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War profiteering in South America: What is the current state of affairs?

Despite an effort to appear otherwise, the countries of South America do not represent an exception to the military - industrial complex (the relationship between governments and the arms industry that favours the latter and underlies an endless arms race). Although the military – industrial complex does not manifest as brutally in South America as in the United States, the pressure of the war industry on politics is unquestionable. So what is the justification for all the money and resources wasted on the purchase of arms? The subcontinent has for years been without war between countries, although there has been an increase in tensions, mainly between Colombia and Venezuela. Militaristic rhetoric posits that this relative peace is thanks to the policy of military deterrence, with its recurring military statement: "arm ourselves for peace." The truth is that the reduction of conflict is not a result of military deterrent, but the product of many factors, including the economic interdependence driven by the free market. That despite the dominant progressive discourse, represents the common denominator in the region.

Military powers

Justifications for the buying and stockpiling of arms are not lacking. In recent years, most South American countries have argued that increased military spending is needed in order to replace obsolete equipment. Does this justify the increase in military spending by 150% in the past six years? During this period, military spending increased from 24 billion to 60 billion dollars, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The increase has been sustained throughout the region, countries with highest military expenditures are: Brazil (U.S. $ 27.12 billion), Colombia (U.S. $ 10 billion), Chile (U.S. $ 5.68 billion), Venezuela (U.S. $ 3.25 billion) and Argentina (U.S. $ 2.61 billion). In relation to previous years, the country with the highest proportional increase in spending was Ecuador, followed by Venezuela, Colombia and Chile. As a percent of GDP, military spending was highest in Colombia (3.7%), followed by Chile (3.5%), Ecuador (2.8%), Brazil (1.5%) and Venezuela (1.4%) according to data for 2009. (Source: SIPRI)

Let's look at some specific cases:


Brazil recently signed an agreement to build four Scorpene submarines and a nuclear submarine with French company DCNA. Brazil has also bought fighter planes and other armaments. Brazil seeks technology to reinvigorate its own military- industrial base. According to the official discourse, this is of great importance. The Brazilian Defence Minister Nelson Jobim said: "Our priority now is the technological empowerment in the defence area, particularly in the area of cyber space and nuclear weapons ... .The first consequence of this policy is the end of bargain acquisitions. From now on every major purchase must include technology transfer and partnerships with Brazilian companies. "

Some of the countries supplying arms to Brazil in recent years include Germany, Italy, Jordan, Russia, Spain and the U.S.. The largest settlement was made in 2009 with France for 12 billion dollars. Aside from the purchase of 50 military transport helicopters and 5 nuclear-powered submarines, the rest of this money went to technology transfer.

Brazil justifies these purchases as a necessary renewal of its arsenal, but as the minister of defence says, Brazil sees the development of its military industry as a strategic element in international positioning.


Colombia has the largest defence budget in relation to GDP. As is well known, this country receives a large financial contribution from the U.S., under the justification of the “War on Drugs”, which amounts to over 6 billion dollars since 2000. The main countries supplying arms to Colombia are, Israel, Spain and the U.S.. In recent years, Colombia has purchased a significant number of helicopters, including Brazilian-made helicopters.

Colombia justifies its high military spending, due to the prolonged war against the FARC and the war on drugs. However, in recent times, the increase in tensions with Venezuela has been used as an argument for the need to increase spending. Under former President Alvaro Uribe, military spending greatly increased, justified by a strategy of military defeat of the FARC, and the policies of "democratic security." The new president, Juan Manuel Santos, is expected to continue these practices and even promote a significant increase in the prevalence of military power in Colombia.


Chile also claims its high military spending is based on the need for renewal of its armaments. However, such “renewal” has shown no limits, creating a troubling degree of uncertainty, especially in Peru. This has led Peru to increase its military spending, in contrast to President Alan Garcia’s original proposal to avoid an arms race in the region.

Chile, taking advantage of high copper prices during the last decade and a law inherited from the Pinochet regime (which stipulates that 10% of the copper revenues are for the Armed Forces), is spending billions dollars on weapons. This has included the purchase of 2 Scorpene submarines from the Franco-Spanish consortium DCN / IZAR for a price that exceed US$ 800 million. The submarine program has since suffered numerous technical problems. Other major military investments in Chile are 44 F-16 combat aircraft which were bought from the Netherlands and the U.S. The latest acquisition amounted to 18 used aircraft from the Netherlands for the sum of $ 270 million.

Chile is also interested in developing "new technologies" such as unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. In October 2010, Chile received a Skylark drone as a "gift" from Israel, The gift comes as Chilean military authorities draw closer to a decision on UAV acquisitions that could result in three or four contracts with the Israelis by the end of the year. In addition, Chile hopes to develop its own unmanned aircraft technology with the University of Concepción and the private sector to develop this technology. The unmanned aircraft are used in surveillance and intelligence gathering. As a result, we recommend to Chilean social movements, especially the Mapuche movement, to be mindful of the appearance of these robots in the air. (Source:


Venezuela in recent years has shown a significant increase in military spending based on the profits from oil revenues. The justification for increased spending is the threat of an imminent U.S. invasion in cooperation with Colombia, especially after the agreement allowing the presence of U.S. troops on Colombian military bases.

Under the "anti-imperialism" banner, Venezuela has made major acquisitions of weapons from Russia. During a visit to Caracas, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, revealed that purchases made by the Venezuelan government have exceeded 5 billion dollars. During his testimony, Putin mentioned a report on the defence sector, noting that the contracts were made with 13 Russian companies, including Izhmash – a manufacturer of rifles.

According to SIPRI, in the last ten years, 77.6% of arms imports to Venezuela come from Russia. The acquisitions include Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, Kalashnikov assault rifles (plus the agreement to build a local Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition plant), tanks and S-300 antiaircraft missiles.


The presence of private Chilean soldiers who are active in Iraq is well known. At first, many of these former soldiers in search of better wages received high contracts as a hook for undertaking security work. Chilean private soldier in Iraq in 2005 could earn up to US $ 1,300 a month while private soldiers earn from the U.S. could earn about 700 U.S. dollars a day. Currently in 2010, these South American private military who are performing security work in the Australian embassy in Baghdad, receive minimum wage: US $ 310 per month. Many are employed by Blackwater USA, known for crimes and torture in Iraq. In recent months, it has come to light that in 2005 Blackwater (now re-named Xe Services LLC - in an effort to clean up its image) illegally trained people in Colombia (under an agreement with the State Department in Colombia) who were then sent to Iraq as citizens of third countries, supported by a contract with the U.S. State Department. In Colombia itself, mercenaries are hired by private military companies to do work abroad. Earlier this year (2010), the news broke that 60 Colombian were performing military duties in Afghanistan. This case is repeated in many South American countries because the soldiers are tempted by lucrative salaries that are not available locally. The biggest problem for a campaign against these mercenaries, is that the contractors in each country operate under strict confidentiality. Nevertheless, it is of utmost importance to investigate companies that provide search services for private military companies who are looking to hire former soldiers.

Natural Resources

One of the arguments commonly used to justify the need for arms is to protect natural resources and sovereignty. Brazil has justified the purchase of nuclear submarines and the expansion of its military arsenal with the “need” to protect oil and gas fields recently discovered off its coast and the natural resources in the Amazon. Bolivia justifies arms expenditures by pointing the need to protect gas fields and mining from multinationals supported by imperialism. The protection of natural resources is used as a justification by Venezuela for its oil wealth and by Ecuador for oil and gas, a common argument heard in most countries in the region. This argument contains a contradiction: in most cases - the military are held not to "protect" natural resources, but to facilitate he exploitation them to the detriment of the local communities. The formula is repeated almost identically in each country: the military presence is “needed” to protect the exploitation of natural resources. Despite the nationalist rhetoric, natural resources are ultimately sold to or extracted by foreign companies - who end up being the major beneficiaries.

Regional overview

Although the borders in the region still show some instability, one cannot speak of a situation of active belligerency among most South American countries. The exception to the rule, would be the volatile relations between Venezuela and Colombia, which are cleverly used by both governments as a justification for arms purchasing and military protection. In the case of Venezuela, the main issue is the U.S. imperialist threat in conjunction with Colombia. In turn, the Colombian government claims that the FARC is a “terrorist” organisation that is being supported by Venezuela. Another similar but less-polarized case, is a border argument between Chile and Peru and that includes the problem of providing access to the sea for Bolivia. These issues have not been resolved but do not pose a risk of military conflict.

The best example of this fallacy of the “need” defend themselves from neighbours is the formation of UNASUR and the corresponding South American Defence Council, which seeks military integration in the region. This goal of promoting a high degree of military integration underlies a proposal to create a joint military force for South America. This was raised by Colonel Oswaldo Oliveta Neto of Brazil during the formation of the Council of Defence. However, we know from other cases of regional cooperation, such as the European Union with the European Defence Agency (which promotes the development of the region's military industry), that the ability to act militarily as a block in the NATO alliance with a South American military joint task force would imply an increase in military spending to afford a military force that meets the regional standard.

Another objective of the South American Defense Council is to promote the arms industry of its members. Brazil is already a leader in terms of national industries and it would not be surprising that as part of the policies of the Defence Council Brazil develops a plan to support its national military industries.

Information sharing is one of the objectives of the South American Defence Council, however it is not clear which information is being referred to. There are known risks of military cooperation when it comes to combating social movements – an unfortunate example was the military dictatorships of the 1970s and the bloody Operation Condor in the Southern Cone.

The question is: What is the need for weapons if there is no risk of conflict in the region? Personally I think there are two major reasons which can be linked to two types of military arsenal. Combat aircraft like the F-16 or submarines and other weapons of great power, are linked to the need for countries to position themselves as regional military powers and get an international status. They are widely known plans to create a "NATO of the South", which requires members to obtain standards dictated by this military alliance. Several South American countries have been part of the "peacekeepers", especially in the case of Haiti, where Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru participated with troops or police officers. If NATO South becomes a reality, the South American armed forces would participate in more military interventions outside the region. Moreover, the purchase of this arsenal is linked to relations with the North. The EU and U.S. call for supporting the development of South America. Based principally on free market agreements and the sale of weapons, these policies favour large corporations and military expansion.

Another sphere of militarism is an attempt to control the "enemy within", to fight against "terrorism" and "drug trafficking" and to promote "citizen security". All of these activities involve police who engage in social control through force, accompanied by the criminalization of social movements in government discourse.

As an anti-militarist movement, we have a great responsibility to investigate the business of war and take action. There are many possible actions that can be performed against companies that profit from war. A very clear example that protests arms profiteers and governments but also educates the general public, is to show up at arms fairs - which are often disguised as air and space shows - and denounce the bloody actions for which military equipment is designed. Also in South America, the obligatory military parades are a good opportunity to express our opposition to the military industry and militarism.

Javier Gárate

Translation by Matt Yarrow


Latin America and Israel

Thanks for the interesting article. There is a report about Israeli arms trade activities in Latin America on