updated 8/27/2009 6:06:28 PM ET 2009-08-27T22:06:28

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez raised the stakes for Friday's meeting of South American presidents by threatening to break relations with Colombia over plans to give U.S. troops a 10-year lease on its bases.

Chavez says the U.S. has loosed "winds of war" on the continent — a position few diplomats share following tours by U.S. and Colombian officials seeking to calm fears of neighboring nations.

Even so, the bases deal has created uncertainty about regional stability and provided yet another justification for nations to spend big on their militaries.

Venezuela has poured about $4 billion into Russian weapons to counter the threat Chavez sees from the billions in U.S. military aid to Colombia. Ecuador is buying 24 Brazilian warplanes and six Israeli drones to keep a closer watch on its borders. Bolivia has opened a $100 million line of credit with Russia to buy weapons.

These purchases were in the works even before details of the bases deal were revealed last month by The Associated Press — and defense spending around the region is up sharply, mostly in the name of routine modernization.

'None of this is good'
The 12 South American nations spent about $51 billion last year on their militaries — up 30 percent from 2007, according to the Center for a New Majority, a Buenos Aires research group.

That's low compared to the rest of the world — U.S. spending alone is well into the hundreds of billions — but a steep burden for democracies in a relatively peaceful area that is struggling with growing poverty and economic crisis.

"None of this is good. The last thing the region needs is an arms race," said Markus Schultze-Kraft, a Bogota-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization.

He said the leaders should avoid telling one another: "You are arming yourself, that is why we must continue arming ourselves."

The Latin American Security and Defense Network, a Buenos Aires research group, says that Ecuador tops South American nations in relative defense spending, with 10.7 percent of its national budget.

That's even more than the 9.3 percent spent by Colombia, which has been battling a leftist rebel movement for decades. Venezuela spent 5.2 percent of its much larger, oil-fueled budget on defense last year.

Colombia won't budge on the bases deal, Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez says. "The negotiations have closed and only await the official signature." He said Colombia may even question other countries about their own deals and arms buildups.

Nations, lawmakers want explanation
President Alvaro Uribe is expected to make some reassurances to his fellow presidents at Argentina's winter resort of Bariloche. U.S. and Colombian officials have said the troops are there to fight drug traffickers and leftist rebels, and that the troops won't cross boundaries without permission.

But Latin American leaders and U.S. lawmakers who were not consulted about the pending deal want more explanations.

"Unfortunately this could lead to an escalation of an arms race in the region, and particularly with Venezuela, Ecuador and other countries compensating for what they perceive as an alteration of the balance of power," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Chavez — who has repeatedly denied supporting Colombia's FARC rebels — claims U.S. troops could use the bases to launch operations to unseat Latin American leaders like himself, and says Venezuela will buy Russian tanks to defend itself.

"You can establish 70,000 Yankee bases surrounding Venezuela, but you aren't going to beat the Bolivarian Revolution!" Chavez declared this week.

Moderate leftists also are suspicious of foreign militaries in Latin America. Memories are fresh of the U.S.-backed dictatorships that killed and tortured their own citizens. Chile's president, Michele Bachelet, is among the survivors.

The unresolved coup in Honduras — by a military with close U.S. ties and training — worries them as well.

'Put in writing'
Uribe's promises haven't eased these concerns, particularly since he sent his military more than a mile (kilometer) into Ecuadorean territory last year to kill a top rebel commander — and told Chavez and Correa that he'd do it again.

"We have a problem that can't be swept under the rug," Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim said last week. He suggested Colombia should "put in writing everything the Colombian authorities have said" in a diplomatic note as a guarantee.

Several diplomats lamented that President Barack Obama won't be there to make the U.S. case, saying the deal seems out of place with Obama's promise at the Summit of the Americas to usher in a new era of cooperation and good faith.

Brazil, meanwhile, recently bought French submarines and helicopters and is poised to spend $2 billion for fighter jets to protect its offshore oil and Amazon resources, which many Brazilians fear could be targeted by unnamed foreign powers.

Silva will work at the summit to "reduce tensions that tend to be magnified by the rhetoric and polarization," his spokesman Marcelo Baumbauch said, and he has asked Obama to meet with the South American presidents, perhaps during September's U.N. General Assembly, "to overcome this unhelpful Cold War mentality."

Several analysts complained the bases deal was developed in secret, feeding fears and leading other countries to justify other weapons deals.

"If the United States doesn't want to sell to us, there's China or Russia," Bolivia's Evo Morales said while celebrating the Russian credit line this month. He complained of waiting in vain for U.S. approval to buy six light-attack planes and said any president who invites foreign troops onto his territory is a "traitor" to Latin America.

Morales rejected the idea that the U.S. military presence can help the whole region confront traffickers. If that was the goal, then the U.S. should have sold Bolivia these radar-equipped planes, Morales said.

Instead, Bolivia has drawn closer to Russia.

"We are prepared to satisfy whatever need the Bolivian armed forces have for military weapons," Russian ambassador Leonid Goluveb assured him.

The summit will be held in the iconic Llao Llao hotel, where the presidents can meet in luxurious isolation, and television cameras and protesters can be kept far away. It could provide an ideal setting for settling differences. Or there could be more talk of war.

More on  Americas |   Hugo Chavez   |  Alvaro Uribe

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