The South American Defense Council, UNASUR, the Latin American Military and the Region’s Political ProcessBy: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez
• Applying collective security (through the CSD) in Latin America
• Hopes and challenges for UNASUR and the CSD
• Learning from the OAS and the IADB/C
• The inter-American system and security issues
• Bolivia, UNASUR’s trial of fire
The most ambitious and significant recent project undertaken by South America’s armed forces has been the creation of Conselho Sul-Americano de Defesa (South American Defense Council – CSD), an agency of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
The success of this agency, part of the larger organization which is also in its infancy, is yet to be measured. To gauge the feasibility of such an ambitious project, it must be viewed in an appropriate context, perhaps as South America’s version of a NATO-style organism (even if somewhat different and adapted to accept regional realities).
Learning from Mistakes: The OAS and the IADB
Ambassador Robert White, president of the Center for International Policy, explained that the inter-American system got a promising start at the 1948 meeting in Bogota which founded the Organization of American States (OAS), which succeeded the Pan-American Union. However, the birth of a new inter-American system as it was originally conceived came crashing down with the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala. White then explains that “the crisis triggered by Arbenz’s purchase of Eastern European weaponry could have been solved by an OAS commission putting pressure on the Guatemalan leader. This approach was supported by the U.S. State Department, but the Defense Department and the CIA have always preferred a unilateral approach and took matters into their own hands… in effect, that was the end of the inter-American system.”
The OAS generally has paid lip-service to U.S. interventions and unilateral decisions in the region. For example, Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, explained that he could not recall any OAS protests during the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The OAS was almost mute during the American military interventions in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. Meanwhile, Cuba’s membership in the OAS was suspended during the 1962 missile crisis.
Throughout its existence, the OAS traditionally has suffered from being regarded as a Washington-dominated institution, suffering from a severe lack of qualified personnel and adequate economic resources. Although OAS agencies like the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) carry out some important work, in general terms the OAS is viewed by those who know it best as a bureaucratic tangle at the lowest common denominator, with little to no relevancy. Latin governments usually regard it as a destination for diplomats on the verge of retirement, troublemakers and politicians that the government of the day wants out of the country. The two-term, all but frivolous, stint of former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria as OAS Secretary General in the 1990s helped cement this perception.
The OAS advisory security agency, the Inter American Defense Board and College (IADB), is similarly regarded as largely irrelevant, akin in the minds off many as being little more than a militarized Moose Club. The IAD-Board was created during the Third Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Rio de Janeiro, January 1942. The IAD-College opened in Fort Lesley McNair, in downtown D.C., on October 1962. The agency deploys occasional humanitarian interventions in Central America and serves as a low-level confidence-building institution, bringing high-ranking military officers from Latin America together to work in a Washington D.C. mansion, or to carry out studies at Fort McNair. For most military officials, their time at the IADB is regarded as a highly desired year-long vacation in the U.S., which includes being able to bring their families along. Two distinguished alumni of the IAD-College are Chile’s current President Michelle Bachelet and Ecuador’s former leader, Lucio Guiterrez.
UNASUR and the CSD: A New Hope?
It is perhaps due to this indifferent track record and as a reaction to the OAS’ multiple strike outs that UNASUR has emerged as a new option for Latin American political integration. Of course, UNASUR is only the newest of a series of regional organizations attempting, broadly speaking, to emulate the European Union. However, it appears that Latin America’s drive for integration and supranationalism may more closely approximate the working style of the African Union. Besides the OAS, other regional organizations active at the present time include the Andean Community, Mercosur, the Rio Group, the Venezuela-led ALBA, the Andean Parliament, the Caribbean Community for Caribbean Nations, not to mention extra-hemispheric organizations whose membership includes, in some cases, the European Union and in others, Spain & Portugal (SEGIB) or India and South Africa (IBSA). UNASUR was established as a result of the Cuzco Declaration, signed in 2004. Due to the nature of its present membership, it can be loosely regarded as the union of MERCOSUR and the Andean Community, plus Suriname and Guyana. Panama and Mexico both currently hold observer status. An April 2007 summit at Margarita Island, Venezuela, effectively created the organization. UNASUR’s secretariat is to be based in Quito, Ecuador.
One could suspect that a bona fide South American supranationalist would be tempted to dream that UNASUR and the CSD might become for South America what the OAS and the IADB were never able to be. For some, logic dictates that without the long shadow of U.S. membership, UNASUR might be able to promote integration through economic and political means, while the CSD would be primarily aimed at promoting security and confidence measures to cope with the ongoing arms race that has gripped South America with increased intensity for almost a decade. Apart from the attention Venezuela has gained in recent years over its major purchases of mostly Russian military technology and weaponry, other countries that are following the path of a military buildup include Brazil (led by its ambitious plans to build a nuclear-powered submarine) and Chile (which has purchased Humvees, F-16 fighter planes and Leopard tanks).
However, speculation has already arisen over what UNASUR and the CSD will be dealing with if these new institutions mean to become effective players in regional affairs. Some of the problems both bodies will have to tackle if they are to be considered relevant include:
• How does UNASUR differentiate itself from other regional agencies, besides in its membership?
• Will the absence of the U.S. propel the new organization on a dynamic path of growth and increasing authority?
• What will be the catalyst that will bring countries together? Will UNASUR focus itself on trade, perhaps creating a UNASUR-free trade area?
• What will its bureaucracy be like? Will it resemble the European Union? Will a UNASUR Parliament and Secretariat be set up?
• How much decision-making will South American nations be willing to give up to an overarching organization like UNASUR? This was one of the OAS’ principle problems and an issue that the EU has had to grapple with since its founding – the factor of supranationalism. Namely, would any South American government be persuaded to abide by an order issued by UNASUR’s Secretary General? Or will this organization merely be a forum for discussion and consensus-seeking (which would quickly render it practically irrelevant, as consensus in the region is difficult to achieve)?
A major issue that UNASUR and other Latin agencies will have to struggle with will be maintaining the organization’s momentum to push forward for greater integration. Currently UNASUR is characterized by a wave of like-minded governments, most of them left-leaning with only Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe and Peru’s Alan Garcia standing as markedly Washington-friendly. As South America is striving to become a democratic region, new presidential elections will eventually take place which may bring to office a new series of presidents who may be less interested in supporting UNASUR’s quest for autonomy and national fulfillment and more interested in reestablishing close ties with Washington’s markets. For UNASUR to survive and expand, South American leaders must seize the moment in order to make certain that the organization is not downgraded when leaders like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez leave office.
Questions that will have to be confronted if the CSD is to be a viable and relevant agency in regional military integration, with a potential for joint military operations include:
• What will its mandate be?
• Should it resemble NATO?
• Will there be a NATO-style article 5 promoting collective security?
• Where will its headquarters be located?
• Is it open to membership of Caribbean-basin states?
• Where would the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (commonly known as the Rio Treaty, or TIAR) stand in relation to CSD’s mandate?
• Will the U.S. be extended observer status?
• Will there be CSD-sponsored war games and joint-military exercises?
Another issue that will have to be addressed is the current level of distrust that exists among several South American militaries, as well as their obsession (as a national obligation) to protect their countries’ sovereignty. It would be difficult, for some to conceive that a Chilean colonel could take orders from a Peruvian General within a CSD chain of command. Venezuelans and Colombians may similarly have issues working with each other. One other factor is likely to be Brazil’s predominating role in the body’s day-to-day operations, giving the defining role played by Brasilia in the formation of UNASUR and the CSD.
A number of suggestions are being put forward to increase the prospects of UNASUR and the CSD being successful. Ambassador White recalled that he was once asked by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State Bill Rogers how to make the Organization of American States into a successful agency. White went on to write a paper that was circulated in the State Department suggesting that the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America become the U.S. ambassador to the OAS. The logic was that this would put a high ranking and relevant official in an influential position at the OAS. Latin American countries would then see the importance of approaching this high-ranking official and would put an end to their custom of sending two ambassadors to Washington (one as ambassador to the White House, who is usually an experienced diplomat, and one to the OAS, who usually is not) and just send one seasoned diplomat to preside over both posts. This would facilitate the bringing of experience and good ideas to the OAS which, in turn could go a long way to making it a more relevant organization. A similar case could be made for UNASUR – South American governments must visualize the organization’s potential and not view it as some kind of “freezer” or “retirement home” for diplomatic personnel on the skid. Sending less than competent officials to make up UNASUR’s bureaucracy and leadership would condemn the organization to mediocrity and eventual failure.
Regarding the CSD, that body may be seen as a means by which to promote confidence building and the introduction of a rational use of the continent’s security component. Given the current arms race being witnessed in the region, the CSD could be an essential institution to prevent potential crises from escalating. At the present, there remains distrust and occasional disputes between various South American countries, for example: Peru vs. Chile, Bolivia vs. Chile, Argentina vs. Chile, Venezuela vs. Colombia, Venezuela vs. Guyana, Venezuela vs. Brazil; as well as extra-regional issues like Brazil’s leadership current role in the UN mission to Haiti, MINUSTAH. The CSD might find its hands full promoting confidence between these contentious countries, perhaps through joint military exercises and oversight of military purchases. In addition, the CSD could adopt the role of a peacekeeping monitor in some of the countries’ disputed areas, such as the border between Peru and Ecuador, Peru and Chile, Venezuela and Guyana, etc. The CSD could also take a role in helping governments to combat drug trafficking and other organized crime by serving as a coordinating organization attempting to systematize the anti-drug and crime strategy.
Test Case: Bolivia
During the recent ongoing internal crisis in Bolivia, as protests spread across the country’s western and southern regions, UNASUR held an emergency summit in Chile on September 15, which was called into session by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The result of the summit was a declaration providing full backing to President Morales and calling for negotiations between all parties. Former Chilean Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes, who has distinguished himself in a number of roles, has been appointed as UNASUR’s special envoy to Bolivia.
Already UNASUR is drawing criticism from other regional organizations, including the OAS – which is headed by another Chilean, Juan Miguel Insulza. He declared that it was “completely wrong” that the OAS was excluded from dialogue aimed at solving the Bolivian crisis. Insulza also has declared that “UNASUR was born a few months ago, so we have to get used to discussing South American issues within the UNASUR, and not in the OAS.” Indeed, trying to find a role will be one of UNASUR’s major challenges in the foreseeable future as it will undoubtedly tread on the “turf” of other organizations like the OAS.
Nevertheless, Bolivia is a test case for how successful, if at all, UNASUR will be. Should Valdes be even partially successful in bringing the relevant parties to halt the regional unrest and the deep divide that separates the various parts of the country, between rich and poor, people of European descent and indigenous, and industrialist and field works, this could go a long way toward giving the young organization credibility. In essence, Bolivia could be to UNASUR what Guatemala was to the OAS in 1954 – an opportunity to be relevant.
Hope, but not too much
There is a growing optimism that UNASUR, without the U.S. as a member, could bring about more effective regional integration, a goal the OAS has largely failed to achieve in its 60 years of existence. A successful diplomatic intervention in Bolivia would greatly bolster UNASUR’s prestige and sense of mission. However, ultimately it is the task of regional governments – namely powerhouse Brazil in this instance – to maintain momentum and demonstrate whether ambitious initiatives such as the CSD can become a reality, rather than just another unfulfilled promise, something which South America has been compelled to know a lot about.