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A Nuclear Weaponized Latin American State, Not An Option

 “Borders, drugs, thugs, financial crimes … and non-proliferation,” excerpted below, is under review for publication later this winter.  Please credit the author by linking to this site if you are interested in quoting or citing any of the aforementioned excerpts.  In in the meantime, please address any questions or comments to pobletejason@gmail.com.

It sounds rather far-fetched and unlikely, a nuclear weaponized state in Latin America.  The first person to seriously study the issue began to publicly discuss it right after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and while ignored at the time by some in establishment Washington, his arguments were persuasive to capture the attention of just enough people to keep his research viable.

A Cold War warrior, former CIA and Reagan Administration official the late Dr. Constantine Menges argued, in essence, that the Sao Paolo Forum by Latin American leftists had ushered in a new area of confrontration against the U.S. and our interests in the region.   In its more current manifestation, he penned in 2004 that “[t]here is growing but unnoticed threat to U.S. national security. A new terrorist, nuclear/bioweapons and geopolitical threat may well come from an axis including the regimes of Castro in Cuba, Chavez in Venezuela and the pro-Castro presidents of Brazil and Ecuador.”  While the terrorist and, to a certain extent the bioweapons threat, that Dr. Menges discusses is somewhat easily discernable the nuclear component is not to casual reviewers of regional issues and priorities for the U.S.  

Nuclear submarines, rockets, uranium mines, and nuclear power plants are not subjects one usually associates with Latin America, rather these are topics usually the focus of Asia or the Middle East region and not a regional priority of even subject of study for U.S. policy makers.  Yet, it in a post-09/11/01 world it should be.  Recently for instance, Brazil announced again that it was moving forward to purchase nuclear subs from France and there are reports that Venezuela is assisting foreign power secure uranium from the region.  There are many more such stories.  (Note:  The following includes excerpts from a larger paper under review on this issue).

… In 2004 and on a broader policy scale, the Report of the National Intelligence Council’s (“NIC”) 2020 Project captured a trend in U.S./Western Hemisphere policy that has been emblematic of our approach toward the region for decades and remains an apt contextualization of the future if there is not a robust mind-shift in how our government deals with regional challenges:

Washington was viewed [by the 2020 participants] as traditionally not paying sustained attention to the region and, instead of responding to systemic problems, as reacting primarily to crises.  Participants saw a fundamentalist trend in Washington that would lead to isolation and unilateralism and undercut cooperation.  Most shared the view that the US “war on terrorism” had little to do with Latin America’s security concerns.”

… This previous sentiment is especially true for non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) in Latin America and the Caribbean and issues that are tangentially and directly related to this type of activity.  Indeed, while this topic gets focused attention with regards to Iran or North Korea, it rarely if ever generates much attention with policymakers in the Congress or the Executive branch.

Without a doubt controlling our borders today has become a national security imperative, while combating illegal drugs trafficking must continue in earnest lest U.S. taxpayer investment during the past 20 years or so to combat it go to waste.  Stopping the flow of illicit financial transactions must be at the forefront of our efforts.  Indeed, combating tyranny just 90 miles from our shores, promoting Andean stability, and many other regional matters require U.S. leadership.  In many respects, our failure at eradicating or ameliorating these problems is the root cause of some of our non-proliferation questions posed by several powers in the region today.  …

… In the nuclear arena, there are questions about the security of nuclear power plants and the security of nuclear waste in the region as well as increased efforts at civilian nuclear research and testing in countries other than those with existing programs, among other concerns.   The good news is that out of the 36 countries in the Western Hemisphere, only a handful is countries of concern on this matter at this juncture.   Furthermore, at least on paper, every country in the region is committed to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. 

Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of the adoption and opening for signature of the Treaty of Tlatelolco (“the Treaty”), declaring Latin America and the Caribbean a nuclear free weapons zone. The Treaty was the first of its kind for any region of the world and while the U.S. is not party to the Treaty, it has ratified the two subsequent Treaty Protocols that, among other things, calls on the parties to support denuclearization provisions of the Treaty and to conclude International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) safeguards agreements to ensure the safety and transparency of civilian nuclear power programs.  The U.S. has also put in force several safeguards agreements and “remains fully committed to the goals of the Treaty … and will continue to seek its full implementation.”

The policy establishment has traditionally not paid sustained attention to the Western Hemisphere rather, as gamed in the NIE 2020 Report and discussed many times by Dr. Menges, it responds to systemic problems traditionally associated with the region.  With three countries operating and potentially expanding civilian nuclear power programs, and at least one other country seeking to start a program, indigenous sources of uranium, and one country with a suspected biological weapons program, the U.S. must better ascertain the status of proliferation issues throughout the Americas and, if necessary, find new tools to deal with challenges.   

… In a post-09/11/01 world, the control of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies is an even more acute problem than during the Cold War.  Technology places chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons within reach of any country with the ways, means, and desire to possess them. With the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis that could have resulted in the permanent placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, a Latin American country with a weapon of mass destruction, or the capability to engineer and assemble such a device, is more likely today than at anytime during the Cold War. 

… Yet unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, advances in nuclear and related technologies make it harder to track and find such devices.  Countries such as Iran or state-less actors such as radical Islamic groups could surreptitiously move such items in places such as Venezuela, Cuba, the South American tri-border area, or even Nicaragua, and we would not know a thing about it until it was too late to respond.

On a positive note, there are a series of known action steps that can be taken to begin to deal with such matters such as effectively securing the small number of nuclear plants and nuclear waste facilities in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil as does making it clear to Cuba that further “research,” manufacturing, or distribution of biological weapons will not be tolerated.  We should also move forward on expanding and enhancing Proliferation Security Initiative and Container Security Initiative efforts, and related bilateral programs throughout the hemisphere.

“Borders, drugs, thugs, financial crimes … and non-proliferation,” is under review for publication later this winter.  Please credit the author by linking to this site if you are interested in quoting or citing any of the aforementioned excerpts.  In in the meantime, please address any questions or comments to pobletejason@gmail.com.

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