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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 23, February 1998

Latin American Security: Contradictions in US Policy By Rut Diamint

Introduction: Security Issues on the US-Latin America Agenda

For different but not unrelated reasons, the return to democratic regimes in Latin America has coincided with the emergence of a contradictory US policy towards the hemisphere. The problem is not an absence of policy: important foreign policy decisions and revisions are routinely made regarding the region: the substitution of the containment doctrine for that of enlarging democracy; stepping up the fight against nuclear and missile proliferation; measures to prevent illegal immigration; trade cooperation; etc. However, considering the US influence on the hemisphere, and a future of profound trade integration - set to climax at the Miami Summit, first proposed by the US in 1995 and due to create a market from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego - no special commitment consistent with Latin American reality is noticeable.

In terms of who makes US policy, one main trend has been observable: the filling of the relative vacuum left by the Department of State by the Pentagon - a process especially apparent under the Secretaryship of William Perry. Pentagon policy is, essentially, confirmed at meetings of the region's Defense Ministers, convened by US defense officials. The broad aim of the policy is to establish a new security doctrine for the region that serves, at the same time, as a framework for hemispheric relations.

These meetings, held at Williamsburg (USA) and Bariloche (Argentina), reaffirmed democratic values, a sine qua non of participation in hemispheric mechanisms. Very well - but the question is, what, in practice, does the new cooperation mean to US officials? Reviewing some topics, we will notice that this term is quite confusing and of selective application.

Democracy, Security Policy and Armaments

The arms embargo imposed by President Carter, with the support of Congress, in rejection of the human rights policy of the military dictatorships, managed to survive even the agreements established by Reagan in his struggle against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. The official policy consisted of selling no weapons to the region. Actually, the suspension of sales was never complete. The United States remained the major weapons provider to the region (a 24 October, 1997 letter by Senators Dodd, Biden and Leahy confirms this fact). But the US did refuse to provide authoritarian regimes with certain advanced weapons implying access to a more sophisticated technological level. This allowed for the maintenance of both a relative balance among the countries of the region and a strong degree of US control that minimised the emergence of risk. Even when technical development overcame the standards implicitly set by the embargo, the US bureaucracy showed itself to be coherent and definite. This was the case, for example, with the Condor II missile, built by the Argentine Air Force with the financial support of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But now, the lifting of the embargo - decreed by President Clinton on 1 August, 1997 - constitutes a major change of policy likely to significantly affect ongoing integration processes in the Southern Cone.

Security issues related to the hemisphere are currently dealt with by the United States South Command (SouthCom), the military center that commands all the operations between US and Latin American armed forces and that was recently moved from Panama to Miami. In the long and intricate process of consolidating Latin American democracies, the centrality acquired by this agency is no minor fact.

In the first place, the relations between SouthCom and Latin American countries reestablish the modality of military-to-military contacts. SouthCom promotes activities and debates within and between Latin American Defense Ministries, but these are a long way from being institutions representing citizenship or political party interests. In many cases, the Ministries are headed by active or retired military officers. In other cases, they are only agencies of mediation between the military and the Executive. In other cases still, there is no Civil Defense Ministry. In almost every case, defense policy is centrally established by the Armed Forces themselves. This scenario entails and reflects the profound failure of training civilian experts on defense.

This dominance of contacts among the military is compounded by the fact that SouthCom does not report its activities directly to the Department of State. This is not equivalent to saying SouthCom operates isolatedly. On the contrary, members of human rights organizations, civilians as well as scholars from different countries, are invited to the several meetings and seminars it holds. In spite of this, the SouthCom unilaterally sets the agenda and makes the evaluations on the basis of which decisions are made. Defense policies turn out to be, once more, a military and not a State affair.

In the second place, the US Congress only has an overall knowledge of the resources demanded by the different programs developed by SouthCom. It does not have precise information on its definitions, its activities and their conceptions. The Department of State started to feel uncomfortable with the starring role played by the defense sector in the definition of Latin American policy and, thus, decided last September to establish a group of analysts to make proposals for US policy towards Latin America. In spite of this, Defense Secretary Cohen has shown less interest in fostering future agreements between the US and Latin American governments.

SouthCom acts according to a rather wide definition of security concerns. Thus, it not only works on military interoperability or on joint operations. Drug trafficking, the environment, migrations and crime control are topics of concern in senior officers' conversations. What is still more striking is that promoting democracy is carried out under the auspices of SouthCom. In addition, human relief activities increased from 111 in Fiscal Year 1996, to 235 in Fiscal Year 1997. We may ask why human assistance activities are developed by the military and not by civilians, and why the slogan of a military command reads "promote, support, and enhance democracy", while, at the same time, that military plays a key role in its government's assessment of the sale of sophisticated weapons.

These questions may sound alarmist. However, although Latin America has undergone a democratic transition, this does not imply it has resolved its democratic institutionalization, in which the rule-of-law guarantees citizens' rights. As Michael Shifter points out, "there is a mistaken assumption by a lot of people that the return to constitutional civilian government would necessarily translate into a reduction of the role of the military".(1) The establishment of political control of the military is a necessary, but still far from realised, condition for the consolidation of Latin American democracies.

US National Interests and South American Security

The lifting of the arms embargo has disturbed many South Cone governments. The debates generated highlight the contradictions inherent in the policies of both US and Latin American governments.

The Chilean government's recent arms purchases raise concern among the rest of the region's countries (2). This is not because these purchases directly pose the threat of a future war. Due to the particular forms of decision-making that were settled following the authoritarian government of General Pinochet, Chilean armed forces channel considerable resources to the modernization of defense equipment. In Chile, the constitutional system inherited from General Pinochet establishes a number of appointed senators. Four senators are military, three are designated by the Supreme Court, close to the political parties linked to the armed forces, two must be former officers from previous governments, and 20 are elected by the people. The designated senators constitute themselves as a military bench in the Senate. While the Chilean government continues with this plan, in Argentina it is not proving possible to pass a law granting a 15% increase of the defense budget over 5 years. If, like Chile, Argentina had senators designated by the armed forces, and if there was a political party responsive to military lobbying, it too would surely now be embarking on a modernization programme which, from the military point of view, is regarded as objectively necessary. However, the refusal of some deputies to agree on a plan of pluriannual increases reveals that the accounts between the armed forces and civil society are not settled yet (3). Besides, the idea that regional integration-processes - particularly the establishment of strategic alliances with other States in the region - do not justify an increase in the defense budget is dominant. Another factor to be taken into account is the clear political legacy of the still-murky Argentine arms sale to two countries at war - Ecuador and Croatia - as well as a thwarted attempt, after these scandals, to illegally sell arms to Sri Lanka and Romania.

The Chilean authorities are also committed to cooperation and economic integration processes. But they are wary about the purchases Peru has been carrying out since the Cóndor war with Ecuador in February 1995. Peruvian President Fujimori governs supported by a military structure, based on an alliance between the higher ranks of the army, which since 1992 has been purifying the force from opposition officers, a purge supported by paramilitary groups emerging from within the army. Another key part of Fujimori's power-base is the Secretariat of intelligence, commanded by a former senior military figure unsparing in his efforts to ingratiate with his former comrades, and not averse to purchasing arms in order to secure support from the military.

Peru's situation - a country undergoing a complex process of State reconstitution - is not unfamiliar to other States in the region. Ecuador appears a virtually ungoverned country after the political crisis that followed President Bucaran's destitution. Colombia seems happy to entrust the future presidency to a retired military leader committed not to negotiate with drug dealers and to apply "tough" measures to fight them. Bolivia, governed by a former military dictator who won a democratic election, presents the struggle against drugs as a war embued with traditional military conceptions. In Paraguay, an allied pro-military grouping has broken down, and President Wasmosy seems unable to stop General Oviedo, a coup-monger and candidate for next year's presidential elections. Brazil's situation is rather different as it does not have to worry about probable conflicts with its neighbors (in its case 10 countries). However, Brazil does expect to hold an unquestionable regional leadership. Following the suit of the major world leader, Brazil resorts to technological advances as a main basis of its power (4). Cardozo's administration states, in the official decree on defense policy, that "[s]cientific and technological development is crucial for the obtainment of greater strategic autonomy and operational training on the part of the Armed Forces".(5) Similarly, the political doctrine of the Brazilian army lists, among its 10 general objectives, the reduction of the technology-gap in relation to modern foreign armies (6).

Brazilian military development is hardly comparable to the sale of F16 fighters to Chile or to the curious US decision to designate Argentina as a major non-NATO ally. Brazil's commitment to military modernisation is based on a consensus decision among the political elites who expect, not groundlessly, a future of greatness for their nation. This presence as global leader and global trader, in the view of these elites, requires an autonomous and competitive defense system in the face of the powers that may curtail, and act discriminately with regard to, high technology developments.

The United States is not immune to the temptations of the Brazilian military market, and several major American defense firms - Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon among them - were recently to be seen promoting their products in a huge commercial exhibition in Río de Janeiro, together with airplane, radars and night vision device suppliers from 11 countries (7).

Security Doctrines and Democracy

With this picture in mind, are we justified in thinking that conditions exist which might allow governments in the region to strengthen, once again, their armed forces? And what would the consequences of such developments be? At issue is the mission of the armed forces in democracies, often economically weak and vulnerable, trying to take their place in a world of uncertain conflicts and threats. In such a world, stressing the need to rectify military unbalances introduces another element of democratic deficit. Some theorists have tried to demonstrate that an inadequate definition of the military role, together with budget reductions, runs the risk of producing unprofessional and incompetent armed forces. Because of this, they sustain, it is important that the military is provided with equipment which allows them to fulfill the needs of legitimate defense while acting, at the same time, as a democratic hedge. From a US perspective, such an interpretation is not without appeal. But in countries in which strong distrust of the military persists, and in which the military still enjoy wide margins of autonomy and an exclusive power to influence defense decision making, the effect is rather different. We can perhaps appreciate this best by considering what real power Latin American Congresses enjoy in terms of influence over budgetary decisions affecting the armed forces.

While Congresses can sometimes disregard the role they have to play in insisting on a forceful role in defense management, the military is rarely slow to react efficiently to new conditions imposed by civilian governments. In the first place, while each force has more than 500 officers analyzing strategic changes and defense requirements, official and non-governmental civilian teams working on these issues are rarely made up of more than ten people. In the second place, the loss of power accumulated during authoritarian government leads the military to search for spaces where they may keep at least some of their prerogatives. For instance, when the US sponsored military intervention in drug traffic affairs, Latin American officers traditionally used to reject such a mission, which in the South Cone falls to internal security forces. However, military officials have recently changed their position, considering these issues a raison d'etat. SouthCom chief, General Wesley Clark, visited Buenos Aires in April 1997 - shortly after, the Argentine government agreed to send an Air Force officer to join the US Special Joint Interagency Team, whose main objective is to combat international drug traffic. In Brazil, the Justice Minister recently announced that the military must increase its participation in the struggle against drugs and organized crime; his pronouncement followed a meeting with the Director of Drug Policies, Gen. McCaffrey, during President Clinton's recent visit to the region.(8)

The acceptance of a new national security doctrine - in which the main threats are drugs, terrorism, a deteriorating environment and illegal immigration - certainly legitimates some supply of arms, and provision of training, on the part of the US; it does not, however, justify the need to sell States fighter-bombers and other major, advanced offensive systems. Some States in the region seem to have concluded that becoming closely allied with the new US security agenda has a chance of bearing fruit in terms of achieving more traditional objectives: they may finally obtain the weapons that were previously out of their reach. The US is not, however, unaware of this danger. In the words of then-Defense Secretary William Perry: "We all need conventional forces that can defend our national security; but unnecessary expenditures can sap economic strength, and even cause threats to our security by provoking arms races". (9)

Conclusion: US Justifications and Motivations

The US government's official statements explain the importance of the evolving democratic context and a positive security environment. They justify the lifting of the embargo by saying that these are autonomous countries that can accept or refuse offers of arms, and that there is no reason for the arms purchases to affect subregional security if transparency and openness guide the growing cooperation. However, it is no secret that US arms manufacturers, operating through their representatives in Congress, relentlessly argue that if the US does not sell, other, mainly European, corporations will, losing both American businessmen and workers jobs and correspondent benefits (10). This argument, however, is flawed: a possible Swedish or French sale is not the same. The region's armed forces prefer American weapons because they give them more prestige, are better trained, and enable them to point to their neighbors that they enjoy US support (11).

We cannot disregard the fact that the United States has immense power and influence and that the impact of its policies on the region is very considerable. Changes in US policy can often produce disturbances within and between South Cone States, particularly when one State is seen to be favoured. For example, the impact of the decision to designate Argentina as a major non-NATO ally - both within Argentina and in other States, most notably Chile and Brazil - demonstrated that regional cooperation and coordination remains vulnerable to traditional rivalries and suspicions. As one Department of State official pointed out, "no matter how important economic integration has become, the development of fluid, natural cooperation and coordination in security and political areas, will only come over time, perhaps over a generation during which the leaders who grew up with the old animosities leave the scene".

There are still doubts whether the United States, apart from commercial considerations (12), does not seek to improve Latin American armed forces so that they can become possible allies in those military operations in which the US does not want to act unilaterally. The new security doctrine, taken together with the lifting of the embargo and an emphasis on summit diplomacy, reduces the ways to institutionalize the democratic consensus reached at a regional level and increases distrust, still very much alive, between the armed forces and the civil society within and between these States. At the very least, this renders even more precarious the already frail task of building a lasting, and socially rewarding, regional political agreement.

Notes and References

1. Financial Times, 17 September 1997.
2. These purchases include 18 F16 airplanes, 67 Leopard-I tanks from Belgium, two Scorpene submarines from the French-Spanish venture DCNI Bazan, making Chile the country of the region that allocates the highest percentage of its budget to defense. In El Pais, 11 February 1997.
3. Clarín, 20 November 1997.
4. The Brazilian government decided an increase in the national Science and Technology budget from 0.7 to 1.5 % of the national product from 1996 to 1997. See the speeches of Secretary of strategic affairs dependent on the Brazilian Presidency, Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg, at the inauguration of the National Meeting of Strategic Studies, Río de Janeiro, 14 October 1996.
5. Brazilian Defense Policy, Federal Republic of Brazil, 7 November 1996.
6. In Concepcao Política Básica do Exército, SIPLEX-3., EGGCF.
7. 'The military role in the struggle against drugs raises concern among Argentine people' by Katherine Ellison, The New Herald, 1 May 1997.
8. See O Globo newspaper, Sao Paulo, 15 October 1997, p.10.
9. 'Why have defense ties in the Americas?', Remarks delivered by the Honorable William J. Perry, Miami, Florida, 26 April 1995.
10. In another context, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, pointed out: "Consider what we get for our International Affairs Budget of $21.2 billion: our budget protects American lives by combating the spread of nuclear weapons, the threat of terrorism, and the scourge of drugs. It supports American jobs by promoting US exports and creating new markets in developing countries. And it gives force to the principles America stands for by bolstering human rights and democracy around the world". In US Department of State Dispatch, 10 April 1995, Vol. 6, No 15, p. 285. And it seems that the creation of new markets includes the weapons item.
11. It should be borne in mind that Argentina is the subject of an embargo imposed by Great Britain, a country that also influences US sales to it.
12. General Wesley Clark, commander of SouthCom, revealed that the Pentagon estimated Latin America would become, in the following decade, a potential market for $7 billion in armaments. See Clarín, 24 August 1997, Second Section, p.3.

Rut Diamint, Professor at the Political Science Department Buenos Aires University, is coordinator of the project "Military relations in New Latin American Democracies" at Torcuato Di Tella University, funded by The Ford Foundation.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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