Money donated by the United States Southern Command (USSC) is being put towards the construction of a ‘humanitarian relief centre’ at the Resistencia Airport in Chaco Province, Argentina. The project is now in the final stages of construction and drawing heavy criticism.
The centre is the latest in a string of USSC funded projects popping up across Latin America. The USSC currently operates bases in Paraguay, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, and Peru.
Despite its express purpose as a ‘relief centre’ to be manned and operated by Argentina, those against have been outspoken in dubbing it a façade for USSC intelligence in Argentina and the Tri-Border Area (TBA).
The Official Line
The USCC donated US$1 million for the construction of a Humanitarian Relief Centre next to the airport in Resistencia, Chaco Province.
The USSC is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations, and security for Central America, South America and the Caribbean. It is a joint command comprised of more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel. Its mandate is to operate a Humanitarian and Disaster Relief programme, which develops civilian infrastructure necessary for economic and social reforms aimed at improving the living conditions of impoverished regions.
While funded by the USSC, officials on all sides deny any direct involvement by the US military organisation in the operations of the relief centre. Chaco governor Jorge Capitanich announced the creation of the centre, operated in the Resistencia airport.
A US embassy representative, who wished to remain unnamed, assured The Argentina Independent that the humanitarian centre in Chaco had no connection to the USSC beyond the initial US$1 million funding (official figure from US Embassy).
“The US Government has engaged with the Argentine government over many years to increase infrastructure for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities,” he said.
According to the US Embassy representative, the US government made a donation through the USSC to the province of Chaco with the objective of enhancing capabilities to respond to natural disasters. “The fact is: there is no deployment of any US civilian or military personnel and no connection with the development or operation of the facility by US personnel. It is entirely Argentine,” he added.
Planning and development of the centre has reportedly been in the works for many years, first mentioned in 2006 when the US began discussing a humanitarian relief centre with the ministry of the interior.
“This is not a US facility, just a US donation.”
All the equipment and supplies are donated to the local government and it is effectively owned and operated by the Chaco government.
Opposition political groups have accused Chaco governor Jorge Capitanich of giving US military and intelligence a seat in Argentina through the creation of the relief centre. To these allegations the governor responded, “I categorically deny [the version] that is circulating in the social networks that [the centre] is related to a seat of the Southern Command in Chaco.”
The announcement of this base comes within weeks of the construction of another USSC funded base, which opened on 5th April 2012 at the Chilean Fort Aguayo naval base in the port city of Concón, in the central province of Valparaíso.
The USSC stated that the installation in Chile will be used for training in military operations on urban terrain by Latin American soldiers as they prepare for international operations, such as United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions.
More than 20 Chilean and international human rights groups wrote an open letter in protest of this training ground to Chile’s Defence Minister Andrés Allamand. In the letter, they stated that the Fort Aguayo training ground – a simulation of an urban zone, with eight buildings, sidewalks, and roads—suggests plans for US military intervention, and demanded the project be terminated.
Various groups have also come out in opposition to the centre in Chaco Province. On 26th May over 10,000 people marched in Chaco to express their opposition to the creation of the base in what they called a “caravan for sovereignty” demanding Capitanich to cease construction of the centre. Present at the march were national deputy Victoria Donda, from Libres del Sur, along with other notable public figures and politicians.
National deputy for Proyecto Sur Fernando “Pino” Solanas has condemned the centre as well. Speaking at the march, Solanas said that “the so-called emergency centre at the airport of Resistencia has already installed an immense mass of cement, with giant satellite dishes to collect all kinds of information not only on our territory and its resources, but on the movements carried out in our brotherly countries. All with computerised instruments also supplied by the United States.”
He went on with his condemnation citing the centre as a front for future control of Latin America. “Let us not forget that the Southern Command is the leading organisation among existing US agencies that guarantees the security, stability and prosperity throughout the Americas; however, by this strategy it plans to consolidate US control in Latin America,” he said.
Scepticism of the base is especially heated with Colonel Edwin Passmore, who has acted as the USSC spokesperson for the relief centre and is in charge of the US Military Group of the US Embassy in Argentina. Col. Passmore was expelled from Venezuela in 2008 on charges of engaging in espionage activities while serving as US military attaché there. He was also embroiled in a media scandal in 2011 when a US military plane that landed in Buenos Aires was reported to be carrying undeclared electronic monitoring equipment, medications, and intelligence transmissions.
Chaco, the Triple Border, and the Terrorism Link
The US has been ramping up security efforts across Latin America over the past decade, well beyond the recent construction of bases in Chile and Chaco Province.
The Fourth Fleet was re-activated on 1st July 2008, and is based in Mayport, Florida. It is now part of the US Navy system and consists of navy ships, aircraft and submarines operating in the Caribbean sea and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans around Central and South America.
The proximity of the centre to the TBA has been one of the main points to breed scepticism as to its express purpose.
The USSC has been outspoken in its suspicion of the TBA. Air Force General Douglas Fraser, while testifying before the US Senate on 13th March 2012, said that the USSC is focused on stopping transnational organised crime and building partners’ capabilities.
The major area of concern is what the US has described as the spread of Hezbollah and narco-terrorism in the region. They have equated this with increasing Iranian activity in the area.
Edward Luttwak, a counterterrorism expert with the Pentagon’s National Security Study Group cited the TBA as the most important base for Hezbollah activity outside of Lebanon. In an interview with MSNBC, Luttwak said that “the northern region of Argentina, the eastern region of Paraguay and even Brazil are large terrains, and they have an organised training and recruitment camp for terrorists.”
“Iran is very engaged in Latin America,” said Gen. Fraser at the Senate hearing. “They have doubled their number of embassies in the last seven years. They now have 11 embassies. They have 40 cultural centres in 17 different countries throughout the region.”
Southern Command officials see the Iranian activity as trying to build cultural awareness for Iran to circumvent international sanctions. “They are seeing an opportunity with some of the anti-US-focused countries within the region as a method on being able to do that.”
“The concern lies with Iran’s connections with Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist groups, both of which have organisations in Latin America,” Gen. Fraser said. “Those organisations are primarily focused on financial support to organisations back in the Middle East, but they are involved in illicit activity .”
The US is extremely wary of the growing intimacy between Venezuela and Iran, and of reported developing relations with Bolivia. At the US House Committee of Foreign Affairs hearing on 2nd February 2012, chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited “anti-US geo-strategic linking taking shape amongst the Iranian regime and its military cadre, criminalised and criminalising states in the region, and transnational narco-terrorist networks as a clear and present danger to US security.”
As of now, the centre consists of only one permanent structure to be manned by 75 staff. Despite protests and ongoing controversy, construction of the base continues.
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