An alleged plan to build a US military base in Paraguay sparks controversy

The South American country denied having discussed the issue during US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Asuncion last week

An unexpected visit of the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to Paraguay last week sparked rumours about Washington's alleged intentions to build a military base in that South American country. Despite Asuncion denied the story and no official replies from neighbour South American nations were heard, social movements protested against what they call a “Plan Paraguay”, alleging that Washington is preparing his forces to intervene in the country following the example of the “Plan Colombia”, on which the Pentagon has invested billons of dollars to fight leftist rebels.

According to an article in the Bolivian newspaper El Deber, a U.S. base is being developed in Mariscal Estigarribia, 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia, and reportedly will permit the landing of large aircraft and the housing up to 16,000 troops. A contingent of 500 U.S. troops arrived in Paraguay on July 1 with planes, weapons, equipment, and ammunition.

In declarations to the local press, Paraguayan Defense Minister Roberto Gonzalez denied having discussed such a plan during Rumsfeld's visit to the country. “This matter was not even dealt with, but we expect to increase bilateral cooperation on the military field”, he told the media. Gonzalez confirmed however that more than 400 US soldiers will be deployed in Paraguay by December 2006.

The case attracted the attention of the Argentine media, which speculated about the presence of US troops in the heart of the Mercosur bloc, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as full members and has Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela as associated nations. Neither Argentina nor Brazil officially commented on the rumours.

However, a source at the Argentine Government did not rule out the US plan to build the base in the Paraguayan Chaco, an oil rich Paraguayan region in the border with Bolivia, which has been scenario of a bloody war between both nations in the 1930's. “They want to have a presence in the area”, the source commented to Pravda.Ru in Buenos Aires, and anticipated that the case will be handled by the local Foreign Ministry.

Even when the story about the base may be ungrounded, Rumsfeld's visit to Asuncion left more doubts than answers as the agenda remains secretive. Let's see. According to the Paraguayan minister, Rumsfeld's visit had an immediate economical benefit for his country, as Washington “has just committed to increase sugar quota to another 6,000 tons this year.” According to his statement, they are expected to expand meat trade, and the US would make customs laws more flexible for Paraguayans.

One should ask if Mr. Rumsfeld is the new US Secretary of Commerce, or what is going on in Bush's administration if the Secretary of Defense deals with trade issues. It is also interesting to see that the visiting secretary asked President Nicanor Duarte about Paraguay's relationship with Cuba and Venezuela, something that concerns another department in the US administration.

Anyway, despite rumours and the contradictory explanations of what Rumsfeld did during his visit to Paraguay, it is certain that Washington is paying more attention to the situation in South America, where newly elected administrations try to keep an independent line in foreign affairs.

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Author`s name Olga Savka