and it is not far from achieving its objective to control the Southern Cone and extend the Colombian War." (5)

The CSL based in Manta, Ecuador has been a center of operations concerning the on-going Colombia war. The base includes a runway for surveillance aircraft to land and take-off and naval ships to monitor and interdict boats along the Pacific coast. (6 )

Opponents worry that U.S. involvement in increasing militarization along drug trafficking routes through Paraguay will strengthen the U.S.-Colombian model of military as opposed to law enforcement solutions to the problem.

Ironically, the drug trafficking routes that the United States wants to police also lay along major corridors of natural resources coveted by several different interests.

"The objectives of the USA in South America have always been to secure strategic material like oil in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, tin mines in Bolivia, copper mines in Chile, and always to maintain lines of access open," Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, a Brazilian political scientist at the Universidade de Brasí­lia, wrote in the Folha de S. Paulo daily newspaper.

Raul Zibechi says the economic interests in the region include old sources of wealth based on oil but also new sources such as the Amazon’s biodiversity resources. (7)

The Mariscal Estigarribia base lies near Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, which forms part of the world’s largest underground reserves of potable water in the world. The aquifer extends to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The airstrip also lies in close proximity to gas fields in Bolivia, a country which has suffered wave after wave of civil unrest as social movements battle with elites and transnational interests over who will manage and who will benefit from the country’s enormous gas reserves.

In October 2004, the Mariscal Estagaribia base was used as a stopping point for U.S. military officials to decommission 28 HN-5 Chinese-made anti-air missiles handed over by the Bolivian military under suspicious circumstances. (8)

Evo Morales, leader of the cocaleros indigenous movement, has just won as Bolivia’s President. The Bush administration would clearly like to contain another Hugo Chavez: an adamantly anti-U.S. politician with coffers full of oil money.

Indeed, the United States has claimed that Chavez has funded Bolivian social movements that resulted in the toppling of two presidencies and has supported the Morales campaign. "Chavez’ profile in Bolivia has been very apparent from the beginning,” former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega has said.

Lastly, part of U.S. policy as noted by Tom Barry and Raul Zibechi is to keep popular movements in check. A number of popular movements sweeping through South America have destabilized elite-controlled governments, and Paraguay has not been immune.

The small South American country of six million people has experienced road blocks and protests by campesino groups demanding their rights. In November 2004, conflicts between landless workers occupying land and security forces upholding the privileges of landowners resulted in one death and 31 arrests. (9)

The Pentagon has also been coordinating regional efforts towards controlling unrest. Militaries from Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, in conjunction with the United States, carried out the Cabañas Operation in Salta, Argentina – the home of the jobless piquetero movement that was instrumental in the downfall of Argentina’s President de La Rua in December 2001.

"In 2006, Paraguay will also host the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, 2006 Fuerzas Comando exercise – a special operations skills competition and senior leader seminar designed to enhance multinational and regional cooperation and improve the training, readiness, and interoperability of special operations forces within the hemisphere," Ruiz from Southcom told IRC. In addition to the United States and Paraguay, 17 nations from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean have been invited to participate in the exercise.

Is Paraguay Selling Out?

While South American governments have partnered up with the United States in military activities in the past, regional politicians and local leaders in Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina reacted negatively to the news of Paraguay breaking ranks and allowing the United States to carry out military operations in the heart of South America.

What first set off the alarm was when Paraguay signed an agreement that grants legal immunity to U.S. military personnel while on Paraguayan soil. Other Latin American countries have united to refuse to sign the waiver of jurisdiction over U.S. troops, even though the U.S. government has conditioned some types of aid on it.

The agreement strikes a nerve with those who object to the U.S. government’s incessant pressure on countries in the region to refuse to sign onto the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty. Because Paraguay had not yet signed the treaty, it was forced to sign a separate immunity agreement, which will remain in force until the current training exercises and U.S. troop presence in Paraguay come to a conclusion in December 2006.

The fact that Paraguay bowed to pressure to sign the immunity agreement has led many governments in the region to suspect that Paraguay is selling out its strategic military position for something in return from Washington.

President Nicanor Duarte visited the White House on Sept. 26, 2003, just a month after he entered office. He and U.S. President George Bush discussed regional security matters, but Duarte also brought his own agenda, which included economic and trade assistance and access to the U.S. market for Paraguayan exports. Bush publicly supported Duarte’s strong position against corruption, a major problem in Paraguay.

Following the meeting of the two presidents, Paraguay’s Vice President Luis Castiglioni made it clear that his government expected a trade-off between his country’s offering a security stronghold for U.S. interests and the U.S. government assuring market access for Paraguayan goods.

Following the meeting he stated to the Argentine daily El Clarin: "We’ve told the United States that we want to cooperate to construct peace in the region, but we also [emphasized] that the United States should help us develop Paraguayan industry by opening access to the U.S. market."

Castiglioni asserted that access to U.S. markets would help create jobs for Paraguayans; according to a 2003 report released by the Paraguayan government, almost one quarter of all Paraguayans are unemployed.

While other nations in the Southern Cone have been looking to strengthen the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), Duarte appears to be inclined to opt for economic integration with the United States.

At the June 17 Mercosur summit, he asserted that Paraguay’s membership in Mercosur has hurt the country’s economy more than it has helped and blamed the protectionist policies pursued by Argentina and Brazil for Paraguay’s crippled position.

Although Paraguay stood by the Mercosur in refusing to negotiate the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas at the November Summit of the Americas, Duarte has also made clear his view that the United States is an important partner for increased bilateral trade and the recent military agreement demonstrates that he is willing to ruffle some feathers in the region to enhance his bargaining position with the Colossus to the North.

Brazilian Security Concerns

Brazil, the dominant country of the region, has special interests in keeping Paraguay within the southern fold for both trade and security concerns. After the visit from Rumsfeld, Brazil began to up the diplomatic pressure on its neighbor.

"Paraguay must understand that the choice is between Mercosur and other possible partners," said Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister, who added that the U.S. base was unnecessary.

Shortly after the announcement of the latest U.S.-Paraguay partnership, Brazil held a military training exercise (Operação Jauru) along its 2,300-km border that it shares with Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. While the aim of the exercise, according to the Brazilian military, (10) was to improve border monitoring and combat illicit trafficking and environmental crimes, Zibechi wrote that the operation included exercises for protecting the huge Itaipu hydroelectric dam that straddles the border between Paraguay and Brazil. The exercise was widely seen as a move to offset increased U.S. military presence.

Brazil maintains a contradictory relationship with the United States in military matters. On the one hand, it continues to engage in joint military exercises and bought a multi-million dollar radar system (SIVAM) from U.S. company Raytheon to carry out surveillance of the Amazon region. (11)

On the other hand, political scientist Daniel Zirker points out that the Brazilian military mobilized in the Amazon (near Guiana) in the early 1990s when the U.S. military held joint operations with the Guiana military and rebuffed ground assistance in controlling fires in the Amazon in the late 1990s.

The Brazilian military sees the United States as its biggest external threat. "Retired generals have repeatedly defined the United States as Brazil’s most likely enemy in the post-Cold War era, mostly because of the United States’ cavalier attitude toward national sovereignty and particularly Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon – a particularly sensitive area for the military," Zirker told the International Relations Center (IRC).

On the Brazilian army’s webpage, Gen. Claudio Barbosa Figuereido, head of the Amazon Military Command, asserts that Brazil will face actions similar to those that have taken place in Vietnam, and now in Iraq, should the Amazon come into conflict.

"The resistance strategy does not differ much from guerrilla warfare, and it is an option the army will not hesitate to adopt facing a confrontation with another country or group of countries with greater economic and military power." He added, "The jungle itself should serve as an ally in combating the invader." (12)

The recent accord between the Pentagon and Paraguay has caught the attention of Brazilian military brass, according to Brazilian specialists.

"In the negotiations between Paraguay and the United States there are secret clauses that should alarm neighboring countries," Eurico Lima de Figueiredo, professor of strategic studies at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, was quoted as saying in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. "The Brazilian Armed Forces are completely convinced of this," he said.

U.S. relations with Brazil have been sometimes tense during the administration of Brazil’s left-of-center President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. On the economic front, Brazil has resisted U.S. demands in negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) while constructing alliances to block aspects of the U.S. trade agenda during talks at World Trade Organization (WTO) without concessions for developing countries.

In security matters, Brazil’s close relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, including sales of military aircraft and joint energy projects, have also created tensions with an increasingly anti-Chavez Bush administration.

Brazil’s reticence toward U.S. military involvement in the region was recently expressed when a Brazilian congressman proposed an amendment to the Mercosur accord that would prohibit member countries from allowing third-party countries to establish permanent bases in the region without the previous consultation and approval of other members of the trade bloc. However, the Lula government, currently facing a severe internal political crisis, did not have the political muster to see the bill through.

While the Mariscal Estigarribia airstrip and training operations cannot be considered a U.S. military base, the presence of U.S. soldiers has rattled the nerves of Paraguay’s neighbors and of its own human rights organizations who fear that the training exercises are a pretense for a more permanent presence.

Meanwhile, the 2005 operations flag a growing concern in the region on the part of the Bush administration’s security apparatus.

Although there is no hard evidence of al-Qaida terrorist activities, organized crime – from contraband smuggling to piracy – thrives in the Tri-Border Area. Under the Bush National Security Doctrine that conflates law enforcement, drug smuggling, potential terrorist threats, and civil disorder, the Paraguayan position in the heart of South America enables the United States to monitor many situations that have come to be defined as threats under the new, broad umbrella of national security.

End Notes

(1)Donna Miles, "Rumsfeld, Paraguayan President Discuss Mutual Concerns," American Forces Press Services (Asunción, Paraguay 17 August 2005 ).

(2)"Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America," A report prepared under an interagency agreement by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, July 2003.

(3)U.S. State Department, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, " Patterns of Global Terrorism: Latin American Overview," May 21, 2002.

(4)Tom Barry, "‘Mission Creep’ in Latin America – U.S. Southern Command’s New Security Strategy," Americas Program (Silver City, NM: International Relations Center, July 1, 2005).

(5)U.S. consulting firm Intelligence Research reported on July 26, 2005.

(6)Michael Flynn, "Ecuador: What’s the Deal at Manta?" Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January/ February 2005, pp. 23-29 (vol. 61, no. 01).

(7)Raúl Zibechi, "South America’s New Militarism," Americas Program (Silver City , NM: International Relations Center, July 18, 2005).

(8)Sheila Machado, "Estados Unidos tomam o arsenal de mí­sseis e os desativam," Jornal do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 11, 2005).

(9)Prensa Latina, "Continúan desalojos en Paraguay y protestas campesinas," Agencia Prensa Rural (Asunción, Paraguay 5 November 2004).
Stella Callón, " Paraguay permitirá ingreso de tropas estadunidenses," La Jornada, (Asuncion, Paraguay 31 May 2005).

(10)Brazlian Ministry of Defense, "Operação Jauru reforça vigilância na fronteira Oeste," June 7, 2005.

(11)Matthew Flynn, "Brazil: The Amazon’s Silent Spy," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January/February 2003, pp. 12-14, (vol. 59, no. 01).

(12)Mario Augusto Jakobskind, "Aprendiendo de Vietnam," Brecha de Montevideo, February 18, 2005.

Sam Logan and Matthew Flynn are journalists based in South America and are contributors to the Americas Program of the International Relations Center, at


You May Also Like

Itaíº Doubles Profit to US$ 4.8 Bi Becoming Brazil’s Most Profitable Bank

Brazil's Itaú bank obtained record profits of 8.474 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 4.8 billion) ...

Chico of Brazil: The World Has Been Touched by His Magic Words and Songs

Chico Buarque de Hollanda was born in Rio, but spent part of his childhood ...

Brazil and Russia Want to Strengthen Technological Ties

The joint declaration of the 4th Meeting of the Brazil-Russia High Level Cooperation Commission, ...

Times of Gall

Tom Zé By Bruce Gilman "I’m a tropicalista, I always doubt the criteria used ...

High in Spirits

Cachaça, the Brazilian national liquor, is gaining status. Drink boutiques specialized in the sugar ...

Recent Events in Brazil Are Not an Excuse for Torture

Amnesty International strongly condemns the reported rape of a female teacher held hostage during ...

Brazil Puts Its Goods on Show to Arabs

The economic potential of Brazil will be shown by different ministries and government institutions ...

Brazil’s Former Chief of Staff Says Lula Is Responsible for Bribe Scandal

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is partly responsible for the corruption crisis ...

Industry Jobs in Brazil Grow Again

Following two months of decline, industrial employment grew once again in April, in comparison ...

New Documents Show Role of Brazil’s President Elect as a Guerrilla Fighter

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president-elect, gathered information and advised guerrilla groups bank hold-ups in the ...