It is testament to how much Latin America has changed politically over the past several years that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez not only criticizes U.S. military policy in the region but now actively seeks to form a new defense force designed to counteract the colossus of the north. Recently, Chávez invited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to join him on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente! Turning to his friend and ally, Chávez remarked that Latin American countries which formed part of ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas) “should set up a joint defense strategy, and integrate our armed forces and intelligence servicesbecause the enemy is the same: the United States empire.” Chávez, who is known for his bravado and rhetorical flair, then added, “Whoever takes on one of us will have to take on everyone, because we will respond jointly.”
ALBA is an initiative set up by Chávez to encourage greater solidarity and reciprocity amongst left leaning regimes throughout the region; its members include Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica. In recent years, ALBA has served as a mechanism to enhance barter exchange between nations. For example, Venezuela has shipped oil to Cuba and in return receives thousands of Cuban health professionals who attened to the Venezuelan poor. Originally set up to upstage the Free Trade Area of The Americas sponsored by the Bush White House, ALBA also seeks greater cultural integration amongst Latin American countries (for more on this issue, see my recent piece “Hugo Chávez’s Coca: It’s the Real Thing,” February 7, 2008). Now, Chávez seems intent on expanding ALBA’s scope to the military realm as well.
Chávez’s comments come at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. American officials such as Admiral Michael Glen Mullen, Chief of the U.S. Southern Command, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, say Venezuela is a threat to the region. They claim that Venezuela is encouraging an arms race in South America and has become a drug transshipment point. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to arm the Colombian military and the civil conflict there has spilled over the Venezuelan border. Chávez has accused the Colombian “oligarchy” of collaborating with Washington in an effort to foment an armed conflict with Venezuela. Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Chávez remarked that “The time will come when the Colombian people get red of that oligarchy. We won’t provoke them unless they provoke us.” Chávez claims that Colombia, acting on U.S. instructions, wants to create obstacles for the proposed South American Union of Nations or Unasur.
In the midst of the Colombian imbroglio and escalating tensions, Chávez would like ALBA nations to demonstrate greater solidarity in an effort to oppose Washington’s military influence. The Venezuelan leader has called on the defense ministers of each ALBA member-nation to begin preparation for a joint Defense Council. While it’s unlikely that such plans will come to fruition, the Bush administration’s policy of seeking to isolate Chávez has produced the exact opposite effect. During his meeting with Chávez, Ortega declared “If they touch Venezuela, it will light up the region. No one is going to stand idly by, because to touch Venezuela is to touch all of Latin America.” The Nicaraguan President added that the United States sought to threaten Venezuela via Colombia. In return for Ortega’s diplomatic support, the grateful Chávez offered to provide technical assistance to maintain Nicaragua’s Russian helicopters.
Ortega has commented that ALBA nations have just as much a right to form a joint military force as European countries and NATO. His pronouncements represent a shift from earlier, more pro-U.S. administrations in Nicaragua. In 2003, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños sent a team of doctors, nurses, and mine sweepers to the Middle Eastern nation to assist a Spanish brigade.
The Chávez-Morales Axis
Bolivia is the South American nation which shares the most ideological affinity with Chávez at the current time and it’s no surprise that Morales has sought greater military cooperation with Venezuela. Despite U.S. complaints about Chávez’s allegedly expansionist aims in the region, Bolivia’s chief of staff, General Freddy Bersatti, reportedly backs the idea of “merging” the Venezuelan and Bolivian armed forces. Chávez has provided helicopters to Bolivia and says he will send weapons to replace equipment. The Venezuelan President has reportedly pledged to provide up to $22 million to build 20 military bases in Bolivia. In late 2006, Venezuela’s ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, remarked that “if for some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened, and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here.” Morales faces a particularly active and vigorous political opposition from the right, and Chávez has remarked that he will not sit idly by if the “Bolivian oligarchy” tries to forcibly remove his ally.
It’s not the first time that Chávez has proposed forming wider military alliances in the region to put a break on the United States. In 2006, Chávez invited Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales to a military parade in Caracas where he proudly announced “We must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization.” In another speech, Chávez added: “We must form the armed forces of Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] merging warfare capabilities of the continent.” During a trip to Bolivia, where he was accompanied by Venezuela’s army chief, Raul Baduel, Chávez declared that there was a need for a Latin American alliance akin to NATO “with our own doctrine, not one that’s handed down by the gringos.”
During a two month trip through South America in 2007, I spoke with a number of military experts. Without exception, they all scoffed at Chávez’s proposals to form a joint defense force (I have written a chapter about military developments in my upcoming book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, which comes out in April with Palgave-Macmillan). Chávez’s proposals are problematic in a couple of respects. First of all, it would prove logistically challenging, not to mention costly, for Venezuela to maintain its troops if they were sent abroad. The other obstacle for Chávez is political in nature: not all governments in the region share his particular socialist views or vision, nor do they necessarily view the United States as a mortal enemy which must be confronted.
In a region still beset with political and national rivalries, Chávez’s bid for a unified military force faces an uphill battle. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how the Chilean armed forces — which have an enormous amount of institutional pride and which have never lost a war — would ever be willing to enter into a joint military force with Venezuela. Indeed, Chile has rebuffed Chávez’s military proposals. Meanwhile, the largest and most important country in the region, Brazil, is unlikely to become a member of a military force if it is constituted under Venezuelan leadership. In fact, Brazilian army commanders have declined Chávez’s initiatives.
Even amongst sympathetic ALBA nations, it’s doubtful that Chávez can succeed in creating a united defense force. Despite growing military ties between Venezuela and Bolivia, there is pressure on Morales not to go too far. Conservative media in Bolivia such as the paper La Razón have ridiculed Chávez’s proposed ALBA military alliance. What’s more the Venezuelan leader is reviled by the Bolivian right wing opposition. If Morales were to increase military collaboration with Venezuela it would give rise to calls that Chávez is interfering in Bolivia’s internal affairs.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the political opposition has rejected Chávez’s proposals as a “senseless adventure.” Eduardo Montealegre of the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense party remarked that the idea of an ALBA force was a “smokescreen” designed to obscure real problems facing ALBA nations such as misery, hunger and lack of medicines. Even within his own ruling Sandinista party, Ortega faces opposition to Chávez’s plan. Edwin Castro, the leader of the Sandinista parliamentarian faction, dismissed the idea that the Nicaraguan Army might fight, together with Venezuela, in a likely U.S. attack. “The Sandinista Front wrote in the Constitution (of 1987) that we have a defensive Army. It is prohibited to have an offensive Army,” Castro said.
Despite the dim prospects for an ALBA military force, the armed forces in South America (with the exception of Colombia) are tied to new left of center regimes which are less sympathetic to the wider U.S. agenda in the region. Unlike the 1970s, the military establishment is beholden to civilian rule and is unlikely to intervene in the political arena by staging an armed coup.
Take for example the case of Argentina. The Minister of Defense, a woman named Nilda Garré, was a sympathizer with the Montonero guerrillas of the 1970s. A former political prisoner during the military dictatorship, Garré wants to bring rogue military officers to justice for past human rights abuses. Before coming to the Ministry of Defense, Garré was the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela. In Caracas, Garré was a vocal Chávez supporter, and when she got the call from Kirchner offering her the new job the Venezuelan president phoned her in congratulation.
Garré has severed ties to the notorious military School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. In taking the momentous step to break with the school, Garré followed on the heels of Chávez, who severed ties in January, 2004.
Over the years, U.S.-Argentine military relations have been quite cordial, but recently ties have become strained. According to an official who I spoke with at the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, in 2006 there wasn’t a sole bilateral military meeting between the U.S. and Argentina. Up to that point the two nations had met every year. Initially Argentina could not fix a date but when the government proposed an alternative time to meet, the U.S. responded that “the Pentagon was being restructured” and could not schedule a summit.
Garré’s counterpart in Chile is another woman, Vivianne Blanlot. She has been similarly confrontational towards the military top brass identified with past human rights abuses. Recently there’s been a lot of cooperation between the Chilean and Argentine armed forces. The two countries signed an agreement to form a combined military force for peacekeeping missions which will be ready by the end of 2008.
Chávez’s ALBA military initiative is probably a non-starter, but in the Southern Cone the armed forces have turned a critical page in their evolution. Though the military establishment is not strictly anti-U.S., it has become less identified with American strategic goals. It’s a historic reversal for Washington, which now faces a much less inviting political environment within the region.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).