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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

Western Hemispheric Security at the end of the Century: Tendencies and Challenges in Latin America
By Raúl Benítez-Manaut

The Nineties: Overcoming the Cold War

At the end of the twentieth century, the traditional challenges around which international security strategies and regional security schemes have been based since 1945 have fallen away, replaced by fundamentally modified sources of instability. In Latin America as elsewhere, the US-USSR confrontation was for over four decades the dominant influence over, and distortion of, the region's military and political alliances and priorities. Now, the phenomena that are posing the greatest threat to both international and hemispheric security are drug dealing, the new dimension of terrorism, the uncontrolled migration to Mexico (mainly from Central America and the Caribbean) and from Mexico (to the United States), and the depletion of the environment and its socio-economic causes and effects.

All of these phenomena are part of the new hemispheric security agenda. At the end of the century there are conditions in the Western Hemisphere that are favorable to cooperation, most importantly shared democratic political systems and open market economies. The concept of 'Cooperative Security' has been developed since the beginning of the nineties when the United States, Canada, and some Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina and Colombia, have organized forums within the 'Interamerican System' which has its head at the Organization of American States (OAS). 'Cooperative Security' is based on the principle of the "defense of the democratic systems of government" adopted by the OAS in Santiago, Chile, in 1991. As mentioned at the outset, since that time the traditional threats posed by the Cold War - the 'Communist threat' itself; authoritarian and repressive regimes, diminishing the capacity for maintaining internal stability, which based their own raison d'être significantly on their ability to repress the Communist challenge; and finally the possibility of armed conflict between States in the region - have not only substantially passed but have done so without leaving behind the legacy of a nuclear arms race or nuclear proliferation, a crucial achievement due in large part to the success of the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco creating a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in Latin America.

In addition, the military dictatorships that drove the militarization of the continent and provoked the rise of tension and outbreak of conflicts, such as the 1982 Falklands War, or Malvinas Conflict, between England and Argentina, have been replaced by civilian governments. There has only been one military confrontation in the nineties between two countries; a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru which now itself seems to be in the process of peaceful resolution.

Meanwhile, the most unstable region of the continent, Central America, has witnessed the largely successful implementation of several peace processes - in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The nineties have also seen regional security agreements that have been very beneficial to Central America. For example, the territorial dispute between Honduras and El Salvador was resolved diplomatically in 1992 with the help of the International Court of Justice. The practical benefits of this treaty are not only being felt in improved diplomatic relations between the involved parties but also in enhanced regional stability. Only minor border disputes between Guatemala and Belize and between Costa Rica and Nicarigua remain unresolved. In addition, there is talk of establishing a regional military unit to combat drug trafficking. This has further enhanced regional security cooperation.

However, despite these important 'platforms for peace' - the absence of nuclear weapons or rivalry; the demise of military dictatorships; successful peace processes and new security arrangements - major new threats have emerged, and are already undermining these impressive-looking foundations.

Drug Dealing, Terrorism and Organized Crime

The problems of the drugs trade, terrorism and organized crime in Latin America are both inter-related, and of greatly varying intensity in different countries. There are some nations in Latin America where drug dealing is not considered a serious threat - like, for example, the countries of the South - while in others - such as Mexico - the phenomenon grows, increasingly challenging institutions and the social structure, and altering and distorting economic relationships. There are still other countries - such as Colombia - where the scale of the problem and the threat it poses is such that the whole structure of the State is altered and deformed. Finally, there are some countries in the region - such as Peru and again Colombia - plagued by 'narcoterrorism', the political, social and military intertwining of an endogenous terrorist movement with the international drugs trade.

With regard to the more general problem of organized crime, there are some nations where this activity has become sufficiently pernicious and, more seriously, pervasive, to represent a real challenge to the nation's development and cohesion; a challenge seen in ways ranging from rising levels of delinquency and deteriorating public safety, rampant car theft, kidnapping and money laundering, to the growing power and intensity of terrorism and drug dealing. Again, we are dealing with both internal phenomena and international connections. It is known, for example, that the Russian Mafia have appeared in certain areas (e.g. in Cancun, Mexico), trying to establish relations with local criminal organizations in order to expand their sphere of influence and activity.

United States military cooperation in post-Cold War Latin America is concentrated mainly in the fight against drug dealing. The US is seeking, for example, to transform the military bases established in the Panama Canal zone into a Multinational Center to Fight Drug Dealing, with military capabilities of interception and attack against the planes and ships that carry drugs. Many countries in the region, however, are against this formula, pointing out both its practical difficulties and its possibly counterproductive political impact.

Some critics also make the broader point that the socio-economic dimensions of the problem need to be seriously addressed and cannot simply be eradicated or rendered innocuous by means of police-military activity, however well-coordinated, well-resourced or intense that activity might be. Minimising the threat posed by the drugs trade is not - unfortunately perhaps - just a question of cracking down on a few criminal gangs: a range of policy initiatives, cognizant of and responding to the impact of poverty and underdevelopment, is essential. In this regard, many people see the US's current insistence on the hardline implementation of 'free-trade' regulations governing the banana industry - regulations likely to severe affect many Caribbean economies and lead to a significant increase in both social instability and the drugs trade - as compelling and ominous evidence of a short-sighted and self-defeating approach in Washington, elevating considerations of its own economic predominance above the establishment of the deep conditions for genuine, sustainable security in the region.

The New Military Security Situation

Within the context of military security, there is an intense debate about international cooperation, the modernization and professionalization of the armed forces, their culture and their doctrines, and surrounding the vexed and charged question of the whether or not the linkage of military institutions with other armed forces or in transnational military operations is positive and advisable. While this debate has been going on, the prioritisation of the fight against delinquency, organized crime and drug dealing has become generalized among all Latin American armed forces.

Another important action arena for post-Cold War Latin-American armies is international or hemispheric peace missions. Some Latin American countries consider that the transnationalization of their armies is a positive means of reinforcing the modernization and professionalization process at the internal level and at the same time to contribute to international security: this is the predominant perception in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean. The two countries that are opposed to it, on the basis of their distinct and nationalist concept of sovereignty, are Mexico and Cuba.

Security & Sovereignty

Two of the biggest countries in Latin America, Mexico and Brazil, are opposed to the development of collective defense mechanisms in the continent. In the Caribbean, the biggest island, Cuba, is likewise against such cooperation, because of its ongoing confrontation with the United States. Mexico and Brazil consider that the international security agenda of the United States cannot be exported to Latin America, because the region's countries generally, and especially their armed forces, would thereby run the risk of losing their 'national' condition - their political distinctiveness, independence and freedom of manoeuvre; that, in short, they are in danger of becoming 'tools' and extensions of United States policies, priorities and power-projection. As we have seen, even in the war against drug trafficking, there are many critics of American militarization of the problem, dismayed that a problem which has many dimensions and deep roots - financial, social, cultural - should be subjected to a reductive, one-dimensional analysis pitting the forces of law and order against the forces of evil and corruption. Furthermore, many people and countries in Latin America point out that major problems relating to the drugs trade, such as money laundering, are not being successfully defeated in the United States itself.

Nationalism versus Internationalism: The Pinochet Case

Traditionally the Latin American armed forces are nationalistic. They have national defense doctrines based on territorial defense, and their missions are fundamentally internal (territorial integration, counterinsurgency, intelligence, internal police security, etc.). However, with globalization and democratization, civilian governments are looking for a higher degree of participation by their armies in matters of "international security". Running alongside this important change of attitude, though, is a fear of the internationalization of some controversial and potentially destabilising topics.

The most important of these topics is human rights. Currently, the most important debate in this regard is occurring in Chile, following the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London in late 1998. Ironically, the Chilean government has been one of the principal supporters of the internationalization of security and cooperative security in the continent, strongly advocating and consistently acting through "confidence building measures". However, following General Pinochet's arrest Chile immediately embarked on a legal and political campaign to secure his return. European governments deny Pinochet's diplomatic immunity. The debate in Latin America more generally is focused in the relationship between international justice and the global defense of human rights versus the traditional concept and primacy of the sovereignty of States.

Ethnic Discord, New Nationalism & New Militarism: Sources of Instability at the End of the Century

In all the Latin American countries the main threats to security are internal, principally twofold: poverty, and its fuelling of drugs, crime and even terrorism; and the weakness of democratic systems and the persistence in many of them of corruption, a lack of accountability, and repressive and inhumane judicial systems.

Another, new and growing, factor is ethnic conflict. In Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala some ethnic groups are demanding autonomy (the peace agreements in these countries already include special dispositions for Indian peasants). In Peru, guerrilla groups such as Shining Path and the revolutionary movement Tupac Amaru are still active. In Colombia the two Marxist guerrilla groups (the Army of National Liberation and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) control almost a 40% of the countryside, and are strongly allied with the major drug dealers. In Mexico, the Zapatista guerrilla movement headed by the subcommander Marcos, triggered a debate over indigenous and minority rights in the context of democratization.

Another important source of instability, a product of the weakness of the democracies, is the new militarism. In Bolivia, a Cold-War era military dictator, Hugo Banzer, who governed Bolivia in the seventies, is today the constitutional President of his country. In Paraguay, the most popular politician is General Lino Oviedo. In Venezuela, a country of considerable strategic importance by virtue of its oil reserves, Hugo Chávez, a young military officer who tried to mount a coup d'état in 1992 and was jailed for two years, is now the elected President.

This new militarism covers itself in the rhetoric of nationalism and seeks to recuperate the old ideas of sovereignty. The new militaries argue that globalization and the market economy are impoverishing the population, thus seeking political credibility by feeding on the fears, disillusionment and resentments many people feel about the experience and inequities of globalization thus far. This new nationalism could clearly affect tendencies toward cooperative security structures and relationships in the future. In addition, the new nationalism has already led to the reappearance of a new arms race at the conventional level, with armies rushing to modernize their equipment, and, specifically, to acquire supersonic fighter aircraft and naval frigates; a process which, of course, will do nothing to address or alleviate problems of poverty, marginalisation and underdevelopment.

Conclusion: Integration and Independence in the New Era

Let us be blunt: we know in Latin America that the United States won the Cold War and that it is the Superpower which controls the planet in security terms. The purpose of achieving an Interamerican security system, which includes Canada, has been so far prevented by the concepts of national security that exist in each country, and by the fact that many Governments do not share the complete international security agenda that the United States has elaborated, because their principal security challenges are domestic.

In this broad context, the current tendency is that commercial subregionalization is also producing subregional security alliances. In Central America there is a new Central American Alliance of Security which aims to coordinate and achieve joint actions by the armed forces and security corps to combat new threats. In the Southern Cone, the commercial alliance between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay (MERCOSUR) has led to security cooperation advances. This process began with an agreement between Argentina and Brazil over the control of fissionable material.

In North America, the United States is looking for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to provide the basis for a future security-system NAFTA. Canada seems to accept this objective, and is already entwined in a binational defense treaty with the US (the 1957 North America Aerospace Defence (NORAD) agreement), but Mexico opposes it as contravening its doctrines of absolute sovereignty and nationalism. For this reason, Mexico is the weakest part of the NAFTA trinational alliance.

Although the picture presented in this paper is one of a complicated, unpredictable and diverse security situation, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that although traditional military threats have disappeared, regional security cooperation - on a footing of genuine and mutually-beneficial multilateralism - is necessary to help protect the people of the region from the many challenges to peace and stability that they now face, and are likely to face in the foreseeable future.

Raúl Benítez-Manaut is a Researcher and Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities and Sciences, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He has published books and articles on the peace process and conflicts in Central America and on the national security and foreign policy of Mexico; one of his principal books is "La teoría militar y la guerra civil en El Salvador" (UCA, San Salvador, 1989). Professor Benítez-Manaut is a member of the research project "Peace and Security in the Americas", co-coordinated by the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and FLACSO-Chile.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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