- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales has announced plans to build three military bases with Venezuelan assistance along Bolivia’s eastern borders with Brazil and Paraguay, where more than 2,000 elite troops will receive advanced training.

Mr. Morales says the bases are needed because the United States is “scheming” against Bolivia through neighboring countries, but domestic critics think he is more interested in having the troops available to stem unrest in a region that increasingly is demanding autonomy.

Speaking to journalists before he left for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Cuba last week, Mr. Morales announced that the Venezuelan military would “support” the building of the bases, which the Paraguayan government has denounced as a “provocation.”

“Every country has the right to strengthen its defenses,” said Mr. Morales, who claimed he was responding to a “campaign by the government of the United States which wants to confront us.”

He suggested the situation was similar to the Chaco War in the 1930s in which “external transnational interests confronted [Bolivia and Paraguay] over the region that currently possesses our largest reserves of natural gas.”

U.S. diplomats described the charge as “baseless.”

Political opponents say Mr. Morales is using Venezuelan aid to militarize eastern Bolivia, which is the stronghold of opposition parties that have pushed through a referendum endorsing regional autonomy.

Military delegations from Bolivia and Venezuela met yesterday to establish “economic cooperation” for new army installations in Bolivia’s Amazonic region along the Paraguay River, said Defense Minister Walker San Miguel. He said the project will cost $22 million.

Bolivia and Venezuela entered into a military cooperation agreement last month that provides for the construction of a “military fort” and a “port” in the eastern towns of Riberalta and Puerto Quijarro to “promote the exchange of information and encounters between experts in armament and equipment.”

“It will be a large headquarters for elite units and professional military training which is very much wanted by the Bolivian army and now thanks to Venezuelan cooperation will become a reality,” Mr. San Miguel said. The facilities are expected to house an airfield and 2,500 personnel.

Officers of Bolivia’s 8th Army Division based in Santa Cruz say Venezuelan army engineers are already at the sites and that Venezuela is bringing in AK-103 assault rifles recently acquired from Russia. Military officials said 14 Venezuelan air force pilots are in Bolivia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promoted the idea of an anti-U.S. alliance in South America during a visit to Bolivia in May.

“We must form a defensive military pact between armies of the region,” he said. Mr. Chavez has since signed a $3 billion deal with Russia to develop an indigenous defense industry.

Security relations between the United States and Bolivia have suffered since Mr. Morales denounced a covert operation to deactivate Bolivia’s arsenal of Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles and fired 25 army generals in January. He also has refused to hand over sensitive U.S. counterterror equipment that the Pentagon has demanded.

Mr. Chavez has strongly influenced Mr. Morales’ main policies, personally backing the shock nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons in May, when troops occupied the offices of foreign oil companies.

He also has defended Mr. Morales’ use of the army in support of land seizures by Quechua peasant groups from the western Andes who are moving into eastern lowlands.

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