Dr. Luis Maria Argana International Airport
Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay
The United States military and the Armed Forces of Paraguay are conducting joint operations at a Paraguayan military base, including one that involves US soldiers providing counterterrorism training to 65 Paraguayan air force officers. While US officials, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, have denied Washington's interest in a permanent military base in Paraguay, this controversy is similar to that of "permanent" bases in Iraq. The United States seeks "permanent" bases in neither country, but may use forward operating locations for many years to come.
The location of the exercises raised suspicion. The military base is 200 miles from the Bolivian border and almost as close to the country's natural gas reserves and fresh water aquifers. It is also close enough to Brazil to be seen as threatening by some. In late July 2005, the Brazilian army launched military maneuvers along its border with Paraguay, parallel to the arrival of US troops in Paraguay. According to InterPress Service, by that time the United States had conducted 46 military operations in Paraguay since 2002. The first US troops arrived in June 2005.
Since June 2005, a story has developed claiming that the United States plans to establish a military base in Paraguay. This claim has been reported by media in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and on the Internet. A June 13, 2005, article in the Argentine newspaper Clarin, which appears to be the origin of the story, quoted sources as saying that the United States wanted to turn Paraguay into a "second Panama for their troops." According to the Argentine daily El Clarin, the airstrip at Mariscal Estigarribia, the location of the mid-2005 US military activities, is 3,800 meters long and 80 meters wide - large enough to handle large transport aircraft and bigger than the airport in Asuncion, the country's capital city.
Mariscal Estigarribia is a town, in the Boquerón Department of northern Paraguay. It lies in the sparsely settled Chaco Boreal region, on the bank of Mosquitos Creek, which drains into the Paraguay River. The town is now a commercial center. Until 1945 it was a military outpost known as López de Filippis; it was renamed to honour the general whose strategy in the Chaco War (1932–35) established Paraguayan control over the area. The United States does not have a military base in Paraguay and has no plans to establish one. The United States has not asked the Paraguayan government for a military base, nor does it intend to station soldiers in Paraguay. Limited, short-term deployments of U.S. military personnel are scheduled to take place for a series of joint exercises with the Paraguayan military between July 2005 and December 2006. Most personnel deployed will not remain in Paraguay for more than 45 days.
Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte firmly denied that there would be any U.S. base in his country, in August 2005: "In Paraguay, there will be no U.S. military base or any facility of that kind whatsoever because we're a sovereign country, we're part of Mercosur [Southern Cone trade bloc] and we want, above all, the stability of democracy.
The "U.S. base" allegations usually cite the Dr. Luis Maria Argana International Airport in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay, as the facility around which U.S. plans allegedly center. The claims are that Americans constructed the airport, and built a long runway in order to facilitate U.S. military flights. Both claims are false.
In September 2005, Colonel Elio Antonio Flores, the spokesman for the Paraguayan military, stated that Paraguayan military engineers constructed the airport between 1977 and 1986, not the United States. The Mariscal Estigarribia airport was constructed at a time when the Paraguayan government envisioned developing a free-trade zone in its northern Chaco region to help develop the area. The primary cargo aircraft of that era, the DC-8 and Boeing 707, needed very long runways to take off when fully loaded.
The June 13, 2005, Clarin article claimed that American "B-52 airplanes" could be used at Mariscal Estigarribia. In reality, the runways are too narrow for them. B-52s typically need a runway width of 150 feet (46 meters) to land and re-engined models will require a runway width of 175 feet (53 meters), according to a June 2004 report (page 28) of the US Defense Science Board Task Force on B-52 Re-Engining. However, the runways at Mariscal Estigarribia are only 131 feet (40 meters) wide.
The airportâ€™s numerous deficiencies also make it impractical to use. It has no published approach, no navigational aids, no lighting, its refueling facilities are only designed for small aircraft such as Cessnas, and the condition of the runway is listed as "poor" in the U.S. Air Mobility Command Airfield Suitability Report. In addition, there is not enough room on the small parking apron to have sufficient clearance from the runway for another aircraft to land. Because of these limiting factors, the government of Paraguay restricts the airfield to emergency use only.
Much has been made of what is often described as the unusually long (3,500 meters) runways at the Mariscal Estigarribia airport. Proponents of the "U.S. base" theory claim that such long runways could only be intended for the use of American military aircraft. In fact, the length of the Mariscal Estigarribia runways is not unusual for an international airport. Two other airports in Paraguay have runways of similar length: Guarani International Airport (3,400 meters) and Silvio Pettirossi International Airport (3,353 meters). Neighboring Bolivia has three airports with runways that equal or exceed the length of those at the Mariscal Estigarribia airport.
Leila Rachid, Paraguayâ€™s minister of foreign relations, told the newspaper Ultima Hora that the airport belongs to Paraguay and it will not be used by the United States. "The airport which we have in Marshal Estigarribia dates back many years," said Minister Rachid, "and it was not constructed in order to perform military exercises [with the United States], nor to install a base."
The allegations about a purported U.S. military base appear to be based on misunderstandings about a series of 13 separate joint military exercises, which Paraguay and the United States began in July 2005, and which continue through December 2006. These short, time-limited exercises have been mischaracterized as a long-term stationing of U.S. troops in Paraguay. This is not true, and the military exercises themselves are nothing new. Paraguay and the United States have been conducting routine bilateral military exercises since 1943.
For the 2005-2006 series of exercises, small numbers of U.S. personnel â€“ generally 10-20 persons at a time â€“ will train with their Paraguayan counterparts for periods of two to six weeks. No U.S. soldiers will be deployed for an extended period of time, and there will never be more than a few dozen U.S. service members in Paraguay for longer than 45 days.
Many of these exercises will provide humanitarian medical assistance to thousands of needy campesinos and others in rural locations. The United States has provided free medical services to over 90,000 Paraguayans since 2001, including vaccinations, eye and ear care, and procedures to repair cleft palates.
Similar training exercises occur routinely between the U.S. armed services and the militaries of many other countries in Latin America and elsewhere, as they have for decades. The purpose of such exercises, wherever they occur, is to enhance the capabilities of forces of both the host country and the United States. The training exercises in Paraguay are not linked to any other assistance provided by the U.S. government.
The joint exercises between Paraguay and the United States, like all such exercises, are governed by agreements that specify the terms and conditions of the participating U.S. soldiersâ€™ presence in the host country. In May 2005, the Paraguayan Senate, acting in response to a request submitted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, approved the entry of U.S. soldiers for the purpose of participating in the 13 separate military training exercises set to occur over an 18-month period. This approval was mistaken by some to mean that a contingent of U.S. troops was authorized to be stationed in Paraguay for 18 months, thereby contributing to the notion that the United States was establishing a long-term presence in the country. In fact, the act merely represented one, consolidated approval covering all 13 planned exercises, in lieu of individual approvals for each exercise.
Consolidating these exercises into a single status agreement and request for permission to enter Paraguay was done to facilitate Paraguayan congressional review and to promote transparency. The past practice of making individual entry requests and concluding separate status agreements for each exercise proved time-consuming and cumbersome, resulting in the tardy arrival of executive branch requests to Congress and complaints from members of Congress about insufficient time to review the requests. Laying out all 13 exercises over 18 months vastly improved the process for both countries. However, some continue to mischaracterize this streamlined approval process as permission for U.S. troops to remain in Paraguay for 18 months. This is incorrect. As noted above, no U.S. soldiers will be deployed in Paraguay for an extended period of time. Most deployments will not exceed 45 days.
Media and Internet reports have contended that the Paraguayan government granted "total immunity" or full diplomatic immunity to the U.S. troops being deployed for the exercises, in violation of Paraguayâ€™s obligations under the Rome Treaty. This is not the case.
The fact is that both houses of the Paraguayan Congress extended to U.S. personnel assigned to the exercises a status equivalent to that accorded to the administrative and technical staffs of foreign embassies. This status differs from that accorded to "diplomatic agents" (as defined by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) and provides U.S. military personnel no immunity from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of the host country for "acts performed outside the course of their duties." The administrative and technical status is described in Article 37 of the Vienna Convention. It is entirely consistent with the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which recognizes signatory nationsâ€™ "obligations under international law" concerning such matters (Part 9, Article 98).
Other allegations in the "U.S. base" myth are that the U.S. plans to intervene in Cuidad del Este â€“ a Paraguayan city of about 200,000 people located in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil â€“ and/or seeks to control the Guarani Aquifer, a large fresh-water reserve which lies beneath those countries. In reality, the United States has no designs of any kind on Cuidad del Este, except to support programs to create jobs in the formal sector there. The United States has no interest in the Guarani Aquifer, which the U.S. government recognizes as an important resource for the inhabitants of the region.
Publicly available information, statements by both Paraguayan and U.S. government officials, and other readily available evidence clearly show that allegations that the United States plans to establish a military base in Paraguay are false. There is no such U.S. plan or intention. Factually inaccurate information about Paraguayan-U.S. military exercises, combined with unsupported conspiracy theories, have been embellished and repeated in various media and Internet outlets since June 2005. These false claims have also been cited by persons and groups opposed to Paraguayan-U.S. military cooperation and U.S. engagement in South America.
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