World

A nuclear spark for a Latin tinderbox

William Lowther December 3 1979
World

A nuclear spark for a Latin tinderbox

William Lowther December 3 1979

A nuclear spark for a Latin tinderbox

World

William Lowther

Brazil is expected to test a nuclear weapon within the next year, possibly within the next six months. “It is an extremely disturbing situation and threatens the stability of all Latin America,” says Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which gave the warning last week. According to information from the council’s impeccable sources in Sao Paulo and Brasilia, the Brazilian dictatorship has been co-operating for the past two years with its old adversary Argentina on atomic weapons research. Scientists from both countries are said to have received guidance and encouragement from South Africa, which in turn is widely believed to have received most of its nuclear know-how from Israel.

The Brazilians are using weaponsgrade plutonium produced by the nuclear reactors built for them in 1975 by West Germany. The reactors were constructed under a $10-billion contract which almost went to Canada. The German Kraftwerke Union (KWU) company has also recently signed a contract with Argentina to build nuclear reactors there. Again, Canada narrowly missed

out (Maclean's Oct. 15,1979).

“The real reason that Brazil and Argentina bought German is that the reactors they produce will more easily provide weapons-grade plutonium while the Canadian ones are much safer from that point of view and will not,” said a diplomatic source in Washington.

The independently financed Council on Hemispheric Affairs—a politically left-leaning but well-respected think tank—says the Brazilian authorities first confirmed, then denied, the fact that they were close to a test. It adds that its evidence indicates that in one bizarre way Brazil and Argentina have been pushed toward nuclear power status by President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies. Both countries, while remaining repressive and brutal regimes, have recently been forced to make some liberalizing concessions internally to satisfy new United States standards for the various indirect aid and trade programs. These concessions have angered the military hard-liners within government to whom the nuclear weapon project has served as a macabre compensation.

South African involvement is also of great potential significance: that country’s Latin American friendships— some have described them as an association of outcasts—besides having

strong defence overtones, could form the base of a whole new economic structure should other Western nations eventually decide to embargo Pretoria’s trade as the ultimate objection to apartheid. “South Africa is really buying friends for the future,” said a council spokesman.

The South African connection, and the fact that the Brazilians are close to exploding a device, are the new elements in a picture that has been disturbing the U.S. administration for some time now. Washington has all along opposed West German reactor sales to Brazil on the grounds that Brazil might seek to make a bomb, and more recently the CIA, warning of Brazil’s plans to do so, has also predicted that Argentina would have its own arsenal by 1984. Recently, too, in the wake of reports that Pakistan was about to produce a nuclear bomb, Carter ordered increased CIA surveillance in Latin America.

What the agency calls the “terrible” dangers involved there lie partly in the fact that at least 12 countries in the Latin region—from Mexico in the north to Argentina in the south—have unsettled, and in many cases highly charged, territorial claims against neighbors. The most explosive may be that between Argentina and Chile. U.S. intelligence sources say Argentina was only nine hours away from attacking Chile last December over three disputed is-

lands and territorial waters near the southern tip of South America and navigational rights in the Cape Horn area.

“Once Brazil and Argentina have nuclear weapons then Chile and Peru will press very hard to get them. And all the other nations in the area will try to follow,” warns the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

But there is also danger in the instability of many governments in the region. At present only Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador among the 20 Central and South American countries have popularly elected civilian governments. Colombia and Venezuela are rife with rumors of military coups. And of the many military dictatorships only those in Brazil, Chile and Paraguay could be considered relatively secure.

A further problem is that the United States’ record of ruthless economic and political exploitation in the region has weakened its ability to steer governments away from the nuclear path. “There’s a general belief that the Americans want to keep nuclear weapons out of Latin America so that they can continue to dominate the economy of poor countries,” said one source at the Organization of American States, the group that links governments in South and North America. And that makes independent-minded administrations even more determined to get them.