With no Enemies in Sight, Brazil Eyes Defense Boom: Dom Phillips

“Strengthening the Military,” read the bold headline in Brazilian business daily Valor’s Defense Special on Feb. 27. The special included articles on arms exports, new frontier-monitoring systems and other aspects of Brazil's defense industry.

"It is important that society realizes the importance of defense," the country's defense minister, Celso Amorim, told the newspaper. "Democracy and defense are not contradictory and can walk together."

It may seem odd that a Latin American country with no plausible enemies and vast social problems would be interested in increased military spending. But defense is increasingly occupying the Brazilian media as the country looks to enhance its international profile, realize its dream of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and expand its domestic arms industry.

As Valor observed:

Brazil’s aspiration to become an economic power -- at a time when emerging markets are gaining space in the international arena -- will mean taking into consideration increasing investments in defense.

In the early 1980s, Brazil was the eighth-largest defense exporter in the world. But the end of its military dictatorship in 1985, a sequence of economic disasters and declining investment contributed to the “obsolescence” of its armed forces. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Brazil’s defense expenditure in 2010 was $33.5 billion, or 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product, considerably less than nations such as China and the U.K.

But that represents a 30 percent increase since 2001, and lawmakers are now debating a measure that would allow the government to not only buy more arms, but to make and sell more, as well.

Given the absence of external threats -- President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has increased arms spending, but he has good relations with Brazil -- what exactly does Brazil's military do?

Its army leads the military component of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, for one thing. It also plays a key role in domestic emergencies, such as the recent police strike and related violence in Bahia state, and in favela "pacifications" in Rio de Janeiro.

And the thousands of miles of border in the Amazon jungle, used by drug traffickers, must be patrolled. Brazil is spending about $7 billion on a Frontier Monitoring System to keep an eye on these regions, and the country’s looming oil boom has prompted the government to advance the navy's Blue Amazon Management System, a conjunction of satellites, radars, sensors and cameras to monitor its coastline.

On Feb. 15 the DefesaNet website ran an interview with Army General Jose Carlos de Nardi, chief of staff of Brazil’s armed forces, who explained the military’s point of view:

Compliance with international commitments serves as a valid instrument of external politics, positively projecting Brazil on the international scene ... Besides this, it can be considered as a demonstration of commitment and responsibility to contribute to the maintenance of peace and global security.

Brazil’s military spending suffered during the budget cuts of 2010, but it is scheduled to increase in 2012 by 5.8 percent. In January, the navy purchased three armed patrol boats for $172 million from the U.K. company BAE Systems Plc. And the country is reportedly close to making a decision on a $2 billion contract for next-generation fighter planes and is delving into a much bigger long-term project to renew aging navy ships.

There's a lot of politics involved in major arms purchases like these -- and a lot of controversy, as was suggested by the Feb. 27 Wikileaks publication of e-mails from strategic intelligence company Stratfor.

“You are correct to be asking yourself what in God's name Brasilia is doing," said one of the e-mails, purportedly from Stratfor's Marko Papic, which was published in the Brazilian media. (Stratfor has said that some of the leaked e-mails may have been falsified.) The e-mail disparaged Brazil's navy and called some of the country's recent defense acquisitions "a joke."

One aspect of the purchases that most rankles Brazilians -- who spent decades under a military dictatorship -- is the secrecy inherent in defense spending. Daniel Santini, of the human-rights group Reporter Brasil, noted in an article for the Observatorio da Imprensa that obtaining any reliable information about Brazil’s arms production and sales is extremely difficult. He wrote:

The Ministry of Defense guarantees that it monitors national production, despite not divulging the quantity of arms produced ... Times have changed in the country and democracy entails the dissemination of information, debate and participation of society even in policies involving security and defense of the country.

A poll released in January by the Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada showed that 50 percent of Brazilians have a lot or total confidence in the country’s armed forces, and 32 percent have a "reasonable" trust. More than 80 percent said the armed forces are important to Brazil in the event of a war as much as during peace.

One would hope so. Brazil's last war was against Paraguay, in 1864.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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