Venezuela and Brazil Advance on South American Defense Council

A South American defense council to mediate regional conflicts and defend South America from foreign intervention could be concretized this year, the Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said after meeting with President Hugo Chávez in Caracas Monday.
President Hugo Chávez and Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim (Prensa Presidencial)

Mérida, April 15, 2008 (– A South American defense council to mediate regional conflicts and defend South America from foreign intervention could be concretized this year, the Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said after meeting with President Hugo Chávez in Caracas Monday.

“We are going to make it so that the strength of South America is born of the union of our peoples,” the minister told the press Monday evening.

“It is impossible to talk about problems in isolated form; we should resolve the problems in conjunction and in unity," Jobim articulated, assuring that any problem affecting one South American country affects the whole region.

Although regional military integration had been discussed in the past, the topic was recharged by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva during the diplomatic crisis sparked by Colombian military incursions into Ecuadorian territory in March.

Jobim and Chávez decided to put the topic on the agenda of the summit of UNASUR, a South American integration organization, scheduled for May 23rd. In the meantime, Jobim will confer with every South American president. If the presidents decide at the summit decide to move forward on the council, Jobim intends to hold a general “ascertainment” meeting within four months, and then "it is a reality that by the end of this year it could be constituted," he proclaimed Monday.

The minister made clear that "there is no possibility of participation by the United States because the council is South American and the U.S. is not in South America,” and said he already met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to firmly establish this.

He made special mention of the fact that “we have no obligation to ask for a license from the United States to do this," and emphasized that the council could help South America “acquire a very strong presence in the concert of world relations."

President Chávez pledged enthusiastic support for the council as well as several other regional integration efforts that stretch beyond South America.

“From Mexico to Argentina, we are one whole nation,” Chávez proclaimed Sunday at a demonstration in Caracas to commemorate the six year anniversary of the U.S.-backed two-day coup against his presidency.

“If a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) exists,” he postulated, “why can’t a SATO exist, a South Atlantic Treaty Organization?"

However, Minister Jobim clarified that distinct from NATO, “the intention of the council is not to form a classical military alliance,” specifying that “there is no operational intention,” and “there is no expansionist pretension.”

The defense council would promote joint military trainings and defense bases, and “military industrial integration” in order to “ensure the supply of the necessary elements for defense,” the minister clarified.

“Dissuasive defense” would be the aim, he continued, adding that it is important for countries to acquire arms and maintain their militaries “in order to have and to project a capacity for dissuasion.”

This in no way constitutes an arms buildup, Jobim insisted. He said those who have made public statements suggesting that a Latin American arms race is taking place, such as the U.S. government, “are mistaken” and “want to impede South American unity.”

This was echoed by Alberto Müller Rojas, spokesperson for the newly formed United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and retired general, who reiterated Monday that South American countries, “are not thinking about promoting an arms race.”

Instead, Rojas considers the defense council a “guarantee of peace” in the region, because it will help South America “achieve a space where we can act with relative freedom of movement to resolve our problems.”

The party leader insisted that "the war we wish to defend is to overcome the enormous social inequalities that grip the continent," but maintained that an organized defense is important in order to repel external interference.

Brazil was the only Latin American country to rank among the top 15 countries in world military spending in 2006, when it spent $13.4 billion on the military, ranking 14th and encompassing 1% of the world’s military spending, according to the Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Venezuelan military spending was $1.9 billion that year, SIPRI records show, and the New York Times reports Pentagon figures that show increases since then.

Also, the only arms producer in Latin America is Brazil’s Embraer corporation, which is perched to benefit from sales to members of the proposed council. With $390 million in sales in 2005, Embraer ranked 93rd in the world among arms producers, according to SIPRI.

In comparison, the top three arms production companies were U.S.-based Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin, which sold a combined $82.1 billion in 2005. The United States was by far the world’s top military spender, with a budget of $529 billion in 2006, encompassing 46% of world military spending, SIPRI figures show.

Since 2003, Chávez and Lula have discussed a joint navigation of the Orinoco River in order to “strengthen the sovereignty of the Amazon,” in the words of the Venezuelan president. In January 2008, Chávez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega proposed a joint military force with Bolivia, Cuba, and Dominica, which are all members of the fair trade initiative called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Shortly after this, Lula announced Brazil would move forward on a “Regional Block of Military Power” that would be managed by the defense council that Jobim and Chávez discussed in Caracas Monday.