It has been interesting to see much recent speculation about Paraguay, a country that usually gets absolutely no attention in Washington. A series of unusual facts and unsubstantiated rumors have many Latin America-watchers wondering what is going on:
- According to yesterday’s Guardian (UK), Paraguay is swirling with rumors that President Bush has bought a 98,840-acre ranch in the arid, empty Chaco region of the country’s northwest, not far from Bolivia. "Erasmo Rodríguez Acosta, the governor of the Alto Paraguay region where Mr Bush’s new acquisition supposedly lies, told one Paraguayan news agency there were indications that Mr Bush had bought land in Paso de Patria, near the border with Brazil and Bolivia. He was, however, unable to prove this, he added."
- Earlier this month, Jenna Bush, one of the president’s twin daughters, paid a ten-day visit to Paraguay to learn about UNICEF projects there. From the Associated Press report: "’The visit is strictly private in nature,’ UNICEF announced in a one-page statement released by spokeswoman Natalie Echague. ‘She will get to know the UNICEF activities in Paraguay and some of the programs it cooperates in.’"
- Since mid-2005, the U.S. Southern Command has been carrying out an unusual series of bilateral exercises in Paraguay. Some of these exercises have been humanitarian – building schools, providing health services – and others have been Special Forces Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) deployments for lethal combat and counter-terrorism training. (See a list of these exercises – and a transcript of the Paraguayan Congress’s debate about whether to approve them – here as a Microsoft Word document in Spanish.)
- U.S. personnel are widely reported to have been using the Mariscal Estigarribia airstrip in the Chaco region, not far from Bolivia. In January, the State Department published a denial that the United States – as was widely rumored – planned to establish a military base there.
- Earlier this month, Paraguay’s government surprisingly withdrew the immunity from prosecution that it had granted the U.S. soldiers present to carry out the exercises. As a result, the series of exercises begun in mid-2005 will end by December 1.
What does all of this mean? And why Paraguay?
I have no idea, and it may mean nothing at all. However, as part of another research trip to South America in early November, I will be spending 2 days in Asunción conducting interviews. (This will be my first-ever trip to Paraguay.) If I learn anything that helps to clarify things, I will post it.