South America's growing arms race

Connie Watson on the fight over Latin America's military buildup.

South America is "up in arms" these days — literally and figuratively.

Arms spending is up. Way up, as the most powerful leaders in the region are acquiring billions of dollars worth of weapons and military hardware.

A model of a Grippen fighter jet at an air show in Rio in April 2009. Brazil has the biggest military budget in the region. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

At the same time, many people here are upset with a deal by the government of Colombia that gives the United States a bigger military presence in their collective backyard.

Colombia will allow American forces to set up on seven Colombian military bases in exchange for more U.S. money, weapons, military support and intelligence to battle guerrilla groups and drug traffickers.

The arrangement is part of the so-called U.S. war on drugs, known officially as Plan Colombia in Washington.

But it has virtually every other nation in South America alarmed at the prospect of more U.S. troops within striking distance of their borders, particularly given the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

They say the American presence will threaten regional stability.

Beefing up

To make their case, South America's presidents called an emergency meeting last month to discuss the deal. They grilled Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, asking him for guarantees that U.S. troops won't venture outside Colombia's borders.

"Our only focus is to resolve our own internal [security] problems," Uribe told the gathering. "We don't play hypothetical war games with our neighbours."

For decades now, Colombia has been waging a three-front battle against left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and heavily armed drug cartels.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez shows off a Swedish-made anti-tank weapon at a news confernce in Caracas. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, along with Ecuador's Raphael Correa and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez called on the other leaders to forbid the "foreign military presence" in South America.

Every president expressed a concern, but the meeting ended without unanimous condemnation of the Colombia-U.S. deal.

However, days later Chavez flew off to Russia to order more than $2 billion worth of anti-aircraft missiles and tanks, on the grounds that the American forces bound for Colombia might one day be coming after him, because of his often strong, anti-U.S. views.

Before this latest trip, Chavez had already spent $4.4 billion on Russian fighter jets, helicopters and automatic weapons.

But he isn't the only one beefing up his military.

Brazil is spending more than $20 billion upgrading its forces. A big chunk of that goes to France for submarines, helicopters and the technology to build new French fighter jets.

This strategic partnership will allow Brazil to develop its own arms industry, as part of the country's ambitions to become a world power.

Military expenditures in South America (in US$ millions)
  1997-2000 2001-04 2005-08
 Argentina $8,343 $7,301 $7,503
 Bolivia $610 $716 $724
 Brazil $47,288 $54,358 $56,315
 Chile $11,203 $13,946 $18,904
 Colombia $12,199 $17,117 $22,351
 Ecuador $2,038 $2,513 $4,483
 Peru $3,852 $4,054 $4,798
 Uruguay$1,100  $977 $985
 Venezuela $5,876 $5,194 $9,012

Source: SIPRI Military expenditure data base

Washington watching

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that the Obama administration is worried about the spectre of an arms race in South America. "We hope that we can see a change in behaviour and attitude on the part of the Venezuelan government," she said.

But it is not just Venezuela who is bulking up. In addition to Brazil and Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and even Bolivia are also buying new military gear.

After South America's infamous dictatorships of the 1980s, most of the ensuing civilian governments actively neglected their armed forces for political reasons.

Today, only Argentina continues that policy and many regional analysts believe the investment in modern weaponry is long overdue.

Defence spending in the region is among the lowest in the world, on average 2 per cent of a country's gross domestic product, notes Rosendo Fraga, a historian and political analyst who's an expert on Latin America's armed forces. Still, he cautions that the most important countries in the region are buying weapons at a moment of tension and that this could be risky.

"Nobody wants a war in South America. It's clear," says Fraga. "But the situation involving Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador is very tense at this moment. And there's a historical conflict involving Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

"So it's very risky. Especially in a moment when American influence in the region has decreased."

Leadership vacuum

Fraga believes Washington has lost interest in Latin America, with the exception of Mexico because of concerns over drug trafficking and illegal immigration.  

"The U.S. prefers to transfer leadership in the region to Brazil," Fraga says. "But Brazil doesn't want to pay the cost of that leadership yet. And that's an opportunity for Chavez who doesn't have enough power to make decisions [for the region]. But he has enough power to establish the agenda of the debate."

Military expenditure as a % of GDP, 2007
 Argentina 0.8
 Bolivia 1.7
 Brazil 1.5
 Chile 3.4
 Colombia 4.0
Ecuador  2.9
 Peru 1.2
 Uruguay 1.3
 Venezuela 1.3
 Canada 1.2
 Mexico 0.4

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

With more influence and more weapons in the hands of someone as unpredictable as Chavez, Washington and its closest ally, Colombia, are worried about who else might get their hands on the powerful new arms pouring into South America.

Members of Colombia's largest guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC), are reportedly trying to buy surface-to-air missiles.

U.S. undercover agents, posing as FARC guerrillas, busted a Syrian arms dealer this summer in Central America. Another Syrian and a Russian arms trafficker were also arrested over the past two years in separate attempts to sell missiles to agents they thought were FARC guerrillas.

Ever since Colombian forces raided a rebel camp in neighbouring Ecuador last year — which nearly set off a regional war — Colombia claims to have email proof that FARC was contacting prominent officials in Chavez's government in order to buy Russian missiles.

Chavez says the emails are a lie, and that he's never offered the rebels any support beyond ideological empathy.

Moscow mischief

But FARC may not be the only powerfully armed group in Colombia looking for high-tech weapons. Some analysts says there is also a risk that right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels could acquire missiles and provoke a conflict that would draw in the armies of Colombia, Ecuador or Venezuela.

A new crop of sub-lieutenants graduate during a military ceremony in Bogota, Colombia, in June 2009. (John Vizcaino/Reuters)

As for Washington's concern about weapons in Latin America, critics point out that America used to be the region's number one supplier.

A U.S. Congressional Research Service study released in September shows Russia is now the top supplier there although the U.S. "ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations" overall, with $29.6 billion or 70.1 per cent of these agreements in 2008.

The U.S. was Venezuela's main source for military equipment and arms until relations began to sour around 1998. Now, Chavez complains, he can't even get a replacement part for any of his U.S.-made machines, not even through a third party.

He says that is what forced him to go Moscow and Beijing for new equipment. He also points out that he hasn't allowed either Russia or China to set up military operations in Venezuela, as Colombia has done with the U.S.

With almost every country in the region buying weapons these days, Russia and France have been reaping the profits. Moscow's back in circulation in South and Central America, raising questions about what its motives might be.

Fraga believes Russia is using its influence in the region only as a way to get Washington's attention and create bargaining chips for negotiations over Europe.

While it's impossible to parse every motive in a continent as complex as South America, the bigger picture is what's troubling some of the smaller countries, such as Uruguay, whose president, Tabare Vazquez, condemns the arms buildup, not just for the risk it poses but for the money it consumes.

"South America has millions of people living in poverty, and there are thousands of children that die across Latin America and South America because of child diarrhea or diseases that could be prevented," he said recently.

"So, under those conditions, it is still worse to be devoting those resources to weapons."