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This is the first in a series of reports on the House Armed Services Committee’s effort to augment the Pentagon’s 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review. Panel Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) launched the Committee Defense Review on Sept. 14. (DR, 09/15/05)

September 27, 2005A bi-partisan group of lawmakers last week began a series of hearings to examine potential and emerging security threats around the world. In its first fact-finding endeavor, the CDR’s Threat Panel—led by Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio)—focused on potential threats close to home—in Latin America.

At a Sept. 21 session, the Threat Panel heard from several defense and security analysts, who set the stage with brief reviews of the political and military instability that has plagued Central and South America, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. According to William Edgar, with Jane’s Strategic Advisory Service, overall military capabilities in the region are lagging with most countries maintaining legacy systems from that period. He said that air forces particularly will probably see “very slow growth.”

Stephen Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, asserted that, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “No country in Latin America has posed a direct military threat to the United States, nor is one likely to do so in the next 20 years.”

In his view, some Latin American countries will be modernizing their air capabilities. Johson noted that Chile recently purchased F-16s from the Netherlands, and Venezuela has attempted to purchase Russian MiG-29 fighters. He said that Mexico, Chile, and Brazil all seek to purchase Airborne Early Warning aircraft soon.

Edgar maintained that the main security threat emanating from the region stem from narcotics trade, organized crime, and insurgencies fueled by one or both. He noted that Columbia, which has been grappling with a violent guerilla war, is the source of 80 percent of the world’s cocaine supply. Columbia also has several groups that are on the US terror watch list.

National and international officials tracking drug money from the region have found, said Edgar, that it has financed a variety of Middle East-based terror groups.

China is also expanding its contacts with Latin America, making 20 visits to the region over the last few years principally to foster military-to-military ties, said Edgar. The true impact of these efforts won’t be known for some time, he added. However, William LeoGrande, the dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, told the panel that Chinese power will more than likely come from its economic strength rather than military influence. “I don’t see the Chinese having either the capability or the intent at this point to try to project military power into the Western Hemisphere,” said LeoGrande.

Edgar ventured that the greatest but “still minimal” conventional threat comes from President Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Venezuela’s military is the most professional and the most well-equipped. Chaves continues modernization efforts, with much of the new equipment coming from Russia.

According to Johnson, Chavez is leading the construction of a “parallel partisan reserve army” to supplant the original military and will inherit Castro’s leadership of the “hemispheric left” using Venezuela’s oil wealth to subvert US allies in the region.