This post is also available in: Spanish
South American societies are militarizing as a result of the regional superpower’s intervention, which is undoubtedly a crucial factor on the continent, but also as a consequence of the profound economic and political changes we have come to call neoliberalism.
Several months ago, an official Brazilian commission visited Vietnam. With the goal of “sharing information about resistance doctrine,” the commission composed of colonels and lieutenant-colonels visited Hanoi, Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), and the Cu Chi Province, where 250 kilometers (150 miles) of underground tunnels constructed during the war with the United States still remain. On the Brazilian army’s webpage, Gen. Claudio Barbosa Figuereido, head of the Amazon Military Command, asserts that Brazil will face actions similar to those that have taken place in Vietnam, and now in Iraq, should the Amazon come into conflict:
“The resistance strategy does not differ much from guerrilla warfare, and it is an option the army will not hesitate to adopt facing a confrontation with another country or group of countries with greater economic and military power.” He added, “The jungle itself should serve as an ally in combating the invader.”1 The news had little impact on the media, but it demonstrates that Brazil’s armed forces have their own strategic plans and that they see the United States as a potential military enemy.
Last December, Venezuela signed an agreement with Russia to purchase 110,000 Kalashnikov rifles; 33 assault, attack, and heavy transport helicopters, and 50 fighter bombers. It signed another with Spain to acquire naval aeronautical material, including four corvettes; and it signed one with Brazil for 50 training and combat jets. The purchases form part of “the constant updating of the Venezuelan armed forces, their high level of maintenance, and permanent plans for modernization and arms acquisition,” the South American Military Balance study states.2
The news was received with strong criticism from White House Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the Department of State calls it “the beginning of an arms race.” For its part, the South American nation activated its reserve command last April, “which should reach 2 million members and is included in Venezuela’s new doctrine of defense.”3 The decision was made on April 13, the three-year anniversary of the coup d’etat that drove Hugo Chavez from office during a period of several hours.
Media sources say that Peter Goss, director of the CIA, announced last February to a United States Senate commission that the agency has “evidence” of meetings between the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and Osama Bin Laden’s Islamic network to coordinate terrorist attacks in the region.4 According to this version, the “terrorist threat” looms large in Latin America, as evidenced by the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish solidarity institution AMIA in Buenos Aires, carried out in the 1990s, in which hundreds of people died.
Taken out of context, these three pieces of news—and many others—could give the impression that South America is heading toward imminent military confrontation and that militarization is taking place a very rapid rate. The reality, however, is another matter. According to a study carried out by the Military Power Review in 2004, Venezuela, in spite of its revamped armed forces, is ranked just sixth for military strength in South America. Brazil ranks first (653 points), Peru is second (423), and Argentina is third (419), followed by Chile (387), Colombia (314), and Venezuela (282).
On the other hand, Latin America is one of the most stable areas in the world, and few of its resources from the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are dedicated to the military budget, a mere 1.5%. This figures contrasts with the 4% of GDP dedicated to military spending by the European Union, 3% for the United States (which accounts for 47% of total military spending worldwide), and 12% for the Middle East. A good part of the current purchases and investment in armaments by various South American countries will cover nothing more than the renovation of war materials acquired in the 1960s, which have become useless and obsolete.
Nonetheless, and though it may seem contradictory, there can be legitimate discussion of a growing militarization on the continent. But it is passing through new channels, which have little to do with previous military strategies. In broad terms, four reasons for the emergence of a new militarism can be established: Washington’s new Plan Colombia strategy for the region, which includes combating drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, and controlling the biodiversity of the Andean region from Venezuela to Bolivia; the new forms war has taken in the neoliberal era, that is, the privatization of war; and Brazil’s new role on the continent, that of being the only poor nation of the South that has strategic military autonomy. The fourth factor is a consequence of the attempts of each country’s elite class, driven by Washington, to contain social protest through the militarization of society and the criminalization of social movements.
Old Militarism, New Controls
With the goal of maintaining world dominance, the U.S. business community
is seeking to control new sources of economic power (linked to biological diversity)
while at the same time attempting not to lose control of the old (in particular,
hydrocarbons). Ample archives and dozens of newspaper articles document the
latter. The words of U.S. President George W. Bush, spoken in the year 2000,
should suffice: “Never before in its history has the United States been
so dependent on foreign oil. In 1973, the country imported 36% of its oil needs.
Today, the country imports 56% of its crude oil.” Venezuela is the fourth
largest provider of oil to the United States, supplying 15% of its need, and
Colombia is the fifth largest provider. Assuring control over South American
oil resources requires intense territorial control over small areas with sites
rich in natural resources.
On the other hand, economic dominance requires maintaining the lead on areas
facing the possibility of economic recovery, and hence, profit recovery. This
objective requires possession and control of so-called “complex territories,” areas
high in biological diversity where endemic species are generated, control over
which would allow the superpower to compete with the Far East ( China, India,
and Japan). But monopolizing and profiting from biodiversity requires a presence
in the vast terrain extending from the Amazon to southern Mexico, one of the
most biologically rich regions of the planet.5
To confront these tasks, the White House appears to have given priority to
the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), with headquarters in Miami. Its growing
importance makes visible the degree of centrality the military dimension has
taken in the post-Sept. 11 restructuring. This is part of what Brian Loveman
calls “full spectrum threat dominance,”6 which
implies a focus on principle events of society—from health and immigration
to agriculture and the economy—as questions of security. According to
some analysts, Southcom has become the primary interlocutor for Latin American
governments as well as their liaison for U.S. foreign policy and defense in
the region.7 Southcom has more employees
working on Latin America than the combined departments of State, Agriculture,
Commerce, Treasury, and Defense.
Military presence in this region has increased and diversified ever since
the 1999 deactivation of Base Howard in Panama. Southcom now has responsibility
for bases in Guantanamo, Fort Buchanan and Roosevelt Roads (Puerto Rico), Soto
Cano (Honduras), and Comalapa (El Salvador); as well as for recently constructed
air bases in Manta (Ecuador), Reina Beatriz (Aruba), and Hato Rey (Curacao).
In addition, it runs a network of 17 land-based radar stations; three fixed
ones in Peru, four in Colombia, and the remaining 10 mobile radars are guarded
in secret locations throughout the Andes and the Caribbean.8 Colombia
is now the world’s fourth largest beneficiary of U.S. military aid, behind
Israel, Egypt, and Iraq; the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is the second largest in
the world following Iraq.
Several analysts maintain that Washington is pursuing the creation of a “South
American armed force” or a “unified armed force,” commanded
by the Pentagon in order to confront new challenges.9 According
to this interpretation, it is no longer sufficient to train soldiers at the
School of the Americas, as it was during the 1960s and 1970s, or to create
mercenary groups like the Nicaraguan Contras during the 1980s. Rather,
it has become necessary to create a continental war device under a single command.
This ambitious project can be interpreted as the military version of the “consolidated
market” reaching from Alaska to Patagonia that would be created by the
proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
This militarization of relations between the United States and Latin America
would, in addition, have the goal of combating present and future challenges
in the region. Let us not forget that various conservative sectors of the American
establishment believe in the existence of a regional “axis of evil,” composed
of Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba.10
This unified armed forces project was already very advanced prior to the terror
attacks on the Word Trade Organization and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Global
changes, the United States’ focus on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the new
situation in Latin America, appear to have postponed its completion. But The
project began to take shape in August of 2001, with the 2001 Cabañas
operation carried out in the northern province of Salta, Argentina.
Operation Cabañas took place in the very spot where the most important
routes of the Piquetero Movement were found. Over the course of several
days more than 1,200 troops from nine countries ( Argentina, United States,
Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay) participated
in the maneuvers that were entirely financed by Washington, even to contributions
of food rations. The troops entered the country without permission from Congress,
as required by the Constitution. According to news sources, the maneuvers had
the objective of “training Latin America soldiers in situations of popular
unrest.” But, even more interesting, is that the maneuvers gave rise
to a national debate in which evidence surfaced that “the United States
has plans to build three bases on Argentine soil: Anartida of the southern
region, Delta of the central region, and Salta in the north.”11
One of the novelties that emerged is that a permanent military contingent
could be maintained in operation as part of the strategy for the Piranha River
Delta, which is a very short distance from the strategic Zarate-Brazo Largo
Bridge and the principle industrial center of Argentina, the Zarate-Compana
Complex. Moreover, in those critical moments for Argentina, the Brazilian news
service Agencia Estado confirmed that Fernando de la Rua’s government
was negotiating the country’s total debt in exchange for military bases.12 During
those same days, the United States was negotiating with Brazil, then presided
over by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the cession of the Alcantara military base
in the Amazon, near the border with Ecuador and the Andean mountain range.
But the political changes that took place in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and
Venezuela during those years partially thwarted Washington’s plans. Although
the situation in Ecuador is still undefined, the resignation of Lucio Gutierrez
implies an adverse change of course for Bush.
Privatization of War
In a way, the evolution of war has followed the industrial model. During the
1960s, assembly line factory production (“Fordism,” popularized
by Charlie Chaplin in the film “Modern Times”) came into crisis
when workers rebelled against the alienation created by monotonous work and
against the excessive control of the foremen and managers. Employers managed
to regain the shop floor initiative by creating flexible forms of work, introducing
new technologies such as informed robots, reducing factory personnel, outsourcing
tasks to third parties, and reinforcing management. On a societal level, the
new forms of organizing production made state power less relevant and entirely
privatized production and services. These are the policies promoted by the
consensus in Washington, which have come to be called neoliberalism.
One of the most notable characteristics of the new production model is that,
upon externalizing a good part of the tasks that had previously been carried
out in the factory, social functions become part of the production chain. In
this way, one could say that the entire society begins to function with factory
logic as the new production model spills onto the whole of society.
Something similar is happening with war. In 2002, there were 43 conflicts
worldwide, of which only one was a war between sovereign states, that is to
say, a “classic” inter-state war. The reality indicates “that ‘old
wars,’ carried out by national sovereign states and regulated by international
law, are being substituted by ‘new wars,’ which are carried out
by diverse non-state actors with absolutely no legal regulation.”13 In
many African countries, war has ceased to be the violent interruption of everyday
life and turned into “an economy regulated by its own laws and oriented
toward its own reproduction.”14 The
idea at its heart, according to Robert Kurz, is to maintain at a distance the
great “superfluous” masses, so as not to interfere with the reproduction
of the system. That excess population should be controlled and kept at bay,
and the way of doing it is the militarization of migratory fluctuations and
those social sectors considered to be marginal.
According to another specialist on the privatization of war, Darío
Azzellini, coauthor with Boris Kanzleiter of the book The Privatization
of War, this process began with the defeat of the United States in Iraq. “We
are returning to something akin to the economic enclaves of the colonial period.
It is no longer about territorial control or the imposition of economic interests.
In Iraq, it is very clear; they are only interested in controlling oil fields,
like before when they controlled sugar plantations, mines, and other colonial
An ever-closer relationship exists between state armies and multinational
corporations, given that private armies work for both. Some businesses, like
the well-known corporation Halliburton, own their own armies, and some military
businesses have shares in private business, as is the case with mining in various
African countries. One of the objectives that led to the creation of Private
Military Corporations (PMCs) consists of eluding any type of democratic control. “If
the United States sends 600 soldiers to Colombia, that decision must be passed
by Congress. But if the sender of the soldiers is a private company, as a result
of a contract signed by the Pentagon, Congress has nothing to say, not even
if they find out what is happening,” Azzellini points out.
According to experts, there are three different types of PMCs: those that
intervene directly on the battlefield, those that offer military advice and
training but do not fight directly, and finally, those that offer only transportation,
and logistical and technical support. In Iraq, all three types exist. In Latin
America, only those of the second and third type exist, for now. But on this
continent, all of the anti-narcotics programs are run by military businesses,
and employees of private businesses run the radar stations controlled by Southcom.
In Colombia, eight U.S. citizens have died in recent years, but because they
work for private companies, the Pentagon evades all responsibility.
Colombia is a laboratory experiment for the new wars in Latin America. Last
October, the United States Congress authorized an increase of 400 to 800 soldiers
on Colombian soil, while there are 600 civilians employed by private military
businesses, estimated by some sources at 1,000. One of the most important PMCs
in the world, DynCorp alone manages 88 U.S. helicopters and light aircraft,
and it has between 100 and 335 employees, a third of whom are U.S. citizens.16
Plan Colombia, so as not to repeat the failure in Vietnam (and in particular
the scandal that produced the distribution of war news in American society)
supports PMCs in a decisive way. From the very beginning, when former U.S.
President Bill Clinton implemented the plan, the result was alarming: “It
quadrupled the number of professional soldiers and multiplied 20-fold the number
of army helicopters, inspection planes, and military advisers, while the number
of paramilitaries that welcomed the plan increased from 5,000 to 12,500.”17
On this point there appears to be a notable confluence between the activities
of PMCs and those of the Pentagon. James Petras describes it like this: “The
true preoccupation of U.S. Southcom is that Colombia’s neighbors (Ecuador,
Venezuela, Panama, and Brazil), who are suffering the same adverse effects
of neoliberal policies, will mobilize politically against military domination
and the economic interests of the United States.”18 In
his opinion, it is about militarizing a strategic region in order to control
Brazil is the only Latin American country that has a strategic defense plan.
It is also the only country in the region that has a business community with
interests different from those of the rest of the world business community.
It was this sector which, supported by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s
government, managed to postpone the FTAA. Brazil as a nation holds weight in
the world. It is the tenth-largest industrial power and it has managed to design
its own military strategy for autonomous defense, which centers around controlling
the Amazon (the world’s largest natural reserve and the foremost fresh
water reserve). In short, we are dealing with a large country with defined
strategic interests, and a business community and armed forces with a nationalist
calling that are not about to be overpowered by any force.
To a large extent, the strategy is based on an important military industry;
stated another way, the country developed a state-of-the-art military industry
in order to ensure the defense of its interests. Brazil is the fifth-largest
arms exporter in the world, if the European Union is considered as one entity.
The aeronautics company Embraer is the fourth most important in the world;
it distributes half of the air force’s aeronautical materials and manufactures
fighter, training, surveillance, and anti-submarine war jets.19 The
Brazilian military industry has constructed war ships and it is currently building
a nuclear submarine.
Brazil opposes Plan Colombia. Its opposition does not stem from its current
government, but rather, from Brazil’s strategic position on the continent.
During the IV Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, held in Manaus
in October of 2000, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardos rejected the possibility
of involving the Brazilian army in the fight against drugs, as the Clinton
administration was proposing. In response to Plan Colombia, Brazil put into
place Plan Cobra (from the initials of Colombia and Brazil) in order to prevent
the war from spilling into the Brazilian Amazon, and Plan Calha Norte in order
to prevent guerrillas and drug traffickers from crossing the border.20
During the Cardoso government, disputes with soldiers were frequent. Some
were due to perceived low salaries, but in the year 2000, the president fired
the commander of the air force in a dispute over Embraer’s association
with French investors, which endangered the autonomy of Brazil’s primary
weapons manufacturer. But there is more. In 2002, Sivam (Survelliance System
of the Amazon) began operations, which had been called for by Brazil a decade
earlier at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The system monitors the entire
5-million-square-kilometer region, which encompasses 61% of the national territory,
30% of the biodiversity of the planet, and houses 12% of the Brazilian population.
In 1994, the bid for Sivan was won by the United States group Raytheon, in
a process that was denounced as fraudulent. At the moment, the armed forces
and Lula’s government are committed to strengthening state control over
the Amazon, and it is likely that such control will be exercised with Brazilian-made
military hardware (especially airplanes).
An extensive, March 2001 report appeared in the conservative newspaper Zero
Hora out of Port Alegre, illustrating the willingness of Brazil to fortify
its military autonomy. “In the last two years, the United States has
built on South American territory a “sanitary corridor” of 20
military garrisons, divided into aerial and radar bases.”21 According
to the report, the relationship between the Brazilian armed forces and the
United States is one of “no cooperation,” given that Brazil does
not allow U.S. bases on its territory, does not participate in joint maneuvers
with the United States, and receives practically no U.S. funds for fighting
drug trafficking. Remember that during the Brazilian military dictatorship
(1964-1985), the United States blocked arms sales to Brazil, but Brazil’s
military industry development afforded it “relative autonomy.” In
fact, today Brazil is “the only South American military force with
the real capacity to intervene in other countries, with air-transport divisions.” According
to the electronic pamphlet Defesanet, the only country of the southern
hemisphere that surpasses Brazil militarily is Australia.22
Fernando Sampaio, vice chancellor of the Superior School for Geopolitics and
Strategy, dedicated to the study of military issues, sums up in few words the
prevailing vision in Brazil regarding Plan Colombia and the Pentagon’s
military deployment in the region: “It is a dispute for regional hegemony.
Brazil does not want to be another satellite in this war constellation sponsored
by the Americans.”23 In this effort,
it appears to have noteworthy allies. A recent report from Argentine Brigadier
Gen. Ruben Montenegro stresses the “depth and scope the relations have
recently reached between the air forces of Brazil and Argentina,” which
are developing “cooperative security systems for the region,” giving
precedence to the Mercosur area.24 The
two countries’ Lazo Fuerte exercises, started in 2001, seek to
reinforce “a defensive alliance in order to confront an invasion of the
sovereign territory of either one,” and the Argentine armed forces have
made a “firm bet on the process of integrating the two countries of the
region, decidedly collaborating to create a space of lasting peace.”25
Finally, it should be noted that the presence of a power like Brazil is creating
two apparently contradictory effects: on one side it hampers the military and
political hegemony of the United States in the region; but, in order to stop
Washington’s deployment, Brazil should be fortifying its military apparatus
and alliances in the region and with the rest of the world. It is a situation
that is certainly paradoxical, and it could result in an arms and military
race across the continent, in spite of the will of South American governments.
Latin America: Disputed Space
Since Plan Colombia was designed and the U.S. military deployment was set
after the closing of Howard Base in 1999, many things have changed on the continent.
The strategy of “spilling” the Colombian war onto its neighboring
countries ( Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil), which was supposed to destabilize
them should they refuse to adopt the strategy laid out by Plan Colombia, has
met growing difficulty.
In broad terms, the changes in the regional political scene have four causes:
insurrections and popular uprisings, new governments in various countries,
strategic alliances between countries of the region, and new realities concerning
the national armies. These changes, which are still taking place, as shown
by the recent change of presidency in Ecuador, conform to a fluid regional
map, constantly changing, but with a tendency not to favor Washington’s
plans for the region.
Since the year 2000, uprisings have toppled the governments in Argentina (December
2001), Bolivia (October 2003), and Ecuador (April 2005), in addition to the
popular movement that put an end to the coup d’etat against Hugo Chavez
in Venezuela (April 2002) and allowed him to win the recall referendum (August
2005). In addition to the Venezuelan case, the new governments of Lula in Brazil,
Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, and Alred Palacio
in Ecuador, are distancing themselves from the Pentagon’s plans.
To these changes, already important in and of themselves, must be added the “strategic
accords” established by several countries in the region. The most significant,
though not the only, was the one signed in February between Brazil and Venezuela.
Some analysts maintain that it represents a “new geopolitical axis on
the continent, a severe setback for George W. Bush, and historically, the largest
isolation of Washington” in the region.26 The
agreements signed by Lula and Chavez cover a broad range of issues: from economic
integration to military cooperation, all the way to joint undertakings on energy
and petroleum, and the construction of highways and bridges. In any case, Chavez
is no longer isolated from the United States and Colombia; and Brazil is currently
the one taking the initiative in the region.
A third noteworthy aspect is connected to changes in the internal “map” of
the armed forces. Rosendo Fraga, director of the Argentine Center for Studies
for a New Majority, points out that globalization “has meant a profound
crisis for the military, since the existence and raison d’être of
the armed forces is intimately tied to the existence of the nation state.”27 From
there, he points out some changes, with the Argentine military in mind, but
which could extend to the continent’s other militaries. “Nationalism
and patriotism, which used to represent the symbolic wealth of oligarchies
and the right wing, are now more represented by popular sectors and even the
left,” Fraga asserts.
On the other hand, the salary drop for military careers has made it less
attractive to middle- and upper-class sectors, and the armed forces are recruiting
more and more in the lower echelons of society. “Soldiers have lost the
relationships that they have historically had with the dominant elite,” he
adds. In addition, the intellectual distance between officers and sub-officers
has been reduced, given that the latter now tend to hold secondary educations,
previously a privilege of the former. Seventy percent of officers in Argentina
hold other forms of employment, and many military wives make more than their
husbands. To all of this, cultural changes should be added: “In military
families, the husband is now helping with household tasks,” as is the
case with middle class families, “a phenomenon being repeated in other
armed forces around the world,” assures Fraga. The result is that a large
part of soldiers in Latin America today “have low incomes, which make
their social needs much more similar to those of the lower class.”
In light of this analysis, we can conclude that the armed forces of Latin
America are no longer docile entities manipulated by the local elites or by
Washington. On the contrary, the aforementioned changes are pushing them to
find their own route, discover forms of obtaining strategic autonomy, and recover
the respect of the societies in which they exist. It is no longer just the
Brazilian armed forces that are testing this path. The militaries of Ecuador,
Venezuela, and perhaps Argentina, appear to be looking for their place in the
world. In Venezuela a new doctrine of defense is taking shape in which the
population is called to play a significant role by incorporating into the active
In future years, the crisis of unilateralism, which is making advances all
over the world, will have important effects on Latin America. The displacement
of the United States as the region’s only superpower is provoking tensions
that could result in an arms race and trigger militarism. But later on, when
the geopolitical re-composition runs its course and is consolidated, perhaps
it will be shown that multilateralism is a better guarantee for lasting peace.