The Unlikely Success: Latin America and Nuclear Weapons
by Alex Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - November 16, 2011
The website of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) provides a list of nuclear countries: the United States, Russia, France, China, United Kingdom, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea; (1) with a combined total inventory of 20,500 nuclear weapons. In addition, Iran is suspected of having an active nuclear weapons program. But an often overlooked fact is that none of these countries are in Latin America (the US’s location in the Western Hemisphere notwithstanding). Is there anything that the world, particularly states that possess nuclear weapons, can learn from the Latin American nuclear experience?
A Brief Nuclear History in Latin America
A global grassroots movement launched in 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons explains that:
“Today there are nuclear-weapon-free zones [NWFZs] in Latin America and the Caribbean, the southern Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Africa. More than 50 per cent of the Earth’s surface today comprises such zones […] States that belong to a nuclear-weapon-free zone are prohibited from producing, testing, stockpiling or acquiring nuclear weapons, and they cannot have nuclear weapons deployed in their territories.” (2)
Although Latin America does not currently possess any nuclear weapons, the region does have a short-lived history of issues regarding them. Examples of this range from the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the nuclear weapons programs in Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s (when both states had military governments), and the creation, in 1967, of the Tratado para la Proscripcion de las Armas Nucleares en la America Latina y el Caribe, (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, commonly known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco). The treaty includes the creation of a nuclear watchdog agency known as OPANAL (Organismo para la Proscripcion de las Armas Nucleares en la America Latina y el Caribe - Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean). According to its website, OPANAL’s duties include convoking “regular and special general conferences and [consulting] meetings related to the established purposes, means, and procedures of the Treaty. OPANAL also supervises the adherence to the Control System and the obligations stemming from the Treaty […].” (3) Nowadays, Latin America takes pride in being nuclear weapons-free, despite continuing tensions between regional states, like ongoing border disputes or security tensions, which is traditionally a reason to jumpstart a nuclear weapons program (like in Israel or between India and Pakistan).
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the Cuban missile crisis was not the only nuclear incident in the region. In the 1970s, two South American military powers, Argentina and Brazil, carried out secret nuclear weapons programs, creating fears of a possible war. A major reason for this was that the two neighboring states have a long standing rivalry (including the Cisplatine War in the 1820s); though nowadays this rivalry is, thankfully, mostly exemplified in soccer matches. In 1975, Brazilian leaders hastened their nuclear research by maintaining a two track program, one for civilian uses and a military one, as West Germany provided Brasilia with enrichment technology. At the time, it was predicted that Brazil could have nuclear weapons by the year 2000 (it managed to enrich uranium in 1987 but not to weapons-grade level).(4)
The Falklands War, which occurred in 1982, between Argentina and the United Kingdom prompted the fall of the ruling military junta in Buenos Aires and the return to democracy, which helped quicken the pace towards cancelling that country’s nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, Brasilia returned to civilian rule in 1985 and the nuclear weapons program was also eventually cancelled. The two governments, now under civilian control, have significantly improved relations with each other to foster nuclear cooperation and confidence building, thus decreasing security tensions, distrust and the interest in nuclear weapons.
More recently, Venezuela, under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, has declared its interest of possibly pursuing a nuclear energy program to deal with the country’s energy demands, which are heavily dependent on the water flow in the Guri dam.(5) Nonetheless, there has been some controversy about Chavez’s intentions, as Washington and Caracas have suffered tense relations over the past decade. There are also rumors that Iran, an international pariah state with a controversial nuclear program, may be lending Caracas a hand with its nuclear quest, which could, according to some conservative analysts, culminate in nuclear weaponry. (6)
It is worth stating that ‘‘nuclear-weapon-free zones have sought to establish norms against the acquisition of nuclear weapons without even attempting to establish supporting sanctions or rewards.’’” (7) In Latin America’s case, there isn’t much to prevent regional states from developing nuclear weapons if they choose to do so, as OPANAL does not have the power to apply sanctions. One may pose the question as to why other Latin America countries, besides Brazil and Argentina, have not attempted to develop a similar nuclear weapons program.
Even though Latin American states haven’t had a nuclear weapons program in decades, nuclear cooperation does exist. The best example is the creation of the ABACC (Agencia Brasileno-Argentina de Contabilidad y Control de Materiales Nucleares - Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials ), which is responsible for overseeing a cooperation agreement initiated in 1991, in which Buenos Aires and Brasilia agreed to commit to using nuclear energy for solely peaceful purposes. In that year, Argentina, Brazil, the ABACC, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed the Quadripartite Agreement, specifying procedures for IAEA and ABACC for the monitoring and verification of Argentine and Brazilian nuclear installations. (8) Nevertheless, it is worth stating that neither country has signed the additional protocol by the IEAE which gives the international watchdog the right to access information and visit nuclear sites. (9)
A 2009 commentary by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank headquartered in Washington DC, puts the nuclear relations between Brasilia and Buenos Aires into perspective:
“Argentina and Brazil are seen as having been successful in turning their nuclear competition into cooperation through mutual confidence. This approach is often considered as a model for other regions where potential nuclear proliferation risks may be perceived. However, it is not yet certain that both countries will become competent partners by taking advantage of their joint strengths. Certain obstacles could endanger this process. Bureaucratic resistance, as well as possible asymmetries of interests and views -especially those related to the possibility of sharing proprietary technology - could upset the internal balance of the agreement and, therefore, its long-term sustainability.” (10)
Indeed, while the current levels of nuclear cooperation between Brazil and Argentina are positive, it is important to understand that they are not fault-proof and there is the possibility that cooperation could take a turn for the worst. For example, should inter-state disputes arise, or if military governments appear again, then a worst case scenario could be that nuclear weapons programs could be revisited.
In addition Venezuela has had plans for creating its own nuclear energy program with support from Iran. Some analysts have gone as far as arguing that Iranian mining companies currently operating in Venezuela may be trying to find uranium to use in Iran’s nuclear projects. (11) In interviews between the author of this essay and several Latin America military officials, (12) the consensus was that regional governments did not have a problem with Caracas looking to produce nuclear energy, but greater transparency is necessary to maintain inter-state confidence.
Not Nuclear but still Tension-prone
At this point it is important to note that, even though Latin American states have not fully developed nuclear weapons programs, it does not mean that Latin America is a peaceful region by any means. Besides insurgent groups, there are still tensions between several Latin American states, and there is an ongoing concern that isolated incidents could eventually lead to an inter-state war. Some recent incidents include:
• In 2008, Colombia and Venezuela almost went to war when the Colombian military entered Ecuadorian territory to attack a base of the Colombian insurgent movement FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) where several high-level leaders were camped. Venezuelan President Chavez deployed his military to the border with Colombia, ready to declare war on Bogota to protect Ecuador’s sovereignty; but, fortunately, tensions dissolved.
• In late 2010, Nicaraguan troops diverted the course of a river and entered Costa Rican territory, alleging that it was theirs.
Regarding confidence building, Tariq Rauf, Head of the Verification and Security Policy Co-ordination at the IAEA, explains that “the key element in this process approach is the identification of the transformation of ideas and beliefs about the threat posed by neighbouring states. […] [W]hy leaders come to feel comfortable with new, less stark conceptions of threat remain unclear.” (13) In Latin America, confidence building improves relations among states, which is critical as issues such as border disputes exist. For example, Peru and Chile recently went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to solve a maritime border issue. In addition, Bolivia demands a land corridor to access the Pacific Ocean via Chile (as La Paz lost its coastal territories to Santiago in the 19th century War of the Pacific). Chile and Argentina still have an unsettled border dispute and there are occasional negative feelings from Buenos Aires towards Santiago, since during the Falklands War the Chilean government provided London with vital intelligence information. Furthermore, Colombia and Venezuela still have an unresolved border dispute over the Gulf of Venezuela; and there is one also between Colombia and Nicaragua over San Andres Island.
Moreover, even though inter-state conflicts in Latin America are rare, they remain a source for concern. Arguably, the last major war in Latin America was between Paraguay and Bolivia from 1932-1935 (dubbed the Chaco War). More recent inter-state warfare has been relatively brief. For example, Peru had an ephemeral war with Ecuador in 1941, as well as non-declared wars in 1981 and 1995. In addition, Honduras and El Salvador had what is known as the Soccer War in 1969. Finally there was the Falklands War in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom, in which, for the first time, a nuclear submarine was in combat action. Nevertheless, as the previous paragraph explains, there are still occasional incidents and other reasons for tensions that could end up in war.
When analyzing the historical tensions between India and Pakistan, Rauf explains that “given the entrenched differences between [them] over Jammu and Kashmir, and a history of three conventional wars and continuing hostilities in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, the development of nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles by the two countries has heightened international concerns about peace and stability in that region.” (14) Regarding Latin America, the region has undergone an arms race in recent years, (15) but even that, combined with inter-state tensions and occasional incidents are still not enough to make regional states desire nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense. Pakistan and India should learn from Latin America about (nuclear) arm races, inter-state tensions and effective confidence building.
What can the World Learn from the Latinos?
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all model for improving interstate relations and achieving non-proliferation; this is particularly relevant for nuclear security relations between global powers like the US and Russia, which operate on a level of their own due to the amount of WMDs they possess. However, lessons can be learned by moderate nuclear powers like the UK, France, Israel, Pakistan and India, as well as countries that may have or seem to be working towards acquiring such weapons, like Iran.
The cases of Argentina and Brazil regarding nuclear cooperation shows that it is possible for states to allow their nuclear energy programs to be supervised by some type of supranational organism (in this case the ABACC is a bi-national one, not an international agency like the IAEA). If we analyze the situation in Latin America vis-à-vis Europe, while it’s true that Argentina and Brazil do not possess nuclear weapons, unlike the British and French, if some kind of bi-national nuclear energy command can be achieved in South America, then it could occur between these two European powers. This would set a huge precedent towards nuclear confidence around the globe. A nuclear military relationship between Paris and London presents the most promising possibility at promoting nuclear cooperation and integration. There have been already some promising initial steps that this could happen as in March 2010, Paris offered to forces with London’s nuclear submarine fleet. (16)
In addition, the lack of nuclear weapons programs in Latin America, in spite of ongoing tensions is an important case study. For example, regarding India and Pakistan, their violent history over the past decades, including state-sponsored terrorism in each other’s country, has created a culture of mistrust and a continuous quest for more devastating weaponry so each military can feel they have a successful nuclear deterrent. In Latin America, the 1960’s to 1980’s saw a number of military governments come to power, and distrust was a key factor that brought about the nuclear weapons programs in Brazil and Argentina. Today, despite tensions and occasional incidents, the situation in the region is one of generally acceptable inter-state trust.
Another example of this regional inter-state confidence is the planned nuclear-powered submarine that Brazil is currently constructing with French aid. (17) When it becomes operational, the submarine will arguably be the most advanced and deadly naval weapon in any Latin America naval arsenal. Nevertheless, regional states have not displayed concerns about this new development. This is not simply because the Brazilian government has stated that it wants the submarine for naval protection (as it recently discovered underwater oil reserves in its sea). There are several confidence building mechanisms at play here, like the creation of UNASUR (Union de Naciones Sudamericanas – South American Nations Union), a South American political bloc, regular multi-national military exercises, as well as initiatives like economic integration and good diplomatic relations; all of these factors help make the Brazilian submarine not a concern for regional militaries. In talks with this essay’s author, military officials explained that the positive relations between the Brazilian government and the governments and militaries of other states are currently excellent, (18) which acts as a great confidence booster and decreases suspicions, that could include Brasilia using a nuclear-powered submarine against a militarily-weak neighbor like Uruguay.
Nuclear proliferation is a worldwide security problem, but these nuclear weapons are localized, thankfully, in less than a handful of states and there are a several NWFZs, including Latin America and the Caribbean. This positive development has not occurred just due to the signing of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, but because of the decision by the signatories to adhere to it for decades. In spite of tensions, like ongoing inter-state border disputes and occasional incidents, which include short-lived wars and an ongoing arms race, regional governments do not feel the desire to pursue an active nuclear weapons program to achieve nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, Brazil, a regional military power, is building a nuclear-powered submarine which, if it’s ever commissioned, will be the most powerful submarine in the Western Hemisphere that does not belong to the U.S. or, arguably, Canada, however this is not a major source of concern.
From Latin America’s success, nuclear states can learn that confidence building mechanisms and a sense of trust are critical for non-proliferation to succeed, as are the cases of Brazil and Argentina in the 1970’s to 1990’s.These tactics are currently working to prevent inter-state wars in Latin America, but it takes time to successfully implement them. The Pakistan-India situation, as well as Israel’s security issues, are two areas that can profit from learning about Latin America’s nuclear success, as they too are volatile hotspots. In addition, nuclear cooperation can unite countries, like Brazil and Argentina; this could be a lesson for France and the United Kingdom that no longer seeing each other as a security threat and can decide to further decrease their weapons of mass destruction by creating a bi-national nuclear command. While far from being a peaceful area, as demonstrated by ongoing asymmetric violence and occasional inter-state flare ups, Latin America is one of the lesser well-known, but more important, success stories of nuclear non-proliferation.
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3 “What is OPANAL?” Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
(OPANAL), < http://www.opanal.org/opanal/about/about-i.htm >
4 “Country profiles: Argentina & Brazil,” Disarmament and Peace Education, Global Security Institute, February 2002 <http://www.gsinstitute.org/dpe/countries/argentina_brazil.html>
5 Nathan Crooks, “Venezuela’s Guri Dam reduces capacity, El Universal Says,” Bloomberg, March 23, 2011,<http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-23/venezuela-s-guri-dam-reduces-capacity-el-universal-says.html>
6 Tucker Reals, “WSJ: Iran, Venezuela Share a nuclear dream,” World Watch, CBS News, December 15, 2009. <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-5980756-503543.html>
7 Maria Rost Rublee, “Taking Stock of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime: Using Social Psychology to Understand Regime Effectiveness,” International Studies Review 10/3 ( September 2008), P. 429. Quoting Ronald B. Mitchell, “International Control of Nuclear Proliferation: Beyond Carrots and Sticks,” The Nonproliferation Review,5/1 (1997), P.40–52.
8 Jessica Lasky-Fink, “Brazil, Argentina Pursue Nuclear Cooperation,” Arms Control Association, April 2008,<http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_04/BrazilArgentina>
9 Jessica Lasky-Fink, “Brazil, Argentina Pursue Nuclear Cooperation,” Arms Control Association, April 2008,<http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_04/BrazilArgentina>
10 Irma Arguello, “Brazil and Argentina’s Nuclear Cooperation,” Proliferation Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 8, 2009, <http://carnegieendowment.org/2009/01/08/brazil-and-argentina-s-nuclear-cooperation/5cm>
11 “Venezuela seeking Uranium with Iran’s help,” Associated Press, September 26, 2009, < http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/26/venezuela-seeking-uranium-irans-help/ >
12 Interviews during the “Seminar on Disarmament and Nonproliferation,” Committee on Hemispheric Security and the Inter-American Defense College, Washington DC, March 28 - 30, 2011. Venezuela Panel.
13 Tariq Rauf, “Confidence-building and security-building measures in the nuclear area with relevance for South Asia,” Contemporary South Asia, 14/2 (June, 2005), P. 179.
14 Tariq Rauf, “Confidence-building and security-building measures in the nuclear area with relevance for South Asia,” Contemporary South Asia, 14/2 (June, 2005), P. 176.
15 Alex Sanchez, “South America and Its Likelihood of a Season of Splendid Little Wars: An Analysis of Arms Races and Regional Geopolitics,” Report, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, October 8, 2009,<http://www.coha.org/south-america-and-its-likelihood-of-a-season-of-splendid-little-wars-an-analysis-of-arms-races-and-regional-geopolitics/>
16 Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, “France offers to join forces with UK’s nuclear submarine fleet,” The Guardian (UK), March 19, 2010, < http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/19/france-britain-shared-nuclear-deterrent >. Also see: Robert Wall, “Anglo-French nuclear cooperation in the offing?” Ares: A Defense Technology Blog, October 8, 2010 < http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/blogs/defense/index.jsp?plckController=Blog&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&plckPostId=Blog:27ec4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7Post:963920d3-545b-42db-9440-756965522d06 >
17 “Brazil aims to build first nuclear sub within 12 years – agency,” RIA Novosti, May 18th, 2009, <http://en.rian.ru/world/20090518/155036599.html>
18 Interviews during the “Seminar on Disarmament and Nonproliferation.,” Committee on Hemispheric Security and the Inter-American Defense College, Washington DC, March 28 - 30, 2011. Venezuela Panel