In recent weeks, many observers of the Latin American military situation have detected what could be the beginning of a new arms race in the region. Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva was photographed boarding the Tikuna, his country's first conventional, domestically built submarine. He used the opportunity to highlight his support for the Brazilian military.
Similarly, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has broadcast his intention to purchase Russian MiG fighter jets and Brazilian low-flying surveillance aircraft, and to expand military expenditures. He is doing so, perhaps, because of recent problems with Colombia. Even Chile, after a lengthy process of weighing its options, is still pondering whether to acquire a dozen American-built jet fighters or a joint Swedish-Brazilian alternative.
Is there a new arms race underway in Latin America? If so, is there any conceivable way it could help address the hemisphere's economic and social dilemmas?
Regional wars and border conflicts have existed since time immemorial in Latin America. There was the Chaco war and the Chilean-Bolivian conflagration in the nineteenth century, the so called "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador in the 1960s, the clash between Ecuador and Peru in the 1980s, and Antarctic border disputes between Chile and Argentina that were finally settled in the early 1990s. But the main reason for heavy military spending in Latin America has always been chiefly domestic.
Either the military ran various countries, and gorged itself with hardware and troop increases, or weak civilian governments, terrified of military coups or blackmail, placated their armed forces with all sorts of unnecessary martial goodies. By international standards, arms spending in Latin America is low relative to GDP; but it is nonetheless excessive relative to the region's needs.
Today the situation is more complex. In Venezuela, keeping his former comrades in arms happy is obviously a concern for Chavez. But festering conflicts with his Colombian neighbors are also a factor, particularly in view of the constant accusations and suspicions that Chavez comforts and supports the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. High oil prices allow Venezuela to go on this military spending spree, and there seems little that anybody can do about it.
In Brazil, matters are somewhat different. Lula has been able to neatly dovetail his socialist roots with traditional Brazilian nationalism, which has always been strong in the country's armed forces. "O Brasil, pa's grande" is a universal slogan in South America's giant -- a country that has borders with nine neighbors and fears that its distant jungle frontiers cannot easily be patrolled.
Similar sentiments are apparent elsewhere in the region. But the question everywhere in Latin America is whether it would not be a better idea to implement former -- and perhaps future -- Costa Rican President Oscar Arias's idea of Latin American disarmament, to turn "spending on swords" into investments in ploughshares. Arias, the 1987 Nobel peace prize recipient, has a good reason for pushing this idea: his country has no standing army. Still, it is a bold initiative that should be revived in view of Latin America's incipient arms race.
Indeed, it could be the cornerstone of a new program for the next secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who is to be elected in the coming weeks. Obviously, I am rooting for the Mexican candidate, Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez. But whoever wins will need new ideas and initiatives to reinvigorate a dormant institution. Stopping Latin America's budding arms race is about as good an idea as there can be.