Column: Dispatches From The Edge: Dark Armies, Secret Bases and Rummy, Oh My! By Conn Hallinan

Friday November 25, 2005

It would be easy to make fun of President Bush’s recent fiasco at the fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. His grand plan for a free trade zone reaching from the Arctic Circle to Terra del Fuego was soundly rejected by nations fed up with the economic and social chaos wrought by neo-liberalism. At a press conference, South American journalists were rude about Karl Rove. And the president ended the whole debacle by uttering what may be the most trenchant observation the man has ever made on Latin America: “Wow! Brazil is big!” 

But there is nothing amusing about an enormous U.S. base less than 120 miles from the Bolivian border, or the explosive growth of U.S. financed mercenary armies that are doing everything from training the military in Paraguay and Ecuador to calling in air attacks against guerillas in Colombia. Indeed, it is feeling a little like the run up to the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Washington-sponsored military dictatorships and dark armies ruled the continent. 

U.S. Special Forces began arriving this past summer at Paraguay’s Mariscasl Estigarriba air base, a sprawling complex built in 1982 during the reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessnerr. The airfield can handle B-52 bombers and Galaxy C-5 cargo planes, and house up to 16,000 troops. Some 500 U.S. special forces are conducting a three-month counterterrorism training exercise, code named Operation Commando Force 6.  

Paraguayan denials that Mariscal Estigarriba is now a U.S. base have met with considerable skepticism by Brazil and Argentina. There is a disturbing similarity between U.S. denials about Mariscal Estigarriba and similar disclaimers made by the Pentagon about Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador. The U.S. claimed Manta base was a “dirt strip” used for weather surveillance. When local journalists revealed its size, however, the U.S. admitted the base harbored thousands of mercenaries and hundreds of U.S. troops, and Washington had signed a 10-year basing agreement with Ecuador. 

The Eloy Alfaro base is used to rotate U.S. troops in and out of Columbia, and to house an immense network of private corporations who do most of the military’s dirty work in Columbia. According to the Miami Herald, U.S. mercenaries have fought guerrillas in southern Columbia, and American civilians working for Air Scan International of Florida called in air strikes that killed 19 civilians and wounded 25 others in the town of Santo Domingo. 

It was U.S. intelligence agents working out of Manta who fingered Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader Ricardo Palmera last year, and several leaders of the U.S. supported coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spent several months there before launching the 2004 coup that exiled Aristide to South Africa. 

“Privatizing” war is not only the logical extension of the Bush administration’s mania for contracting everything out to the private sector; it also shields the White House’s activities from the U.S. Congress. 

The role that Manta is playing in the northern part of the continent is what so worries countries in the southern cone about Mariscasl Estigarriba. “Once the United States arrives,” Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aldolfo Perez commented about the Paraguay base, “it takes a long time to leave.” 

The Bush Administration has made the “Triple Frontier Region” where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet into the South American equivalent of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.  

According to William Pope, U.S. State Department Counterterrorist Coordinator, the United States has evidence that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed spent several months in the area in 1995. The U.S. military also says it seized documents in Afghanistan with pictures of Paraguay and letters from Arabs living in Cuidad del Este, a city of some 150,000 people in the tri-border region. 

The Defense Department has not revealed what the letters contained, but claims that the area is a hotbed of Middle East terrorism have been widely debunked. The U.S. State Department’s analysis of the region—“Patterns of Terrorism”—found no evidence for the charge 

It is the base’s proximity to Bolivia that causes the most concern, particularly given the Bush Administration’s charges that Cuba and Venezuela are stirring up trouble in that Andean nation. 

Bolivia has seen a series of political upheavals, starting with a revolt against the privatization of water supplies. The water revolt, which spread to IMF-enforced taxes, and the privatization of gas and oil reserves, forced three presidents to resign.  

The country is increasingly polarized between its majority Indian population and an elite minority, which has dominated the nation for hundreds of years. Six out of 10 people live below the poverty line, a statistic that rises to nine in 10 in rural areas. 

For the Bush administration, however, Bolivia is all about subversion, not poverty and powerlessness. 

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Paraguay this past August, he told reporters that, “There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways.”  

A major focus of the unrest in Bolivia is who controls its vast natural gas deposits, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere. Under pressure from the U.S. and the IMF, Bolivia sold off its oil and gas to Enron and Shell in 1995 for $263.5 million, less than 1 percent of what the deposits are worth. 

The Movement Toward Socialism’s presidential candidate Evo Morales, a Quechuan Indian who is running first in the polls, wants to re-nationalize the deposits. Polls indicate that 75 percent of Bolivians agree with him. 

But the political crisis has the United States muttering dark threats about “failed states.” 

U.S. General Bantz J. Craddock, commander of Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee: “In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-U.S., anti-globalization, and anti-free trade demagogues.” 

This is scary talk for Latin American countries. 

Would the United States invade Bolivia? Given the present state of the U.S. military, unlikely.  

Would the U.S. try to destabilize Bolivia’s economy while training people how to use military force to insure Enron, Shell, British Gas, Total, Repsol, and the United States continues to get Bolivian gas for pennies on the dollar? Quite likely.  

And would the White House like to use such a coup as a way to send a message to other countries? You bet. President Bush may be clueless on geography, but he is not bad at overthrowing governments and killing people. 

But if the U.S. tries something in Bolivia (or Venezuela), it will find that the old days when proxy armies and economic destabilization could bring down governments are gone, replaced by countries and people who no longer curtsy to the colossus from the north. 

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Grinch Award of the week goes to the U.S. State Department for denying a visa to Cuban vaccine expert, Vicente Verez-Bencomo. Verez-Bencomo was to receive an award from the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation for inventing a low-cost vaccine for meningitis and pneumonia that, according to Science Magazine, “may someday save millions of lives.” 

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Orville Faubus Award for Cultural and Racial Sensitivity goes to Gerard Larcher, France’s Employment Minister. Larcher told the press that the riots were due to “overly large polygamous families” which led to “anti-social behavior among youths who lacked a father figure.”