South America is a continent of security contradictions. On the one hand, it has only experienced two interstate wars since the Second World War. On the other hand, the region has been wracked by internal conflict and ‘secret wars’ perpetrated by national regimes. Even these intrastate conflicts seem to have waned in the new millennia as the election of numerous left-leaning governments, known as the ‘Pink Tide’, has allowed for the airing of grievances. Yet as the Pink Tide retreats, long-forgotten conflicts could see war return to South America.
Most South America states were ruled by right-wing military juntas at some point during the Cold War. These regimes engaged in quasi-wars against ‘left-wing terrorists’—a catch-all that included dissidents and political activists, media representatives, students and trade unionists, as well as actual guerrilla fighters. In Argentina the military government ‘disappeared’ 13,000 people between 1974 and 1983. Thousands disappeared and tens of thousands were tortured during the 1973-1990 Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Recently-ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was one of hundreds abused during her country’s two-decade military rule. Such activity radicalised those with genuine political grievances and extended the intrastate conflict until the regimes collapsed.
The fall of the juntas towards the millennia’s end led many of their guerrilla adversaries to lay down their arms and engage in politics. Beginning with Hugo Chavez’s election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998, left-leaning politicians attained executive offices across the continent. Imbued with anti-American sentiments—a legacy of US support for many of the juntas—Pink Tide leaders pursued highly popular redistributive financial policies and reversed major components of neoliberal economic programs.
In the last few years the Pink Tide has begun to turn. Chavez died in 2013 and the loss of his charisma proved a huge blow to the continent’s leftist movement. In Argentina President Cristina Kirchner was constitutionally barred from re-election, enabling the centre-right to seize the presidency in 2015. Peru experienced a similar transition in April. Meanwhile in Brazil a corruption scandal has crippled the country’s left wing. The popularity of the remaining Pink Tide leaders is at risk with the collapse in commodity prices—which financed their redistributive policies—and the resurgence of the ‘new right’. In response, some leaders could seek to sidetrack public discontent by manufacturing international confrontations.
Venezuela has been in crisis since Chavez’s death and the plummet in the price of oil, the country’s main export. In 2014 mass protests against Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, resulted in the deaths of 43 people, the prosecution of opposition leaders and a steep recession. Since then the government’s attempts to maintain Chavez’s socialist policies have led to critical food shortages, hyperinflation and negative growth. The opposition is pushing for fresh elections and the government is increasingly reliant on the military’s support to remain in office. In this fraught situation, Maduro has fostered security crises to distract from domestic problems.
Though interstate conflict is rare in South America, Maduro has been leaning on some oft-forgotten pressure points. Early last year Guyana contracted Exxon Mobil to look for oil off its coast in an area Venezuela claims was stolen from it in 1899. In response Maduro issued a decree that outlined Venezuela’s territorial claims. The decree extended Caracas’ maritime claims towards Guyana’s coast and reaffirmed its right to a mineral-rich jungle region that accounts for roughly 40% of Guyana’s territory. This was followed by a deployment of Venezuelan forces to the disputed Ankoko Island, which prompted the Guyana Defence Force chief to warn his country was ‘ready and prepared to defy aggression’.
Maduro’s decree also raised tensions with Colombia as it established the 200-year old contested area of the Gulf of Venezuela as an ‘operating maritime and insular zone of integral defence’. Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been tense for some time. In 2008 Chavez threatened to go to war with Colombia after the latter’s troops violated the territory of Caracas’ ally, Ecuador. In September last year their mutual border was closed after Colombian smugglers wounded several Venezuelan soldiers. During the confrontation, troops were deployed to the border, ambassadors were withdrawn and some 20,000 Colombians ejected from Venezuela. Maduro also issued a ‘state of exception’ in multiple municipalities, suspending constitutional protections including freedom of assembly and protest. Though the border has recently reopened, if Maduro considers his presidency threatened, he may reignite the conflict to again suspend constitutional rights and protect his position.
Interstate war is a distant memory for South Americans. Nevertheless, centuries-old wounds linger and act as pressure points that besieged Pink Tide leaders may lean upon to buttress their domestic positions. Maduro has already shown a tendency to utilise this tactic. He is not alone; as their popularity waned, Argentina’s Kirchner rattled the sabre towards the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands and Bolivia’s Evo Morales confronted Chile about his country’s 19th century claim regarding access to the Pacific. This risk remains that these leaders will lose control of the situation and an escalatory cycle will result in conflict. If that happens, South America could get a sharp reminder in interstate war that it has long forgotten.
William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.