First it was Venezuela, spending $4 billion on Russian fighter planes, Kalashnikovs and perhaps even submarines. Then it was Brazil, in August announcing a 53% increase in its military budget for 2008, the biggest such increase in more than a decade. The competition is still in the early stages but when two of Latin America's nouveau riche oil powers start splashing out on weapons, alarm bells ring over an arms race.
The regional expert at Jane's defense analysis however, seems to be unconcerned -- for now at least -- about the potential for Chavez's buildup to spark cross-border hostilities:
"Venezuela," says Joyce, "comes fairly low down the list." But Chavez does give a face to the race and an impetus for nationalistic Brazilian politicians to vote for an increase in the military budget. Indeed, part of the proposed new funds will go toward resuscitating the country's dormant arms industry. "We had 1% [share] of the world's arms market in the 1970s and 1980s," says Reserve Colonel Geraldo Lesbat Cavagnari, coordinator of the Strategic Studies Group at Unicamp university. "We need to recuperate that industry and invest in it. That means producing for the Brazilian armed forces."
Brazil and Venezuela are not the only South American nations looking to beef up their militaries however. Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador are increasing their spending as well:
Chile leads with annual expenditure to the tune of 3 billion US dollars funded mainly by the Copper bill, the country’s main export, which earmarks 10% of the red metal earnings for the Armed Forces equipment. Chile so far has purchased F-16 fighter bombers, German Leopard 2 tanks (considered the best in the world) plus refurbished frigates for its surface fleet and two brand new submarines...
Peru and Ecuador recently purchased jets and tanks and increased their defense budgets. Argentina has defense experts visiting Europe searching for the “best buy”, which indicates that the country is in the process “of increasing military expenditure in the short term”.
The experts seem to agree that this is nothing to worry about -- at least in the short term. But with Hugo Chavez at the center of this, you have to be concerned about the down-the-road potential for conflict among competing nations. This is especially true given the serious problems Chavez has encountered with regard to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and other nations:
But for all his spending, his influence over regional affairs appears stuck. Many of his projects, such as a regional oil pipeline, are gathering dust on the drawing board. Others, such as a plan to create a regional lending institution called Bank of the South, are unlikely to live up to his grandiose vision. Venezuela's relations with neighboring Colombia, meanwhile, are deteriorating fast.
Bolivia, by far Mr. Chávez's most successful foreign project, has started to unravel. A Chávez-inspired constitutional rewrite has split the country and prompted several key states to threaten to secede.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of Bolivians in eastern, energy-rich provinces celebrated a declaration of autonomy from the central government. A rival rally was held in the capital, La Paz, heightening tensions in the Andean nation.
Read the whole thing. It's clear that Chavez has hit a wall -- at least for now. What will he do next? It's hard not to be concerned about the potential for real international trouble, given the instability of the man at the center of the storm.