Friday, October 13, 2006

Hemisphere's Defense Ministers meet

The combination of the page scandal in the House of Representatives and the revelations about the Bush administration’s shortcomings chronicled in Bob Woodward’s latest book mesmerized the U.S. media in early October. So it was not surprising that the meeting of western hemispheric defense and security chiefs received little notice in the U.S. press.

Admittedly, the Managua, Nicaragua meeting of the 32 defense chiefs and Costa Rica’s security head (Costa Rica has neither an army nor a defense minister) in early October was tame stuff compared to the above. Conferees reiterated traditional calls for more cooperation to prevent international terrorism, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. But under the surface there were clear signs of tension, particularly with regard to U.S.-Venezuela relations.

Driving this disagreement is Venezuela’s recent purchase of as much as $3 billion in Russian and Spanish military equipment. The Bush administration, which in May banned transfers of U.S. military equipment to Venezuela, considers the purchases to be destabilizing because they might start an arms build-up in Latin America. Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the OAS secretariat have also voiced concern over the acquisition of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 24 fighter jets, and 53 helicopters. Others worried about the increasing danger that terrorists and drug dealers will steal stockpiled small arms that the Venezuelan military will no longer need, either by breaking into storage sites or intercepting shipments from Venezuela to other OAS countries – including Cuba.

There were, however, substantive achievements that came out of the meeting. The conferees agreed to create in Managua an Interhemispheric Landmine Clearing Center, staffed by experts from Mainly Central American nations who have extensive experience in removing landmines buried through the region in the volatile 1980s. Another proposal that is being advanced is increased participation in UN peacekeeping operations and response to natural disasters around the globe.

The Bush administration is also changing course on sanctions it imposed on 21 countries, including eleven in the Americas, that had refused to buckle to White House insistence that they exempt U.S. troops from possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. The eleven – Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad, and Uruguay – had been cut off from training programs in the U.S.

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