The South American Defense Council and the Region’s Political Process

The most ambitious and significant recent project undertaken by South America's armed forces has been the creation of Conselho Sul-Americano de Defesa (South American Defense Council - CSD), an agency of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

• Applying collective security (through the CSD) in Latin America

• Hopes and challenges for UNASUR and the CSD

• Learning from the OAS and the IADB/C

• The inter-American system and security issues

Bolivia, UNASUR's trial of fire

The most ambitious and significant recent project undertaken by South
America's armed forces has been the creation of Conselho Sul-Americano
de Defesa (South American Defense Council – CSD), an agency of the
Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

The success of this agency, part of the larger organization which is
also in its infancy, is yet to be measured. To gauge the feasibility of
such an ambitious project, it must be viewed in an appropriate context,
perhaps as South America's version of a NATO-style organism (even if
somewhat different and adapted to accept regional realities). UNASUR
and CSD's future will be determined by whether they can become
effective catalysts for regional security integration, and if member
states can find a relevant role for them – perhaps in the area of
peacekeeping. For the CSD to be a success, it first will have to deal
with the region's troubling, if not mediocre, historical record
regarding security and peacekeeping issues.

Learning from Mistakes: The OAS and the IADB

Ambassador Robert White, president of the Center for International
Policy, explained that the inter-American system got a promising start
at the 1948 meeting in Bogota which founded the Organization of
American States (OAS), which succeeded the Pan-American Union. However,
the birth of a new inter-American system as it was originally conceived
came crashing down with the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala. White
then explains that "the crisis triggered by Arbenz's purchase of
Eastern European weaponry could have been solved by an OAS commission
putting pressure on the Guatemalan leader. This approach was supported
by the U.S. State Department, but the Defense Department and the CIA
have always preferred a unilateral approach and took matters into their
own hands… in effect, that was the end of the inter-American system."

The OAS generally has paid lip-service to U.S. interventions and
unilateral decisions in the region. For example, Wayne Smith, director
of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, explained
that he could not recall any OAS protests during the U.S.-backed Bay of
Pigs invasion in 1961. The OAS was almost mute during the American
military interventions in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in
1983 and Panama in 1989. Meanwhile, Cuba's membership in the OAS was
suspended during the 1962 missile crisis.

Throughout its existence, the OAS traditionally has suffered from
being regarded as a Washington-dominated institution, suffering from a
severe lack of qualified personnel and adequate economic resources.
Although OAS agencies like the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)
carry out some important work, in general terms the OAS is viewed by
those who know it best as a bureaucratic tangle at the lowest common
denominator, with little to no relevancy. Latin governments usually
regard it as a destination for diplomats on the verge of retirement,
troublemakers and politicians that the government of the day wants out
of the country. The two-term, all but frivolous, stint of former
Colombian President Cesar Gaviria as OAS Secretary General in the 1990s
helped cement this perception.

The OAS advisory security agency, the Inter American Defense Board
and College (IADB), is similarly regarded as largely irrelevant, akin
in the minds off many as being little more than a militarized Moose
Club. The IAD-Board was created during the Third Meeting of
Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Rio de Janeiro, January
1942. The IAD-College opened in Fort Lesley McNair, in downtown D.C.,
on October 1962. The agency deploys occasional humanitarian
interventions in Central America and serves as a low-level
confidence-building institution, bringing high-ranking military
officers from Latin America together to work in a Washington D.C.
mansion, or to carry out studies at Fort McNair. For most military
officials, their time at the IADB is regarded as a highly desired
year-long vacation in the U.S., which includes being able to bring
their families along. Two distinguished alumni of the IAD-College are
Chile's current President Michelle Bachelet and Ecuador's former
leader, Lucio Guiterrez.

UNASUR and the CSD: A New Hope?

It is perhaps due to this indifferent track record and as a reaction to
the OAS' multiple strike outs that UNASUR has emerged as a new option
for Latin American political integration. Of course, UNASUR is only the
newest of a series of regional organizations attempting, broadly
speaking, to emulate the European Union. However, it appears that Latin
America's drive for integration and supranationalism may more closely
approximate the working style of the African Union. Besides the OAS,
other regional organizations active at the present time include the
Andean Community, Mercosur, the Rio Group, the Venezuela-led ALBA, the
Andean Parliament, the Caribbean Community for Caribbean Nations, not
to mention extra-hemispheric organizations whose membership includes,
in some cases, the European Union and in others, Spain & Portugal
(SEGIB) or India and South Africa (IBSA). UNASUR was established as a
result of the Cuzco Declaration, signed in 2004. Due to the nature of
its present membership, it can be loosely regarded as the union of
MERCOSUR and the Andean Community, plus Suriname and Guyana. Panama and
Mexico both currently hold observer status. An April 2007 summit at
Margarita Island, Venezuela, effectively created the organization.
UNASUR's secretariat is to be based in Quito, Ecuador.

One could suspect that a bona fide South American supranationalist
would be tempted to dream that UNASUR and the CSD might become for
South America what the OAS and the IADB were never able to be. For
some, logic dictates that without the long shadow of U.S. membership,
UNASUR might be able to promote integration through economic and
political means, while the CSD would be primarily aimed at promoting
security and confidence measures to cope with the ongoing arms race
that has gripped South America with increased intensity for almost a
decade. Apart from the attention Venezuela has gained in recent years
over its major purchases of mostly Russian military technology and
weaponry, other countries that are following the path of a military
buildup include Brazil (led by its ambitious plans to build a
nuclear-powered submarine) and Chile (which has purchased Humvees, F-16
fighter planes and Leopard tanks).

However, speculation has already arisen over what UNASUR and the CSD
will be dealing with if these new institutions mean to become effective
players in regional affairs. Some of the problems both bodies will have
to tackle if they are to be considered relevant include:

  • How does UNASUR differentiate itself from other regional agencies, besides in its membership?
  • Will the absence of the U.S. propel the new organization on a dynamic path of growth and increasing authority?
  • What will be the catalyst that will bring countries together? Will
    UNASUR focus itself on trade, perhaps creating a UNASUR-free trade area?
  • What will its bureaucracy be like? Will it resemble the European Union? Will a UNASUR Parliament and Secretariat be set up?
  • How much decision-making will South American nations be willing to
    give up to an overarching organization like UNASUR? This was one of the
    OAS' principle problems and an issue that the EU has had to grapple
    with since its founding – the factor of supranationalism. Namely, would
    any South American government be persuaded to abide by an order issued
    by UNASUR's Secretary General? Or will this organization merely be a
    forum for discussion and consensus-seeking (which would quickly render
    it practically irrelevant, as consensus in the region is difficult to

A major issue that UNASUR and other Latin agencies will have to
struggle with will be maintaining the organization's momentum to push
forward for greater integration. Currently UNASUR is characterized by a
wave of like-minded governments, most of them left-leaning with only
Colombia's Alvaro Uribe and Peru's Alan Garcia standing as markedly
Washington-friendly. As South America is striving to become a
democratic region, new presidential elections will eventually take
place which may bring to office a new series of presidents who may be
less interested in supporting UNASUR's quest for autonomy and national
fulfillment and more interested in reestablishing close ties with
Washington's markets. For UNASUR to survive and expand, South American
leaders must seize the moment in order to make certain that the
organization is not downgraded when leaders like Brazil's Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez leave office.

CSD Issues

Questions that will have to be confronted if the CSD is to be a viable
and relevant agency in regional military integration, with a potential
for joint military operations include:

  • What will its mandate be?
  • Should it resemble NATO?
  • Will there be a NATO-style article 5 promoting collective security?
  • Where will its headquarters be located?
  • Is it open to membership of Caribbean-basin states?
  • Where would the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance
    (commonly known as the Rio Treaty, or TIAR) stand in relation to CSD's
  • Will the U.S. be extended observer status?
  • Will there be CSD-sponsored war games and joint-military exercises?

Another issue that will have to be addressed is the current level of
distrust that exists among several South American militaries, as well
as their obsession (as a national obligation) to protect their
countries' sovereignty. It would be difficult, for some to conceive
that a Chilean colonel could take orders from a Peruvian General within
a CSD chain of command. Venezuelans and Colombians may similarly have
issues working with each other. One other factor is likely to be
Brazil's predominating role in the body's day-to-day operations, giving
the defining role played by Brasilia in the formation of UNASUR and the


A number of suggestions are being put forward to increase the prospects
of UNASUR and the CSD being successful. Ambassador White recalled that
he was once asked by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and
Assistant Secretary of State Bill Rogers how to make the Organization
of American States into a successful agency. White went on to write a
paper that was circulated in the State Department suggesting that the
Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America become the U.S.
ambassador to the OAS. The logic was that this would put a high ranking
and relevant official in an influential position at the OAS. Latin
American countries would then see the importance of approaching this
high-ranking official and would put an end to their custom of sending
two ambassadors to Washington (one as ambassador to the White House,
who is usually an experienced diplomat, and one to the OAS, who usually
is not) and just send one seasoned diplomat to preside over both posts.
This would facilitate the bringing of experience and good ideas to the
OAS which, in turn could go a long way to making it a more relevant
organization. A similar case could be made for UNASUR – South American
governments must visualize the organization's potential and not view it
as some kind of "freezer" or "retirement home" for diplomatic personnel
on the skid. Sending less than competent officials to make up UNASUR's
bureaucracy and leadership would condemn the organization to mediocrity
and eventual failure.

Regarding the CSD, that body may be seen as a means by which to
promote confidence building and the introduction of a rational use of
the continent's security component. Given the current arms race being
witnessed in the region, the CSD could be an essential institution to
prevent potential crises from escalating. At the present, there remains
distrust and occasional disputes between various South American
countries, for example: Peru vs. Chile, Bolivia vs. Chile, Argentina
vs. Chile, Venezuela vs. Colombia, Venezuela vs. Guyana, Venezuela vs.
Brazil; as well as extra-regional issues like Brazil's leadership
current role in the UN mission to Haiti, MINUSTAH. The CSD might find
its hands full promoting confidence between these contentious
countries, perhaps through joint military exercises and oversight of
military purchases. In addition, the CSD could adopt the role of a
peacekeeping monitor in some of the countries' disputed areas, such as
the border between Peru and Ecuador, Peru and Chile, Venezuela and
Guyana, etc. The CSD could also take a role in helping governments to
combat drug trafficking and other organized crime by serving as a
coordinating organization attempting to systematize the anti-drug and
crime strategy.

Test Case: Bolivia

During the recent ongoing internal crisis in Bolivia, as protests
spread across the country's western and southern regions, UNASUR held
an emergency summit in Chile on September 15, which was called into
session by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The result of the
summit was a declaration providing full backing to President Morales
and calling for negotiations between all parties. Former Chilean
Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes, who has distinguished himself in
a number of roles, has been appointed as UNASUR's special envoy to

Already UNASUR is drawing criticism from other regional
organizations, including the OAS – which is headed by another Chilean,
Juan Miguel Insulza. He declared that it was "completely wrong" that
the OAS was excluded from dialogue aimed at solving the Bolivian
crisis. Insulza also has declared that "UNASUR was born a few months
ago, so we have to get used to discussing South American issues within
the UNASUR, and not in the OAS." Indeed, trying to find a role will be
one of UNASUR's major challenges in the foreseeable future as it will
undoubtedly tread on the "turf" of other organizations like the OAS.

Nevertheless, Bolivia is a test case for how successful, if at all,
UNASUR will be. Should Valdes be even partially successful in bringing
the relevant parties to halt the regional unrest and the deep divide
that separates the various parts of the country, between rich and poor,
people of European descent and indigenous, and industrialist and field
works, this could go a long way toward giving the young organization
credibility. In essence, Bolivia could be to UNASUR what Guatemala was
to the OAS in 1954 – an opportunity to be relevant.

Hope, but not too much

There is a growing optimism that UNASUR, without the U.S. as a member,
could bring about more effective regional integration, a goal the OAS
has largely failed to achieve in its 60 years of existence. A
successful diplomatic intervention in Bolivia would greatly bolster
UNASUR's prestige and sense of mission. However, ultimately it is the
task of regional governments – namely powerhouse Brazil in this
instance – to maintain momentum and demonstrate whether ambitious
initiatives such as the CSD can become a reality, rather than just
another unfulfilled promise, something which South America has been
compelled to know a lot about.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez