Member states of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) signed a pact on Friday, May 23 in Brazilian capital Brasília to establish judicial and political components for the emerging, limited union. On the docket was a plan to create a military coordinating component of UNASUR, the Conselho Sul-Americano de Defesa (CSD).
However, the CSD was destined to be founded without the important exception of Colombia, which recently confused its neighbors by revoking its intention to join. Brazil, in collaboration with Venezuela, spearheaded the creation of the defense portion of the pact, which will be increasingly NATO-like in structure.
Successfully founding the CSD, which had been scheduled to include Colombia, would have represented an enormous victory for what has been called President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s “pragmatic left” leadership.
It was no secret that Brasília hoped to use the CSD to strengthen regional ties across highly sensitive boundaries, with Colombia on the right, Venezuela on the left, and Brazil hoping to act as the mediating middle.
However, the withdrawal of Bogotá, with one of the region’s most advanced militaries, has significantly weakened the pact from its onset. Brazilian defense minister, Nelson Jobim, described the basic tenets of the CSD as an integrated alliance without an operating field capability.
CSD forces would cooperate, for example, in contributing to UN and other humanitarian missions if necessary. The alliance will also be expected to coordinate military technology and resources.
Considerable disparity exists in the distribution of military resources throughout the region. At the top, is Brazil with its major military capabilities, then supposedly closely followed by Colombia’s highly modernized military, which enjoys major US support. In contrast, Guyana and several of the other smaller countries have meager forces.
Once the CSD is operational, the coordination of technology and resources will be joined by a greater emphasis on arms sales among the signatory states. Brazil, the major weapons producer in the region (which turns out tanks, ships, fighter planes, and light arms) is set to be the primary beneficiary from renewed shipment of weapons to its neighbors.
Brasília hopes that increasing arms sales to non-traditional markets around the world, and the coordination of technology resulting from this newly formed alliance, will in the long run lessen dependence on the United States. In recent months, Brazil’s foreign policy has quietly shifted away from Washington towards autonomy, as it becomes an increasingly active player in a multipolar world.
In addition to acquiring new technology from Russia in various fields, Brasília has specifically attempted to obtain the technology needed to construct a nuclear submarine from Paris. However, France will only sell marginally-related, non-nuclear technology, and does so warily, to the frustration of Brazilian officials. Similarly, the restrictions on the sale of United States military hardware have angered officials.
The advent of the CSD and its anticipated increase in arms sales comes amidst the heated climate of a recently mounting arms race in South America; the continent’s powerhouses Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela are all significantly increasing their arms spending. Of this group, Bogotá’s spending constitutes the highest proportion of its GDP compared to the others.
The Attack Against the FARC
This arms race has recently taken on a new dimension. On March 1st, Colombia bombed a site just within Ecuador’s territory in which a secret camp occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been laid out. The resulting flap eventually also implicated Venezuela.
Interpol’s vouchsafing of the integrity of thousands of files, found on several FARC laptops that had been apprehended (but not necessarily their contents) makes the case that the Chávez government could have been somehow involved in supplying both finances and arms to the FARC.
The political radicalization of these three regional antagonists is manifested in the broadening nature of the Colombia face-off against Venezuela and Ecuador. All three countries were slated to join the CSD, but Bogotá’s withdrawal shows the extent to which the existing rift among the countries has grown, and that the nature of the diplomatic price being paid is mounting.
If Colombia as well as Venezuela had joined the CSD, it would have symbolized an easing of tensions between the two increasingly ferocious foes. For this to happen, it would have required Brazil to have increased its commitment to playing the role of the area’s pivotal mediator.
Brazil’s Lula would seem to have been in a good position to broker such a deal, as he is seen as being a socialist and the leader of the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) Workers’ Party. But he also is a lame duck president and a man with profound leadership ambitions constrained by adverse local factors.
In both of Brazil’s parliamentary houses he must appease conservative-dominated, multi-party bodies. Lula’s administration is also, by necessity, bipartisan or multi-partisan, with ministers in Lula’s cabinet (who are fueled by various political leanings) operating with a high degree of autonomy.
Again, this may help to provide a compass function to Brazil’s role and gain credibility for it to be a pluralistic factor when it comes to the arbitration of regional disputes.
Lula’s foreign policy stance has been based on the determination to maintain cordial relations with all parties, while trying to promote the country’s emergence as a military and economic power. He seeks economic growth for the country through encouraging foreign investment in Brazil and its expansion as a major export platform.
But, Lula also reflects a profound strain in the country’s ambition to maintain its admittedly meteoric emergence as a country that thinks in global terms and which is out to obtain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, yet at the same time not appear as projecting any threat to its neighbors.
The moving force behind the CSD in Lula’s government has been defense minister Nestor Jobim, who has traveled the continent meeting with local leaders to promote CSD’s maturation. Jobim is more conservative than Lula but has made known his desire to distance Brazil from dependence on the United States.
When questioned whether the CSD would allow a place for Washington, a seemingly flustered Jobim answered that the United States will not be asked to join the alliance as it is not located in South America. Brazil and other South American signatory members need not ask the White House’s approval to form such an alliance.
Good for Stability
Simply put, regional stability is of transcendent importance for a country that borders all but two (Chile and Ecuador) of South America’s other states. One goal of Brazil’s foreign policy is to maintain stability along its borders, especially along its sparsely populated Amazonian boundaries.
Of these, the border with Colombia currently has been of greatest concern. In early May, the Brazilian armed forces announced plans to station 21,000 troops along the Colombian border to ensure that insurgents did not infiltrate the Brazilian Amazon. These forces will operate with the mandate to shoot all rebels entering the country.
Brasília is also interested in coordinating with other South American militaries to control the massive influx of drugs which are being trafficked into and through Brazil in increasing volume.
The country’s federal police director for fighting organized crime, Roberto Troncon, has welcomed the inception of the CSD, saying that the coordination of the South American armed forces should indirectly help in the battle against organized crime, particularly in relation to drug trafficking.
However, the withdrawal of Colombia from the pact eliminates the cooperation of a major drug-fighting military in the most notorious drug producing country, in a hugely strategic part of the continent.
Last February, the UN declared that Brazil has become a major “thoroughfare” for cocaine trafficking. According to the UN’s finding, cocaine is smuggled from drug producing countries (Bolivia, Peru and Colombia) into Brazil, where 15% of the world’s cocaine is consumed.
Rates of domestic drug use in Brazil are high and climbing; cocaine usage alone increased 30% last year. Domestic use, however, only comprises half of the cocaine that reaches Brazil soil. The other half (of the estimated 80 tons of cocaine entering the country per year) is then shipped to Africa, largely to be redistributed throughout Europe.
Chávez Links CSD to Bolívar
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez shows enthusiasm for the CSD. He applauds Brazil’s efforts for a continental defense organization and has invoked the aspirations of Simón Bolívar – the historical figure for whom he named and dedicated his movement – saying it was Bolívar’s wish to form a political, economic, and military union among all the nations of South America.
Chávez has said with enthusiasm that the alliance will help in the formation of a “big South America.” To Chávez and the like-minded leaders, the CSD means greater autonomy for South America from the United States.
But an inconsistency may exist between Chávez championing a “big South America,” while simultaneously continuing his attacks against the Uribe government. This ongoing assault (which one can appreciate given Uribe’s persistence, negativity, and obstructionism) reflects Bogotá’s refusal to seek membership in the organization and instead its turn to the United States for military aid and diplomatic ardency.
The cost is not cheap for this sort of politics; Colombia is being increasingly identified as a super-gringo country by its increasingly critical, Latin American neighbors.
Chávez’s Vision Thins
Some would say that Chávez’s vision of a “big South America” is illusory because Jobim and perhaps Lula are really seeking a specifically Brazilian caste to their country’s efforts to seek independence from the United States. They would rather see this relative autonomy from the US on its own than be part of a broader geopolitical development that has implications for the entirety of South America.
It is not that Jobim and Lula (for that matter) would want to discourage other countries from seeking their autonomy from Washington individually, but that they look to the CSD more as a vehicle that helps Brazil in its goal to achieve self-development rather than focusing on how it helps South America as a whole to do the same.
Chávez, for his part, has a much more synoptic view of the arrangement. He invokes Bolívar in the CSD discussions in order to promote the idea of exporting the Bolivarian movement throughout the continent. Ideally, Chávez has said he hopes that the CSD will come to mean more than the transference of military logistics and intelligence between nations.
This is why he begins his Bolivarian invocation by stating that Bolívar sought the political and economic unification of “big South America” in addition to the region’s military unification.
This dream of a greater Bolivarian South America is most likely one in which Venezuela, like a force of nature, would be pre-eminent – Brasília is not likely to subscribe to this leftist sloganizing with enthusiasm, feeling that the Venezuelans have not copywrited “Bolívar.” Brazil also seeks some degree of autonomy from Spanish-speaking South America in order for it to better take advantage of opportunities elsewhere.
In dealing with Chávez and the CSD, Jobim has not responded with a Bolivarian invocation of his own. Brasília simply sought Chávez’s signature and knew there would be a price to pay, in terms of a call to arms, for his Bolivarian exhortations.
Fourth Fleet, US Answer to CSD
Although US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, stated that Washington welcomes the creation of the CSD, the recent executive order re-founding the Fourth Fleet is likely to have been, at least in part, a response to the regional arms race and the outlining of the Brasília-led, new alliance.
It also serves as a political statement indicating that Washington is capable of projecting its authority throughout the hemisphere – particularly against left-leaning nations and leaders it sees as being recalcitrants to its cause including: Chávez, Morales of Bolivia, Correa of Ecuador and, of course, Raúl Castro of Cuba.
But the development of the Fourth Fleet was also likely to be seen by some Washington strategists as a counter to the Brazilian initiative. As recently as late April, the Bush administration has said that it considers Brazil a great ally.
Nonetheless, Washington’s activation of the Fourth Fleet must be interpreted in Brasília as a partial response to Brazil’s armament drive and its de facto influence over the region. It was most likely influenced by the advent of the CSD – representing one more step in the direction of regional autonomy, shucking Latin America’s traditional tendency to automatically defer to Washington.
Colombia Bows to Washington and Slaps Brazil
The recent 180-degree turn in Colombia’s policy highlights the depth of the Bush administration’s financial tug on Bogotá and its ability to influence some parts of the region, particularly when it deals with like-minded conservative governments, like those of Colombia and Peru.
Unfortunately for Brazil, and its desire to secure its borders through cooperation with the Colombian military, Bogotá has concluded that it stands to gain more from military cooperation with the United States than it could collect from any other arrangements at this time.
At this point, there are few who believe that if Washington wants a replacement for Manta, Uribe, unlike Correa, will prove to be a flexible servitor.
It is more than likely that Bogotá will agree to facilitate a US military base in Colombia in order to continue to receive US assistance rather than join its neighbors in an act of regional solidarity that is not being particularly welcomed by the White House.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Jared Ritvo. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: email@example.com.
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