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Is Latin America heading for an arms race?

Recent increases in defense spending by Brazil and Venezuela are attracting observers' attention.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / January 16, 2008

Fierce: Venezuelan soldiers shouted as they marched during the country's July 5 independence day military parade in Caracas.

gregorio marrero/ap/FILE


São Paulo, Brazil

Increased defense spending by Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador, coupled with significant arms purchases by Chile and Colombia, may mark the start of an arms race in South America – a region that hasn't seen a major war between nations in decades.

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"There is a real risk of it escalating and it could become very dangerous," says Michael Shifter, the vice president of policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Concern has grown in the wake of recent purchases by Venezuela and Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, flush with oil money, has spent freely on attack and transport helicopters, Russian fighter planes, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

In neighboring Brazil, which, with half of Latin America's landmass and population, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently asked Congress to allocate 10.13 billion reais ($5.6 billion) – a 53 percent increase – for its 2008 military budget.

Those increases came after Chile invested significant sums earlier in the decade. Colombia has received hundreds of millions of dollars in US drug-war aid for military purchases. And now Ecuador is also spending more on weapons.

"I think that it is done in different places for different motivations," says Mr. Shifter, who testified before the US Congress last year on the implications of Venezuela's increased military spending. "[Mr.] Chávez is using this as part of mobilizing the country and thinking of a possible attack from the US. In Chile, it is much more about giving the armed forces what they want. Colombia spends because a lot of the [US] aid comes in the form of military equipment."

The problem, continues Shifter, is that "there is tremendous mistrust between countries ... if you don't know what your neighbors' intentions are, then it is natural is to build up as much as you can to prepare for any contingency."

Some South American nations worry about Chávez's ambitions and do not want him to gain a significant military edge.

"Brazil won't say it, but Chávez's build up is what has made it invest in its military," says Reserve Col. Geraldo Lesbat Cavagnari, coordinator of the Strategic Studies Group at Unicamp university in São Paulo.