BUENOS AIRES Although Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have formally accepted the fact that Paraguay has allowed U.S. troops to enter the country and granted them immunity from prosecution, the decision has become a thorn in the flesh of South America’s Mercosur trade bloc.
"The position taken by Paraguay has marked a difference" with the rest of Mercosur (Southern Common Market) because that country has accepted conditions that the other three full members had rejected, Rosendo Fraga, an expert on security issues and head of the Nueva Mayoría think tank in Argentina, told IPS.
As of Jun. 1, the Paraguayan Congress granted permission for U.S. forces to remain in the country for 18 months at a time. The troops are also free to circulate and to transport weapons and medical supplies in Paraguayan territory.
In addition, Paraguay relinquished the right to subject the visiting troops to the jurisdiction of the local judicial system or the International Criminal Court, which was set up to try cases involving genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Although the governments of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay accepted the decision by Paraguay the fourth full member of Mercosur it remains a source of shared concern, as reflected by comments by legislators and political analysts.
Some observers have warned that the arrival of 500 U.S. troops in Paraguay on Jul. 1 and the expansion of the Mariscal Estigarribia military base in that country could indicate plans to establish a permanent base like the ones already operating in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba or the Ecuadorian port city of Manta.
They note that the Mariscal Estigarribia base, some 200 km from the Bolivian border, has been equipped in recent years to permit the landing of large aircraft and to house thousands of troops.
In a conversation with IPS, lawmaker Maria José da Conceição of the governing leftist Workers Party in Brazil expressed surprise that Paraguay authorized the presence of U.S. troops, and said Mercosur must take a stand on the matter.
"Mercosur is much more than a mere trade pact, and Paraguay should have previously informed its partners in the bloc of its decision," protested DA Conceição, a member of the commission on foreign relations and Defense in the lower house of the Brazilian Congress.
"It is apparent that the United States wants to impose the creation of a base in Paraguay where large planes capable of flying to Venezuela over Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia could land," she added.
DA Conceição said Brazilian Defense Minister José Alencar and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim should be summoned to a public hearing in Congress to clarify the position Brazil plans to adopt vis-à-vis the steps that its neighbor and Mercosur partner is taking.
Federico Storani, the deputy chairman of the foreign relations commission in Argentina’s lower house, explained to IPS that each Mercosur member has the sovereign right to reach its own decisions, and that the regional bloc only takes a stance or intervenes if the constitutional order is at risk in one of the member countries.
Nevertheless, Storani, who represents the Radical Civic Union, an opposition party, said he was opposed to the entrance of foreign troops who enjoy immunity from prosecution. "I don’t like that at all, for Argentina or for any Mercosur country," he acknowledged.
He added that it would be even more serious if the U.S. troops scheduled to take part in 13 different joint military exercises in Paraguay from now to Dec. 31, 2006 represent a foretaste of a permanent military presence.
"In a region that is already destabilized by crises like that of Bolivia, the presence of U.S. forces makes the situation even more explosive. It’s like pouring gasoline on fire," said Storani.
He underlined, however, that if the government in Asunción did decide to accept a permanent U.S. military base in Paraguay, the rest of the members of the bloc could do nothing to prevent it, since they have no authority over the matter.
A similar position was expressed by Argentine Defense Minister José Pampuro and parliamentary Deputy Jorge Arguello of the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party, the chairman of the foreign relations commission in the Chamber of Deputies.
"We cannot meddle in the decisions reached by another state, but Argentina does not agree with what Paraguay is doing," said Pampuro. "Our legislation rejects the granting of immunity from prosecution."
For his part, Arguello said the Argentine government’s foreign policy holds the highest respect for the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court.
Argentine political scientist Marcelo Gullo told IPS that an eventual permanent base forms part of a strategic project by Washington to gain control over the Guaraní aquifer, an enormous fresh water reserve that underlies all four full members of Mercosur.
Social movements say the aquifer, one of the largest in the world, is the George W. Bush administration’s main interest in the region, even though officially its prime concern is the alleged presence of radical fundamentalist Muslim terrorist cells in the "tri-border region" where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge.
Fraga said that in the past few months, the Bush administration has toned down its warnings about supposed terrorist activity in the tri-border region while expressing growing concern over Bolivia, where massive social protests have forced two presidents to step down in less than two years.
Referring to the ongoing instability in countries like Bolivia or Ecuador, the analyst said the U.S. military presence in Paraguay is "preventative" in nature. But he admitted that its implications for Latin America cannot be ignored.
"The presence of U.S. troops in Paraguay indicates that the region is becoming unstable and that our countries have failed to come up with concrete actions to bring about stability," said Fraga.
With additional reporting by Mario Osava in Brazil.