Hundreds of U.S. troops recently arrived in Paraguay to begin questionable activities which political analysts say are part of a preventative war to control regional resources such as gas and water reserves and suppress social uprisings in Bolivia.
Paraguayan human rights activist Orlando Castillo has been deeply involved in the struggle against the U.S. military presence in his country through the human rights group Service, Peace and Justice (Serpaj). In this interview he discusses his organization’s strategies and challenges, the implications of the U.S. interference in the country, the motives for the military presence and how concerned activists outside of Paraguay can help in the struggle.
Benjamin Dangl: First, can you explain your work specifically, with Service, Peace and Justice (Serpaj) and the focus of your activism, education, mobilizations — that you have taken against the threat of the US military presence in your country?
Orlando Castillo: Well, to begin with, I need to tell you that Serpaj is a Latin American organization, which works to build a culture of peace through nonviolent activity. In Paraguay it has been working for 15 years. One of its principal themes in these years has been the deconstruction of militarism, which we see as a system of economic, political, social, cultural and military domination by means of force, whether by arms or by psychology.
My involvement with Serpaj dates from 1992, when I participated in the first workshop on conscientious objection, presenting myself as a conscientious objector in the first group of objectors on September 30, 1993. This first group of five young men refused to be drafted into military service, without benefit of a law about it, although such refusal is recognized as a right in the National Constitution, in Articles 37 and 129 (Paragraph 5). The latter article, which includes conscientious objection, was proposed by Serpaj. I am a founding member of the Conscientious Objection Movement of Paraguay, a youth movement still in existence.
Since 1994, we have been working at the regional level in what was the Network of Objection of Latin America and the Caribbean (ROLC), which began with eight countries and 12 organizations, and later grew to 12 countries. From this niche we have struggled for the demilitarization of the continent, principally having conscientious objection as an organizing point and the proposition of nonviolence as a broad strategy. Nowadays this has come to be known as the Latin American Coordinating Committee for Antimilitarism and Conscientious Objection (CLAOC), composed [primarily] of [groups in] Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay, maintaining contact with groups in Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela. As such, we have been working on demilitarization through the strategy and way of life of active nonviolence.
BD: What plans do you have concerning the intervention of U.S. troops and theimpact of their presence?
Currently we consider informing people in general and social organizations in particular to be basic. With respect to U.S. military presence in the country, a lot of rumors have been floating around that provoke political debate and challenges to the governmental. For example, word that there is already a U.S. military base, even throwing out numbers indicating the presence of 16,000 troops.
We in Serpaj believe the only way to confront this is through information and education. There is a lot of disinformation that is getting out of hand . If no clear strategy is set up to face it we will lose the main thing in this struggle over U.S. military policy, which is the people, the general population. Now we are mainly producing analytical documents, holding conferences, putting together meetings and workshops. Coming out of all this work of informing, spreading the word, let us say, is that already some national organizations have demonstrated against the (U.S.) military presence in the country.
The challenge now is to come up with long-term strategies, to see how we can win over the great mass of the country so that it shows its opposition to military presence and the possible installation of a military base in the country.
Current actions are important, but at the same time we must be thinking about the next five years, give ourselves time to plot the future based on indications and information we get day to day, to be able to resist nonviolently.
BD: What do most people in Paraguay think about the presence of U.S. soldiers in the country?
As I said, there is a lot of disinformation at the local level. In fact, this whole matter was dealt with on the spur of the moment, as Perez Esquivel [Argentine Nobel Peace Prize laureate] indicated en a communique related to what happened with the immunity for the (U.S.) troops and their entrance into the country.
We dare say that in Asunción, in the capital, there may be a high percentage that are opposed to it, but in the countryside, in the rural areas, there exists a major level of acceptance. This is due above all to the fact that advance operations are from medical training, called Medrete (or "Get Ahead), that consist of medical aid for the people, although we don’t know what kind of medicine they’re giving to the people because there aren’t any controls over it, since they’re prohibited by the agreement.
Paraguay has a shortage of medical care affecting 46 percent of the population, especially in rural areas, where the exercises are going to take place. So the people see the medical care as a good thing for the community, but what people don’t know are the dangers they’re being exposed to.
That’s why we insist that we must make the fight today in the countryside through communication, through information, to expose this treaty, so people understand that what they are risking today and tomorrow is their lives, the lives of their children, given that they have left us unprotected by any guarantee. If people know this, I believe that the disposition toward this kind of medical care will change, and people will have another attitude.
BD: Why is your government doing this?
It needs to be understood that Paraguay continues to be ruled by the Colorado party, which has been in power in the country for more than 50 years. They established the 35-year dictatorship with Alfredo Stroessner in charge, they are the ones who "betrayed democracy," and they are the democrats. In other words, Paraguay didn’t have a real structural change, owing also to the absence of opposition parties. Here the Colorado party is the government and the opposition at the same time. With this situation, the allies of the United States never left government, never left power. The same politicians who supported the dictatorship and were brought up in it are the ones governing the country, which is why U.S. influence never stopped being present but rather, to the contrary, increased, to the point where these immunities were agreed to that no other country has given to the military from the North.
To this we must add the current failure of Mercosur, which has only favored Brazil to a large extent, and also Argentina — the governments and businessmen of those countries, since the people ruled by those two governments, as well as the people of Paraguay and Uruguay, were always outside.
Mercosur, as it is today, serves no one, for what it seeks is to consolidate Brazil as the only superpower in the region, and that has happened with Lula (Brazilian President Luiz Inazio da Silva), and it’s going to go on happening, since Itamarati dictates the guidelines.
BD: As you see it, what are the principal reasons for that military intervention? Are the US troops going to invade Bolivia?
The region concerns the United States for economic reasons. It’s concerned by the considerable influence the European Union has in the region, for economic reasons, for while it found itself making world policy, invading Afghanistan first and then Iraq, Europe continued its expansion toward Latin America.
To this is added that in the South there has been a growth of governments of the center left, where Venezuela represented by Chavez is a headache for Washington, given that it possesses a strategic resource for the United States, which is oil, and it is the very resource that is being proposed as a form of aid for the region’s economic growth. The same goes for Mercosur’s support for Cuba. And the rapprochement of that country (with other Latin American countries) is another important point, since in the last few years thanks to the position of this bloc the United States hasn’t got condemnations in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights against the island nation, and (Cuba’s) ties (with Latin American countries) are stronger and stronger.
To this situation add Ecuador, whose uprising of the forajidos ["fugitives" or "outlaws"] overthrowing President Lucio Gutiérrez worries the North. But more worrisome is Bolivia, which not only has a strong indigenous movement but also a movement of cocaleros [coca growers], which aspires to govern, and which is not letting itself submit to Washington’s intent to criminalize coca production. Evo Morales is becoming a headache for Washington, especially in these last few months and what’s left of the year, since the M.A.S. (Movement to Socialism) could win the presidential elections and this is really frowned upon. To that we add the movement at a national level to return hydrocarbons to state hands, which puts at risk investment, above all Yankee investment, and this cannot be tolerated.
In the whole region and particularly in Bolivia two very important elements are coming together, a political movement identified with the people’s demands and a strong social movement, which are the two threats that Washington sees in the region.
In fact, in the visit that Donald Rumsfeld made to Paraguay last August 16, Paraguay’s relations with Venezuela and Cuba were touched on, and another concern was Bolivia.
More specifically, I don’t believe at this time Bolivia will be invaded militarily, although in the future that can’t be ruled out. I believe that if the pressure on Bolivia continues to grow, and if Evo Morales wins the presidency, the Bolivian social movement will have to be considerably on the alert to support their president, not in the sense of not staging demonstrations, but rather in the sense of defending institutions. This is because the U.S. could be financing movements that would try to destabilize the future government, as it did and is currently doing in Venezuela, allying itself with the oligarchy, and that is why it has a good adviser in the northern country, (former President Gonzalo) Sanchez de Lozada.
BD: Is the US interested in "securing" the Guarani aquifer [enormous water reserve in the region]?
The Guarani aquifer is a strategic objective for the United States, which wants to take control of it. Indeed, the intention of setting up a military base in this country has two goals. The first is to be the tip of the lance in the region, for the control of more countries and the second is to take over the aquifer. That’s why it’s necessary [for the United States] that the countries that have control of the aquifer continue privatizing it, something that hasn’t yet happened in Paraguay, but which figures as point one in every visit of the emissaries of the IMF.
BD: What are the implications of these activities on human rights in your country?
From the moment when it was granted immunity as synonymous with impunity, human rights already find themselves exposed to becoming violated. The moment the state renounces its judicial power and reparations for families whose rights are affected there is a violation of the fundamental guarantees of the Paraguayan people.
Indeed, we must warn that from the introduction to the world agenda of the theme of security as top priority, human rights suffered a terrible attack and curtailment, which in this case, in countries like Paraguay, tend to arrive at extreme points as occurred during the doctrine of national security. I believe that beginning now and for a long time the prominence of human rights organizations will again be on the rise, since now not only are we faced with assassinations and torture, but also other forms of violation of human rights that are coming along in Latin America and in Paraguay such as the criminalization of social protest. Today in this country more than two thousand campesinos [farmers/peasants] are in prison under alternative or substitute [legal] measures for claiming a piece of land, for demonstrating, for organizing.
BD: What are the U.S. troops doing now? Are they in the base at Estigarribia now?
In Estigarribia there isn’t any U.S. military base. What there is is a barracks under the power of the national government, through the Army’s Third Corps. It is good to make this clear so people don’t believe that there already is a base. What the Estigarribia military area has is the propitious infrastructure, adequate for the installation of a future base, but no U.S. troops in the area yet, and they don’t have administration of the military area, which is still in the hands of the national government.
Now, this week, begins an Operation Medrete ("Get Ahead") in the city of Pilar, in the department of Neembucú, some 350 kilometers south of Asuncion, along the border with Argentina. We estimate there are permanently about 50 U.S. troops in the country who rotate in and out according to various activities, able to reduce or increase in number. With staggered arrivals and reshuffling, a total of 499 troops of the U.S. Special Forces of the Southern Command are anticipated, most of them arriving next year with a large quantity of weapons for a Regional Military Exercise, in which other countries participate. We don’t yet know the number of soldiers that will participate in the training nor where it will take place, although we believe it would be good to prepare something with social organizations of the southern cone during these exercises.
BD: What are the implications of these military activities to your neighbors (Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil)?
The region is concerned, and indeed the Brazilian Chancellor Amorin has already demonstrated this, in recent statements, and Argentina did the same, but in a more diplomatic manner. So have political types in Bolivia, and in Venezuela, and Cuba, in a much less direct way. I believe the implications are clear, and it is exactly the unease in the region. The idea is debilitate the southern bloc, to set up offices of U.S. security agencies primarily to monitor the region, and from Paraguay be able to destabilize the region’s governments, especially if Evo Morales wins the elections in Bolivia. In fact, the CIA, FBI and DEA are already operating in this country.
BD: What are the implications of this activity for MERCOSUR?
I’ve already answered, in my answer to your previous question.
BD: What can people in other countries (the U.S., Europe, for example) do to help you, and from their countries fight military imperialism?
I believe that the positions that all the countries of the region, of Europe, and organizations in the United States have taken so far are very good, which are to denounce U.S. military presence. To send letters to the Paraguayan embassies, asking for a correction of its foreign policy, show concern, and send us copies, is always good. Making known that what is happening in Paraguay is another form of support, doing actions in the streets of your country that can have repercussions through international news agencies would be very good. I believe that today’s globalized world is with us, is leading us, and indeed it’s happening; the globalization of struggles, since (U.S.) military presence in Paraguay affects the whole region, all countries, and is one more strategy of a world hegemonic power.
BD: Thank you very much.
If you’re interested in doing solidarity work on this issue, email Ben@upsidedownworld.org Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics in South America. This interview was translated by Mark Miller