Thursday, June 5, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Regional giant Brazil is the driving force behind a proposed new South American defense grouping that threatens to exclude the United States from regional military planning at a time of growing tensions between Washington and leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The creation of a South American Security Council, which would include oil-rich Venezuela, Chile and Argentina, was proposed by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at a meeting of 11 Latin American countries held in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, in May.

The security council would be part of an even larger effort led by Brazil to create a new Union of South American Nations, modeled on the European Union. The group would be known by its Spanish-language acronym, UNASUR, and would unite the two rival South American trading blocs, Mercosur and the Andean Community.

The council within UNASUR “excludes the presence of countries located outside the region, as would be the case of the United States,” said Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim. Mr. Jobim drafted the proposal at a preparatory session last month with Mr. Chavez in Venezuela. The meeting also was attended by top military commanders from both countries.

“If there exists a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, why shouldn’t there be a South Atlantic Treaty Organization?” said Mr. Chavez, who has long favored unifying South America’s armies and establishing an indigenous arms industry with technology from Russia, China and Iran.

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a leading Washington think tank on Latin America, said the United States should welcome the new defense council idea and especially Brazil’s leadership in promoting it.

“It’s something we can and should encourage because a country like Brazil showing strong leadership in South America can be very good for our interests,” Mr. Shifter said.

He acknowledged that Mr. Chavez and other leftist leaders on the continent may try to push the new defense grouping in an anti-U.S. direction, “but it’s probably better from our point of view to have those people inside the tent rather than outside. This effectively could offset the ability of more radical governments to stir things up on their own.”

Mr. Jobim has obtained backing from most other South American governments for his joint defense proposal. One exception is pro-U.S. Colombia, which nearly came to blows in March with Venezuela after Colombian troops raided a rebel camp just across the border in Ecuador.

“It’s not the right moment,” said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. “We have a problem with terrorism, which makes us very careful about making this type of decision.”

Mr. Uribe and President Bush have accused Venezuela of supporting terrorism and drug trafficking and have proposed sanctions to isolate Mr. Chavez.

U.S. officials have approached the idea of a South American defense alliance with caution.

On a trip to Brazil in March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that North America’s three big economies - the United States, Canada and Mexico - have linked together under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and added, “I think it’s only going to be natural that you have many different fora in which to press for cooperation.”

With Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim at her side, she declared, “I not only have no problem with [a South American defense council], I trust Brazil’s leadership and look forward to coordination with it.”

However, in a move widely noted in South America, the Pentagon in April announced plans to reactivate the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet, based in Mayport, Fla., which had not operated as a separate fleet since shortly after the end of World War II. The reconstituted fleet has responsibility for the waters off Central and South America.

U.S. defense officials have offered conflicting explanations for the move, sometimes portraying it as a simple bureaucratic name change and sometimes as a signal of the rising strategic significance of the region for the United States.

Rear Adm. James Stevenson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, said the revival of the 4th Fleet, set for July 1, will send a message to the entire region, not just Venezuela. The focus probably will be on security, he said.

The fleet could “certainly bring a lot more stature to the area and increase our ability to get things done,” Adm. Stevenson told reporters in April.

Mr. Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue said fears of the fleet designation in Latin America were overblown and reflected the general distrust in the region for the United States and the Bush administration in particular.

“There are still some hypersensitivities there,” he said.

Whatever its purpose, the 4th Fleet move was attacked immediately by the hemisphere’s anti-American leftists, led by Mr. Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

The ailing Cuban ex-leader devoted one of his newspaper columns last month to condemning the U.S. move. Mr. Chavez vowed in a newspaper interview to press ahead even harder on the South American defense pact, saying, “They don’t scare us in the least.”

Brazil, which has maintained friendly relations with Washington and Caracas, has said that any UNASUR security alliance would be purely defensive and mainly aimed at standardizing military procurement and training.

“We don’t [seek] territorial expansion, but we should have the arms to project our [deterrence] capacity,” Mr. Jobim said.

Brazilian defense officials have said that the council would coordinate joint maneuvers and military personnel exchanges between South America’s militaries.

The move toward closer South American security cooperation comes amid growing worries of a continental arms race.

Total defense spending for Latin America - including Mexico and Central America - jumped to $38 billion in 2007 from $25 billion four years ago, according to a recent survey by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Lula da Silva earlier this year pushed for a jump of more than 50 percent in Brazilian defense spending through 2010, a move widely interpreted as at least in part a response to soaring arms purchases by Venezuela. Russia, China and Iran all have stepped up the marketing of their military hardware to Latin American customers.

Venezuela recently contracted to buy 24 highly advanced Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighters, 53 combat helicopters and more than 100,000 automatic rifles from Russia.

In recent visits to Moscow, Mr. Chavez also has negotiated to buy nine diesel-powered submarines capable of carrying cruise missiles, as well as patrol ships and amphibious landing vessels.

Russian arms contractor Rosoboroexport announced last year that defense contracts with Venezuela amounted to $4 billion and are expected to double or triple in the next few years.

*David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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