Brazil Spearheads UNASUR Defense Council, but in a Surprise move, Colombia Withdraws

• Implications for Brazil
• The Venezuela-Colombia Rift
• Regional Autonomy
• The Rebirth of the Fourth Fleet and with it the Ghost of Gunboat Diplomacy
• The new Pattern of United States-South American Relations


Member states of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) signed a pact on Friday, May 23 in 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 Luiz 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.

Brazil’s Vision
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 U.S. 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 layed 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 Nelson 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.

CSD will be good for South America’s Stability
Simply put, regional stability is of transcendent importance for a country that borders all but two 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 U.S. 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 copyrighted “Bolívar.” Brazil also seeks some degree of autonomy from Spanish-speaking South America in order for it to take better 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.

The Fourth Fleet in part a Likely U.S. Response to the CSD
Although U.S. 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: Chavéz, 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’s Policy Change, a bow to Washington, a slap in the face Against 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 U.S. military base in Colombia in order to continue to receive U.S. assistance rather than join its neighbors in an act of regional solidarity that is not being particularly welcomed by the White House.

4 thoughts on “Brazil Spearheads UNASUR Defense Council, but in a Surprise move, Colombia Withdraws

  • June 6, 2008 at 3:25 pm
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    The story did not seem very non-partisan. I think your article makes too many assumptions and lacks a firm grasp of the political situation in South America and the region today.

    Specifically, I disagree with you when you say, “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.”

    Considering that Brazil purchases a large portion of these arms from the US, it would be surprising if that were the interpretation in Brasilia. Where did you get this idea from?

    Also, I think your portrayal of Uribe as negative and obstructionist is unfair. His hesitance is understandable given the alleged connections between the FARC and the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela. Until the issue is resolved his decision seems prudent to say the least.

    Finally, you assert that “The recent 180 degree turn in Colombia’s policy highlights the depth of the Bush administration’s financial tug on Bogotá”

    First, Colombia still supports Unasur, it merely did not sign on to the Defense Council. Second, it seems much more plausible that the information contained in the FARC laptops led to Colombia’s hesitance to join the CSD rather than any US arm-twisting.

    I don’t think you sufficiently appreciate the fact that both Ecuador and Venezuela deployed troops to the Colombian border three months ago and have allegedly supported the FARC. These facts seem serious enough to merit consideration before blithely accusing the US of more intervention in South American affairs.

    Nathan Gill
    Southern Affairs

    Reply
  • July 7, 2010 at 6:44 am
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    FARC laptops?

    Your whole argument is based in CIA-doctored laptops?

    You are stomping your feet on thin ice, Nathan.

    US intervention in South America is loudly clear and evident if you read your history.

    All blithe by itself…

    Reply
  • July 7, 2010 at 6:49 am
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    What would the US do if Mexican fighter planes crossed the border to destroy a Zetas training camp in Texas??? Wouldn't the US invade Mexico immediately??? Wouldn't it, at the very least, send the National Guard to protect the border??? Well, Venezuela and Ecuador did just that, send their troops to the border to protect it. Your 'allegedly' allegation about them supporting FARC is just that, a baseless allegation for which you provide not a single piece of evidence. Therefore, though you sound like a smart fellow, your logic goes not beyond the end of your nose, Nathan. You definitely have a great space in front of you to improve.

    Reply
  • July 7, 2010 at 6:57 am
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    Oh, and here's my one cent piece of advice to you: try not to sound too keen when defending Uribe's negativism and obstructionism. The guy is up to his ears in the paramilitary shitpool, seemingly endless numbers of his associates are now in jail for their ties to paramilitary groups and narcolords, their mercenaries of choice, presently accused of killing thousands of innocent Colombians in the name of their holy crusade against FARC. And while FARC are nothing less than brutal murderers and terrorist, every one in Colombia knows their paramilitary president is no better, and perhaps even worse.

    Get your facts straight, open your eyes, breathe in, and try to smell to volcano of monkey crap you are sitting on, buddy!

    Reply

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