Rumsfeld prowls the backyard

What was Donald Rumsfeld doing in Paraguay in August? One might imagine the US defence secretary had enough on his plate orchestrating the war on terror. In fact, Rumsfeld has been displaying an alarming degree of interest in Paraguayan affairs recently. His courtesy call on President Nicanor Duarte Frutos came just two months after he had received Duarte's deputy, Luis Castiglioni, at the Pentagon. Not even Tony Blair expects that sort of access.

Since July, a contingent of US soldiers has been in the country, taking part in operations aimed at combating "terrorism, drug trafficking, counterfeiting and other international crimes" in the region, according to the American embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay's capital. This unremarkable South American republic is even described as a "counter-terrorist champion" by Rumsfeld's own department's website, despite never having committed a single army officer to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

But Rumsfeld may have let slip the true purpose of his visit when he told reporters that democracy in neighbouring Bolivia needed to be strengthened, and claimed to have seen evidence that Venezuela and Cuba had been involved there in "unhelpful ways".

Washington accuses Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, of fomenting unrest in South America with the intention of spreading his "Bolivarian revolution" across the continent. After two years in which Bolivian political life has been punctuated by anti-American popular protests, this December's presidential election there may well confirm a swing to the left with the likely victory of the avowed Chavista and socialist leader Evo Morales.

In response, the US appears to be taking the sort of heavy-handed approach to regional stability not seen since the dirty wars of the 1970s, when Washington looked the other way while its anti-communist allies, including the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, "disappeared" thousands of left-wing dissidents. According to Bolivian media reports, the US is in the process of setting up a military base in northern Paraguay with capacity for 16,000 personnel. Just 200 kilometres from the border, the base would put US troops within striking distance of Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves, which many Bolivians believe should be nationalised at the expense of western multinationals operating in the region.

By threatening to slash economic aid, Washington has also been pressuring Latin American countries into signing bilateral deals that would grant US troops immunity from local and International Criminal Court jurisdiction. While others such as Ecuador and Peru have resisted, Paraguay's senate signed just such an agreement in May.

Both the Paraguayan government and the US embassy in Asuncion deny there are any plans to establish a permanent US base in the country. Yet the possible presence of US troops so close to Bolivia's borders will undoubtedly figure in voters' minds as they go to the polls. It may also stir up trouble by encouraging those who have been campaigning for regional autonomy in the wealthier eastern provinces - where many oppose nationalisation of the gas industry - to step up their campaign in the hope that further unrest could trigger American intervention.

At the end of his trip to Asuncion, Rumsfeld told reporters that countries such as Paraguay and its neighbours should be allowed "to grow and function in a manner that's free of external influence". The irony was apparently lost on him.