US Military in Paraguay: Threatening the Left and Eyeing Gas and Oil in Latin America

Preparations for renewed US intervention in Latin America are underway. To protect its hegemony and economic interests, the US government is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse for military operations aimed at destabilizing leftist movements and governments and securing natural resources such as oil and gas.

By focusing on land reform and social programs such as education and healthcare, many of the new leaders in Latin America have put the needs of the people ahead of the demands of multinational companies. This leftist resurgence in the region makes corporate investors and other champions of the free market nervous. Recently, the George W. Bush administration has gone to extreme measures to check the resurgence.

Hundreds of US troops arrived in Paraguay on July 1st for secretive operations and are believed to be populating a military base 200 kilometers from the Bolivian border. Political analysts in the region believe this questionable activity is part of a strategy to quell popular uprisings in Bolivia — where upcoming presidential and and national assembly elections are expected to favor a leftist candidate — and take over the country’s vast gas reserves.

Bush administration officials blame left-leaning “instability” in Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, on funding and support from President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Lately, Bolivia has gone through politically tumultuous times; protests against plans to privatize the country’s gas reserves have ousted two presidents in two years.

President Chavez says his oil-rich country is targeted for US intervention. Recent US allegations that the leader is fomenting rebellion in Latin America may be a prelude to it.

“Unhelpful Ways”

On the plane to Paraguay, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discussed the alleged Cuban and Venezuelan roles in Bolivia: “Any time you see issues involving stability in a country, it is something that one wishes would be resolved in a democratic, peaceful way,” but “[t]here certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways” (U.S. Department of Defense, “News Transcript,” 16 August 2005).

Speaking to reporters on the same trip, a top Rumsfeld aid charged that Cuba had “reactivated its underground networks throughout the region, particularly in Bolivia” and warned that Cubans were “providing political guidance, stimulating street violence and attempting to discredit the country’s democratic institutions” (qtd. in Jim Shultz, “Bush Brings the False Intelligence Game to South America,”, 1 September 2005).

However, US officials have yet to offer any evidence to support their allegations, citing concerns that doing so would reveal secret sources.

A Bolivian president ousted by popular protests might have been expected to be the first to claim that rebellion in his country is funded and supported by leftist leaders abroad. That’s not the case, however, with ex-president Carlos Mesa, who was driven from office by massive protests in May 2005. In an interview with the Argentine paper Clarin, Mesa said that though sympathies between Chavez and protest groups in Bolivia are widely known, he “had not seen any evidence of Venezuelan interference” (“US behind Bolivia Crisis — Chavez,” BBC, 13 June 2005):

— EE.UU. acusa a Venezuela de intervención en el conflicto boliviano. ¿Fue así?

— No hubo ningún indicio de inteligencia sobre eso mientras estuve en el gobierno. Que había una relacion de empatía y respaldo de Hugo Chávez a Evo no le cabe la menor duda a nadie. Y me parece legítimo. (Hinde Pomeraniec, “Mesa: ‘Debí apelar antes a la ayuda internacional.'” Clarín, 12 June 2005)

Cuban President Fidel Castro has also rejected accusations that his country and Venezuela are “destabilizing influences in Latin America.” According to the Cuban newspaper Periodico 26, Castro said the winds of change in the region are the result of desperate economic conditions. “People are becoming aware of their problems; misery, unemployment and the lack of medical care are the main causes of dissatisfaction. . . . There’s no need to blame us, it’s their own neo-liberal and interventionist policies coming home to roost” (“Fidel Castro Rebuts Rumsfeld on Cuba and Venezuela,” 27 August 2005).

Recent events in Bolivia illustrate that widespread poverty and the growing political muscle of impoverished indigenous groups have contributed to the country’s unrest. The last five years in Bolivia have seen numerous citizen revolts over policies that were exported to the country from Washington. In April 2000, the residents of Cochabamba rebelled against water privatization, pushed by the World Bank (the Bank chief is chosen by the White House) and carried out by the Bechtel corporation. In February 2003, thirty four Bolivians were killed during protests against an income tax hike imposed by the International Monetary Fund (the US is the only single nation which holds a veto over the fund’s policies). In October 2003, over sixty Bolivians were killed in protests against a plan to privatize and export the country’s gas to California, a deal supported by the US Embassy in Bolivia.

Terror and Resource Wars

“What is the U.S. government looking for? . . . They’re looking for oil. This is part of the [energy] crisis that is looming in the horizon,” said Venezuelan President Chavez when commenting on US foreign policy during an interview conducted by Democracy Now! (“Hugo Chavez: ‘If the Imperialist Government of the White House Dares to Invade Venezuela, the War of 100 Years Will be Unleashed in South America,'” 19 September 2005) . This impending energy crisis may direct much of the Bush administration’s policies in Latin America, where the “threat of terrorism” offers a convenient excuse for securing natural resources.

Many in the US mainstream media are using rhetoric of “counter-terrorism” to President Chavez as a dangerous influence in the hemisphere. While interviewing the Venezuelan leader on ABC News (“Transcript: Hugo Chavez Interview,” 16 September 2005), Nightline host Ted Koppel asked, “I’ve been told by contacts of mine in the US intelligence community that you have members of Al Qaida . . . who are allowed to operate within Venezuela. Not true?” Chavez, of course, responded, “It’s absolutely false.” But what matters to Washington is only that the media keep raising questions of terrorism — regardless of Chavez’s answers to them.

The US is predictably seeking to justify its current military presence in Paraguay by citing Islamic terrorist activity in the triple border region where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet, an area home to the largest water reserves in the hemisphere. In March, William Pope, the U.S. State Department’s principal deputy coordinator of counterterrorism, said that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed is believed to have visited the tri-border area for several weeks in 1995.

A military base in Paraguay believed to be used by US forces is 200 kilometers from Bolivian natural gas reserves, the second largest on the continent. The fact that the military operations coincide with an upcoming presidential election in Bolivia has also been a cause for concern among activists in region. Bolivian Workers Union leader Jaime Solares, and Movement Toward Socialism Legislator Antonio Peredo, have warned of US plans for a military coup to frustrate the elections. Solares said the US Embassy backs rightwing ex-President Jorge Quiroga in his bid for office, and will go as far as necessary to prevent any other candidate’s victory. According to the most recent polls, leftwing candidate Evo Morales is leading the presidential race.

Business as Usual

US intervention in Latin America isn’t anything new. In many cases, Washington funded and helped plan coups, and occasionally wars, against leaders that weren’t warm to US interests.

Declassified documents prove the US played a key role in the coup which overthrew democratically elected, socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and put dictator Augusto Pinochet in his place. A bloody, US organized war against Sandinista-run Nicaragua was waged throughout the 1980s. More recent cases of US intervention have also been discovered.

Investigative journalist Eva Gollinger has researched declassified US government documents which prove the US played a key part in the short-lived coup against Venezuelan president Chavez in 2002. She discovered an “intricate financing scheme the US government has been carrying out in Venezuela since 2001, that includes financing well over twenty million dollars to opposition sectors. The funding of the National Endowment for Democracy . . . has provided more than three million dollars since late 2001 to opposition groups, many of which were key participants in the April 2002 coup” (“The Proof Is in the Documents”).

Another case of US intervention occurred in Haiti in 2004, when President Bertram Aristide was ousted from office. In an interview conducted by Democracy Now! (“President Aristide Says ‘I Was Kidnapped,'” 1 March 2004), Aristide stated he was “kidnapped” by US military officials in a “coup de-etat.” He also said that millions of dollars from the US government had been sent to opposition groups in Haiti that played a role in the coup.

US troops are operating in Paraguay and Venezuelan president Chavez continues to warn of a US invasion of his country. For a Bush administration that is losing ground in a resource-rich region leaning to the left, away from prostrating itself to US economic and corporate interests, “Operation Latin American Freedom” may be next.

Presidential elections in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia, among others, are to take place within the next year. In many cases left-of-center leaders are expected to win. When that happens, US hegemony will be even more at risk. If Washington has learned anything from recent events in Latin America, it will take the hint and back off. Continued pressure is only likely to increase an already momentous backlash.

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America and is the editor of, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America.