Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Andean Arms Race

Reading Time: 8 minutesWeapons buying stokes regional tensions.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Photograph by Ariana Cubillos/AP.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hugo Chávez has a flair for getting under the skin of his opponents, whether he is goading King Juan Carlos of Spain into an exasperated request to “shut up,” or branding then-U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” during a speech to the UN General Assembly. But the Venezuelan president went beyond his customarily florid rhetoric in November when he used Alo Presidente, his weekly chat show, to announce the deployment of 15,000 troops to the Colombian border to counter what he claimed was the threat of a possible attack by U.S. forces seeking control of the country’s vast oil reserves.

Chávez’ move might have been dismissed as little more than an attempt to distract the electorate from his country’s unhappy trinity of food, water and energy shortages. But it put the spotlight on the disturbing escalation in defense spending across Latin America, in what some analysts, and at least one president, are calling a regional arms race.

The odds that Venezuela’s troop deployment could lead to an armed clash have been increased by the rate at which Venezuela and neighboring countries have been building their arsenals, according to Román Ortiz of Grupo Triarius, a Colombian security consultancy. Venezuela’s recent purchases of Sukhoi combat aircraft and Smerch multiple rocket launchers, for example, have given it a new capacity to strike deep into Colombian territory. That in turn makes it tempting for Venezuelan military commanders to compensate for a relative weakness of ground forces by escalating much more rapidly “to the level of conflict where they are more powerful and stronger” in the event of a crisis, Ortiz says.

Anna Gilmour, senior Americas analyst at Jane’s Country Risk, says Chávez’ November announcement was the kind of “grand gesture” the president enjoys making, and “it would make little economic or military sense for him to spark a war with Colombia.” But, she added in an interview, the deployment of troops on the border in a tense atmosphere raises the “potential for a …border incident to spark off some clash which would then serve to increase rhetoric on both sides of the border and raise tensions yet further.”

The troop deployment marked a new low in deteriorating relations between Colombia and Venezuela. Chávez’ move was triggered by Colombia’s decision to grant U.S. troops broad access to its bases for anti-narcotics operations. “Let’s not waste a day on our main aim: to prepare for war and to help the people prepare for war, because it is everyone’s responsibility,” the leader of the self-styled Bolivarian revolution told viewers. The best way to avoid war, he argued—not for the first time—was to prepare for it.

All the same, the pattern of recent arms purchases by both countries raises the possibility, however remote, that the current diplomatic and trade war—inflamed by border incidents, such as Venezuela’s decision to blow up three bridges in late 2009—could actually turn into a real war.

In recent years, Venezuela has purchased more than $5 billion in Russian weaponry, including 100 T-72 and T-90 main battle tanks, 24 Su-30MK2V fighter aircraft, nine Mi-17 transport helicopters, five Mi-35M attack helicopters, and 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles.

Colombia, already a high spender because of its 45-year war with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), spent $12.25 billion, or 5.65 percent of GDP, on defense in 2008, according to Jane’s Country Risk. Among big-ticket purchases, it has upgraded its Israeli-made Kfir combat aircraft and bought 15 Black Hawk helicopters, five Mi-17s, four Nodriza-class river patrol vessels, 131 patrol boats, and 25 Brazilian-made counter-insurgency/counternarcotics Super Tucano aircraft.

The increased appetite for military spending is worryingly evident across the region. Total Latin American expenditure soared 36 percent between 2003 and 2008, from $29 billion to $39.6 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Centre (see table 1 in the print issue).

The region’s big defense spenders as a proportion of GDP are Colombia, Chile and Brazil, according to  figures provided by Jane’s Country Risk (see table 2 in the print issue).

Brazil, in negotiations to purchase 36 French-made Rafale fighter jets at an estimated cost of more than $7 billion, spent $24.6 billion on defense in 2008. With  revenues fattened by the 2007 discovery of some 8 billion barrels of oil offshore, Brazil announced in late 2008 a deal with France to build the region’s first nuclear-fueled submarine.

Chile spent $4.95 billion on defense in 2008, close to 3 percent of GDP. In recent years, it has purchased 118 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, 18 used F-16 aircraft from Holland, 10 F-16 warplanes from Lockheed Martin, and eight frigates from Holland and Britain. The purchases have prompted concern from Peru and Bolivia. Last year, Bolivia opened a $100 million line of credit to buy arms from Russia, and Ecuador signed a $22 million agreement with Russia for two Mi-17 transport helicopters.

Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s president until March 1, was sufficiently moved by this surge in regional military spending to warn of an arms race. “It is a reality,” he declared last September in Washington DC.

U.S. officials and independent analysts are not so sure. They prefer to talk in terms of a large-scale “rearmament,” in which most of the region’s countries are seeking to redress the flat defense spending that followed the end of the Cold War. The commodities spike that sent oil to $140 a barrel before the onset of the global financial crisis provided the cash.

Brazil and Chile have been at pains to reassure neighbors about their purchases. “Chile and Brazil are very open about their arms purchases and very keen to make it plain that they are maintaining their aircraft or replacing obsolete equipment,” notes Jane’s Anna Gilmour. She observes that Chile is also moving to dismantle its copper reserve law, which for 25 years has dictated that the state copper company, Codelco, transfer 10 percent of its revenues to the armed forces to procure weapons.

Peru, skittish over Chilean war games on its border, the revival of a maritime border dispute and the unveiling of an alleged Chilean spy within the Peruvian armed forces, has not been won over by these assurances. Peruvian President Alan García called on the South American Union of Nations (UNASUR) to reduce yearly national military budgets by 3 percent and cut spending on new armaments by 15 percent in the next five years. García has also appealed to the United Nations and the Organization of American States to help stop “excessive military spending” in the region.

The plan received a lukewarm reception, and in early December an unabashed García entered the fray, announcing Peru was close to finalizing deals to replace Soviet-era T-55 tanks with MBT-2000 tanks from China and buying Super Tucano fighter planes from Brazil. The president refused to offer more detail on the purchases. The country’s previous expenditure includes $136 million on maintenance for its aging Mirage fighter planes and $50 million for the purchase of helicopters to help fight narcotics traffickers.

Defending the purchase, García sang the same tune as the presidents he was questioning: “[The T-55s] needed upgrading, and it was decided to decommission them.”

Peru’s longstanding tensions with Chile are no more than a footnote in the rearmament debate. Spats are likely to continue intermittently, but the two countries have strong trade ties, share a free-market philosophy and seem unlikely to allow differences to escalate beyond words.

Colombia’s ongoing row with Venezuela is the real focus—along a shared frontier frequented by FARC fighters, contraband and narcotics smugglers and rightwing paramilitaries, a wider, regional ideological split is being played out. The border is a powder keg, and increasing the military capacity of both countries makes an explosion much more likely.

The conservative U.S. ally, sandwiched between the leftwing administrations of Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, clearly sees Venezuela as its main obstacle in conquering the FARC.

Colombia disclosed this year that three AT-4 rocket launchers bearing Venezuelan army serial numbers had been retrieved from a FARC camp. Citing documentation from Saab Bofors Dynamics, the Swedish manufacturer of the weapons, that shows the rocket launchers had been sold to Venezuela, casts doubt on Venezuela’s denial that it had links with the FARC.

Chávez then recalled his ambassador to Colombia, suggesting this was a “grand manipulation.”

Officially, the Colombians have been careful to avoid direct accusations. President Álvaro Uribe, in an October 2009 interview with the Financial Times, refused to be drawn on whether he believed Chávez was trying to destabilize his government, saying “I cannot say anything because I have to be very prudent.”

Nevertheless, well-placed sources within the Uribe administration have no compunction in making such a charge off the record: “Venezuela has become the main FARC sanctuary, and it’s not just an issue of tolerance, but of active support,” said one official in an interview with the author. “The biggest strategic obstacle to closing the problem down in Colombia is Venezuela. Because all of the FARC units will only demobilize when they realize there is nowhere else to go.”

Of particular concern to Colombia is the threat of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles falling into FARC hands.

“If Manpads [Man-portable air-defense systems] were introduced in a significant way to the FARC, it would have a serious impact on their ability to use their lift capabilities effectively in Colombia,” said a person close to the U.S. government.

The Colombians have also raised suspicions about AK-47 ammunition with Russian factory markings that they say they have recovered from the FARC—although the ammunition cannot be traced by individual serial markings, they point out that Venezuela bought 100,000 Kalashnikovs plus ammunition from Russia.

In September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Venezuela’s purchases as a possible threat to regional stability. “We have expressed concern about the number of Venezuelan arms purchases,” she said. “They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise questions as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region.”

While Brazil, Chile and Colombia are clearly outspending Venezuela, both Gilmour and Ortiz see differences between the arms purchases made by Venezuela and Colombia.

“Colombia’s purchases are very much oriented toward counter-insurgency and force modernization, while Venezuela is buying new kit and replacing swathes of outdated equipment,” says Gilmour. “In the past four or five years, Mr. Chávez has very cleverly made sure that arms purchases are distributed between the forces. He’s acutely aware, having been a coup leader himself and having suffered a coup …that they could potentially turn against him.”

For his part, Ortiz groups Colombia with Mexico as countries that are significantly

increasing spending to cope with the internal threat posed by the narcotics trade, as opposed to a perceived outside threat. “That’s very important because it is not the same for regional stability to spend $2 billion in long-range-strike aircraft than it is to spend the same $2 billion for instance on helicopters,” he argues.

Will these escalating tensions deteriorate into outright war? There are good reasons to conclude that they won’t. Colombia and Venezuela are each other’s second biggest trading partners, and while Chávez’ efforts to halt Colombian imports in protest to the U.S. troop decision have been damaging, they have also been hampered by domestic constraints. Venezuela’s foreign exchange authority, for instance, must approve all import-export transactions, hampering Colombian exporters’ ability to get paid for their goods.

“In both countries, even the rhetoric has been defensive. A lot of this is just for domestic consumption,” says Adam Isacson of the Washington Center for International Policy. “Chávez is manipulating this with his own opposition in mind. He’s about 12 months away from actually facing a legislative branch that has a check on his power. He is nowhere near the height of his popularity …and he’s facing water shortages, food shortages and a crime problem. This has been a great distraction that the U.S. really handed to him on a silver platter.”

The greatest immediate danger appears to be a border skirmish that develops into a running battle for several days—a face-saving exercise by the military that could nevertheless result in the loss of many lives.

Despite Chávez’ troop deployment, he has shown a willingness to play the diplomatic card—with some success. Arguing that the 10-year Colombia-U.S. troop-base deal effectively turned Colombia into a potential launching pad for an invasion of his country, Chávez managed to enlist a broader group of nations to denounce the deal. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet joined Ecuador and Bolivia to raise concerns about a heightened U.S. military presence in the region.

Regional cooperation remains patchy and easy prey to strong nationalistic and ideological differences, however. Uribe, isolated and facing a skeptical UNASUR, threatened to break with the group at the height of the controversy over the U.S. troop-basing agreement, accusing it of becoming a forum for the radical left.

He has appealed instead to the United Nations Security Council and the Organization of American States, and in December, at the Ibero-American Summit in Portugal, to Dominican President Leonel Fernández.

Fernández agreed to act as mediator between Venezuela and Colombia, saying his country has close ties with both left and right.

Meanwhile, Brazil, the obvious contender to take a leading role, appears to be more interested in the Middle East peace process than in its neighbors’ squabbles.

President Lula did announce in December that he and Mr. García had agreed to promote a Peace, Security and Cooperation Protocol to ensure transparency in purchases and a commitment to arms reduction.

Such efforts at multilateral discussion could be an encouraging sign, but the challenge is to establish regular means of oversight and trust to oversee new agreements. Latin America’s rearmament may have increased the possibility that the increasing number of cross-border quarrels, fueled by ideological differences, could turn into military conflicts, particularly in the case of Colombia and Venezuela. But for now, they are likely to remain at the level of diplomatic maneuvering. Ultimately, defusing those tensions will be less about reducing nations’ defense expenditures than about finding an effective forum for brokering disputes and a common will to address the poverty and inequality that blight nations at both ends of the political spectrum.


Naomi Mapstone is the Andean correspondent for the Financial Times, based in Lima, Peru. Formerly the FT's deputy U.S. news editor, she now divides her time between Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Tags: Arms buildup in Latin America, Military in Latin America, Naomi Mapstone
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter