Latin America arms race looms amid rising tensions

July 29, 2009 at 10:34 AM
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LONDON, July 29 (UPI) -- An intensifying arms race looms over Latin America because of copycat weapons buying triggered by recent military buildups in some countries and reactions of their neighbors, defense analysts said Wednesday.

Heavy arms shopping by Venezuela, even before the war of words erupted over the June 28 Honduras coup and U.S. military facilities in Colombia, has followed bickering over cross-border arms trade, including Chilean military exports to Ecuador and other neighbors.

As rearmament gathers pace, the continent's own defense industry has seen its markets challenged by overseas suppliers, especially China and Russia. Latin arms suppliers include Brazil's Embraer and Chile's Enaer.

Argentina's Lockheed Martin Aircraft Argentina S.A., a full-service regional aircraft maintenance and modification center, has attracted Latin military and commercial customers from outside the country.

But the most dramatic entry of outside interests has been the wide-ranging partnership between Russia and Venezuela. A Russian delegation was in Caracas to sign new agreements to add to military hardware sales reported earlier. Analysts said Venezuelan purchases of Russian aircraft, helicopters and tanks and other weaponry could cost $2.6 billion.

Venezuela says its armament is a response to what it calls the joint U.S.-Colombian plans for regional domination.

Gian Carlo Di Martino, leader of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, went a step further, saying, "there is shaping a dangerous triangle between Colombia, the United States and Israel, so as to destabilize the region."

"These military alliances, far from improving the relations between the neighbor countries, what those get to do is to create a climate of tension," he said in a speech in Zulia, near the Colombian border, quoted by the Venezuelan news agency ABN. He said the United States had set up three new bases in Colombia, a claim refuted by Colombia, which recently agreed to work with U.S. forces to help combat drug trafficking.

Indications are that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has thrown active support behind Colombians sympathetic to him and opposed to the Colombian government. Venezuela faced tough grilling Wednesday from Sweden, which asked Caracas to explain how Swedish-made anti-tank weapons exported to the South American country in the 1980s found their way to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The weapons were found after a Colombian military raid, reported Monday, on suspected FARC rebel hideouts.

Military analysts said recent purchases would likely revise last year's estimates of defense spending in Latin America and the Caribbean, which grew by 91 percent from 2003-08. London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said defense spending in the region during the 2003-08 period rose from $4.7 billion to $47.2 billion.

The main increases were in Venezuela, followed by Colombia (13.5 percent), Brazil (10

percent) and Chile (8.3 percent), the study said. "The secret nature of these transactions almost ensures that accurate figures for these arms purchases are never going to become known," said one analyst.

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