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.
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.
UNASUR members have sought to assuage concerns sparked by the US-Colombian agreement that allows US armed forces to use Colombian bases. The agreement drew criticism not just from Chávez and his leftist allies but, also, somewhat unexpectedly, from the center-left governments of Chile and Brazil, too. Nations have voiced concerns that the plan's stated goals, to bolster counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations, could destabilize the region. Chávez has called it a provocation of war.
Colombia: almost 6 percent of GDP spent on defense
As some nations look skeptically at US military intentions in the region, they also look suspiciously at one another. Venezuela's $2 billion credit to buy Russian weaponry is on top of a brisk $4 billion business under way between the defense departments of the two countries. A week earlier, Brazil – seeking to consolidate its leadership role in the region – confirmed a deal worth more than $12 billion, by far the region's biggest acquisition, of submarines, helicopters, and fighter jets.
According to IHS Jane's, a British-based information group specializing in defense issues, such expenditures have not been seen in decades. Spending in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela rose between 2007 and 2008. Colombia, which has received $6 billion in aid from the United States in the past decade, spent much more on defense as a percentage of its GDP (5.7 percent) than the other three countries, according to Jane's.
Venezuela's recent plans, however, were singled out by the US government. "We have expressed concern about the number of Venezuelan arms purchases. They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise questions as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, responding to Chávez's announcement in Moscow.
Venezuelan officials immediately dismissed the statement, saying it lacked "political or moral foundation." Chávez maintains he is buying weapons from the Russians in response to the US-Colombian agreement, says Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a nonprofit policy group. "In this fashion, Chávez shrewdly protects himself," he says. "In effect, he is saying – and not without reason – 'If everyone else is building up, why shouldn't I?' "
But there are real consequences for such posturing.
When Colombia ordered a raid last March on Colombian leftist rebels hiding across its border in Ecuador, Chávez ordered his own troops to the Venezuelan- Colombian border. When his Russian arms purchases are questioned, Chávez invokes a need, however improbable, to protect his nation from American bombs. It may have seemed a throwback to the cold war, but his decision to allow the Russian nuclear-powered warship, Peter the Great, to ply Venezuelan waters last year sent a message that still reverberates.
Elsa Cardozo, an international relations expert at the Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, says that Latin America's problems do not require a military response. They are economic and security challenges, such as drug trafficking, that require intelligence-sharing, economic integration, and greater trust. "It is a big step back for the region, to a time when a country's power was measured by the quantity of its arms," she says.
The risks of conflict across the continent are real. Last March, tension in the region reached a tipping point after Colombia launched the raid in Ecuador to capture and kill a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader.
Colombia has repeatedly accused Chávez, who threatened Colombia over the action, of supporting the leftist FARC guerrillas. Colombia has said the region in general is not doing enough to help the country battle its rebels.
The US echoes this call. Ms. Clinton has urged Venezuela to be more transparent about its weapons purchase policies.
"They should be putting in place procedures and practices to ensure that the weapons they buy are not diverted to insurgent groups or organizations like drug-trafficking gangs and other cartels," Clinton said earlier this month.
"There is a military escalation in the region; I do not think it's rhetorical," says Mauricio Cardenas, the director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a former government official in Colombia. "What you are seeing is a conflict of ideas, a conflict between models of how to move the region forward.… There are different views about the role of the state and the region's interaction with the rest of the world. They are real tensions."
Even though nations defend their arms purchases as their right to upgrade and modernize, some question the priorities in a region beset by poverty. "Not only is our country worried, but we have already expressed time and again our position against an arms race," Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez said during a visit to Washington. "To make things worse, our region is the region that has the worst distribution of wealth. Under those conditions, it is worse still to be devoting those resources to weapons."
Can new regional union diffuse tension?
Many wonder how the South American nations can back down from arms expansion, how much of a threat Chávez poses, and what a US response should be. For now the primary mechanism for dialogue on these issues has been UNASUR. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the group aims to "increase trust among UNASUR countries."
The group is new, and it hopes that member countries will cooperate with one another. But its failure so far to foster trust could have important ramifications.
"The escalating arms purchases in the region [show] that money is still available, that the armed forces haven't disappeared as major political actors, and that there is enormous mistrust among governments," says Mr. Shifter. "The region's hard-earned, relative peace and stability is at stake and needs to be preserved." r