Is South America in an Arms Race?

By Nadja Drost

BOGOTA, Colombia - Concerns over a possible arms race on the South American continent have turned the spotlight on who's buying what and why.

Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia in particular appear determined to prove they won't be pushed around by their neighbors and are vigorously defending their military buildup.

There is no question that South America is on arms spree, with major purchases by Venezuela and Brazil stoking fears over the possible consequences of flaring regional tensions on an increasingly militarized continent.

South American countries increased military spending by 30 percent from 2007 to total of more than $51 billion in 2008, according to Nueva Mayoria, a Buenos Aires-based center for sociopolitical studies.

Venezuela's oil revenues, Colombia's millions of dollars in annual military aid and Brazil's commodities exports are helping finance their military ambitions.

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With Venezuela looking to Russia as its main supplier, while neighboring Colombia turns to the United States, the set-up harks back to the Cold War era with the two world powers competing for influence in these proxy states.

Between 2004 and 2007, Colombia, Chile and Brazil spent the most among South American countries on military weapons and equipment from the United States. According to Nueva Mayoria's studies, Colombia was America's top client on the continent, putting down $894 million in purchases. Venezuela bought $101 million worth of military acquisitions from the U.S. during the same period. In recent years, Venezuela has bought more than $4 billion in weapons from Russia, including fighter jets, helicopters and rifles.

Earlier this month, Brazil announced it would purchase 36 fighter jets estimated at more than $2 billion. A separate, $11 billion agreement will put submarines, one of them nuclear-powered, in Brazilian waters.

Brazil spends the most money on defense of any country in South America - just under $25 billion in 2008, and 1.5 percent of its GDP, according to Jane's Information Group, which provides analysis on the defense community.

Brazil has said that its arms purchases are needed to replace outdated equipment and to protect its borders and oil reserves. "But there is also an interest from Brazil to show itself as a regional power with military power and to raise it's profile in the region," said Mauricio Angel, senior analyst at the Bogota office of the International Crisis Group.

Also this month, Russia lent Bolivia $1 billion line of credit for the purchase of a presidential plane and military equipment. Earlier this summer, Chile bought fighter jets and Colombia struck a $1.5 billion deal for Israeli jets. (Colombia has received more than $6 billion in aid, mostly military, from the U.S. since 1999 - more than any other country in the region.)

"What is worrisome is not so much the purchases of arms, but who is buying and for what purposes," said Roman Ortiz, a security and defense expert with the consultancy Grupo Triarius in Bogota. Naming the elephant in the room, Ortiz said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's "ideological expansionist project" could imply offensive intentions.

Chavez returned last week from a shopping spree in Russia, where he reportedly ordered 92 tanks and anti-aircraft missiles with a $2.2 billion loan from Moscow.

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly expressed concern over the number of Venezuela's arms purchases, saying that they "outpace" those of all other South American nations.

Although Nueva Mayoria calculated Venezuela's defense spending spiked by 29 percent between 2007 and 2008, the country spent just over 1 percent of its GDP on defense spending, behind both Brazil and Colombia, which dedicated 5.7 percent of its GDP in 2008, according to Jane's Information Group.

Chavez has said that Venezuela needs to be able to defend itself from a possible attack by the U.S. or Colombia, an argument he has made more frequently and ardently following a recent pact granting the U.S. seven military bases across Colombia.

The objection to the bases comes from a fear that Colombia could "transform itself - in the eyes of its adversaries - into a platform for American military presence in South America," Rosendo Fraga, the director of studies at Nueva Mayoria, wrote in an email.

While the Colombian government has tried to assure its neighbors in saying the Colombian-U.S. bases do not pose a threat to their sovereignty, it reportedly rejected their demands to guarantee that American personnel or equipment will not venture beyond Colombian territory.

At this week's UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) meeting it accused other states of lack "sufficient sensitivity" over issues which with Colombia must contend and needs America's help - namely its continuing struggle against drug traffickers and rebel groups.

"There is a lack of understanding [on Colombia's part] of the distrust that the deal with the United States has awakened in the region," Angel said.

With arsenals growing on either side of many of South America's borders, some observers warn there is little room for diplomatic rifts.

Colombia's raid of a guerrilla camp in northern Ecuador last year that killed rebel leader Raul Reyes set off a diplomatic crisis and put Ecuador and its ally Venezuela at the ready for a possible confrontation. Since Colombia's incursion, Ecuador has been building up its defensive capacity, purchasing 24 Brazilian fighters and six Israeli drones. "More than an offensive weaponry against Colombia, it's to protect its territory," Angel said.

Others question the massive spending at all of arms on a continent where poverty and low levels of education and health care are widespread. Nobel Peace Laureate and Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias has been pushing for a global agreement that would redirect defense spending to address social issues.

"More combat planes, missiles and soldiers won't provide additional bread for our families, desks for our schools or medicine for our clinics," Arias wrote in a July op-ed in the Washington Post. "All they can do is destabilize a region that continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts."

Nadja Drost covers Colombia for GlobalPost.

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