It's not every day that I get a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. So when he called me last week for a prearranged telephone interview on Latin American affairs, I decided to focus on my latest obsession: the insanity of the region's growing arms race.
It's an issue few people are talking about, in part because in recent decades Latin America has been one of the world's regions that spends the least on weapons purchases. Most Latin American countries spend about 2.1 percent of their gross domestic product on arms, as opposed to 3.4 percent by the United States, 4.7 percent by Pakistan and 12.3 percent by Oman, according to U.N. Development Programme figures.
Trouble is, the most recent U.N. figures are three years old. And things have deteriorated badly since.
Mr. Secretary, I asked in the interview last week, aren't you concerned by Venezuela's decision to spend more than $2 billion for the purchase of eight military patrol boats and 10 military transport planes from Spain, up to 44 helicopters and 50 MiG-29 jets from Russia, and up to 24 Super Tucano combat jets from Brazil?
And aren't you worried about Brazil, Chile and Colombia's arms purchases? Chile has commissioned six U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and is considering buying 28 additional secondhand ones, in addition to having ordered two French-made Scorpene attack submarines. Colombia has announced plans to buy 22 combat and tactical support planes, and to refurbish its current ones. Brazil has been shopping around for $700 million worth of new combat jets.
"Well, if you have a peaceful, democratic country that for whatever reasons desires to have certain kinds of capabilities, that's one thing," Rumsfeld said. "But if you have a country that ends up buying 100,000 AK-47s, you have to ask the question, what are they going to do with them all?"
Rumsfeld was referring to Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez's purchase of 100,000 AK-47 rifles from Russia. U.S. officials note that Venezuela's army has only 35,000 troops, and fear that many of these rifles may end up in the hands of Colombia's FARC guerrillas, or other Latin American rebel groups.
"One has to worry about the proliferation of these weapons that are being brought into the region from elsewhere," Rumsfeld said. "What threat does Venezuela see that makes them want to have all those weapons for an army that is considerably smaller than that number?"
OK, I said. But what about the bigger, more expensive weapons, such as the MiG-29s and the F-16s? Doesn't that concern you? I was obviously referring to the fact that Latin America has one of the world's highest poverty rates, social tensions are rising, and there are several unresolved border conflicts in the region.
"I guess the concern is what countries do with those capabilities," he said. "I personally think that Spain is making a mistake [selling weapons to Venezuela]. That's my personal opinion. And I guess time will tell. The problem is that if one waits till time tells, it can be an unhappy story."
That was interesting. Rumsfeld was taking Spain to task for selling sophisticated weapons to Venezuela. Still, he was obviously more concerned about the AK-47 rifles than about the billions being spent on advanced combat jets from everywhere.
My conclusion: I wish Rumsfeld had told me the following. "Yes, we're concerned about that. In fact, we made a big mistake back in 1997 when we lifted a two-decade-old embargo on sales of sophisticated weapons to Latin America, and began selling F-16s to the region.
"It hasn't turned out that well. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Latin America's military spending reached $22 billion in 2003. That's a lot of money, and it has risen since. They could put it to better use by creating a regional fund for education, or to fight poverty."
Too bad he didn't say that. Rumsfeld is right in worrying about the 100,000 AK-47 rifles. But he should start worrying more about the larger, bigger, sophisticated weapons sales. They may temporarily mean good business for U.S. and European arms makers, but will make the region poorer, and prone to engage in senseless wars. We've been there before.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.