New Bolivian Bases, Risky But Prudent

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/09/2006)


When Bolivian President Evo Morales announced his intention on 19 September to install at least three military bases along Bolivia's remote eastern border, he triggered a series of reactions that rippled across South America and all the way to Washington.


Morales' geopolitical power play has been buttressed by the promise of Venezuelan financing, likely in the form of a donation or a special loan. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's involvement in the creation of new military posts in Bolivia has clouded opinion over what actually may be a prudent decision by Morales.


The location of two bases has been made public: One post will be constructed on the Paraguay river at Puerto Quijarro in the lowland regions of eastern Bolivia, some 200km north of the border with Paraguay and practically on the frontier with Brazil.


According to news reports, the base will house up to 2,500 Bolivian soldiers and include an airstrip. The projected construction costs hover around US$22 million.


The other known location is Riberalta, north of La Paz, also located on a major river system.


Chavez's involvement in the development of closer ties between the Bolivian and Venezuelan armed forces was publicly verified when he and Venezuelan Defense Minister General Raul Baudel visited Bolivia in May. During the visit, they signed a series of feel-good agreements on a mutual understanding about creating a region-wide army with the help of Venezuelan finance and, perhaps in the future, Venezuelan-manufactured AK-103 assault rifles.


It is easy to see how Chavez has some influence over Morales' decision-making, especially when it comes to military matters. But the regional heavyweight, Brazil, continues to make its presence felt.


On 22 September, only days after Morales' announcement, the Commander in Chief of the Brazilian Armed Forces, General Francisco Roberto De Alburquerque, met with Bolivian Defense Minister Walker San Miguel and the Commander of the Bolivian Army, General Freddy Bersatti, as well as other high-ranking Bolivian generals. He traveled to Bolivia to reinforce two important facts.


First, there are close ties between the Bolivian and Brazilian armed forces. The meeting, which was the first time a Brazilian general had traveled to Bolivia, will likely result in a renewed cadet- and officer-exchange program to strengthen ties between the two countries' current and future officers.


Second, the Bolivian army relies on Brazilian manufacturing and maintenance expertise and spare parts for a large percentage of its armored fleet of land transport vehicles. The Brazilian general likely made this point very clear.


Meanwhile, Paraguayan leaders, even if a little miffed by Morales' announcement, are just as relaxed as the Brazilians. They do not have the leverage, but can count on support from the US in the event that the situation in Bolivia's lowlands unraveled.


The presence of US military forces in Paraguay in 2005 raised regional alarms of increased military presence in the heart of South America. While an expanded presence has not been discarded, one certainty has emerged: The US and Paraguayan armed forces have increased their levels of communication and support. In 2005, at least 400 US Marines passed through Paraguay to assist with troop training.


Some South American analysts believe that Chavez has used Morales as a proxy agent to increase geopolitical friction between Bolivia and Paraguay. The argument follows that Paraguay, if threatened, would call on Washington for support. The resulting increased US presence in Paraguay would give Chavez more reason to maintain his anti-imperialist rhetoric. This situation would ostensibly give the Venezuelan president more support for his plans for a regional military force.


Washington would likely not fall into such a trap, but leaders there do lament the lack of regional leadership from Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who has been distracted with his fight for political survival. If da Silva is re-elected he would certainly assert more pressure, but from behind the scenes. For now, the message delivered by Brazil's top military commander will suffice.


Morales does not need Chavez or da Silva to make decisions about protecting the integrity of his nation. When the opposition, led by Jorge Quiroga, organized a strike that united four Bolivian states in the eastern region, it showed a level of seriousness that warranted attention from the Morales administration. Rumors of a civil war in Bolivia have begun to swirl.


Like Morales' decision to nationalize Bolivia's energy companies, the announcement of new military bases was intended for a domestic audience. While not as complicated as nationalizing energy assets, building three or four military bases in some of the country's most remote regions will not be an easy task.


The process will reveal the true relationship between Bolivia's armed forces and the Morales administration.


Ties between the two have been strained since Morales sacked 25 generals in January this year after he uncovered an operation to deactivate Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles. The president's move, some believe, opened the way for promotions of Bolivian military officers more loyal to the Morales administration and, by proxy, the Venezuelan armed forces.


New bases in Bolivia's remote Amazon region would give Morales a limited amount of control over secessionist states run by the opposition, but he would not use the military to crush marches and protests. It would go against everything in his pre-presidential past as an organizer, activist and street protester.


More important, however, is the effect these new bases will have on the regional drug trade between Bolivia and Brazil. The river system that borders the two countries facilitates movement of coca paste and cocaine that is fed into Brazil or shipped abroad to Africa, Europe and the US. It is no mistake that the planned location of the bases at Riberalta and Puerto Quijarro are on rivers.


While the use of the armed forces to fight the drug trade should remain limited in deference to national police forces, an increased presence of the Bolivian state in its most remote regions is a positive sign for those in Washington and elsewhere who are concerned with the so-called projection of sovereignty problem that many South American countries, including Bolivia, struggle with.


The world may be concerned with Chavez's ulterior motives for new bases in Bolivia, but the realities of the country's territorial integrity and challenge with drug trafficking must be considered.

On balance, the decision may be a prudent one. Still, it remains to be seen if these bases will even see the light of day, or if Venezuelan or other funding materializes to turn Morales' announcements into reality.


Judging from the struggling energy nationalization process, the gap between words and reality in Bolivia remains wider than we think.