Armed ambitions in South America

Fri Aug 07 10:52AM

The best defence is offence goes the saying. In South America, that is increasingly being taken to heart.

For a long time, the region has been a reliable depository for second-hand big military items (fighter aircraft and ships) and big but ill-trained armies whose uses were best suited to internal operations or border skirmishes. A few US bases here and there ensured Washington's reach through what it long considered its backyard.

But that scheme of things is changing. Ambitions, fuelled a need by South American nations to protect increasingly valuable natural resources such as oil, long-simmering tensions between neighbours such as Colombia and Venezuela, and extra cash generated by the boom in commodities, are transforming the strategic outlook.

The United States, having neglected the region during most of the Bush years, has renewed its attention to the region. After seeing its DEA agents kicked out of Bolivia, a key military base closed by Ecuador, countries such as Argentina and Brazil becoming increasingly assertive against US influence, the coup in Honduras, and of course Venezuela's decision to arm itself with sophisticated Russian weaponry, Washington has woken up to the possibility of conflict in South America into which it would inevitably be drawn. It has already reactivated its Fourth Fleet. Now - to the alarm of many South American nations - it has also negotiated to use seven Colombian military bases, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking.

What is emerging is an arms race in South America that so far has largely gone unnoticed -- but which could be announced with a bang in the future.

The bases issue is proving especially contentious. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, hastily arranged a tour of some regional capitals to explain the decision, while US President Barack Obama dispatched his national security advisor to Brazil to do the same. Apart from Peru - which is friendly to the US and, like Colombia, benefits from a US free trade agreement - hostility has met the proposed deal almost everywhere. Venezuela and Ecuador fear US-backed military action against them from Colombia. Their ally Bolivia is indignant about the US 'empire' having any foothold at all in Latin America. Even more moderate Brazil and Chile are opposed, questioning why the US needs such a sizeable permanent deployment in Colombia to fight drug-running rebels Bogota itself says it has on the run.

Venezuela and Ecuador last year nearly entered into armed conflict with Colombia over a raid by Colombia's army inside Ecuador to destroy a rebel FARC base. Tensions subsided for a while but have now returned with Uribe accusing Chavez of arming the FARC and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa receiving FARC election financing. A handshake between Obama and Chavez during a US-Latin America summit earlier this year has been forgotten. The region remains divided between a couple of US allies (Colombia and Peru), a few anti-US nations (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia) and a bunch claiming neutrality (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) but which reject US interference on their patch.

Brazil in particular appears bent on joining the big boys, to boost its political clout in line with its economic heft. With a UN Security Council seat its longterm goal, that means having the ability to project military power, not simply defend borders or react to homegrown events.

In 2000, it bought a mothballed French aircraft carrier, the Foch, and renamed it the São Paulo. This year it signed a deal for four French subs and the joint development of Latin America's first nuclear sub. Part of the logic is to defend potentially huge offshore oil reserves, but experts believe Brazil's goal of 'blue water' capability signals a determination to deploy anywhere along South America's eastern coast and into the Caribbean, if needed.

One strategic aim left unspoken by Brazilian officials is the aim to neutralize any threat from Venezuela, its oil-rich neighbour to the north. Relations so far are cordial between Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but the possibility of a flare-up between Venezuela and Colombia (or between Ecuador and Peru, or Bolivia and Peru) underscore the instability Brazil could be swept up into sooner rather than later.

Venezuela's recent purchase of 24 Russian/Chinese-made SU-30MK fighters (advanced, fast, cheap and highly maneuverable) have robbed Brazil of the air attack superiority it enjoyed with its ageing fleet of 12 French-made Mirages. And air operations are the most important warfare option in South America, where the Andes and the Amazon create barriers to land-based actions.

Which is why Brasilia is on the brink of choosing advanced modern planes and expanding its attack fleet to 36 aircraft. It is due to announce next month which plane - France's Rafale, the F/18 from the US or Sweden's Gripen NG - will win the tender, estimated to be worth up to four billion dollars.

The Rafale is seen as the frontrunner, not least because French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been invited to Brazil for September 7 Independence Day celebrations and to sign some unspecified contracts. The French jet, which has stealth-like abilities (and, soon, the ability to launch nuclear missiles if required), is seen as the one best suited to defeating the SU-30MK. And to seal the deal, Paris has agreed to Brasilia's demand that it be a technology-sharing deal, meaning Brazil's Embraer aircraft manufacturer will one day be able to build its own advanced fighters.

The Venezuelan ability to strike harder and faster than its neighbours has also unnerved Colombia and the US. Colombia, is in the process of upgrading its own air force slightly, by buying the improved Kfir versions of the Mirage modified by the Israeli air force, but can't by itself stand up to Venezuela any more either. Which is where the US bases likely come in. With Colombia under a stronger US umbrella, any military incursion by Venezuela would be answered with overwhelming US force.

Chavez is railing against the bases deal, but he too has a powerful sponsor on his side: Russia, which has the option of using Venezuelan airbases for its long-range bombers and which late last year held 'joint' naval exercises with Venezuela in the Caribbean.

Don't look now, but the Cold War could be warming up in the tropics of South America.

In this blog, reporters and editors for global news wire AFP blog about the news they report and the challenges they face covering events from Baghdad to Beijing, the White House to Darfur. Marc Burleigh is AFP's Brazil-based Latin America correspondent.


Comments1 - 10 of 41

  1. Interesting - in the article, Brazil's military-gearing up is seen as benevolent, to defend itself from the potential threat of Venezuela and to defend Brazilian oil production. Venezuela's military gearing-up, on the other hand, is seen as unnecessary sabre-rattling, although it would appear that the majority of this is in order to defend itself from the potential threat of Colombia, and defend Venezuelan oil interests. So why are Brazil and Venezuela treated differently in the article?

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not by any means an unqualified supporter of Venezuela (or for that matter, any other state in the region) - but this biased article, the author of which remains unknown, is poor, poor journalism. More analysis would have been welcome here - an opportunity to provide real insight into Latin American politics has been squandered.

    avinabacca From avinabacca on Fri Aug 07 11:13AM

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  2. The "New" millenium seems to have gone to the dogs already.
    Why will people ( Politicians) never learn. If the GW admin had kept a global eye on things instead of blabbing on about "terrorist" for 8 years... we might not be were we are today// Afganistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Gaza, Russia, China, and now South America.... + Climate change and economic meltdown.
    The Future doesn't really look that rosy for my 8 year old kid.

    alascott2001 From alascott2001 on Fri Aug 07 11:14AM

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  3. south america is were all ww2 natsis escaped to. in chile they have exact uniforms 3rd riech had but light blue i went to spain august 1975 when dictator franco was alive i thought they were making a ww2 movie but wasnt it was spanish army in natsi black helmuts boots and green uniforms identical to 3rd rieche in ww2 i dont know if they still have them now

    johnwhitton1 From johnwhitton1 on Fri Aug 07 11:36AM

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  4. well well, the new world order shift continues. This is still another sign of American weakness. These countries are sensing that they will be more richer and therefore able to become independant from the USA. thats what all this is about. This century will probably hearald some major conflicts before large nations re assert their influence. But the USA is doomed. IT HAS BECOME A BANAN REPUBLIC RULED FOR PROFIT BY GOLDMAN SACH. In such cir@#$%stances all countries and empires fall. Once the money leaves the usa and the dollar falls its time to get scared. ww1 and ww2 will be a picnic in comparison

    liammateer From liammateer on Fri Aug 07 11:37AM

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  5. New Cold war huh...

    darren90uk From darren90uk on Fri Aug 07 11:38AM

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  6. where has all the love gone?

    barryfishir From barryfishir on Fri Aug 07 11:50AM

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  7. It's always been the case that S.America has been a hothouse of immature developing nations. They are more than capable of getting themselves into trouble on their own, without outside help. The U.S's influence in the region has, historically been a moderating one, even if, as we all know, their grasp of international-relations has been somewhat flakey.
    Of the other hand, Russia clearly sees S.America as a chance to make mischief in the U.S's back-yard. As for the French, well, I well remember them supplying new Excocet missiles to Argentinia in the middle of the Falklands conflict. Given the widespread poverty and poor education, outside-countries would be better advised to provide help in those areas, and should know better in this day and age than to stoke the fires of avoidable future conflicts.

    gipsyqueens2 From gipsyqueens2 on Fri Aug 07 11:51AM

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  8. in answer to comment no.1 - I believe that the bias in this article is because Venezuela started the arms race by buying more planes than its neighbours when its only threat was coming from the mouth of its dictator ('president' who was elected for life). Venezuela is trying to establish itself as the hegemonic power in South America.

    Of course there is the other bias in the article in that Venezuela has good relations with Iran (after all they set up OPEC together) and the rest of the world is seeing Iran's nuclear program a threat to stability. Venezuela's attacks on American policy in line with Iran's attacks make them the enemy in the Western media.

    Personally I did not really care about Venezuela's sabre rattling because alot of it was legit criticism against the U.S. foreign policy at the time, but recently its actions have been little better than North Korea's actions (i.e. sponsoring FARC). If you are going to start interfering with the politics of your neighbouring countries by sponsoring a guerilla war against a legitimate democratically elected government when you yourself were recently voted to be president for life (i.e. a dictator) then you got to face the consequences that your neighbours are going to take action to defend themselves against you, even if that means coming under the umbrella of the U.S. For that reason alone I don't think that the article is necessarily biased just stating the fact that the other countries were responding to Venezuela.

    sleepy_jazz_bunny From sleepy_jazz_bunny on Fri Aug 07 12:17PM

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  9. I just think the US should keep its nose completely out of the region as that will only inflame things further. Leave the South Americans to deal with things themselves, They have been through enough in the past thanks to American interference.

    sayarwood From sayarwood on Fri Aug 07 01:02PM

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  10. LOL - any conflict in SA will remain in SA. The Cold War is over. Money is the only way to succeed in anything these days. Unless you are a "Russian" living in an ex-soviet republic that is not aligned with Russia and you want it to be = just claim abuse adn the Ruskies will pile in just like the good ol' days.

    There will never be another Cuban Missile Crisis - so who cares if SA blows itself to bits ?? They are not india or china. What do they export ?? Bananas and Oil - how much of the oil comes to USA or EU = not much !!!!

    I think I will survive without Bananas and Brazil Nuts for a while !!

    we need a real 3rd world war so we can all start living and consuming more locall.


    IT will cause WW3 - i have no doubt. Combined with SwineFlu = a big lot of changes are coming soon !!

    We will also see USA split up into 2-3 separated entities that will be merged with Canada and Mexico. NY and the 'old' states in part 1 and Calif+Texas WITH Mexico in part 2 then all the hicks in the middle go into part 3. Canada will probably pick to go with the NY grouping. Or maybe Canada with Mexico will take over all the USA together !!

    I look forward to the haters' reply comments ;-)

    21st Century Nostradmus

    sayhitothedamned From sayhitothedamned on Fri Aug 07 01:22PM

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