U.S. Base Access in Colombia Prompts Increase in South American Defense Spending

The announcement in mid-July of the near completion of an agreement to allow the U.S. military to lease space at seven Colombian bases prompted nearly unanimous rejection from South American governments. In the meantime, other South American nations have begun to arm themselves.

announcement in mid-July of the near completion of an agreement to allow the
U.S. military to lease space at seven Colombian bases prompted nearly unanimous
rejection from South American governments. The Union of South American Nations
(UNASUR) has called three summit meetings to discuss the U.S.-Colombia Defense
Cooperation Agreement
, but Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, has refused to
back down. In the meantime, other South American nations have begun to arm
themselves, fueling fears of an arms race in a region that has not suffered a
major inter-state conflict since the end of the Chaco War in 1935.

The source
of greatest tension lies on the Venezuela-Colombian border. The Uribe
administration argues that it needs increased U.S. military support to suppress
drug traffickers and the leftist insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC). Although the Colombian government has yet to bring formal
allegations, the Uribe administration has insinuated that Venezuelan President
Hugo Chávez supports the FARC and has diverted Swedish-made rocket launchers to
the group-a claim that Chávez denies.

Chávez, on
the other hand, maintains that the U.S. government was involved in a 2002 coup
to overthrow him and claims that the increased U.S. military presence
constitutes a national security threat to Venezuela. Chávez recently announced
that the Venezuelan government had been awarded over $2 billion in financing
from the Russian government to purchase tanks and an anti-aircraft missile

is not the only country investing in its military. The Brazilian government is
currently negotiating the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets in a deal with
French company Dassault that could be worth up to $7 billion. Three other
companies, including Boeing, made unsuccessful offers.

Bolivian government has also negotiated a much smaller deal with Russia for
$100 million to finance unspecified purchases of military equipment, as well as
a $30 million presidential plane. The Bolivian government purchased the current
presidential plane back in the 1970s.

As if
determined to rekindle memories of the Cold War, the Russian military is even
going to "help Havana modernize and train its military," according to
a recent report from the Miami Herald.

of Latin American politics have worried about an arms race since at least 2007,
following the Venezuelan government's $4 billion purchases of Russian aircraft
and a major boost in military spending in Brazil. There is reason to think that
the recent spate of arms purchases may have a more lasting effect on
hemispheric relations because the U.S. base deal in Colombia adds another
dimension to the problem in a region where the U.S. government has supported
numerous military coups.

increased U.S. presence gives South American leaders an obvious reason to
invest in their militaries. The lack of transparency in the negotiations over
the base deal-which were conducted in secret and only addressed publicly after
the Colombian magazine Cambio broke the story, did little to assuage the
anxieties of leaders who interpret the U.S. military as a threat.

President Lula da Silva defended the Chávez administration's recent arms
purchases. "Venezuela is a country with huge amounts of oil and natural gas,
and Chávez was the victim of a coup, so it's normal that he is getting
prepared," da Silva told Radio Guaiba in Brazil.

Lula da
Silva does not share Chávez's brazen style, but he appears to share Chávez's
concern about an increased U.S. military presence in South America. Adam
Isacson of the Center for International Policy writes that "the Brazilian
military for decades has operated under the threat hypothesis that the United
States wishes to control the Amazon basin. The under-the-radar base negotiations
with Colombia unhelpfully play into that hypothesis."

But even
those who don't buy the interventionist theory have found little reassurance
from the Obama administration that an increased U.S. military presence in
Colombia will serve the continent's interests. The bases in Colombia would
ostensibly replace the U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, whose lease President
Rafael Correa let expire this summer. Manta served as a base for drug
trafficking interdiction efforts in the Pacific and those U.S.-led operations
do not form the centerpiece to most South American leaders' approach toward
drug policy, with the prominent exception of Alvaro Uribe.

The Latin
American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, headed by ex-presidents César
Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, released a
statement last February
calling for a "paradigm shift" away from
repressive policies and toward reducing drug consumption by treating it as a
public health issue rather than a criminal one. The report notes that,
"The United States allocates a much larger proportion of resources to
eradication and interdiction as well as to maintaining its legal and penal
system than to investments in health, prevention, treatment and the
rehabilitation of drug users."

the Obama administration did not seem to understand the inherent unpopularity
of hosting foreign militaries. It is easy to imagine how the American public
would react if the Mexican government announced that it planned to establish
military bases in Texas in order to assist U.S. efforts to apprehend drug
users. If the Obama administration wants to detain the South American arms
race, it should begin re-evaluating the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation

Planas is a NACLA Research Associate