South American Arms Race

Jun 3rd, 2008 | By | Category: Uncategorized

(The Economist June 3) Give or take the odd border raid and attempt to undermine a neighbour, fraternal feeling abounds in South America. Many countries are governed by people who were once leftist soul-mates. They talk of ever-greater integration. This rhetoric abounded on May 23rd, when 12 leaders met in Brasília and formally set up a Union of South American Nations. Yet like many such initiatives in the region, ambition ran far ahead of reality.

Unasur (or Unasul in Portuguese) replaces a South American Community declared in 2004 and supposed to unite two existing free-trade areas, Mercosur and the Andean Community. That proved too difficult—and is likely to remain so. The new group will have the appearance of purposefulness, including a secretariat in Ecuador and a parliament in Bolivia, but not much more than that.

The leaders also discussed setting up a South American Defence Council as a forum to talk about defence and security. Brazil has been pushing for this. Its diplomats thought that they had an agreement to make it happen. Yet they were thwarted when Colombia declined to join because of its neighbours’ equivocal attitude to its FARC guerrillas.

Even as its leaders talk, Latin America is re-arming—or rather some South American countries are. In the broader region, including Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, total defence spending shot up to $38 billion in 2007 from $25 billion in 2003, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London think-tank. The military budgets of the biggest spenders—Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela—have been rising faster. Brazil announced a rise of 50% (or $10 billion) in its spending on hardware for 2008-11.

Two things are driving the spending increases. First, military budgets were cut after many Latin American nations turned their back on military rule in the 1980s. In many countries, equipment is now ancient and dilapidated. Replacing it is a sign of more normal relations between civilian governments and their armies. Venezuela is the exception: although its leftist president, Hugo Chávez, is elected, he is a former army officer and his power base lies partly in the barracks. Venezuela’s recent purchase of two dozen Sukhoi-30 fighter aircraft and 50 military helicopters from Russia may have been presented as a show of strength to the imperialists in Washington, but it was also designed to shore up support from the generals at home.

The second reason is that after four years of faster economic growth, partly induced by high prices for commodity exports, governments have more money to spend. In Chile, the link between commodity prices and arms is written into law: the armed forces get 10% of the export revenues of Codelco, the state copper producer—a sum that amounted to $1.4 billion in 2007—for capital spending. Over the past dozen years this money has bought 340 German tanks, eight frigates, two new submarines and 28 F-16 fighters.

Chile’s appetite for new kit is a worry for both Bolivia and Peru, which dispute its land and maritime borders respectively and which were the losers in a 19th-century war. In early May Alan García, Peru’s president, urged his peers in the region to stop buying weapons and to concentrate instead on fighting poverty. At a day-to-day level, however, relations between Chile and its neighbours are less tense than they were three decades ago when all were ruled by generals.

Similarly, Brazil’s arms build-up, which includes plans for a nuclear-powered submarine and new jet fighters, has not alarmed its neighbours much. Economic stability and growth, and an increasingly solid democracy, have recently made Brazilian governments more confident about acting as the regional superpower—but through diplomacy. Some Brazilian officials look askance at Colombia, whose military build-up against the FARC has the backing of the United States. But the main threat to Brazil’s ambition is Mr Chávez, who has sought to develop a network of clients in the region, dependent on his gifts of cheap oil and cash.

Venezuela’s arms purchases alarm several of its neighbours. Mr Chávez this month said airily that more tanks for Venezuela “shouldn’t worry anybody”. He promised that he would place yet more orders for Russian weapons on a planned trip to Moscow in July. What for? The president says that he would prevent the United States from setting up a military base near Venezuela’s border “whatever the cost”. He has also said that demands for greater autonomy in eastern Bolivia could lead Venezuela to intervene in support of the socialist government there.

Mr Chávez seems to have his eye mainly on Colombia. He resents its alliance with the United States, and has expressed sympathy for the FARC. Captured guerrilla documents suggest that Venezuelan military and intelligence officers have actively helped the guerrillas. Mr Chávez responded to Colombia’s cross-border raid into Ecuador in March (which killed a FARC leader) by briefly ordering tanks to the border. “Look at the evidence and [you] conclude that Venezuela is arming for war with Colombia,” says Rocío San Miguel, a defence analyst in Caracas. It recently bought 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles (more than its total number of regular troops). These are to replace ancient Belgian rifles. But the ammunition they fire is compatible with guns used by the FARC.

Hitherto Colombia’s military build-up has been wholly focused on counter-insurgency. But in what appears to be a defensive response to Mr Chávez, it has placed an order with Israel for Kfir fighter jets. According to Mark Bromley of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Colombia has also been talking to Sweden about buying an airborne early-warning system and a tanker plane.

Take into account the weakened dollar as well as economic growth, and in many countries the arms spending looks less threatening. At least until 2006, defence spending in Latin America as a whole was running at only 1.3% of GDP, according to the IISS. Only the non-NATO European countries spend less. Some of the recent spending in South America involves retooling armies that used to repress their own populations for new roles, such as peacekeeping or Amazonian surveillance. Nevertheless, some of the recent purchases are cause for concern—especially given that so much talk of South American unity is just that.

Leave a Comment

Get Adobe Flash player