COHA in the Public ArenaParaguay

PARAGUAY-US: ‘Base’ story revived, with twists

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The stories about a putative US base in Paraguay currently circulating on the Internet have been given a new lease of life, in two different quarters that had subscribed to the original version. In both cases Paraguay is said to be of great strategic importance to the US, but for quite different reasons.

Even the most cursory trawl through the Internet will reveal that claims which were first made in 2005 regarding the US establishing a military base at the airport in Mariscal Estigarribia [SSR-05-07;08;12], are still being repeated as fact, even by otherwise sober institutions and analysts. Until recently the only substantial difference was that the number of US troops reputed to have entered Paraguay in 2005 had been raised from 400 to 500 in the intervening years.

This has now changed. On 20 August the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Coha), a US-based campaigning NGO, released a ‘backgrounder’ entitled Why Paraguay Matters. In 2005 Coha had reported the Estigarribia airbase as having already been built by the US in 2000 and reported that it had capacity for 16,000 troops. In the new report it says, “After the series of [2005-06 US military] exercises formally ended, Washington turned to another way of projecting a military presence in the country, namely constructing military infrastructure for the Paraguayan armed forces. The current facility in question is an airport being built at Mariscal Estigarribia. For several years, there has been discussion about who originally played the major role in erecting the airport in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some claim it was the American military which built it, but the State Department claims it was the Paraguayans. Most recently, American troops have expanded the airport’s facilities, building new hangars and other structures, stoking the widely circulated idea that the U.S. will enter an ongoing military presence in the country.”

Also on 20 August, three teams of non-governmental international observers mustered by the Campaña por la Desmilitarización de las Américas (Cada) ended a four-day visit to Paraguay “to evaluate whether a US military base really is being prepared’. One of the teams spent two days in Mariscal Estigarribia, to observe the installations of what might become in the not-too-distant future an operational US military base”. Co-hosting the fact-finding mission was the Servicio Paz y Justicia-Paraguay, primary sources for the original US base story.

Preliminary findings did not materialise as announced on 20 August, nor indeed up to the time of writing. A similar Cada mission just over a year earlier only reported that Mariscal Estigarribia had “the best landing strip in Paraguay” [inaccurate, to put it mildly], that all interviewees reported “periodical visits from high-ranking civilian and military US officials, including the ambassador”, and that they had noted “the constant presence of USAID […] an agency historically known for its relationships with military dictatorships”. There was no mention of the upgrading works reported by Coha.

Coha sees Paraguay as being “of increasingly strategic importance”, not least because “much to the US’s dismay, Venezuela and Cuba have become close political friends with Paraguay” -but also because “it probably makes some sense [for Paraguay] to consider allying itself with the US […] against a Venezuela-backed Bolivia, than to spend tens of millions of dollars on upgrading its military from almost zero.” Cada, in the literature accompanying the recent mission, says that “Paraguay at present plays a principal role in the Washington government’s positioning in the South” and is “the only country of Mercosur that has shown a growing rapprochement with Washington.”