Just Three Months into Office, Argentina’s Milei Government Invites US Troops to Help “Manage” Major Waterway

“This is an agreement involving a foreign army belonging to a country that clearly seeks to increase its hemispheric influence over Latin America.”

On the campaign trail, Argentina’s President Javier Milei made it abundantly clear where his geopolitical loyalties would lie if he won the election. He said he would cancel Argentina’s entry to the BRICS alliance, which he has already done. He would also cool relations with Argentina’s two largest trade partners, Brazil and China, and align the country with the US and Israel instead, which he is the process of doing. Since coming to office three months ago, Milei, who has suggested he may convert to Judaism, has already visited Israel where he wailed at the wall, danced and sang with Israeli settlers as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, and unveiled plans to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

The Milei government has also included within its omnibus bill, which failed to pass Congress at first try, a proposal to empower the executive branch to “authorise the entry into the country of troops and equipment of foreign armed forces for the purpose of exercises, training or protocol activities” as well as the deployment of Argentine forces abroad. Until now, such movements have needed the approval of Congress. As I noted at the time, Argentina’s new government, like its counterparts in Peru and Ecuador, is intent on flinging its doors open to US troops (and, in the case of Argentina, other foreign militaries).

The omnibus bill may have fallen at the first hurdle and is now being prepared for another run, but that hasn’t stopped the Milei government from offering the US armed forces a juicy little deal: permission to operate along the Argentine stretch of the Paraná river, the longest navigable waterway in South America — something Washington has been actively seeking for years.

Sold Down the River

Last Wednesday, a low-key meeting took place on a boat in the middle of the Paraná. The participants included Gastón Benvenuto, the comptroller of Argentina’s General Ports Authority (AGP), Mauricio Gonzalez Botto, the secretary of state companies and corporations, US Ambassador to Argentina, Mark Stanley, and Adriel McConnel, a representative of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The outcome of the meeting was a memorandum of understanding allowing the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct “maintenance duties” along the Paraná-Paraguay river waterway.

From left to right: Marc Stanley, Gastón Benvenuto and Mauricio González Botto

In a platitude-ridden joint statement, the sides said that they had cemented a process of joint collaboration in the exchange of information and management of the waterway:

“Our countries recognize the shared goals of ensuring efficient and transparent waterway port operations amid evolving environmental dynamics, including the realities of climate change and the need for enhanced security measures to combat illicit activities in waterway operations.”

Most importantly, the agreement allows for US military presence along the length and breadth of Argentina’s most important river route, upon which roughly 80% of all its agricultural exports, including grains and oils, travel.

The ostensible justification for the agreement is that the US Army Corps of Engineers already manages the Mississippi river waterway, which shares many characteristics with the Paraná. Both rivers are among the largest navigable waterways on the planet and are key to the transportation of agro-industrial crops. According to Benvenuto, the agreement will make it possible for Argentina to “take advantage of North American technical knowledge” to improve “resource management, dredging and beacon modernization systems, and deepen the training of technical personnel.”

The US military already signed a similar agreement with the Paraguayan government in 2022 granting its Corps of Engineers the right to operate along the Paraguayan stretch of the Paraná.  Snaking for 4880 km through four countries (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay), the Paraná River is the second longest waterway in South America, second only to the Amazon River, and the region’s longest navigable river.

The Casa Rosada says it is still preparing the tender for the agreement while opposition parties are incensed, accusing the government of selling out Argentina’s sovereignty. Conspicuously absent from the negotiations, it seems, are officials from the Chancellery or the Ministries of Defense and Security, noted the Santa Fe deputy Eduardo Toniolli, which makes no sense given the economic and strategic importance of the Paraná. “Nor,” he added, “has a request for authorisation been submitted to the National Congress for the entry of foreign troops into our country, as established by Law 25,880.”

Possible US Interests

As the Argentine journalist Sebastián Cazón notes in an article for Página 12, the main corporate competitors for the route are North American big food behemoths like ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus and the Chinese commodities giant COFCO. It is also a busy route for the shipment of illegal narcotics, mainly cocaine, to Europe.

“It is common knowledge that the United States considers China’s growing presence (in Latin America) a threat to its national security and global competitiveness,” said Toniolli, who presented a draft resolution calling on the Milei government’s Chief of Staff, Nicolás Posse, to provide details of the agreement before Congress. “It is a very serious development that merits more attention. This is an agreement involving a foreign army belonging to a country that clearly seeks to increase its hemispheric influence over Latin America.”

Argentina has historically opposed the presence along the Paraná of officials of any country that is not a party to the Santa Cruz de las Sierras Agreement, which it signed with Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. But in 2019 and 2022, Paraguay promoted a similar agreement with the US, which at the time was opposed by both Argentina’s former government and the governors of Argentina’s Norte Grande region. Undeterred however, Paraguay and the US moved ahead with the development of a Navigability Master Plan in March last year.

But why is the US so interested in the Paraná-Paraguay waterway in the first place?

One obvious reason is to push back against Chinese influence in the region, particularly through its belt-and-road infrastructure projects. Over the past two decades South America has gradually moved out of the US orbit while solidifying ties with the rising Asian giant, which has become the region’s largest trading partner. One of the main attractions of dealing with China is that Chinese influence is seen mostly as economic, not political.

But there could be a bigger plan afoot. At the same time that the US is pushing for influence, or perhaps even control, over Argentina’s most important riverway, the UK government has announced plans to develop a mega-port in the disputed Falkland Islands/Malvinas, to be built by Belfast-based Harland & Wolff, the same shipyard that built the Titanic. Given its intended size, the port could be used for oil activity, fishing, tourism, science and even defense. It could also serve as a launch pad for projecting UK interests in Antarctica, where it has disputed claims with Argentina and Chile. Meanwhile, plans to build a Chinese-financed port in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego province, the southern-most tip of South America, have stalled.

In other words, both the US and the UK are simultaneously advancing their strategic positions in and around Argentine waters, both on river and at sea, while Chinese interests are foundering. Given the Milei government’s strategic and economic alignment with the US, it is unlikely to get in the way of US-UK interests, even as it publicly denounces the UK’s latest moves in the Falklands/Malvinas. In fact, as can be seen with the Paraná MoU, it will presumably try as best it can to further US strategic interests on Argentine soil.

Another War on “Narco-Terrorists”

While the Milei government is quietly opening the doors to US troops, without consulting Congress, it is also in the process of declaring war on what it terms “narco-terrorism,” making it the second South American country to do so in the space of just two months, the other being Ecuador. The parallels between the two countries are striking. As in Ecuador, an explosion of violence came almost immediately after the formation of a newly elected, US-aligned government. In both countries, the violence appears to have been intended to attract as much media — and, by extension, public — attention as possible.

In Argentina, the focal point of the violence is Rosario, a key port city on the western shore of the Paraná, about 550 kilometres upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the country’s most dangerous city with a homicide rate four times higher than the national average, as it has suffered the brunt of Argentina’s drug war. From Mexico’s La Jornada.

The city of Rosario, Santa Fe, looked desolate yesterday, as if a state of siege had been ordered, without transportation and without classes after four murders committed by alleged narcoterrorism hitmen in the last five days… After killing two taxi drivers, a bus driver and a young worker, who had nothing to do with drug dealing, one of the hitmen left a handwritten note in which he warned that if the authorities went after their families, they would kill innocents. These murders were meant as a warning of what could follow…

The latest explosion of violence is partly in response to a crackdown on criminal gangs by the recently elected new governor of Santa Fe province, Maximiliano Pullaro. One of the main sparks was the publication of Bukele-style photographs of bare-chested prisoners, tied to the ground, looking down and surrounded by armed police.

Now, Argentina’s Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich has called in the army, again just as happened in Ecuador, to provide logistical and tactical support to the federal forces already operating in Rosario, including the police, the prefecture and the gendarmerie. For the moment, the government enjoys the broad support of the opposition, while many of the residents have responded with some time-honoured Argentinean pot-banging, or cacerolazos. Depending on who you read, this was either a response to the rampant violence unleashed by the gangs or the government’s rapid militarisation of the city.

“We are going to ask the justice system for exceptional measures,” Bullrich said, “to meet the imposing challenges we face, to work against terrorist narco-criminals.”

After meeting with the Salvadorian president at a summit in Washington in February, Bullrich said the Milei government “is interested in adapting Nayib Bukele’s model,” which for the past few years has returned some sense of order to El Salavador’s streets. But in a telephone call with Bullrich last week, Bukele’s security minister, Gustavo Villatoro, warned that they are applying the model the wrong way round:

“The photo is a very serious mistake… You can only do that when the gangs are already neutralized and you have total control of the streets.”

There is also another major difference between the two cases: Bukele is one of the most popular national leaders on the planet, with a consistent approval rating of above 80%. That’s after more than four years in office. Whether one agrees with Bukele’s methods of crime control or not (personally speaking, I lean toward the latter), it is hard to deny that life for most people in El Salvador has got markedly better since his arrival, though there are serious doubts about how exportable or sustainable those methods are.

Meanwhile, life in Argentina is getting worse, by the day, as Argentineans grapple with the highest official inflation rate (276.2%) on the planet. UNICEF warned this week that child poverty will soon rise from 57% to 70% if economic conditions do not change. As real wages crumble amid (admittedly sliding) double-digit monthly inflation, frozen salaries and pensions, and rising taxes, sales of just about everything, even allegedly Coca Cola, are collapsing. From Infobae:

According to data from Guillermo Olivetto, the director of Consultora W, sales of household appliances fell by 50% (year on year); cinema tickets, 40%; motorcycles, 20%; and construction supplies, 30%.

“For a very large chunk of society, prices are far beyond their means,” said the specialist in a interview with Radio Miter, adding that the current recession is of the magnitude of 2002, the year in which GDP fell 10.9% and economic activity, 11.1%.

Even the US economist Steve Hanke, an early supporter of Milei’s campaign and firm proponent of dollarisation of the Argentine economy, has described Milei’s policies as “financial engineering, kicking the can down the road and trying to put in place what really is just a plain vanilla standard IMF [International Monetary Fund] program.” On steroids. These programs, he said, “just don’t work and have a history of not working.” Which is true. Not only that, they also have a habit of visiting untold economic pain and destruction on the country’s poorer and middle classes.

Just as in 2001-02, public anger and desperation are rapidly rising in Argentina as economic conditions deteriorate. That anger could explode at any time. Which is why the government’s decision to adopt such a hardline security protocol so early into its mandate is so ominous. As the article in La Jornada notes, the term “terrorism” can, and often is, used to justify political and social repression, whether against political protestors, striking workers or indigenous Mapuche groups claiming historic land rights in Patagonia. No less ominous is the government’s decision to invite the US armed forces in to help manage Argentina’s busiest waterway.

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  1. leaf

    sounds like things are proceeding just as Milei intended
    I suppose they got what they voted for in Argentina

    1. ChrisFromGA

      If you’re Argentinian, this guy sounds like a villain straight out of central casting.

      What are they thinking down there?

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Isn’t it pretty similar to the future in the USA? The wheels are coming off with Biden as President, so Trump returns because he’s the only alternative. Half of Trump’s likely policies are as crazy or worse than Biden’s. Things are likely to get very uncomfortable under a Trump Presidency, but at least there’s a chance he’ll go after his enemies, i.e. the Brennans, Clappers and (dare we hope), the Clintons and Obamas. If the Deplorables go to war against the Blob, it will be chaos, but at least two groups bent on our destruction/subjugation will be weakening each other.

        Our job is to prepare to help and organize those hurt by all this along with the climate catastrophe.

    1. Neutrino

      The continent has a long and sad history of American influence, including such dysluminaries as the Rockefellers. More recently the Bush family established its aquifer plantation.

      Will pampas grass soon feature in planted stories about landscaping plans out of solidarity?
      Or maybe some mouth-watering spreads of churrasco?

      Brazil was the country of the next century, and always would be. Now comes Argentina to claim its place, with VC funding, forex games, IMF and adventuring soon to follow. :(

  2. john r fiore

    Argentina is no different than the US with its electoral choices of bad and very bad…..but, Milei as a choice appears to be unconscionably bad for Argentina…clearly the fix was in…a roman catholic country voting a man who wants to switch to judaism…huh….does Milei not know what US hedge funds have done to Argentina? Anyway, its true, you get what you pay for….

    1. JonnyJames

      The US is an oligarchy, our so-called choices amount to a kick in the teeth, not a meaningful choice – Democracy Inc is merely a lucrative PR stunt.
      So, who you gonna “vote” for: a senile deranged genocidal Zionist freak, or the other senile, deranged, genocidal Zionist freak?
      Argentina is an oligarchy and a vassal of the US, they have no real choice except to organize a mass rebellion, but conditions will have to worsen further in order to motivate them.

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    I don’t know Argentine history well enough to understand the reason for the cycles of only-moderate recoveries followed by disaster after disaster. I did some work with Amnesty International during the military regime in the 1970s, and I am still horrified by what I learned.

    Some side effects to consider:
    –I was lucky to have been involved in a project after college about Brazil, so I have followed Brazil closely ever since. Compared to most U.S. citizens, let alone “policy makers,” I am an, errrr, expert–because what I see is absolute ignorance of Brazil in the U S of A. And yet, the mentions of the River Paraná by Nick Corbishley make me wonder if one “strategy” here is to surround Brazil, which is a giant, still on the ascent, and not cooperative with U.S. interests.
    –From the Brazilian point of view, the crisis in Argentina, the mess in Peru, and the low-level war against Venezuela–all being run out of the US of A–must look something like how Ukraine looked to the Russians in, ohhhh, 2019.
    –The collapse of the Argentine economy is going to have an interesting effect on the EU in this regard. Many Argentines will try to get to Spain, already a major center for them. And many Argentines will try to get to Italy, because Argentina is the second-largest country for citizens of Italian descent (after Brazil). Hmmm.

    1. CoffinJoe

      You’re right indeed it looks as if the intention is to encircle Brazil, and I will add Colombia to that effect. But I don’t think Brazil will play ball. A century after the baron of Rio Branco had shifted our foreign policy from London to Washington we are at average among the more pro-US peoples in South America (hell, maybe in the world), at the same pace that the political class (even those ideologically not align to the comprador elite) are historically uninterested in the remaining of Latin-America. Talks about “Pátria Grande” can be heard on the left, but they’re mostly a pipe dream.

      But, why I say Brazil will not play ball? For once, the country is already under SOUTHCOM umbrella. So any idea about strategic autonomy is narrow. Since the independence of Uruguay there is no territorial disputes along our Southern border with Argentina (and although there are some loonies who speak of retaking the Cisplatina Province, they’re just that, loonies) Brazil engagement with BRICS specially with China is driven mostly by economic rationality and not for political considerations and will remain as such until the U.S. does a better offer than the Chinese for our commodities.

      Our country is a ‘Farmers Republic’ after all, and what Lula seeks to do is not the overthrow of the Atlantic order, but a deal in which he can reverse the trend of deindustrialization the country is going through since 1990s. He thinks China and the BRICS can offer that, I have my doubts, but the powerful agro-industrial and financial lobby calling the shots in Brasília is thoroughly working against it.

      They want to ensure the country doesn’t deviate from the neo-liberal consensus formed in the Collor Era, and they are succeeding nevertheless. If you fallow our politics you most known Lula is in a fragile position domestically. He is playing geopolitics using Brazil’s voice at the world stage, but although I think Putin and Xi are both sincerely fond of him, they don’t have any reason to see Brazil as a reliable partner. And I also don’t think the Chinese intended to be dependent on Brazilian commodities or soy plantations in their own strategic considerations at the long run.

      Maybe America is chasing a ghost? If she fears the grip of Chinese influence over Latin America, instigating instability will give them the impression of being strong, but will not alter the charms of Chinese money, and only will increase the waves of migrants crossing the Darien. Don’t take me wrong, I am not downplaying the role of Milei as a thorn, but our political classes are not exactly as of Germany’s. For our comprador elites to shot their own economic foot for political reasons is not of their habit. They will comply rhetorically whilst selling to China quietly.

  4. .human

    The outcome of the meeting was a memorandum of understanding allowing the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct “maintenance duties” along the Paraná-Paraguay river waterway.

    What about Ferguson or East Palestine or Pittsburgh?
    This is the Western version of globalization. To allow the degradation of life for the populace while enriching and protecting the elite.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Having the US armed forces in to help manage Argentina’s busiest waterway also means that they will have full control of what goes up and down that river. Of course those troops may be only a placeholder as the US is allowed to set up more and more bases in Argentina for the purposes of security and training local forces. I do not imagine the Argentinian military would be happy about being pushed aside for a bunch of gringos whom everybody knows are only in Argentina for one reason – to control the resources there. But at the rate that Milie is going, he may run the country into the ground before much of this takes place.

  6. Wukchumni

    It has been over 40 years since Argentina has been a financial catastrophe with hyperinflation showing up many times…

    Is this river gambit an attempt to get them on the $ program, such as Ecuador and El Salvador?

    It would be just the Argies luck to adopt the almighty buck, just as it becomes as useful as one of the 4 different named currencies they endured in the 1980’s and 1990’s, hoping that would change things.

  7. JonnyJames

    Just a gut feeling and circumstantial: Javier Milei might as well be a CIA asset: his policies are to hand over more power to the US overlords and the imperio norteamericano.

    From the info in this article: Who benefits from his regime? The domestic US-centric oligarchy, and US military, economic and strategic interests. Keep China out, keep Argentina a debt-slave and squeeze the Argentinian economy “until the pips squeak”. Sadly, they are still not done pillaging and asset-stripping the place. Doubly sad since Argentina had so much potential and so many good things going for it.

    1. Johnny Conspiranoid

      ” Javier Milei might as well be a CIA asset:”
      Is he really the best guy they could find to run the place?

  8. Kalen

    Naomi Klein in her “Disaster Capitalism” posited that nations of former eastern block were subjected to mass psychological warfare and mass mental torture once quite resilient economic foundations of their societies had been dynamited by their own elites funded by the west.

    That kind of conditions for societal chaos is making disoriented population act against their own vital interests of survival.

    Election of that clown Milei is a result of that kind of confusion among used to be sophisticated society. In such an incoherent and de-cohesive society any charlatan with powerful backing of capital can be “elected” proving worthlessness of bourgeois liberal political framework in defending democratic values that under economic stress is only capable of producing fascism.

    And that is exactly what Washington envisioned a return to Argentinian fascism with geopolitical intention of blocking BRICS+ in South America. To boost Milei fascist credentials he suggested to take back Falklands today by force as British are much weaker than in 1980s. Such ideas met with virtually no word of condemnation from US on behalf of its NATO ally.

    Again what Washington neocons will achieve is nothing but socioeconomic collapse of Argentine and more suffering painfully discovered by a crew of ship of political fools crashed on shores of reality.

    1. Jorge

      Only if JSOC (our Praetorian Guard) is involved. And they will be.

      Y’know, the US Navy has been so bad at building a new littoral fleet that I really don’t know how they’re going to handle this mission.

  9. Albe Vado

    I’m always intrigued by the spectacle of right wingers who project an image of nationalist machismo (‘be a man and vote for me, not like the pu**y leftists’), but then in their actual policies adopt the most, to use modern internet parlance, cucked platform imaginable.

    If I were a hard-core ultra-patriot type I would be revolted by the ‘leaders’ who never actually steer a course of national independence.

  10. skippy

    When I hear the name, Javier Milei, I instantly think of the III part NC series ‘Journey into a Libertarian Future’ and one CODE NAME CAIN interviewee. How Cain invariably posits post hoc propter hoc from the deductive ponderings of his mental master Hopple, when asked reality based questions. How past mental deductive process masters had to deceive in presenting their agenda for the flock, at the time, seen hostile too it …

    So now comes – The Man – Milei who can be loud and proud about instituting this agenda created from whole cloth decades ago. Largely grounded on Creative Destruction so any lingering fiction from the past is wiped clean so the new utopia can be ushered in. It should also not be forgotten that this agenda was firstly funded by economic elites back in the day, with hand picked narrative craft’ers.

    Yet at the end of the day its all two tier society neoliberalism. Society can be wreak, but, if the economic numbers are a roaring success its a victory lap …

  11. MFB

    Is there any way in which the Jarana River is being so mismanaged at present that it has to be handed over to foreigners to run?
    Is there any evidence that foreigners will run it more responsibly than Argentinians?

    Incidentally, does Argentina not have a coast guard or a river border patrol?

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