US Rethinks Military Presence in South America

(International Relations and Security Network, 21/09/2005)


Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte said on 30 August that the US government would never have a military base in Paraguay. US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld's recent trip to Paraguay indicated otherwise. There are plans to send some 400 US troops there between now and the end of next year. The likelihood of an increased US footprint in Paraguay increases as the Andean corridor becomes less stable and the US faces an uphill battle to ensure security in its own backyard.


Since before the beginning of President George Bush's first administration, the Pentagon has moved to shift its strategy for operating US 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 forward operating locations (FOLs). The idea of moving to a smaller footprint, referred to as "lily pads", 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 FOLs with often no more than a dozen permanent US military personnel could then maintain a small US presence in a larger number of areas, while allowing the host nation to retain control and ownership of the base on their sovereign land.


Lily Pads in Latin America


Logically, Latin America was the first area in which to put this new strategy to the test. The US officially pulled out of Panama on 31 December 1999 in compliance with the 1977 accords signed by then-US 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 US 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 FOLs 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 FOL was also placed at the international airport in Comalapa, El Salvador. In November 1999, the FOL in Ecuador was secured by a ten-year lease, and in March 2000, the US reached agreements with the Netherlands and El Salvador to secure a ten-year lease on the FOLs they had temporarily placed on their sovereign territory.


The US has operated these FOLs 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 US military contingency planners to think about the future of the US military presence in South America.


Reasons for establishing another FOL in South America include the increasing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a merger of the so-called "War on Drugs" and "War on Terrorism" campaigns, and US concerns about ungoverned areas, principally along borders. Rumsfeld's recent visit to Paraguay might indicate that this small nation may already be targeted to serve as a host for the region's next US military base, especially given the nation's geographical location in the middle of the continent.


US footprint in Paraguay


The Paraguayan National Congress on 27 May signed an agreement with the US that allows US military personnel to train, work, and otherwise operate in Paraguay for a period of 18 months. The first US troops arrived in June. Rumsfeld's visit to Paraguay on 15 August was met with a strong showing of criticism in papers across the region. Paraguay's president took the opportunity to declare, on more than one occasion, that the US would not have a permanent base in Paraguay.


Jose Ruiz, a public affairs officer with US Southern Command, agrees. "There are no plans to establish a US military base or permanent US military presence anywhere in Paraguay," he told ISN Security Watch.


What may have upset many people here is that Paraguay signed an agreement that grants legal immunity to US personnel while on Paraguayan soil. This agreement is especially controversial because it strikes a nerve with those who disagree with the US government's incessant push to pressure countries in the region to not sign the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty. Because Paraguay has not yet bowed to this pressure, it was forced to sign a separate agreement, which will remain in force until the current training exercises and US troop presence in Paraguay come to a conclusion in December 2006.


Lieutenant-Commander Alvin Plexico, speaking for the Pentagon, claims that US operations in Paraguay are only temporary and restricted to training activities. The purpose of the US presence in Paraguay is "to strengthen the US-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".


Meanwhile, it is widely known that the US has deployed numerous CIA agents to the frontier region between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA). Agents from the US 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. Most recently, the FBI opened an office in the US embassy in Asuncion, ostensibly to conduct operations in the TBA.


To Paraguay's north, Bolivia has suffered wave after wave of civil unrest. Any sovereignty projected from the capital, La Paz, only reaches as far as road blockades allow. To the east, Paraguay's border with Brazil is largely not patrolled, with exception of the TBA. And Argentina in the south, like Brazil, is mostly focused on the TBA. Nevertheless, regional politicians and other VIPs in Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina reacted negatively to the news of Paraguay allowing the US to carry out military operations in the heart of South America.


Regional unrest and Paraguayan realities


Perhaps the strongest words from Paraguay about the US military presence there came from the director of the Paraguayan human rights organization Servicio Paz y Justicia, Orlando Castillo. He claims that the US has strong aspirations 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", the US consulting firm Intelligence Research reported on 26 July.


According to the Argentine daily El Clarin, the airstrip at Mariscal Estigarribia, the location of current US military activities, is 3,800 meters long and 80 meters wide - large enough to handle large transport aircraft and bigger than the airport in Asuncion, the country's capital city. More than any other concrete fact, regional critics have seized upon the size and high quality of this airstrip, and the fact that it may be able to handle large aircraft, to proclaim that the US has intentions of placing a base in Paraguay: quite a step up from a forward operating location.


No one here mentions, however, the very real strategy of the Pentagon that dictates that the US will not install new military bases anywhere, least of all in a small South American country.


The possibility that Paraguay may welcome a US military presence there in exchange for higher visibility in Washington is more realistic. Paraguay's current president, Nicanor Duarte, is reportedly the first Paraguayan president to visit the White House. He and US President George Bush discussed regional security matters, but Duarte brought his own agenda, which includes economic and trade assistance and access to the US market for Paraguayan exports.


Paraguayan Vice President Luis Castiglioni made this point clear when he told El Clarin: "We've told the US that we want to cooperate to construct peace in the region, but we also [make the point] that the US should help us develop Paraguayan industry by opening access to the US market." Castiglioni points out that access to US 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.


Considering that Paraguay's membership in the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) is worsening this country's poor economic prognosis rather than improving it, it makes sense to leverage strategic placement for an improved economy. Duarte said on 17 June, during the most recent MERCOSUR summit, that Paraguay's membership in MERCOSUR has hurt the country's economy more that it has helped. He placed large blame on protectionist policies pursued by Argentina and Brazil for Paraguay's crippled position. Clearly he sees the US as a potential partner for increased bilateral trade and is willing to ruffle some feathers in the region to achieve a brighter future for his people.


No base, but.


"There are no current plans to deploy a large number of US soldiers in Paraguay for extended periods of time," Pentagon spokesman Plexico told ISN Security Watch. Both the Pentagon and the US Southern Command maintain the same line: there are no plans for a US base in Paraguay. But what about a forward operating location?


Operating a US FOL in Paraguay would make sense. The US is certainly worried about a lack of border controls in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. It is clear that organized crime is alive and well in the Tri-Border Area, and rumors continue to surface about terrorist groups receiving financing from the region. As a broader regional strategy, it would behoove the US to increase its presence there, but that presence comes with a price.


Duarte has said on more than one occasion that there would never be a US base in Paraguay on his watch. If the US wants to consider extending its stay beyond December 2006, it will have to offer market access in return, which is exactly what Paraguay needs and what the rest of the countries in this region should expect.