The announcement in mid-July of the near completion of an agreement to allow the U.S. military to lease space at seven Colombian bases prompted nearly unanimous rejection from South American governments. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has called three summit meetings to discuss the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement, but Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, has refused to back down. In the meantime, other South American nations have begun to arm themselves, fueling fears of an arms race in a region that has not suffered a major inter-state conflict since the end of the Chaco War in 1935.
The source of greatest tension lies on the Venezuela-Colombian border. The Uribe administration argues that it needs increased U.S. military support to suppress drug traffickers and the leftist insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although the Colombian government has yet to bring formal allegations, the Uribe administration has insinuated that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez supports the FARC and has diverted Swedish-made rocket launchers to the group-a claim that Chávez denies.
Chávez, on the other hand, maintains that the U.S. government was involved in a 2002 coup to overthrow him and claims that the increased U.S. military presence constitutes a national security threat to Venezuela. Chávez recently announced that the Venezuelan government had been awarded over $2 billion in financing from the Russian government to purchase tanks and an anti-aircraft missile system.
Venezuela is not the only country investing in its military. The Brazilian government is currently negotiating the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets in a deal with French company Dassault that could be worth up to $7 billion. Three other companies, including Boeing, made unsuccessful offers.
The Bolivian government has also negotiated a much smaller deal with Russia for $100 million to finance unspecified purchases of military equipment, as well as a $30 million presidential plane. The Bolivian government purchased the current presidential plane back in the 1970s.
As if determined to rekindle memories of the Cold War, the Russian military is even going to "help Havana modernize and train its military," according to a recent report from the Miami Herald.
Observers of Latin American politics have worried about an arms race since at least 2007, following the Venezuelan government's $4 billion purchases of Russian aircraft and a major boost in military spending in Brazil. There is reason to think that the recent spate of arms purchases may have a more lasting effect on hemispheric relations because the U.S. base deal in Colombia adds another dimension to the problem in a region where the U.S. government has supported numerous military coups.
The increased U.S. presence gives South American leaders an obvious reason to invest in their militaries. The lack of transparency in the negotiations over the base deal-which were conducted in secret and only addressed publicly after the Colombian magazine Cambio broke the story, did little to assuage the anxieties of leaders who interpret the U.S. military as a threat.
Brazilian President Lula da Silva defended the Chávez administration's recent arms purchases. "Venezuela is a country with huge amounts of oil and natural gas, and Chávez was the victim of a coup, so it's normal that he is getting prepared," da Silva told Radio Guaiba in Brazil.
Lula da Silva does not share Chávez's brazen style, but he appears to share Chávez's concern about an increased U.S. military presence in South America. Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy writes that "the Brazilian military for decades has operated under the threat hypothesis that the United States wishes to control the Amazon basin. The under-the-radar base negotiations with Colombia unhelpfully play into that hypothesis."
But even those who don't buy the interventionist theory have found little reassurance from the Obama administration that an increased U.S. military presence in Colombia will serve the continent's interests. The bases in Colombia would ostensibly replace the U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, whose lease President Rafael Correa let expire this summer. Manta served as a base for drug trafficking interdiction efforts in the Pacific and those U.S.-led operations do not form the centerpiece to most South American leaders' approach toward drug policy, with the prominent exception of Alvaro Uribe.
The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, headed by ex-presidents César Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, released a statement last February calling for a "paradigm shift" away from repressive policies and toward reducing drug consumption by treating it as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. The report notes that, "The United States allocates a much larger proportion of resources to eradication and interdiction as well as to maintaining its legal and penal system than to investments in health, prevention, treatment and the rehabilitation of drug users."
Furthermore, the Obama administration did not seem to understand the inherent unpopularity of hosting foreign militaries. It is easy to imagine how the American public would react if the Mexican government announced that it planned to establish military bases in Texas in order to assist U.S. efforts to apprehend drug users. If the Obama administration wants to detain the South American arms race, it should begin re-evaluating the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Roque Planas is a NACLA Research Associate