The Grounds for Bolivia’s New Military Bases

  • Protecting the country or Morales?
  • Geopolitical implication of Venezuela’s persistence in base construction
  • Will the army remain loyal to the president?
  • Opposition parties prepared to play tough against Morales

Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plan to build a number of military facilities along the country’s borders – with Venezuelan aid – has alarmed much of South America. Tensions have been particularly high in neighboring Chile and Paraguay, Bolivia’s historic adversaries, and back home Morales’ proposal has unnerved opposition leaders, which could prove problematic for its ratification. Many are questioning the necessity of these border bases and the functions they will serve.

While the government attests that these bases are simply part of a modernization program to upgrade the country’s decrepit armed forces, skeptics say that La Paz is wielding them in response to specific frictions. For example, some observers claim that it is an attempt by Morales to use his military to more effectively stabilize the central government’s control over the historically turbulent country. In terms of the region’s shifting geopolitical realities, the bases could signify La Paz’s displeasure at Paraguay’s agreement to host a regular rotation of U.S. troops on its soil. Perhaps because of this, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will come to the assistance of Morales, his close friend and regional ally, and will financially contribute to the building of these bases, generating even more controversy.

Regardless of international opinions on the matter, Bolivia, as a sovereign nation with a freely elected government, is entitled to carry out whichever security-related measures it deems necessary to safeguard its best interests. However, given the nature of Bolivia’s contentious power-driven politics, as well as the unique geopolitical position that it occupies, whatever decisions the Bolivian president makes will surely come under intense scrutiny.

The Bases

Last May, the Bolivian and Venezuelan defense ministers signed the “Complementary Accord to the Basic Technical Cooperation Agreement in Defence between the Republic of Bolivia and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Many of the details regarding the proposed bases, other than their general locations, remain unclear. However, it has been reported that Caracas will assist in the construction of two military barracks along the border with Brazil at a total cost of $47 million. One of the proposed bases will be in the northeast department of Beni, which could house up to 2,500 soldiers, occupy an area of 1,025 hectares and have its own airport. A port will also be built in Puerto Quijarro of the Santa Cruz department, adjacent to the border with Brazil and around 200km from Paraguay. A Peruvian senior military officer interviewed by COHA explained that even though the port is facing Brazil, it can serve to oversee the border with Paraguay as well. The officer said, “there are plenty of rivers in that area, which makes it easy to go from Quijarro to the Paraguayan border. In the rainforest, the rivers serve as highways.” In addition, there has been news that a possible outpost will be built capable of lodging a modest detachment of troops in the department of Potosi close to the Silala River on the Chilean border.

Still, several details remain unclear over what role the bases will play in the modernization and reorganization of the country’s military. If one of the bases will be capable of holding up to 2,500 soldiers, does this mean that the government is planning to increase the size of the military? Also, the logistical fine points of how these bases plan to operate in such remote areas have yet to be made public. The terrain of Bolivia’s borders with Paraguay and Brazil rule out the deployment of the armored units at the anticipated new facilities, so if the main point is to combat criminal activity, which units will be sent there?

Evo Morales and the Military

There have been several incidents that have led to a confrontation between the President Morales and the country’s armed forces. Earlier this year, up to 56 generals and admirals were sacked from their posts in a bizarre October 2005 scandal involving 28 Chinese ground-to-air missiles that had been in the possession of the army, but were sent to the U.S. for destruction without presidential approval. The missiles were Bolivia’s only anti-aircraft defense system.

Also, on September 23, General Marcelo Antezana, a retired commander of the Bolivian army, declared to the La Paz newspaper La Prensa that the armed forces were unhappy over the “anti-democratic socialist absolutism” and the “Cuba-Venezuela orientation” of the Morales government. He added that, “If the politicians do not deliver, the armed forces will have to act.” Antezana himself was sacked by President Morales’ predecessor for his involvement in the unauthorized “decommissioning” of the Chinese-made missiles. An analysis published by LatinNews on Antezana’s statements explains that: “What should be worrying for the government is that Antezana tried to distinguish between Morales (a good but misled man) and the rest of his government. Antezana claimed that Morales had allowed himself to fall under the sway of a group of internationalists (code for former guerrilla and intellectuals) as well as Vice President Alvaro García Linera, dominated by ‘Caribbean mulattos’.”

This is not to say that only friction exists between the Morales government and the armed forces. The government has tried to win their sympathy by carrying out an ambitious military procurement program. Recently, the country bought three aircraft from the Spanish aeronautical consortium EADS-CASA for the Bolivian army and air force for civil emergency operations. Venezuela also has provided Bolivia with two helicopters on indefinite loan.

At the end of August, Bolivian Defense Minister Walker San Miguel Rodriguez traveled to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, with the aim of deepening bilateral military relations between their countries. Rodriguez also signed an agreement on technological cooperation with Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garre, and a similar pact was signed in June with Peru. Also, during the 181st anniversary of the military’s founding held last August in Sucre, Morales promised that the armed services would receive profits from the oil and gas sector which it could use to “modernize” itself. The government already utilizes around 1.4 percent of the country’s GDP for military expenditures.

Morales has been counting more and more on the military to stitch the country together and he freely assigns it duties to carry out his vision of what Bolivia should look like. The Bolivian military obeyed Morales’ orders last May when the government ordered a number of foreign-owned oil and gas facilities to be seized across the nation. Additionally, in early October, after major fighting left over a dozen dead during a protest in a state-owned tin mine south of La Paz, the army was deployed to restore order.

Where is the Military’s Loyalty?

Taking into consideration the tumultuous and violent history that Bolivia has had, it is necessary to wonder if the Morales administration, in spite of the shower of gifts it has bestowed upon the military thus far, will be able to indefinitely control it. Antezana’s words could prove to be prophetic, as Bolivia has a recent and bloody history of military coups. In 1964, a military junta overthrew President Paz Estenssoro at the onset of his third term. In 1971, due to major public disorder, Colonel (later General) Hugo Banzer Suarez was installed as president. In 1980, General Luis Garcia Meza carried out a ruthless and violent coup against Lidia Gueiler Tejada, but then a year later a military rebellion ousted him as well. Looking at Bolivia’s recent civil-military relations, Morales should not feel too secure that he has the military in his pocket.

The Bolivian military’s loyalty towards Morales will be decided by the outcome of two issues: the first is how successful he is in handling the constant protests from labor groups and political cleavages. Even if senior officials were replaced with younger ones, it is highly doubtful that the Bolivian army wants to play the role of policeman. The second issue is that of the Bolivian-Venezuelan cooperation over the bases. Undoubtedly the Bolivian military leadership will welcome any expenditures and assistance in modernizing the armed forces. However, it is yet to be seen if they would accept a Venezuelan military presence in the country as part of the treaty. By nature, a nation’s military is distrustful of foreign armies, which it is trained to see as potential adversaries.

Bolivia’s Plans from a Domestic Perspective

For Bolivians, the concern is not so much the relationship between geostrategic politics so much as the national impact these new realities will have. The proposed placements of some of the new bases coincide with the locations of continuous anti-Morales protests. From this perspective, the bases become more a way of asserting control by the central government. In addition, the erection of the new facilities will coincide with changes among the military leadership which will be carried out by Morales. This can only add to the belief that the president is attempting to exercise greater control over the armed forces and use these troop deployments as a means to crack down on any anti-government plots, particularly these emanating in Santa Cruz and other eastern departments where unrest is common. An example of this is Beni, the location of one of the proposed bases which is also the department whose governor, early in October, declared that if the constitution is modified without going through the proper constitutional proceedings, he would not recognize the nation’s organic documents and declare Beni autonomous. Three other departments, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, have issued similar declarations.

Furthermore, Bolivia’s middle-class opposition leaders deplore the government’s closeness with Venezuela, which eventually might compromise the construction of the proposed bases, as the May 26 agreement still has to be ratified by the Bolivian legislature. The BBC has quoted opposition Senator Carlos Bohrt of the Podemos Party (Democratic and Social Power, which has 13 of the 27 seats in the Senate) as saying that such an accord is “an assault” and must be revised by La Paz and Caracas: “Under this agreement the Armed Forces of Venezuela are going to involve themselves in the organization of their Bolivian colleagues, to the extreme of discussing their Organic Law and possibly their organization.” Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) has 96 of the 157 seats in Congress, which serves as a sufficient majority to get such treaties passed. Bohrt observed that “they need only a majority, but if they resort to this strategy, there will be international outrage.” In the senator’s view, the Morales administration needs to forward the document to its Venezuelan counterpart and take into account the objections that the senators have made, and has stated that “Once it is corrected, we have no reason to oppose it.”

An argument in favor of the bases is that Bolivia does have a major problem with drug trafficking and contra-band activities, making constructed military bases in the rainforest a national security necessity. A BBC September 13 report noted that in the extreme northeastern part of Bolivia, in Pando, at Fort Manoa, only one sergeant and nine privates are guarding the border with Brazil. The Bolivian police is also dispersed and scarce, with only an average of three policemen at each of the country’s 110 border points. These facts have facilitated criminal activity such as human trafficking, particularly between Bolivia and Paraguay. At the presentation of Bolivia’s National Security Council’s report to the Chamber of Deputies on June 22, Defense Minister Walker San Miguel asserted that “We have a sparse population along the borders, and consequently we are a country tremendously vulnerable to peaceful invasion by citizens of other bordering countries.”

Bolivia’s Plans from a Regional Perspective

Caracas’ decision to aid Bolivia in the construction of its proposed new bases has made some in the international community regard the two countries as making up another axis of the region’s “Pink Tide” movement. A security alliance between both nations would bring them even closer together, undoubtedly making Washington policymakers even more nervous than they are, due to Rafael Correa’s continuation to the second round of the Ecuadorian presidential elections. For its part, the U.S. has been staging a series of military exercises and exhibiting a growing presence in Paraguay, Bolivia’s immediate neighbor. Increasing military spending in Bolivia and Paraguay induced by a foolish arms race can only have an adverse effect on the troubled relations of the two poorest nations in Latin America, who have already engaged in a bloody conflict between 1932-1935, known as the Chaco War. To this day, neither nation has ever forgotten that tormenting war. In September, the commander of the Paraguayan armed forces, General Jose Key Kanasawa, attempted to minimize tensions with its Andean neighbor regarding the bases, declaring that “nuestra relaciones con Bolivia son muy buenas” (“our relations with Bolivia are very good”).

Even Bolivia’s historical friend, Peru, has shown some concerns over the new installations and how they will affect relations in the tri-nation area of Bolivia-Chile-Peru. In any case, Lima knows that it is highly unlikely that it will have major security issues with La Paz. However, if tensions arise between Bolivia and their common foe Chile, Peru might be drawn into the conflict unwittingly. The interviewed Peruvian military officer explained that the Bolivian bases are a “political problem between both countries, not a military one. For over 30 years, there has not been a hypothesis of a war between Peru and Bolivia.” Santiago, for its part, has not commented on the decision of the creation of a base near its borders. The news agency ANSA has quoted Ricardo Lagos Weber, the spokesman for La Moneda, as saying that “es muy respetable lo que ocurra desde la frontera hacia el interior” (‘it’s very respectable what happens within a country’s borders”), and that the Chilean government has no opinion on the matter. Nevertheless, Chile’s legislature has called on the country’s defense and foreign affairs ministers to give a report on Bolivia’s new defense plan. The two countries have not had full diplomatic relations since 1978.

A Security Necessity or a Political Statement?

In the ongoing social and political instability that persists in Bolivia, a military that continues to be subject to strong civilian rule is required. In addition, ongoing drug and human trafficking and other criminal activities make the construction of new military bases an obvious necessity. That some of them will be positioned close to the borders of Bolivia’s traditional foes should not be regarded as more than an attempt by President Morales to respond to genuine security needs. To exercise jurisdiction over its own borders, the government has not made any aggressive military purchases such as armor or high-tech weapons, which renders Bolivia no threat to Chile, which has been engaged in a major military modernization process of its own in recent years, including the purchase of a squadron of updated U.S. military jet aircraft. In reality, it is the fact that Caracas is supporting La Paz’s military modernization program that is the most troubling aspect for the apprehensive nations surrounding Bolivia.