Are we facing an arms race in Latin America?

Tensions are rising across South America this month as Venezuela signed three oil deals with Iran and a 2-billion-dollar arms deal with Russia, causing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speculate about a possible arms race. The Venezuelans, along with Bolivia and Ecuador, have responded by pointing to a new U.S. agreement with Colombia to make use of six military bases in the country. A meeting Tuesday of UNASUR, a group of 12 South American nations, ended without any plan or agreement to deal with escalating tension in the region. TNR spoke with Inter-American Dialogue’s South American expert and TNR contributor Michael Shifter about how things got so dicey and what the United States should do about it:

TNR: Is there, as Hillary Clinton has suggested recently, a South American arms race? What would be the consequences of something like that?

Michael Shifter: There are a lot of governments in South America that have resources and that are buying arms, and so I think there are significant risks for an arms race--but I’m not sure if what we have today is an arms race. The situation is of concern because there is very little transparency about the levels of arms purchases and the purposes of those arms purchases. There is tremendous mistrust among many governments about the motives of other governments.

TNR: Why aren’t the usual regional mechanisms working?

MS: Some governments want to just make sure that the United States deal with Colombia is subject to these standards of transparency. The Colombians say “What about what Venezuela is doing? What about what Brazil is doing? All of these things should be brought to light. We’re prepared to do our part and other governments should do their part.”  I think the Colombians are right on this. I think they have a valid case and I think if this issue is going to be tackled seriously it can’t be a one-way street. It can’t be only when the U.S. is involved that information sharing and transparency and openness is applied.

TNR: What has been the overall effect of the United States deal with Colombia? Is it worth it for either party?

MS: These are Colombian bases, and what the agreement does is permit U.S. access and use of these bases--but they will be controlled by Colombia. This is a way that the U.S. could basically continue and formalize its relationship with Colombia, primarily focused on counter-narcotics, for a ten-year period. It’s questionable whether this was really necessary.

But even assuming it was necessary, I don’t think it was handled in the best way. It’s understandable that it would raise concerns in Venezuela because Chavez is very adept at taking advantage of these situations and turning it to his political advantage. I think the U.S. was more surprised that it also produced a strong reaction in Brazil and Chile and other places.

My own view is that this was avoidable. This didn’t have to be a big issue. [It would not have been] if the diplomatic groundwork had been laid, if there had been prior consultation at the highest levels explaining exactly what this agreement consists of--which I don’t think poses a threat or means that the United States has any strategic expansionary interests in South America.

TNR: What about other foreign influence, especially the recent oil deal between Iran and Venezuela and reports of uranium exchanges between the two countries? Is this just a personal relationship between Chavez and Ahmadinejad, or is there something more here?

MS: First of all, I’m not sure if Venezuela is a high priority for Iran. From what I read, they seem to have their share of internal problems without spending a lot of resources consolidating their relationship with Venezuela. From Iran’s point of view, it makes sense because it’s a way for Iran to overcome its pariah status in Latin America. Chavez has his group of supporters, a small group, but nonetheless a group, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The fact that it also does it in the Western Hemisphere is an added attraction for Iran because it helps needle the United States. Chavez and Ahmadinjad share this position of trying to curtail the influence of the United States.

TNR: So what’s in it for Venezuela? 

MS: Chavez sees himself as a serious global player who is intent on challenging the power and influence of the United States, and in that effort, leaders like Ahmadinjad are part of his strategy. Now, there are direct flights from Caracas to Tehran, and it’s unclear what exactly they’re for. There is a lot of speculation about money laundering that’s going to Hezbollah, and there are a lot of allegations. These are denied by the Venezuelan government, but certainly they are reasons for concern. If there is any reason the United States is worried about Venezuela, it is because of Iran and now the possibility of a developing nuclear program in Venezuela.

TNR: You spoke of the tension between Colombia and the surrounding countries. Is there anything ideological about this?

MS: There is some ideological component to it--[Colombian president] Uribe is a conservative and the other are more of the left--but it goes beyond ideology. Colombia is the only country in the hemisphere that has an internal armed conflict. And whether Uribe is the next president or not, there are going to be some pretty tough policies pursued to deal with an armed group determined to overthrow the legitimate government of Colombia--that’s what their goal, is very explicitly. The nature of that problem creates differences with other Latin American governments with different priorities. So ideological differences and personality differences compound the problem, but I think the source of the problem is deeper.

TNR: What should the U.S. do differently in the future in South America?

MS: I think all of these situations show the ineffectiveness of regional organizations. The United States has to work multilaterally while at the same time developing closer bilateral ties with a few key countries. Brazil is at the top of the list. All of these issues are not going to be dealt with effectively without cooperation between U.S. and Brazil. Brazil is the regional power in the region and I think that status is pretty much secure. The U.S. should be trying to consult them and raise these issues--about Venezuelan arms purchases, about accusations that there is Venezuelan support for the FARC. Brazil is also going to make its own deals and that is part of the new reality, and the U.S. shouldn’t worry about that. The way the whole Colombian base deal came to light is not encouraging. It shows that diplomatic groundwork was not laid sufficiently. It became a problem that could have been avoided.

Ben Bernstein is an editorial web intern at The New Republic