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The World : S. American tensions grow as arms sales do : One may or may not call it an 'arms race,' but weapons spending is up, fueling mistrust among neighbors.

November 15, 2009|Juan O. Tamayo

MIAMI — Whether it's called an "arms race" or a "coincidental modernization of existing stocks," a wave of weapons purchases by Latin American nations is causing neighbors to watch one another with growing mistrust and fear.

Brazil says it must protect its newfound oil and gas riches. Venezuela says the U.S. military might attack it. Colombia is worried about Venezuela, Ecuador is watching Colombia, and Paraguay is keeping an eye on Bolivia.

There's no question that weapons sales around the region are soaring. They almost doubled in just five years, from $24 billion in 2003 to $47 billion last year, according to one report by Colombian analyst Javier Loaiza. Others put the 2008 total at $60 billion.

U.S. government officials are monitoring the deals with a level of concern but avoid the term "arms race." One said he preferred to call it a "coincidental modernization of existing stocks" to reflect the absence so far of widespread tit-for-tat arms purchases.

"They're buying big-ticket items, but the data shows we're not yet at an arms race," said one top Obama administration official who monitors Latin America. Only four countries account for 80% of all the arms purchases -- Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Colombia -- and 80-85% of the region's military expenditures go to salaries and pensions, not weapons, added the official, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly on the issue.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Latin American Dialogue think tank in Washington, agreed there is no arms race yet but said there is cause for concern -- such as the clashes between conservative President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and his leftist neighbors, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

Colombian troops last year attacked a guerrilla camp on the Ecuadorean side of the border, killing a top rebel commander but leading Correa and Chavez to freeze relations with Bogota. Chavez also ordered tanks to his border with Colombia.

"There's a tremendous amount of political tension and mistrust between governments in the region," Shifter said. "There's also an availability of resources [money for purchases] and a deficiency in regional mechanisms to track purchases and promote transparency."

The increase of arms deals also may be a delayed result of the end in the 1980s of many military governments in the region, said Adam Isacson, director of the Latin American security program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

"The defense budgets had been staying very low, and then commodity prices went through the roof, so everybody started buying like crazy," Isacson said, referring to the prices of items such as Venezuelan oil, Brazilian soya and Chilean copper.

Brazil leads the buying spree -- with $27 billion paid or contracted in 2008, according to the Loaiza report -- as it seeks to protect vast new oil and natural gas deposits found offshore and increase its control of the vast Amazon.

"Everyone knows Brazil is a peaceful nation, but we need to be able to show our teeth if anyone wants to mess with us," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in September. The "teeth" include 36 jet fighters, five submarines, 250 tanks and 50 helicopters.

In Venezuela, "There's a genuine concern that they would be vulnerable to a U.S. attack, so they want to protect themselves," said Shifter, especially after Colombia agreed to host seven U.S. military facilities. "And it's a way to project Venezuela's power in the region and needle the U.S., which is what Chavez is all about."

Venezuela has been reportedly negotiating with Russia for S-300 long-range ground-to-air missiles and nearly 100 T-72 main battle tanks. Chavez also has bought Sukhoi jets and SAM-24 antiaircraft missiles, shoulder-fired weapons that caused particular alarm because of fears they could fall into the hands of guerrillas or terrorists.

Chile is buying fighters and submarines, Peru is buying four frigates, and Ecuador is buying jets, frigates, helicopters and surveillance drones, according to published reports.

Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay rank among the lowest spenders on new weaponry. But just days after Bolivia announced in September that it was buying six Chinese jets, congressmen in Paraguay demanded their government reconsider its modest weapons purchasing plans.

Latin America experienced only half a dozen inter-state wars since the 1940s, most of them brief conflicts. And none of the region's 10 or so lingering border disputes are considered likely to erupt into open conflict in the near future.

But several Latin American presidents and other officials nevertheless insist that a very real arms race is lashing the region, eating up resources that would be better spent.

"The arms race is there. It is a reality," Uruguay President Tabare Vasquez said during a visit to Washington.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia recently urged the United Nations and the Organization of American States to help halt the "excessive military spending," and Paraguay's ambassador to the OAS, Hugo Saguier, formally asked the organization on Oct. 15 to discuss the issue.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said he had taken note of the request and "promised to study the possibility of presenting the issue" to the hemispheric group's ruling Permanent Council.

In private, however, Latin American diplomats in Washington acknowledge that the OAS can do little to control the weapons purchases.

"We can discuss the issue, and some will say that an arms race exists and others will say it does not," said one diplomat who asked his name not be published to speak honestly about the topic. "Perhaps we can even reach agreement on a statement declaring our rejection of an arms race. But beyond that, we can do nothing."

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Tamayo writes for the Miami Herald.

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