- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile - For most of Latin America, the days of dictatorships and civil wars are largely over, but security is still elusive. Historic border conflicts continue, democracy is fragile in many countries, and new internal and external threats have emerged.

To face these new threats, and to increase the region’s influence, an age-old idea has taken on new strength among the region’s defense ministries. In recent months, reluctant leaders have been talking seriously about building a collective regional-defense community, along the lines of the European Union’s.

Talks began in earnest at the Special Conference on Security held in Mexico City last October. There, leaders agreed that security must be seen as multidimensional — including threats from poverty, drug trafficking, AIDS, natural disasters, environmental abuses, terrorism, illegal migration, and other issues not usually considered part of security.

Such threats often cross national borders: Colombia’s drug problem spills over into neighboring countries, for instance. As a result, leaders at the Mexico City gathering discussed the need for a broader solution that would involve countries cooperating in an integrated body to face these common threats.

“Subregional and regional integration processes contribute to stability and security in the Hemisphere,” reads the Declaration on Security of the Americas, approved by 34 leaders at the Special Conference on Security.

Regional integration has been a dream since Latin America struggled for independence from Spain in the early 1800s. Simon Bolivar had hoped to create a United States of Latin America. But today, it’s a tall order in a region with such diverse threats and vast cultural and economic differences, not to mention active border conflicts.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met in Geneva on Jan. 30 to talk about international security, from poverty to defense, with leaders like French President Jacques Chirac and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The search for regional security partners has new appeal after the war in Iraq. Chile and Mexico were among the nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council that backed France’s opposition to the U.S. resolution.

Faced with unilateralism in Washington, Chile and others have been searching for like-minded allies, and finding them mainly in Europe and among their neighbors.

“It is necessary and urgent that the countries of South America equip themselves with the means to build a collective and regional security policy,” says Alfredo Valladao, a Brazilian academic at Sciences Po university in Paris. “If we don’t have this, we will continue to be the dogs barking on the side while the caravan passes.”

Mr. Valladao said most Latin American countries realize that, individually, they carry little weight in international circles. To have some influence, they practically have to belong to a larger group. But joining a group means learning to sing in tune.

“The basic condition for having a voice that counts in the international debate about the hemisphere’s defense institutions and new realities is to be able to speak with one voice,” he said.

Mr. Valladao was among a few dozen academics, diplomats and senior officials who met here in Santiago in the last week of January to discuss Latin American security at a conference organized by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), an independent think tank.

At the conference, Chilean Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet said real integration of the region’s militaries has already begun. For example, a Chilean unit is embedded in an Argentine peacekeeping battalion now serving on Cyprus. A Uruguayan unit will soon join the battalion, and there is talk of sending a Peruvian contingent.

These are big steps for countries whose militaries have often faced each other. There are also regular and increasingly frequent meetings between defense ministers.

But Mrs. Bachelet — the daughter of a general, a medical doctor, mother of three and a Socialist politician — says cooperation needs to go further, toward common policies. “What matters is the capacity of our states to be able to come up with common policies for common problems,” she said.

Such a union would encourage countries to spend less on protecting themselves from each other and more on confronting the socioeconomic problems that often lead to armed conflicts — problems now considered issues of security.

But such cooperation won’t be easy in a region where nationalism is strong and neighbors are often enemies. Currently, there are at least 16 active border conflicts. According to FLACSO, there were 18 armed confrontations in the 1990s.

Vast cultural and economic differences also form barriers.

“The asymmetries are huge,” said Luis Winter, an official in Chile’s Foreign Ministry. “Past experiences are not shared. Cultural differences are great. So the construction of a defense community will have to be accompanied by great efforts from each of our countries.”

Brazilian academic Eliezer Rizzo de Oliveira said the way to get past these differences is to increase integration on other fronts, such as law or economics.

While the Free Trade Areas of the Americas is under construction, he suggested making an economic group like Mercosur the building block because its members can agree, which is the key to any successful union. Mercosur is a Spanish-language acronym for Southern Common Market and incorporates Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

But this kind of unity is rare, even within the European Union, said Mika Markus Leinonen of the Council of the European Union. He said that, at a minimum, Latin America will need a common vision.

“I believe that without that, don’t even contemplate integration,” said Mr. Leinonen. “Good luck, but I don’t think it will happen.”

Within Latin America, there are also doubts about the prospects for such a goal.

Hector Luis Saint-Pierre, an official at the State University of Sao Paulo, which serves both Brazil’s largest city and the most bustling of its 28 states, says Mercosur doesn’t have a common vision or political project.

There is a lack of vision even within most countries, he added.

“If Brazil internally hasn’t reached a final concept of security and defense, how can we speak about negotiating one between Brazil and other Mercosur countries?” asked Mr. Saint-Pierre.

He said there are also practical barriers, such as the fact that most countries don’t account for military spending the same way. Some don’t even have formal, written military policies.

The other problem, of course, is: Who would be part of such a defense community?

Mexican academic Raul Benitez said that for it to be successful, fewer players are needed.

“It’s very difficult politically to reach security agreements between 34 countries because there are interventions from nationalist forces, political parties, congress, press, [nongovernmental organizations], academia,” said Mr. Benitez. “In security, where fewer actors are involved, and the more specific they can be, things move much faster.”

The goal is to do it without U.S. participation.

One American analyst with the National Defense University said the United States has been ignoring security threats in Latin America owing to its Middle East focus. But that’s a good thing, he said, because if the United States were to get involved in a regional defense community, it would pull the strings.

And, he said, that has hurt existing regional security organizations. For years, members have accused Washington of hijacking the agenda of the Organization of American States.

But others say the United States is such an important player in Latin America, it simply cannot be left out.

Mr. Valladao said that is a reason for countries to find a common voice that can address the United States.

“The problem is how — in this game where everyone needs the U.S., and the U.S. needs allies — how can we have a minimum of strength to give value to our own positions and to attract the U.S. toward a position that is more multilateral and less unilateral,” Mr. Valladao said.

For now, discussions for a regional defense community are under way. World forums are providing some space and some hope for this project. Leaders reaffirmed their commitment at the Jan. 12-13 Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, but agreements so far are in broad terms, with little specificity.

There are also strong reservations within some countries about giving up sovereignty in an area as sensitive as defense.

Militaries in Latin America have long been a political force behind the scenes and are unlikely to cede power and influence. So perhaps the most pressing question is how far some countries’ military officials will be willing to bend in the interests of regional harmony once the winds of change start blowing through their back yards.

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