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South America: Will defense spending trigger an arms race?

Venezuela's Chávez recently bought tanks and missiles from Russia. Several countries – including Brazil, Colombia, and Chile – are increasing their defense spending in a region that faces no major external threats.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2009

Venezuelan soldiers take part in a military parade on June 24, 2009, to celebrate the 188th anniversary of the battle of Carabobo in Valencia, where Simon Bolivar's decisive victory against Spanish forces led to Venezuela's independence.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS

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Mexico City

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently returned from Moscow flush with fresh deals for battle tanks and missile defenses – a shopping spree that spurred a rare US admonishment that the leftist leader is provoking a regional arms race.

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Mr. Chávez claims that his latest move to stockpile weapons is in preparation for a future US attack to unseat him for better access to the country's vast oil reserves. He points to a new Colombian plan to allow US forces to use seven Colombian military bases as the latest example of US imperialist overreach. Relations between his country and the conservative government of neighboring Colombia have hit rock bottom.

Yet this is more than just another tit-for-tat between two Andean nations whose relationship has deteriorated in recent years. Brazil raised eyebrows this month with its multibillion-dollar deal to buy French aircraft and submarines, and in much of the region, military expenditures are higher than they've been in decades.

On one hand, South America is playing catch-up, modernizing and upgrading military forces after spending virtually nothing since the end of the cold war. But experts say that some of the purchases, such as Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia bought by Venezuela, are far more sophisticated than external threats merit and warn they could lead to unintended consequences.

"The worrisome trend is [the purchasing of] offensive weapons for a country that does not have a major threat," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a security and Latin America specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And while she says that political tensions today are no greater than in the past, the arms bought by Venezuela could set off a race that threatens the region's stability. "It ups the ante," she says.

New union tries to build trust

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has tried to step in – most recently meeting this month in Ecuador's capital, Quito, to call for greater transparency in military acquisitions. So far, however, UNASUR has been unable to agree on how to ensure mechanisms of transparency and confidence-building, as nations try to find a balance between their own sovereignty and the welfare of the region.