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Unasur aims to acquire teeth on regional arms control

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, May 24 (UPI) -- Plans for the Union of South American Nations becoming more like its EU model advanced this week with talks on the pact's structure and strategies for monitoring budgets including defense spending by member countries.

Unasur defense ministers met in Lima, Peru, last week and issued a declaration calling for the region to be designated as a "peace zone" and agreed to continue pursuing a "common methodology" to monitor and compare defense expenditure among member countries.

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Formed in 2008, Unasur includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.

In 2009 and 2010 Unasur faced internal squabbling over what some members saw as a developing arms race on the continent. The charge arose when Brazil announced a military modernization program and Venezuela embarked on heavy arms purchases after border tensions with Colombia.

Colombia and Venezuela have patched up differences, mainly over Venezuela's reported support to FARC guerrillas' fight against Colombia. Brazil is pondering cuts in its defense budget and Argentina and Chile haven't followed up on major arms purchases thought likely last year.

Bolivia has continued buying arms and international data suggest Latin America remains a major customer for global defense suppliers.

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Peruvian President Alan Garcia has campaigned, almost single-handedly, for drastic cuts in Latin America's defense spending, arguing the region has no conflict that justifies a multibillion arms buildup at the expense of much needed infrastructural development and poverty reduction programs.

Last week's Lima Declaration followed two days of talks attended by senior representatives of the member states on the pact's Defense Council. The council will have a workshop June 2 in Santiago, Chile.

In mid-July Unasur plans to push forward with a working draft of a Peace, Security and Cooperation Protocol. In the meantime, there has been no let up in arms buying in the region.

Brazil is still going ahead with multibillion-dollar spending on planned purchases of up to 38 jet fighters for its air force.

Unasur Secretary-General Maria Mejia told the Defense Council members she also favored the formation of a regional peace forum to give airing to divergent views on the future direction of the pact.

There were calls for Unasur to spread its wings and take on the roles of rapid response not only to security related issues but also natural disasters.

Peruvian Defense Minister Jaime Thorne, whose country holds the Defense Council presidency, told reporters the member countries will discuss expanding their role in peacekeeping military missions as well as finding ways of coping with weather-related emergencies.

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The delegates observed a minute's silence in homage to Uruguay's former Deputy Defense Minister Gabriel Castelar, who died recently.

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