Since winning independence in the 19th century, the history of most South American countries has been scarred by coups, revolutions and civil strife. Occasionally, that conflict has spilled into cross-border skirmishes and even wars.

Just when much of the continent has been enjoying a long period of political calm - with liberal democracy and free market economics establishing roots in, among others, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia - along comes Venuzuela's Hugo Chavez, keen to use his country's oil wealth not only to impose his quasi-Marxist blueprint on his own people but to stir trouble in the wider region, particularly for friends of the hated USA.

Chavez is spending on his military, buying Russian Sukhoi Su-30s and Kazan helicopters, and talking to Belarus about an integrated electronic warfare system. Now Chavez's neighbours are talking for the first time in many years about beefing up inventories that have been allowed to age in the absence of any real threat.

It may not be an arms race yet, but for several countries Chavez's belligerence has been a wake-up call to politicians that decrepit 1970s-era equipment may not be sufficient to counter a future direct or proxy attack.

At next week's FIDAE air fair in Santiago, Chile, the region's top brass will gather in polite comradeship. But behind the scenes, much of the talk will be on modernisation and for that read deterrence.

Source: Flight International