Kevin GrayTue / Reuters – 2005-09-28 09:25:44
(September 27, 2005) — 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 US soldiers offer basic medical treatment to the poor.
The troops’ presence is part of joint military exercises being carried out by US and Paraguayan soldiers. But the sight of the American soldiers has fanned fears of greater US 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 US 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 US-pushed market reforms and the Iraq war. Decades of US intervention, from Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile to Central American wars in the 1980s, have added to the unease.
US 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 US 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 US 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 US embassy in Asuncion. “We have no interest in a base.”
In South America, the US military operates a base in Manta, Ecuador, where US 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, US 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 US military interventions in Latin America. He called the US 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 US forces at some point.
The base includes an airstrip built by US 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 US presence there, American officials say.
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 US base in the region.”
Hoping to temper speculation, the US 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 US 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, US 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 US presence.
Larry Birns, head of the Washington-based Council of Hemispheric Affairs, said regional concerns about US motives had in part grown out of worries over how the US 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.”
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