Arm Sales, Especially by Russia and China, Continue to Penetrate Latin America

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Russian military sales have become so frequent in recent years that they no longer make for major headlines. However, as Washington policymakers continue to voice concern about Iran’s growing influence in Latin America, some alarmists argue that Russia’s eagerness to supply the region with weapons is likely to trigger a “soft arms race” and present itself as a threat to the United State’s historic hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Adherents to this point of view persist in looking at Moscow through a nostalgic Cold War lens that sees Russia (and probably China) as a growing and certain threat to U.S. national security. Little, if anything, is heard of Washington concerns about other countries (like Israel or France) selling weaponry to the region.

Russia’s Arms Sales to Venezuela and Other Latin American Clients

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has made calculated and highly publicized purchases of military equipment in recent years, particularly from Russia and China. He has obtained Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters (models Mi-26, Mi-35, Mi-17 and Mi-28N), 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, as well as manufacturing and servicing facilities from Russia. In mid-2007, Chávez acquired 5,000 Dragunov sniper-rifles from Moscow.

There is also a Kalashnikov rifle (type 103) factory in Venezuela that is presently under construction, along with an additional facility to produce ammunition. However, according to Venezuelan specialists interviewed by the authors, construction of the facility has lagged for several years because of financing problems ,which has led to Moscow’s refusal to deliver its weaponry until Caracas first makes its payments.

In late 2010, several news agencies reported that Russia had approved a loan to Caracas totaling USD 4 billion to buy additional military equipment which President Chávez has stated will be used for “defensive” operations. Likely to be included in growing Venezuelan arsenal will be 92 T-72 tanks. According to UN and other leaked diplomatic cables, Russia has delivered as many as 1,800 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to the Venezuelan military. The models of the missiles that have been decided upon by Venezuelan military contractors are known as Igla-S (SA-24).

As part of its “military diplomacy,” Moscow also has sold significant amounts of weaponry to other regional states with the purpose of adding revenue to its coffers while developing good relations with governments and militaries in Latin America. In February 2009, Bolivia signed an agreement with Russia for a USD 150 million credit that will allow it to modernize its military (Moscow has yet to transfer the agreed upon amount). In addition, Russian officials have expressed an interest in selling Bolivia 1017 5B helicopters and Antonov An-148 aircraft.

Russia has also sold, or is in the process of negotiating the sale of military equipment to several other South American nations, including one Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopter to Ecuador in 2009. That same year, Brazil acquired 12 Mi-35M helicopters in a larger deal reportedly worth USD 150 million. In addition, Uruguay has acquired 48 multi-purpose amphibious vehicles (type GAZ-3937). Peru has committed itself to upgrading its helicopter fleet, acquiring a number of Mi-17 helicopters from Russia, including six helicopters of that model in 2010. In late February of this year, the Peruvian media reported that Lima will receive in March two helicopters type Mi-35. Mi helicopters are particularly important for the Peruvian army as the aircraft can attain high altitudes in the country’s highlands like the Andes mountains. They are particularly useful for current military operations in the Peruvian highlands against the narco-terrorist group, the Shining Path.

Other Military Equipment Providers

To be fair, it is not only Russia that boasts such significant inventory of arms sales to the region. A number of European countries, as well as Israel, are showing their highly lauded military products to Latin states, and China’s growing influence in Latin countries with small defense budgets is rising trend. One example of a non-Russian arms transaction is the plan by Brazil to build a nuclear-powered submarine, a scheme that dates back to the 1970s when a military junta ruled the country (1964-1985). France is helping the South American giant with this massive construction project. So far, estimates optimistically puts the launching of the submarine at 2021—though at one point, the goal was 2015. France also has sold two sonar systems to the Ecuadorian navy, to be used by its type-209 submarines.

Currently, France’s military exports to Latin America are not particularly significant. Hence, Paris hopes that the nuclear submarine project with Brazil will lead to further expansion of exports to the region. Specifically, Paris would like to increase exports of its EADS Eurocopters and Rafale warplanes, something it has not been able to pull off elsewhere with other potential clients in Africa and the Middle East. Brasília already has bought 50 Eurocopters and is currently contemplating about acquiring Rafale warplanes. Brasília, under the Lula administration, was scheduled to buy a number of Rafale warplanes to upgrade its air force, but new president Dilma Rousseff is reportedly looking for other options.

Other European arms vendors plying their lines in Latin America include Spain and Germany. Madrid has sold patrol boats to Venezuela. Meanwhile, Berlin has sold 60 Leopard 2 tanks and 146 Marder military vehicles to Chile in 2009. In addition, there is a growing Israeli activity regarding arms sales to Latin America. The Colombian armed forces have obtained a number of Kfir fighter planes from Israel, and, through a licensing agreement with Tel Aviv, Bogotá can assemble Israeli Galil rifles. In addition to sales to Colombia, Israel has also sold up to six unmanned air vehicles (UAVs – in this case, types Heron and Searcher) to Ecuador. Furthermore, Brazil has purchased 200 Derby BVRAAM missiles for its F-5E (F-5m) modernized combat aircraft.

Latin America also remains a consistent buyer of weaponry from the United States. Although Washington-Brasília relations have somewhat cooled in recent years, this has not halted weapon sales. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI), some of the military inventory sold by the U.S. to Brazil includes seven EDO-997 sonar systems, eight AN/APS-137(V) Me aircraft radar systems, 30 Mk-48 torpedoes, 16 Blackhawk helicopters and up to eight S-70N Seahawk helicopters. Furthermore, in recent years, the Colombian armed forces have received a major number of Black Hawk helicopters from Washington and the Chilean government has purchased F-16 fighter planes.

China as a Rising Vendor

Despite the strong presence in Latin America of the U.S., Russia, and other major European states as weapons suppliers, Beijing has sought to enter the market with the region as well. For example, Beijing has sold radar systems (10 JYL-1) to Venezuela; up to four different types of Chinese YLC air search radars to Ecuador in 2009 as well as several K-8 combat aircraft to Bolivia. Mexico also has purchased Chinese Model-57 105mm towed guns. In 2010, China was gearing up to sell MBT-2000 tanks to Peru, but the deal fell through.

While there is certainly a market for Chinese weaponry, Beijing will have no easy time gaining an effortless entrance in the region. Chinese weaponry is typically regarded as cheap and not as sophisticated as Russian military technology, but Beijing does manage to sell some of its less sophisticated arms to countries that have smaller defense budgets such as Bolivia or some Central American states. Bolivia’s purchase of K-8 combat aircraft is an example of this.

In addition, there is a question of whether local militaries will want to switch to Chinese technology, considering that they are used to being outfitted by other suppliers. Peru stands as a good example of this. The Andean country has an abundance of U.S. and Soviet-era weaponry that its military has operated for decades, particularly the country’s Mi-helicopters. It would be difficult for China to try to sell its own helicopters (type Zhi-6 for example), considering that the Russian Mi has proven to be a reliable workhorse helicopter.

Certainly, there is the potential for Chinese sales to grow as military educational exchanges continue (ie. Latin American officials going to China for military training and studies), and for Latin American army officers to begin to gain trust in the Asian country’s military products. Today, dozens of Latin American junior officials attend academies of the People’s Liberation Army which will pave the way for future relations between Latino and Chinese officials. With that being said, it is important to take into consideration what R. Evan Ellis, an Assistant Professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University, stated in a report entitled “Chinese Soft Power in Latin America: A Case Study.” Ellis explains that “[i]n the arena of China–Latin America military exchanges, it is interesting to note that Latin American military officers participating in such programs are often jokingly stigmatized by their colleagues in ways that officers participating in exchange programs in the United States are not.” In other words, Chinese military officers have not gained the strong human connections with their Latin peers needed to ensure that Chinese military equipment may be regarded as a major option in future purchases.

Despite these strengthening ties it is probably safe to say that Russia and the U.S. will remain the major suppliers of weaponry to Latin America for the immediate future. China has yet to come up with a compelling explanation as to why Latin American states should choose its products over others. And though China has the possibility to grow, it lacks, for the time being, the connections that Washington, Moscow, and other European countries have enjoyed for decades.

Seeing Red

In recent years, conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, as well as Bush-era officials and policymakers have continuously raised red flags and published alarmist-articles about Russia’s growing role in the arms trade in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela. Such thinking harkens back to the neo-conservative rhetoric and a bipolar manner of looking at the world that dates back to the 1980s. It goes without saying that a major reason for this criticism is Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez’s strong anti-Washington stance and leftist tendencies. Even some officials at the State Department view the perceived rising tide of nationalistic-driven Chavismo, as an additional threat to regional harmony.

A leftover Cold War ideological fragment still views the world as either pro-Washington or pro-Moscow (which is still regarded by many hardline conservatives as a security-concern). Former officials such as Roger Noriega, an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush who now is associated with the American Enterprise Institute, and legislators such as Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-R), who has been in office since 1989, are two imposing examples of the continuation of single-dimensional ideologies whose influence over Latin American policy-making can be distortive. Unfortunately, a more open approach towards the region has been set back by the lack of progressive Latin-Americanists in the U.S. congress, especially with the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, and the retirement of Senator Christopher Dodd.

In a June 2010 report issued by the Heritage Foundation, Peter Brookes argues that “Chávez is also spending billions on arms from Russia in the absence of any valid threat coming from Washington.” But most worrisome, according to Brookes, is the Venezuelan leader’s interest in nuclear power, where he is seeking assistance from both Russia and Iran. This conjures up the deeply disturbing image of “a nuclear threat not far from our shores.” Furthermore, the well-known rightist-expert Ariel Cohen also has warned that, “President Hugo Chávez recently announced that Venezuela will purchase dozens of Russian tanks and [additional] arms [from Moscow], signaling growing military ties between the two countries—and trouble ahead in the hemisphere.” In addition, Venezuela’s Chávez repeatedly has been repeatedly accused by his foes of actively supporting the Colombian narco-guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), and other drug-trafficking organizations. Although Chávez has intermittingly expressed his ideological support for the FARC, his political foes opposing him often exaggerate their case by largely inventing claims that Venezuela has armed the FARC with Swedish-made anti-tank weapons.

Adding fuel to the growing blaze behind the Russian-Venezuelan relationship are the multiple visits that Chávez has made to Moscow. Similarly, Russian energy czar and current Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Caracas in July 2010. Several agreements were signed on that occasion, ranging from joint energy to military cooperation. Such visits, which contribute to relations between Moscow and Caracas have led Cohen to observe, in another report, that “the Russia-Venezuela condominium is emblematic of geopolitical forces rising to challenge U.S. leadership and influence.” During a January speech in Colombia, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) repeated his and his party’s traditional rightwing template of Latin America by simple-mindedly defining Venezuela as a security threat.

The War and Arms Link

A report called “Arms-R-Us: South America Goes Shopping,” issued by the Washington Office on Latin America found that “[w]hether or not you call it an arms race, the increase [in arms sales] is substantial; in 2008, the 12 S.A. countries together channeled more than USD 50 billion into military expenditures, about 30% more than in 2007.” The article addresses the usual concerns, though not to the level of intensity of articles published by conservative agencies like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, stating that the South American “arms race could awaken old and unresolved conflicts, [and] fuel feelings of mistrust and fear among countries in the region.” There are certainly still a number of unsolved conflicts still lingering in the region. For instance, the maritime dispute between Peru and Chile currently under review at The Hague, as well as the ongoing border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, a link between an arms race and the inevitability of inter-state warfare has not been fully confirmed.

Determining when an arms race begins and ends is complicated. Even if there is a “soft” arms race going on in South America—one that, at the present time, involves Venezuela, Brazil, and Chile as the major buyers of military hardware—it is not necessarily correct to reach the conclusion that this will inevitably Latin America lead to full scale warfare. The area has found itself face to face with a number of inter-state engagements over the past decades, including conflicts between Peru and Ecuador (1941, 1981, 1995), the Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador (1969), and the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom (1982). This doesn’t include U.S. military interventions in the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989).

While all of these conflicts were costly and challenging, they were generally short-lived, geographically limited, and arguably did not cost anything like the previous major inter-state conflict in the region—e.g., the three year Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay in the 1930s. Tying arms races to the possibility of open warfare may be tempting, but it is not necessarily accurate, especially when pragmatically looking through some of the main points of Latin American history. Since the Chaco War, Latin America has experienced arms races, a plethora of military governments, and ongoing inter-state tensions; however, the tally of inter-state wars, as previously mentioned, has been surprisingly low.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain’s definition of Venezuela as a “security threat” resonates well with his party’s traditional ideology towards Latin America. However, he seems to not have taken into consideration Bogotá’s new objectives vis-à-vis Caracas since the inauguration of President Juan Manuel Santos. While McCain was accusing Venezuela of being a “threat,” Colombia’s President Santos has been working hard to improve his country’s previously rancid ties with Chávez. In an August 2010 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Colombian political affairs columnist Laura Gil noted that “years of confrontation with Venezuela has brought nothing […] Santos is not naive. He was minister of defense during the worst times, but he is very pragmatic.” An example of an attempt to restore functional ties between the two countries occurred in late December 2010, only weeks before McCain visited Colombia. Venezuelan security forces captured a commander of Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the ELN, Nilson Teran Ferreira (also known as Tulio), and promptly extradited him to Bogotá. While this may not fully appease skeptics about Chávez’s intentions, it is a gross distortion to define the Venezuelan leader as a “security threat.” Certainly, the major military purchases by Caracas in recent years are a concern, and occasional tensions, like the May 2008 incident involving Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela have occurred. Nevertheless, with a new chief executive in Bogotá, there are real signs that confidence-building mechanisms are working, and that Colombia-Venezuela relations at the political and security level are significantly improving.


While several Latin American countries have disagreed over various issues, such as border disputes, these differences have seldom resulted in aggressive action (the 2008 incident in which Venezuela sent part of its army to the border with Colombia is one recent example), let alone war. Therefore, the mere fact that Latin American countries have continued modestly to build up their military arsenals does not mean that this apparent “soft arms” race warrants extreme alarmist rhetoric hinting at the likelihood of inter-state warfare.

That Moscow (in addition to other countries around the globe) continues to supply Latin America with such diverse weaponry does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the sale of armaments will trigger an arms race, much less inter-state warfare. While many Central and South American countries have experienced tense relations, and at times, outright conflicts with their neighbors, these clashes have rarely resulted in overt combat over the past decades. A review of recent Latin American history does not reveal a strong link between the build-up of arms in the region and outright inter-state war.

COHA has previously published articles on Russian geopolitical influence in Latin America as well as studies regarding the role of regional the armed forces. Such studies have focused on regional armed forces and their connections abroad. This is an updated analysis reflecting new developments. To access one of the previous articles; click here.

COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez recently published an article in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, (Vol. 8, Issue 4) titled: “Russia and Latin America at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” The abstract and how to access the article can be found via this link.