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South America: an emerging military power


South America consolidates its role as an emerging power*

by Raúl Zibechi   5th January 2012

The recent meeting of UNASUR Defense ministers and the Brazilian parliamentary debate on defense reveal that the region has made the decision to defend itself in the face of the intensifying global climate of war.

By Raúl Zibechi

“The world has known oil reserves that will only last the next 25 years and in the United States, only for the next ten years,” Simon Rosental, professor at the Escola Superior de Guerra (ESG), testified at the Commission on External Relations and National Defense in the Brazilian House of Representatives on Nov. 7, 2011.[i] The commission held public sessions under the title “Role of the Armed Forces in the Defense of the Patrimony and the Liberation of Resources to that End”.

In the same session, the head of the Brazilian Navy, Admiral Luiz Umberto de Mendonça, said that strengthening naval power will be fundamental to protecting new offshore petroleum discoveries that have made Brazil one of the ten most significant possessors of hydrocarbons in the world. He asked for 130 billion dollars to buy 20 conventional and 6 nuclear submarines and other ships, and to create a new squadron near the mouth of the Amazon River.

He said more. With these maritime investments he believes it will be possible to continue moving ahead with a nuclear program and he predicted the construction of submarines by 2023 with Brazilian technology. The big surprise was that the Navy moved the timeline of the submarines up by 17 years; until now it had been announced that the complete flotilla of 26 submarines would be operative by 2046, as was transmitted to the press a year ago. It is likely that the new dates suggested by the naval commander are related to growing polarization in the world.

Brazil’s defense industry has no possible chance of constructing these submarines in such a short period of time (it should be able to launch one each year). As such, it must be assumed that the majority of the ships will have to be purchased.

Brazil’s position has energized UNASUR. Two days later, on Nov. 9, Defense Minister Celso Amorim appeared before the same commission. Strong armed forces will be necessary to protect the production of petroleum, forestry products and food production, which are coveted by foreign powers. “Our strategy includes the creation of a region of peace and the good will in South America and dissuasion of those outside the continent” said the minister.[ii]

In his testimony he explained how the contemporary world is perceived in South America. “Today we are outside the axis of conflict, but we cannot guarantee that it will be this way in the future. It is not like in during the Cold War, when we chose one of the two sides in order to guarantee our security. We live in a multipolar order [now], where threats are multifaceted and can come from several directions”.[iii]

UNASUR makes decisions

The meeting of the Defense Council of UNASUR took place in Lima on Nov. 11 and proceeded to study proposals put forth by Argentina and Brazil regarding the manufacture of unmanned and training aircraft. The organization agreed on 26 actions within the framework of the 2012 Action Plan, including the integration of defense, the establishment of a peace zone in the South American region, and the creation of a space agency.

The projects will be carried out in two to three years. Argentina will take the lead in the manufacture of aircraft for pilot training, a program in which Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Brazil will participate. Each country will manufacture parts that will later be assembled in a yet-to-be determined place. Brazil will take the lead on an unmanned aircraft project in order to monitor border regions.[iv]

María Emma Mejía, the Colombian Secretary General of UNASUR, told the media the reasons that the region is coordinating its defense structures and its military industries; “We have hydrocarbons, minerals, water, large natural jungles, the Amazon, [and] large food reserves”. She added that these “major assets” must be defended.[v]

In some ways, the route that South America is beginning to follow has been forged by Brazil and Argentina. On Sept. 5 this year, the Defense ministers of both countries, Arturo Puricelli and Celso Amorim, met to track the progress of an accord between presidents Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández, who on July 29 reaffirmed “the importance of the strategic defense relationship between Argentina and Brazil”.

The joint statement signed by the ministers establishes the creation of a Mechanism of Strategic Policy Dialogue at the vice-ministerial Level (MDPEVM) to deepen military cooperation. The second section defines areas of “cooperation in technology and production for defense” with several objectives: the manufacture of the “Gaucho” vehicle, arms development, cooperation in the naval and aerospace industries, including the Brazilian KC-390 freighter, and information and cyber-defense technology.[vi]

One of the aspects in which cooperation is most advanced is the manufacture of the KC-390 military freighter, designed by the aeronautical firm Embraer in Brazil, which will include parts manufactured in Córdoba, Argentina, with a joint investment of a billion dollars. That cooperation may be extended to the Brazilian armoured vehicle, “Guarani”, and the light vehicle, “Gaucho”.[vii]

All this may appear to be very little compared to the level of cooperation in the European military industry. But this region has never before taken so many serious steps to integrate its defense industries, which in reality have only been developed in Argentina and Brazil, and there are no previous joint military project experiences like those agreed to by UNASUR. These incremental changes represent movement in one direction.

A shared understanding of the contemporary world

More important than the accords being signed is the fact that countries in the region have begun to share a common understanding of what is happening in the world and the place that the region wants to occupy in it. This is the premise upon which future action will be taken. The Escola Superior de Guerra (ESG) of Brazil is one of the most prominent think tanks in the region on these issues.[viii]

The vision that has been developed in the ESG with respect to Brazilian relations with the world mirrors the vision defended by Ambassador Samuel Pinheiro Guimarâes in the sense that Latin America “is, in fact, the most important strategic region for the United States”.[ix] The priority for Washington, according to this understanding, is to secure petroleum and minerals for itself and maintain open channels of communication and transport in the South Atlantic and the Caribbean.

According to historian Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira in an article published in the Journal of the Escola Superior de Guerra, South America would have abdicated its sovereignty if it had passed the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) deal. He considers Brazil as “the only possible rival to the hegemonic influence of the United States” in the region.[x]

Furthermore, he maintains that Plan Colombia is destined to control that country’s petroleum reserves rather than fighting guerrillas or drug trafficking. “That is the reason between 10 and 15% of Colombia’s troops and their American military consultants are mobilizing along five pipelines and other installations – to protect energy infrastructure and foreign petroleum companies”, argues Moniz Bandeira.[xi]

The journal of the ESG maintains that Plan Colombia seeks to secure United States military presence in South America, “particularly in the Amazon region”, and demonstrates a great concern with the fact that – thanks to the assistance of Washington – “the Colombian army has become the largest and best equipped military, relatively speaking, in South America”[xii]. The military prominence of Washington and the Pentagon in Colombia and its bases all over the world “constitute a challenge for Brazilian security, insofar as this represents a threat to sovereignty over the Amazon”.[xiii]

Moniz Bandeira maintains that the discovery of extensive petroleum deposits in Brazilian maritime territory is one of the reasons that lead former President George W. Bush “to restore the IV Flotilla in the South Atlantic”.[xiv]

He believes that a conflict between the United States and Brazil is probable, as Henry Kissinger predicted in his book, Does America need a Foreign Policy? (2001). On this he adds, “South America, under the leadership of Brazil along with Argentina and Venezuela, is really trying to define its own identity, to differentiate itself from the United States, in opposition to its domination, which is evident in the creation of UNASUR and the South American Defense Council”.[xv]

These initiatives disengage the Inter-American system created by Washington with the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR in Spanish), and the Inter-American Defense Board. He ends by assuring the reader that by virtue of the fact that South America is the largest global exporter of food, one of the greatest exporters of petroleum, and has vast reserves of minerals and water, “one cannot discount the possibility of war with a technologically superior power” or conflicts that will affect Venezuela and Bolivia and national security.[xvi]

In the same edition of the journal, Guilherme Sandoval Góes, coordinator of the Geopolitical Issues and International Relations Division of the ESG, notes that the creation of the South Atlantic Zone of Peace and Cooperation (ZPCAS in Spanish) in 1986, “is a strategic construction of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations and has an important role in neutralizing a possible initiative by the United States to create the South Atlantic Treaty Organization (OTAS in Spanish), which would consolidate North American hegemony in this important geo-strategic region”.[xvii]

Sandoval Góes maintains that to apply the first strategic principle, “to confront the projection of the United States on the continent” – something he believes is dangerous for his country – “benign Brazilian leadership in South America” is necessary, which would convert the region into “a crucial space for the international strengthening of Brazil”. If this goal is not reached, the region “will become geopolitically subordinate to the United States”.[xviii]

The second strategic principle is the multipolar insertion of Brazil in several international cooperative relationships with the European Union and the Asian bloc countries. If these steps are not taken, South America could become another object of economic exploitation for Washington.

Brazil marks its course

The preceding extensive citations of ESG publications demonstrate the kind of analysis that forms part of Brazilian strategy. These analyses are not new; they have been clearly stated in Brazil’s National Defense Strategy.[xix] The novel part of the analysis is two-fold: that these analyses are beginning to be shared among the member states of UNASUR, throughout South America, and they are being translated into concrete action. Gradually, the vision of the world held by the political, military and business elite of Brazil is being transformed into a common vision.

The acceleration of the timetable to implement military plans that was signalled by the head of the Armed Forces in parliament is not exceptional nor is it limited to military matters. On June 6, Dilma Rousseff hosted President Hugo Chávez and reaffirmed the “strategic alliance” between Brazil and Venezuela. In addition to signing accords to deepen cooperation in areas such as petroleum, science, and technology, Rousseff said that the alliance between Petrobras and PDVSA – the two state-owned petroleum companies – will move ahead.

“Our border region deserves policies and initiatives related to the interconnectivity of our systems, be they electric, television, roadways or the integration of production chains”, the Brazilian President stated.[xx] Both countries are making a consistent effort toward binational integration in the Amazon-Orinoco zone. The Zona Franca de Manaus area of Brazil, with its 450 industries, including some high-tech industries, is the force that is driving the development of complementary production chains in both countries.[xxi]

Work is being done so that Venezuela will provide industrial inputs for northern Brazil, leading to the creation of joint industrial production chains in the border region in sectors such as the metal-mechanical, agroindustrial and glass industries. This work is also leading to growth in coke production in the Orinoco petroleum belt, a product that Brazil imports in large quantities, as well as the export of fertilizers (phosphorous, nitrates and potassium) that Brazil’s agricultural industry requires.

The integration of the border region will play a determining role in the consolidation of Venezuela’s Bolivarian process, unrelated to what happens with the government of Hugo Chávez. The double alliance of Brazil with Argentina and Venezuela has sufficient power to neutralize any external powers and to attract the other South American countries. On this point, it is well worth underscoring the differences between the Brazilian trajectory, which is building on peace and consensus, and other hegemonic powers that climb to the top through war and invasion.


IPEA, “Regiâo Norte do Brasil e Sul da Venezuela: Esforço binacional para a Integraçâo das cadeias produtivas”, May 11th, 2011, Brasilia.

Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, “A importancia Geopolítica da América do Sul na Estratégia dos Estados Unidos”, Revista da Escola Superior de Guerra No. 50, Rio de Janeiro, July-December 2008.

Guilherme Sandoval Góes, “Por onde andará a Grande Estrategia Brasileira?”, Revista da Escola Superior de Guerra, Rio de Janeiro, July-December 2008.

Translation: Erin Jonasson

[i] Agencia Senado, “Militares dizem que investimento en defesa é fundamental na era do pré-sal”, November 7, 2011.

[ii] “Amorim na Cámara avalia asuntos polémicos”, November 10, 2011

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Unasur enfoca sus políticas de Defensa en propuesta de fabricación de aviones”, EFE, Lima, November 11, 2011.

*First published by Upside Down World

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