It is testament to how much Latin America
has changed politically over the past several years that Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez not only criticizes U.S. military
policy in the region but now actively seeks to form a new defense
force designed to counteract the colossus of the north. Recently,
Chávez invited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to join
him on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente! Turning
to his friend and ally, Chávez remarked that Latin American
countries which formed part of ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative
for The Americas) "should set up a joint defense strategy,
and integrate our armed forces and intelligence servicesbecause
the enemy is the same: the United States empire." Chávez,
who is known for his bravado and rhetorical flair, then added,
"Whoever takes on one of us will have to take on everyone,
because we will respond jointly."
ALBA is an initiative set up
by Chávez to encourage greater solidarity and reciprocity
amongst left leaning regimes throughout the region; its members
include Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica. In
recent years, ALBA has served as a mechanism to enhance barter
exchange between nations. For example, Venezuela has shipped
oil to Cuba and in return receives thousands of Cuban health
professionals who attened to the Venezuelan poor. Originally
set up to upstage the Free Trade Area of The Americas sponsored
by the Bush White House, ALBA also seeks greater cultural integration
amongst Latin American countries (for more on this issue, see
my recent piece "Hugo Chávez's Coca: It's the Real
Thing," February 7, 2008). Now, Chávez seems intent
on expanding ALBA's scope to the military realm as well.
Chávez's comments come
at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.
American officials such as Admiral Michael Glen Mullen, Chief
of the U.S. Southern Command, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, say Venezuela is a threat to the region. They claim that
Venezuela is encouraging an arms race in South America and has
become a drug transshipment point. Meanwhile the U.S. continues
to arm the Colombian military and the civil conflict there has
spilled over the Venezuelan border. Chávez has accused
the Colombian "oligarchy"
of collaborating with Washington in an effort to foment an armed
conflict with Venezuela. Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Chávez
remarked that "The time will come when the Colombian people
get red of that oligarchy. We won't provoke them unless they
provoke us." Chávez claims that Colombia, acting
on U.S. instructions, wants to create obstacles for the proposed
South American Union of Nations or Unasur.
In the midst of the Colombian
imbroglio and escalating tensions, Chávez would like ALBA
nations to demonstrate greater solidarity in an effort to oppose
Washington's military influence. The Venezuelan leader has called
on the defense ministers of each ALBA member-nation to begin
preparation for a joint Defense Council. While it's unlikely
that such plans will come to fruition, the Bush administration's
policy of seeking to isolate Chávez has produced the exact
opposite effect. During his meeting with Chávez, Ortega
declared "If they touch Venezuela, it will light up the
region. No one is going to stand idly by, because to touch Venezuela
is to touch all of Latin America." The Nicaraguan President
added that the United States sought to threaten Venezuela via
Colombia. In return for Ortega's diplomatic support, the grateful
Chávez offered to provide technical assistance to maintain
Nicaragua's Russian helicopters.
Ortega has commented that ALBA nations have just as much a right
to form a joint military force as European countries and NATO.
His pronouncements represent a shift from earlier, more pro-U.S.
administrations in Nicaragua. In 2003, in the wake of the U.S.
invasion of Iraq, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños
sent a team of doctors, nurses, and mine sweepers to the Middle
Eastern nation to assist a Spanish brigade.
Bolivia is the South American
nation which shares the most ideological affinity with Chávez
at the current time and it's no surprise that Morales has sought
greater military cooperation with Venezuela. Despite U.S. complaints
about Chávez's allegedly expansionist aims in the region,
Bolivia's chief of staff, General Freddy Bersatti, reportedly
backs the idea of "merging" the Venezuelan and Bolivian
armed forces. Chávez has provided helicopters to Bolivia
and says he will send weapons to replace equipment. The Venezuelan
President has reportedly pledged to provide up to $22 million
to build 20 military bases in Bolivia. In late 2006, Venezuela's
ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, remarked that "if for
some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened,
and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here."
Morales faces a particularly active and vigorous political opposition
from the right, and Chávez has remarked that he will not
sit idly by if the "Bolivian oligarchy" tries to forcibly
remove his ally.
It's not the first time that
Chávez has proposed forming wider military alliances in
the region to put a break on the United States. In 2006, Chávez
invited Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales
to a military parade in Caracas where he proudly announced "We
must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the
region with a common doctrine and organization." In another
speech, Chávez added: "We must form the armed forces
of Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] merging warfare capabilities
of the continent." During a trip to Bolivia, where he was
accompanied by Venezuela's army chief, Raul Baduel, Chávez
declared that there was a need for a Latin American alliance
akin to NATO "with our own doctrine, not one that's handed
down by the gringos."
During a two month trip through
South America in 2007, I spoke with a number of military experts.
Without exception, they all scoffed at Chávez's proposals
to form a joint defense force (I have written a chapter about
military developments in my upcoming book, Revolution! South
America and the Rise of the New Left, which comes out in
April with Palgave-Macmillan). Chávez's proposals are
problematic in a couple of respects. First of all, it would
prove logistically challenging, not to mention costly, for Venezuela
to maintain its troops if they were sent abroad. The other obstacle
for Chávez is political in nature: not all governments
in the region share his particular socialist views or vision,
nor do they necessarily view the United States as a mortal enemy
which must be confronted.
In a region still beset with
political and national rivalries, Chávez's bid for a unified
military force faces an uphill battle. It is difficult to imagine,
for example, how the Chilean armed forces -- which have an enormous
amount of institutional pride and which have never lost a war
-- would ever be willing to enter into a joint military force
with Venezuela. Indeed, Chile has rebuffed Chávez's military
proposals. Meanwhile, the largest and most important country
in the region, Brazil, is unlikely to become a member of a military
force if it is constituted under Venezuelan leadership. In fact,
Brazilian army commanders have declined Chávez's initiatives.
Even amongst sympathetic ALBA
nations, it's doubtful that Chávez can succeed in creating
a united defense force. Despite growing military ties between
Venezuela and Bolivia, there is pressure on Morales not to go
too far. Conservative media in Bolivia such as the paper La
Razón have ridiculed Chávez's proposed ALBA
military alliance. What's more the Venezuelan leader is reviled
by the Bolivian right wing opposition. If Morales were to increase
military collaboration with Venezuela it would give rise to calls
that Chávez is interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the political opposition has rejected
Chávez's proposals as a "senseless adventure."
Eduardo Montealegre of the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense
party remarked that the idea of an ALBA force was a "smokescreen"
designed to obscure real problems facing ALBA nations such as
misery, hunger and lack of medicines. Even within his own ruling
Sandinista party, Ortega faces opposition to Chávez's
plan. Edwin Castro, the leader of the Sandinista parliamentarian
faction, dismissed the idea that the Nicaraguan Army might fight,
together with Venezuela, in a likely U.S. attack. "The Sandinista
Front wrote in the Constitution (of 1987) that we have a defensive
Army. It is prohibited to have an offensive Army," Castro
Despite the dim prospects for
an ALBA military force, the armed forces in South America (with
the exception of Colombia) are tied to new left of center regimes
which are less sympathetic to the wider U.S. agenda in the region.
Unlike the 1970s, the military establishment is beholden to
civilian rule and is unlikely to intervene in the political arena
by staging an armed coup.
Take for example the case of Argentina. The Minister of Defense,
a woman named Nilda Garré, was a sympathizer with the
Montonero guerrillas of the 1970s. A former political prisoner
during the military dictatorship, Garré wants to bring
rogue military officers to justice for past human rights abuses.
Before coming to the Ministry of Defense, Garré was the
Argentine ambassador to Venezuela. In Caracas, Garré
was a vocal Chávez supporter, and when she got the call
from Kirchner offering her the new job the Venezuelan president
phoned her in congratulation.
Garré has severed ties to the notorious military School
of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC) located in Fort Benning,
Georgia. In taking the momentous step to break with the school,
Garré followed on the heels of Chávez, who severed
ties in January, 2004.
Over the years, U.S.-Argentine
military relations have been quite cordial, but recently ties
have become strained. According to an official who I spoke with
at the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, in 2006 there wasn't
a sole bilateral military meeting between the U.S. and Argentina.
Up to that point the two nations had met every year. Initially
Argentina could not fix a date but when the government proposed
an alternative time to meet, the U.S. responded that "the
Pentagon was being restructured" and could not schedule
in Chile is another woman, Vivianne Blanlot. She has been similarly
confrontational towards the military top brass identified with
past human rights abuses. Recently there's been a lot of cooperation
between the Chilean and Argentine armed forces. The two countries
signed an agreement to form a combined military force for peacekeeping
missions which will be ready by the end of 2008.
Chávez's ALBA military initiative is probably a non-starter,
but in the Southern Cone the armed forces have turned a critical
page in their evolution. Though the military establishment is
not strictly anti-U.S., it has become less identified with American
strategic goals. It's a historic reversal for Washington, which
now faces a much less inviting political environment within the
Nikolas Kozloff is the author ofHugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), andRevolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan,