September 27, 2005

U.S. military in Paraguay unsettles South America

By Kevin Gray

PILAR, Paraguay (Reuters) - An American army reservist in
fatigues clutches a stethoscope as she readies to check the
blood pressure of a woman in this dusty Paraguayan city where
U.S. soldiers offer basic medical treatment to the poor.

The troops' presence is part of joint military exercises
being carried out by U.S. and Paraguayan soldiers.

But the sight of the American soldiers has fanned fears of
greater U.S. military intentions among some Paraguayans, made
South American neighbors uneasy and sparked media speculation
of ulterior American motives.

Among them: establishing a military base here to monitor
natural gas reserves in neighboring Bolivia where leftists
could soon take power. Others charge U.S. financial interest in
a nearby fresh water reserve, one of the world's largest.

The rumors highlight the tense relations Washington has
with its "backyard" as Latin Americans grow critical of
U.S.-pushed market reforms and the Iraq war. Decades of U.S.
intervention, from Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile to
Central American wars in the 1980s, have added to the unease.

U.S. and Paraguayan officials say the joint military
exercises begun here in July are aimed at increasing
collaboration on counter-terrorism, drug-fighting and
humanitarian aid efforts.

The agreement allows for the participation of 400 U.S.
troops over a year-and-a-half period.

"This is an opportunity for our forces to get professional
training," Paraguayan Foreign Minister Leila Rachid told
Reuters by telephone from Washington. "It's as simple as that."

But critics say they worry the agreement could signal
long-term U.S. interest in a more permanent military presence -
charges American officials deny.

"We're doing the same exercises that we've been doing here
for years. We aren't doing any more of them and we aren't doing
any different ones," said Kevin Johnson, deputy chief of
mission at the U.S. embassy in Asuncion. "We have no interest
in a base."

In South America, the U.S. military operates a base in
Manta, Ecuador, where U.S. and Ecuadorean forces work together
as part of a regional counter-drug operation in Colombia.

Still, recent Paraguayan, Argentine and Brazilian press
reports have talked about American interest in keeping an eye
on the gas reserves in turbulent Bolivia and Paraguay's Guarani
Aquifer, one of the world's largest reserves of fresh water.

And analysts say the military cooperation agreement has, in
part, helped Paraguay - one of South America's poorest
countries - raise its profile in Washington.

Only weeks after the agreement's approval by Paraguayan
lawmakers in June, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
visited Asuncion as part of a Latin American tour.

Horacio Galeano Perrone, a former Paraguayan education
minister and military analyst, said some of the skepticism in
Paraguay was rooted in previous U.S. military interventions in
Latin America.

He called the U.S. mission "the most important military
presence in Paraguay's history."

He said the country offered a central location bordering
Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia and an enormous but largely
dormant airfield at the Mariscal Estigarribia base in the
northern Paraguay that could prove attractive to U.S. forces at
some point.

The base includes an airstrip built by U.S. technicians in
the 1980s during the dictatorship of Paraguayan strongman
Alfredo Stroessner that is longer than the one at Asuncion's
international airport and exceeds the needs of the Paraguayan
air force and its fleet of six planes.

There is no current U.S. presence there, American officials

The military cooperation program has also angered
Paraguay's neighbors.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has urged
Paraguayan officials to carry out the military exercises with
"transparency," adding in recent comments that "we see no
reasons for a U.S. base in the region."

Hoping to temper speculation, the U.S. embassy in Asuncion
recently arranged a trip for reporters showing the humanitarian
part of the exercises in a what was clearly a public relations
campaign. Reuters was not allowed to view what U.S. officials
described as "tactical" operations.

Here in Pilar, a city of simple brick houses and home to
fisherman and farmers some 240 miles south of Asuncion, U.S.
army reservists administered eye exams and handed out medicines
to sick townspeople.

Paraguayan officials and townspeople warmly welcomed the
American presence.

In Asuncion, meanwhile, spray-painted messages of "Get out
Yankee troops" and "No to Rumsfeld and Bush" hinted at some
public anger over the U.S. presence.

Larry Birns, head of the Washington-based Council of
Hemispheric Affairs, said regional concerns about U.S. motives
had in part grown out of worries over how the U.S. built up its
presence in Manta six years ago.

There, he said, officials initially talked of conducting
joint exercises but abruptly converted the facility into a
permanent American military outpost.

"There is good reason for apprehension," he said. "There is
a suspicion of growth factor. This has only hardened suspicion
that the United States wants to militarize the region."