MADRID, May 19 (UPI) -- Peruvian President Alan Garcia took his peers in Latin American leadership to task for swearing by friendship and then carrying on spending billions on weapons purchases.
Garcia, interviewed by Spanish media during the Caribbean-Latin American-European summit, also criticized the proliferation of regional groups and their conferencing which he dubbed the "multi-summit" syndrome, MercoPress reported.
Garcia and his aides have been campaigning for arms control on the continent -- only to be told by national leaders of each nation the new arms are needed to refurbish outmoded military establishments.
Countries that previously depended on U.S. military hardware and technical support and have since switched to Chinese, French, German or Russian suppliers argue they cannot avoid the spending.
Peru counters the arms buying is way beyond what Latin America needs and wants its neighbors to channel funds, instead, on development and poverty reduction programs.
European defense industries have emerged as the beneficiaries of the trend, followed by Russia and China.
Garcia called absurd the contrast between actions and pronouncements. He cited moments when "presidents sit round a table to share coffee and lunch and other social activities: if so friendly, why then the arms?"
He said the situation was "hard to understand" but could be put down to superior selling abilities of defense suppliers in Europe, Russia and the U.S.
The other problem, Garcia said, was the mushrooming of regional organizations whose appearance on the scene exacerbated tensions rather than promoting peace. He singled out the Union of South American Nations, seen by observers as populist Latin American leaders' answer to the Washington-based Organization of American States.
"If you look at the map, we have CAN (Community of Andean Nations), Unasur, Mercosur, the Rio Group, we have a "multi-summits" passion that looks like a catwalk syndrome of permanent meetings. In the meantime we keep purchasing arms and what is all this good for?" he asked.
"Since the start of Unasur ... we have doubled expenditure in arms in the South American countries, so honestly, I don't know what is the use of Unasur," Garcia said.
"From the point of view of arms purchases and conflicts, in the four years since the foundation of Unasur, the region has spent 25 billion U.S. dollars in arms and another 150 billion in current military expenditure. At this rate in the next four years, we will be buying 35 billion in arms and spending 200 billion in maintenance of military equipment and personnel," he said.
"I complain but I attend the Unasur meetings, at least to try and talk about these issues there." Referring to suggestions that Latin America looked to EU as a model, he said it could take the continent 50 years to build a "solid block" like the EU.
Earlier this month Chile responded to criticism of arms purchases and lack of transparency and called on neighbors to be transparent in their arms transactions. But Chile denied South America was in an arms race.
Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Alfredo Moreno Char me said he does not see an "arms race" on the continent but emphasized it would help to make public who was buying what and why. Other Chilean officials told the media they want Chile's neighbors to follow its example.
The Stockholm Peace Research Institute cited statistics and official pronouncements to indicate South American arms acquisitions continue to be a source of tension. SIPRI cited Peruvian President Alan Garcia's call for a military non-aggression pact among countries in South America.
Garcia, who traveled in the region in 2009 to campaign for cuts in arms purchases, also called for commitment to transparency and confidence-building to remove concerns over armament.
Spurred by commodity export profits and high oil prices, Latin American states have poured billions of dollars into weaponry purchase programs. Some nations, including oil-rich Venezuela, have borrowed more from arms suppliers such as Russia but have not divulged details of the transactions.
A $2.2 billion deal Russia secured in Venezuela will enable President Hugo Chavez to acquire tanks and armored vehicles on credit. The Venezuelan opposition has criticized the deal.
Although some details of the deal emerged, including agreement on supply of a new air defense system, details remain patchy. Venezuela's armor purchase from Russia includes 92 T-72MIM Russian tanks, SIPRI said.
Brazil has announced a multibillion-dollar military regeneration program that includes revival of its defense manufacturing and exports and the construction of a nuclear powered submarine, likely with French help. Another French deal for Rafale jet fighters is under negotiation.
In 2009 Brazil began taking delivery of 220 second-hand Leopard-1A5 tanks from Germany and Chile bought 140 of Leopard-2A4 tanks, also secondhand. Peru went instead to China, which offered 80 MBTS-2000 tanks on easy terms.
"While the majority of major weapon systems are being sourced outside the region, companies within South America are also benefiting from the increase in acquisitions," said SIPRI.
Chile and Ecuador bought Super Tucano trainer and combat aircraft from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer. The aircraft was deployed in military action involving Colombian rebels and the Bogota government, which signed an extensive military collaboration agreement with the U.S. That deal, too, involves various arms transfers.
Details of most arms transactions in Latin America remain unknown or have only partly been disclosed to the media.
Moreno said, "Chile currently has made all its military expenditure transparent and known to the Organization of American States, to the United Nations and I think all countries should follow along the same path."