SAO PAULO, Brazil
An 18-month-old military agreement between Paraguay and the United States is viewed with skepticism in Brazil, but analysts say concerns are overblown.
The Paraguayan Congress endorsed the accord four months ago.
Influential newspapers in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia generally have denounced the agreement as intrusive Washington politics.
President Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will meet at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, next week to discuss money laundering, counterterrorism policies and other issues for the Triple Frontier region shared among Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.
Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet with Mr. Lula da Silva in Brasilia after the summit, sources in the Brazilian capital told The Washington Times. The meeting has not been announced officially.
Since the early stages of its war on terrorism, the Bush administration has said the Triple Frontier region near Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, generates funds for Hamas and Hezbollah, though ties to terrorist activities remain unsubstantiated.
Documents found during U.S. military operations in Afghanistan reportedly included photographs of Paraguay and letters received from Arabs living in Ciudad del Este, a city of 150,000 people, of whom 10 percent are Arabs, Paraguayan officials said.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, interviewed on TV Cultura in Sao Paulo on Oct. 3, warned Brazilian viewers of the U.S. military presence in South America. Mr. Chavez suspects the Bush administration is using its war on terrorism as a cover to counter populist political movements in South America.
Opponents of the U.S.-Paraguayan accord do not trust official claims by both sides that the United States does not plan to take over an airstrip it built in 1982 in the Chaco region in northern Paraguay.
Paraguay’s Foreign Ministry told the Brazilian government in writing on July 7 that “the national government did not sign any accords with the U.S. government for establishing an American military base.”
The air base, located in Mariscal Estigarribia, is large enough to handle B-52 bombers and C-5 Galaxy cargo planes, but is being used only as a runway for small planes owned by local farmers.
Mariscal is 434 miles from the Triple Frontier and 186 miles from the Brazilian border. The surrounding area is mostly forest.
Skeptics point out that the United States and Ecuador said the same thing about a supposed military base in November 1999, only to sign a 10-year agreement with the U.S. Air Force soon after.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. at least wants that base in Mariscal because they believe there are Arab terrorists in Paraguay,” said Walder Goes, a political consultant with close ties to politicians in Brasilia.
“I’lI bet there’s a U.S. base there in a few years. That said, Brazil has a lot of influence in Paraguay. They can play hardball if they want,” he said.
Critics also caution that if terrorists are in the Triple Frontier, the presence of a U.S. base in Mariscal could attract violence.
Still, the U.S. base in Ecuador has not led to an increase in terrorist activity or rumors of terrorism there.
“We’ve been told that this is just training and humanitarian health missions,” said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim. “There is no reason to believe that there is something related to terrorism going on.”
Of the 13 military exercises at the base in Mariscal, only two involved medical training.
U.S. military training
U.S. Special Forces units are to arrive in Paraguay next year for educational courses and counterterrorism training, including Operation Commando Force 6 scheduled for July through September.
The Paraguayan government said other South American nations will be invited to participate, but the Brazilian Defense Ministry said Brazil has not been included.
“No matter how you slice it, this treaty is viewed with a lot of concern by the government,” said Francisco Heitor da Rosa, a military psychologist at Assiz Gurgacz College in Cascavel, Parana, 93 miles east of Ciudad del Este. “The accord has been viewed by politicians as if it was some kind of threat to our sovereignty. But that is far from a consensus opinion.”
Luiz Moniz Bandeira, a Brazilian-U.S. foreign affairs analyst who has written several books on Washington-Brasilia military relations, said he doubts leftist rhetoric that the Bush administration would try to destabilize South America using the war on terrorism as a fig leaf and Paraguay as its base station.
“That would generate more tension, upheavals and terrorist activity against U.S. troops and corporations,” he said. “That said, I wouldn’t dismiss the hypothesis that U.S. agents plant stories in the media about Arab terrorists in the Triple Frontier to provoke terrorism and justify their military presence.”
Defense analyst Fernando Sampaio counters: “This business that the U.S. is here to create disharmony is pure Hollywood.
“The United States lacks the conditions to successfully overthrow governments in South America,” he said, alluding to suspicions that a Washington-backed coup briefly removed Mr. Chavez as president of Venezuela in April 2002.
“South American countries don’t need the United States to make them fall apart. They fall apart by themselves” said Mr. Sampaio, who works at the Superior College of Geopolitical Strategy in Porto Allegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state.
Red flags raised
With its Paraguayan accord, the United States moves closer to the Triple Frontier.
The Washington-Asuncion relationship has been building since Nicanor Duarte Frutos was elected president in August 2003. Mr. Frutos met with Mr. Bush in Washington that year, becoming the first Paraguayan president invited into the Oval Office, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.
Mr. Duarte’s vice president, Luis Castiglioni, met in June with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Mr. Rumsfeld traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, in mid-August.
Brasilia insiders agree that Mr. Bush and Mr. Lula da Silva have a cordial relationship, but see little trust and reciprocity further down the hierarchy.
Brasilia has turned down Washington’s hawkish requests to rally nations in the Organization of American States against Mr. Chavez, and Mr. da Silva has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush’s Iraq war.
When politicians add Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Noriega to the Triple Frontier and throw in 15,000 Arabs in Ciudad del Este, it inevitably raises red flags.
The Triple Frontier was thrust into the spotlight in October 2002, when Jeffrey Goldberg wrote “In the Party of God” for the New Yorker magazine. In the story, he defined the region as, “the center of Middle Eastern terrorism in South America” and “a community under the influence of extreme Islamic beliefs.”
Mr. Goldberg said Hamas, Hezbollah and al Qaeda were training in the area and perhaps financing terrorism.
The State Department’s “Patterns of Terrorism” reports for the past two years have found no evidence of terrorist funding or activity from Paraguay.
An International Monetary Fund report by the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering said the region was awash in cash smuggling but not terrorist financing. The IMF did say, however, that Brazil needs to “quickly implement” more comprehensive counterterrorist financing measures.
Brazil appears to be taking counterterrorism policy seriously. Legislation in the works aims to keep Brazil in line with U.N. Security Council counterterrorism norms established after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Brazil hasn’t had a central counterterrorism unit since the 1964-85 dictatorship years. The country wants to control its policies against terrorism before it is forced to follow the policies of other countries, defense analysts say.
Although al Qaeda is never mentioned outside of international news, Hamas and Hezbollah appeared in Brazilian news reports this summer. On June 7, Parana state police arrested a Palestinian, Saiel Bashar al Atary, 43, on charges of credit card fraud and drug trafficking in Foz do Iguacu, across the river from Ciudad del Este.
Police are investigating whether he sent money to Hamas. People who know Mr. al Atary say he has no connection to the group. This tends to be as far as terrorist investigations go in the Triple Frontier.
When U.S. soldiers arrived in Paraguay in July, the Asuncion-based newspaper ABC Color, citing “intelligence sources,” reported that $20 million a year leaves the Triple Frontier to fund Hezbollah. The article said some of the money is hidden in Brazilian banks.
“We have to intensify our defense and security relationships,” Mr. Amorim told government news agency Agencia Brasil on Sept 17. It’s the best way to dispense with the doubts that arise from public opinion, even when there are no doubts in the government.”
The last Arab terrorist attack in South America occurred at the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1994.
Between 1961 and 2003, 1.2 percent of worldwide terrorist activity took place in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile combined, the U.S. State Department reports. Over the same period, those five countries experienced less than 8 percent of total terrorist activity in Latin America.