Known for military strongmen, Latin America has mostly embraced peace since the end of the 1980s era of right-wing dictatorships. Now flush with profits from a commodities boom, however, many Latin American countries are beefing up their military capabilities as they seek to ascend the ranks of regional power players.
Brazil, Chile and especially Venezuela have invested heavily in arms purchases. With $4.3 billion in purchases since 2005, according to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, Venezuela's recent spending surpasses even Pakistan, at $3 billion, and Iran, at $1.7 billion -- major military powers in their own regions. Buoyed by high copper prices, Chile led the region in 2005 with $2.8 billion in arms purchases, followed by Venezuela with $2.2 billion and Brazil with $1.3 billion, according to the Latin American Security and Defense Network (RESDAL). As the region moves slowly toward integration, these three nations are emerging as South America's power players. Oil-rich Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has campaigned vigorously for energy-based integration, hosting the recent South American Energy Summit. With the highest oil reserves outside the Middle East and the continent's largest gas reserves, Chavez has sought to tie the region together through numerous energy agreements, even promoting a continent-wide network of gas pipelines. The region's most successful democracy and economy, Chile, has become an example for the region, gaining influence far beyond its population of 16 million. And as the world's ninth-largest economy, Brazil, with a population of 188 million, seems poised to lead the region and emerge as a global power. Richer, bigger Brazil accounts for almost half the continent's military expenditures and boasts the region's largest arms industry. But Chile and Venezuela have been trying to bridge the gap as they aim to increase their influence in Latin America, backed by military might. Against the 'Empire' U.S accuses Venezuela of threatening regional stability by engaging in an arms race. Chavez's "purchase of modern military equipment from Russia, including 24 SU-30 advanced fighter-bombers, and moves toward developing his own weapons production capability are increasingly worrisome to his neighbours," then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told a Senate panel in January. "These weapons purchases could fuel an arms race in the region." Venezuelan officials dispute that assessment. "That's a falsehood of American propaganda," said Alberto Muller Rojas, a retired general and close adviser to Chavez. The country's arm purchases merely replace obsolete military equipment, including 20-year-old F-16s and 50-year-old Belgian rifles, said Muller Rojas. Based on its concern that Chavez's "radical populism" will destabilize the region, the United States already views Venezuela as a regional player. Taking its name from independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution seeks to redistribute Venezuela's oil wealth to the poor and fulfill Bolivar's dream of a united Latin America. Briefly ousted through a 2002 coup that received tacit U.S support, Chavez accuses the "empire" of planning a military invasion as well as his assassination. His push for integration aims to bring his Latin American neighbours together against the United States, which has historically held sway over the region. Small wonder, then, that the United States banned arms sales to Venezuela last May, claiming a lack of support on counter-terrorism. Russia has filled the void, however, selling Venezuela about $3.4 billion in Sukhoi fighter planes, attack and transport helicopters and 100,000 AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles. Venezuela also has expressed interest in a Russian integrated air defence system, estimated at $290 billion, and nine submarines, another $3 billion, which would give it the region's largest fleet. The Venezuelan army, the recipients of the Kalashnikovs, together with civilian reservists, who will be equipped with the army's old Belgian FAL rifles, form the foundation of Venezuela's strategy of "asymmetrical warfare." Incapable of fighting a conventional war with the United States, Venezuela believes its best bet would be to arm its population and conduct an Iraq-style guerrilla war against an invasion. "However, we must prepare for the worst hypothesis: direct action from the Empire," says a 2005 document drafted by Chavez, Muller Rojas and Venezuela's top military brass. The document cites "resistance of the invader" as one of "the actions that will identify our will for struggle," which "will prepare the final counter-offensive that will define the survival of the Venezuelan State." Venezuela's hefty arms purchases clearly aim to deter a U.S. invasion. A surface-to-air missile defence system would seek to rebuff air attacks against strategic sites such as oil refineries. Likewise, a modern submarine fleet would guard Venezuela's waters from U.S. Navy ships carrying fighter planes and aiming to cut off the country's oil exports. Not only is such a conflict scenario not far-fetched, according to Alberto Garrido, a political analyst, but Venezuela is just as likely to spark the conflict with the United States. "Chavez said it in Buenos Aires, 'I share Che Guevara's thesis, let there be new Vietnams,'" said Garrido, referring to an anti-Bush rally Chavez led at a Buenos Aires soccer stadium while Bush visited Uruguay on his recent Latin America tour. "So, from the standpoint of unconventional warfare, the U.S. should be concerned," added Garrido. Other Power PlayersAs the region's predominant power, Brazil boasts a modern military with over 300,000 soldiers. Yet its defence budget has remained modest this decade, reaching $8.7 billion in 2005 and hovering near 2% of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which studies conflicts around the world. By working on a nuclear-powered submarine, however, Brazil is seeking a distinct sea power advantage in the region. More importantly, its unique position as the world's fifth largest arms producer offers Brazil financial profits as well as geopolitical heft. Brazil's main military planning hypothesis centres on the Amazon which Brazilians jealously defend against what they perceive as U.S. designs on the area's rich biodiversity and water supply. Brazilian military officials visited Vietnam in 2005 for "exchanges on resistance doctrine" to prepare for a guerrilla war of their own in the rainforest. With Brazil an emerging global power, Chile has a wide gap to bridge. But booming copper exports, mostly to China, have boosted its defence spending thanks to a law dating from Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship that automatically devotes 10 percent of copper revenues to defence. Chile's 100 new German-made Leopard II tanks, new and refurbished F-16s, and two submarines, give Chile the region's most sophisticated military technology, including its best-equipped air force and navy. Chile's military strength bolsters its diplomatic power as a thriving democracy. Chile says its arms purchases mean to equip its armed forces for natural disaster response and humanitarian efforts. Even in the peaceful southern cone, however, Chile worried when Venezuela and Bolivia signed a military agreement to construct bases, including one along the Chilean-Bolivian border. Land-locked Bolivia maintains a dispute with Chile over territory it lost in the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific, during which Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean. After provoking concern among its neighbours, Bolivia has scrapped plans for the bases, at least for now. The era of the military strong man may be over, but Latin America's emerging powers remain aware of the importance of military power in international relations, whether meant for defensive, humanitarian or aggressive purposes. "A country that aspires to have influence," explained Alfredo Rangel, a Bogota-based defence analyst, "should have a military capacity that encourages respect." By José Orozco journalist based in Caracas. World Politics Watch