Latin America has long prided itself on being the world's most populated nuclear weapons-free region, but recent statements by top Brazilian and Venezuelan officials are making many of us wonder for how long that will be the case.
Brazil's Vice President Jose Alencar made big headlines late last month when he stated that Brazil should have the right to have nuclear weapons, which he said would give his country a greater "dissuasive" power and more "respectability" in world affairs. In 2007, Gen. Jose Benedito de Barros Moreira, Defense Ministry undersecretary for strategic affairs and international relations, made similar statements.
Under a 1967 regional agreement known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco, several Latin American countries agreed to abstain from developing nuclear weapons. Since then, 33 countries in the region have ratified the treaty, turning Latin America into the world's biggest nuclear weapons-free area.
Alencar cited the case of other emerging regional powers, such as Pakistan, which he said has won international relevance "precisely because it has a nuclear bomb." A spokesman for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva immediately clarified that the vice president, much like the general before him, was speaking for himself and did not represent the government's views.
Last week, I interviewed Brazil Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, and asked him whether his country is planning to build nuclear weapons.
"No, it was a mistake on the part of the vice president," Jobim said. "There are two reasons why it's prohibited for Brazil to develop nuclear weapons: The Brazilian Constitution bans the use and production of nuclear weapons and international agreements signed by Brazil prohibit it as well."
He added that Brazil will develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which is allowed under international treaties. That will include construction of a nuclear-fueled submarine that will be faster than conventional submarines, but that will have no nuclear weapons, he said. Asked about Gen. Barros Moreira's 2007 statements, the defense minister said, "The general you are talking about was also speaking for himself."
I asked several academics which Brazilian officials we should believe.
Cristina Eguizabal, director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center, said she believes that the defense minister speaks for the government and for Brazil's political establishment.
"Brazil's foreign policy project is one of becoming a respected regional power, but not an anti-systemic pariah power," she said. "Developing nuclear weapons would put it alongside 'undesirable' states, such as Iran or North Korea."
Jose Azel, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, said that Brazil's top foreign policy priority is to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. "Perhaps this talk about developing nuclear weapons is a way of creating some political buzz to obtain that position," he said.
Others believe that Brazil is getting nervous because of the growing nuclear ties between Venezuela and Iran. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Iran in November 2008, and Venezuela's mining minister, Rodolfo Sanz, stated recently that Iran is helping explore Venezuela's uranium reserves.
While Chávez said that such programs are "only for peaceful purposes," Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was skeptical of such claims.
"We are very worried, and I can't refrain from saying so, that nuclear war be brought to our neighborhood," Uribe was quoted as saying by the Agence France-Presse on Sept. 26. "This is very serious, very worrying."
My opinion: Brazil is on a roll these days and closer than ever to achieving its goal of becoming a regional superpower. Last week, it obtained a two-year temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, shortly after getting the 2014 soccer World Cup and beating the United States to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In addition, Brazil's economy is scheduled to grow faster, and the country has recently found huge oil reserves, leading Lula to forecast that Brazil will be the world's fifth largest economy in 10 years.
Most likely, Brazil will only develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes because it will want to remain a good global citizen. But that will largely depend on what Venezuela does: If the Venezuela-Iran nuclear collaboration is not transparent -- and creates as much international suspicion as Iran's semi-secret nuclear program -- Brazil may change its mind, and Latin America could soon cease to be the world's most populous nuclear-free area.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.