The independent resource on global security

6. Latin America and the Caribbean: security and defence in the post-cold war era



I. Introduction

II. The regional and sub-regional environment

III. Regionalism and cooperation

IV. Cooperation or conflict

V. The participation of Latin American armies in peacekeeping operations

VI. Latin American–US relations before and after 11 September 2001

VII. Conclusions


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Since the 1980s, the introduction of a more open economic model in most states of the Latin American (including the Caribbean) region has been accompanied by the growth of new regional structures, the dying out of interstate conflicts and a reduction in intra-state conflicts.


Most but not all of the region’s states moved from colonial to independent national status between 1804 and the present. There are still a number of disputes over boundaries and territorial status. ‘Overspill’ of security problems can cause tension between states and the region is exposed to many transnational threats such as terrorism and smuggling. National rivalries such as that between Brazil and Mexico have handicapped efforts to make common cause, notably in the economic sphere.


Post-cold war regionalism in this area does reflect some new ambitions such as a more self-sufficient ‘bottom–up’ approach, a broader security-relevant agenda, and attention to the concerns of people as well as regimes. Not all dimensions have, however, been successfully coordinated—for instance, ‘free trade’ agreements are being pursued along a distinct track.


Defence budgets of the region’s countries have fallen since the 1980s and are now, in proportional terms, some of the world’s lowest. Many overlapping initiatives have been developed for confidence building in the military sphere and these include efforts to limit various categories of weapons, although there is no system of restraint on major conventional armaments. While competitive arms purchases may still occur and political control of the military is a work in progress, ideas of cooperative non-zero-sum security do seem widely accepted and the number of explicit multilateral initiatives has played a part in this.


Many Latin American states are now ‘exporting security’ in the form of contributions to international peacekeeping. Twelve such countries provide 9.5 per cent in total of all personnel engaged in UN peacekeeping operations, with the mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) the largest single commitment. There have also been regionally organized peacekeeping and assistance missions. Committing troops to such missions is economically advantageous for states but also helps to promote reform and professionalization of the military.


The USA is by far the most important external security actor in the region. Since the cold war, when it was focused on battling Communism, the level of US military support has dropped and its pattern changed. Colombia is now the single largest recipient of US aid, in a highly ‘militarized’ form, for its struggle with internal armed insurgents linked with the drugs trade. Other countries receive a growing degree of US assistance with force training. While Latin American leaders have sympathized with the US stand against terrorism, some in the region are now concerned by the way that anti-terrorist motives seem to colour all US perceptions of the region at the expense of other rationales for cooperation and aid. Several smaller Central and Latin American countries supported the US-led coalition in Iraq but only El Salvador still has forces there.


The latest developments in regional organizations’ agendas (e.g., at the Organization of American States) show some effort by local states to assert their own concerns, for example, on aspects of security where the USA is currently less engaged. In reality the area’s most fundamental problems may be those of economic vulnerability and unequal development, which in turn feed internal unrest. With or without the USA, only a stronger common political will among Latin American states themselves can offer hope of mastering these challenges.