JUST when it seemed that the days of military rule and absurd weapons purchases in Latin America were over, the threat of a new arms race makes one wonder whether the region is going back to the Stone Age.
South American countries -- encouraged by U.S. arms manufacturers and a 4-year-old U.S. policy of authorizing sales of sophisticated weapons to the region -- are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new combat planes and submarines amid one of the region's worst economic crises in recent memory.
Even more absurd, small Central American countries with some of the world's highest poverty rates, such as Honduras and Nicaragua, are engaged in an escalating war of words over border conflicts that defense analysts fear will result in an escalation of arms purchases.
According to the just-released 2001 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a group that keeps track of worldwide military expenditures, arms purchases by South American countries rose from $16.5 billion in 1991 to $26.3 billion in 2000. In Central America, weapons purchases increased from $2.2 billion to $2.9 billion over the same period.
Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia have major purchasing plans that, if carried out, would substantially increase the region's arms expenditures. Brazil announced this month it would buy 24 new combat planes as part of a long-term program to get 100 fighter jets for more than $3 billion.
Chile has announced plans to buy 10 U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-16 planes, for $700 million, as part of a long-term program to buy $2.3 billion in new weapons.
Argentina, struggling to avert a default on its $128 billion foreign debt, is planning to buy about 10 second-hand F-16s, according to Argentine press reports.
Venezuela, the only South American country that has F-16 fighter jets, is looking to upgrade its aircraft and buy a new generation of submarines and new frigates, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says.
``It seems that, after a period of stagnation, South and Central American armed forces are modernizing,'' said Siemon Wezeman, an arms-trade specialist with the institute.
``It's overkill, because it doesn't make sense from a security point of view,'' Wezeman said. ``International tensions in the region are not of the kind that requires these kinds of offensive weapons.
``There are about 30 unresolved border disputes in Latin America, and the 1995 war between Ecuador and Peru over a stretch of deserted jungle is a reminder that one cannot always count on leaders' common sense. But, unlike countries in the Middle East or Africa, Latin America has diplomatic regional groups such as the Organization of American States to contain and help settle border disputes.
So what is driving up the arms purchases? Countries buy F-16s when they face imminent threats from their neighbors. But after two decades of democracy and growing military cooperation by most countries in the region, these purchases are hard to explain. ``It's toys for boys,'' Wezeman said. ``It's things like inter-service rivalry, and the military's need to be taken more seriously by society.''
To be sure, some Latin American leaders are rebelling against the new trend.
Peru's new president, Alejandro Toledo, asked in his July 29 inauguration address to freeze all purchases of offensive weapons in the region, in a not-so-veiled message aimed at neighboring Chile. Costa Rica's president Miguel Angel Rodriguez went even further, calling last week for all Latin American countries to abolish their armies, as Costa Rica did after its 1948 uprising. So far, no other head of state has supported the idea.
I'm not surprised that Latin America's democratic presidents find it hard to support an arms freeze: Many have to live with powerful generals who need to be pacified with new weapons purchases, which -- incidentally -- often come with hefty under-the-table commissions for the military brass.
What I find surprising is that, at a time when protesters are blocking highways and seizing buildings throughout the region to protest economic austerity measures they attribute to globalization, you see no signs reading, ``Sell our MiGs,'' or ``Buy Schools, not F-16s.''
It's already absurd for a region suffering from massive poverty to spend $29 billion a year on weapons. Planning to spend even more is so stupid that it's hard to understand why it hasn't become a rallying cry for protesters.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.
© 2001 The Mercury News