Peru braves critics to seek end to Latin American arms race

Nov. 5, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Peru is widening its campaign to limit arms purchases in Latin America as part of its drive to persuade governments to channel more funds into poverty reduction and economic development programs.

The Obama administration warned Latin America against a development arms race in September, but its pleas so far have gone unheeded. Instead countries enriched by commodity price booms are being wooed by European arms suppliers and have responded with purchases worth billions of dollars.

France and Russia have signed huge arms agreements with Brazil and Venezuela, while other countries, including Chile and Bolivia, have built up arms purchases, mainly as part of military regeneration programs. This week Argentina received French offers of help with its military modernization program.

Peru says the expenditure is unjustified because Latin America does not face an impending conflict. In 2008, according to Peruvian figures, South America invested $34 billion in arms purchases. Independent verification of the figure is unlikely as most countries do not reveal their defense expenditures.

Peruvian Production Minister Mercedes Aaroz told reporters at a news conference in the Argentine capital, "We are concerned that with no real conflict motive, last year the region spent 34 billion U.S. dollars in arms. That is why we are taking our initiative to all presidents from the Union of South American Nations, Unasur," MercoPress reported.

Recent Unasur talks on the arms issue have been inconclusive and have been clouded by Venezuelan criticism of Colombian-U.S. military agreements on increased American use of Colombian bases to fight drug warlords. Brazil and Chile have rejected criticism of their arms purchases, arguing the new acquisitions are needed for modernization and replacement of obsolete equipment.

In France and Germany, however, Latin American arms purchases have given arms manufacturers much-needed respite from the effects of recession. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Brazil, offered President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a strategic military partnership, including technology transfer, designed to ensure a long-term revenue stream for French arms manufacturers.

A similar French strategy was at work in other Latin American countries seeking substitutes or spare parts for aging U.S. aircraft, naval craft, heavy vehicles, arms and ammunition.

Russia sealed a military pact with Venezuela to ensure it remained a major supplier to the populist regime of President Hugo Chavez. Sweden also is bidding to sell its fighter jets to Brazil.

Peru meanwhile wants Latin American states to commit themselves to a wide-ranging peace and security cooperation protocol. Peru's ambitious plan requires all Unasur member states to curtail their military expenditure by up to 15 percent and cooperate in the creation of a regional security force.

Aaroz said, "Less money spent in arms means more funds invested in social programs" -- but industry analysts say European offers of weapons on easy credit terms are unlikely to be rebuffed, even as they increase national debt in economically hard-pressed countries such as Argentina.

Peruvian opposition parliamentarian Alejandro Aguinaga Recuenco, who is part of the campaign delegation, said reduced arms purchases could push 10 million people in Latin America out of poverty in five years.

Amid Peru's energetic campaign, Brazil has announced ambitious plans to revive its indigenous weapons manufacturing, a major source of export revenue under past military dictatorships. China has showed interest in entering the Latin American arms market with its own export packages that are likely to offer generous repayment terms, as with Chinese arms deals elsewhere in the world.

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