Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Long View: How Argentina and Brazil Stepped Back from a Nuclear Race

Reading Time: 5 minutes In AQ’s feature on Latin American history, how Argentina and Brazil ensured their rivalry remained limited to the soccer field.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Alfonsín (left) and Sarney built enough trust to withstand leaks and other tensions. Photo: U. DETTMAR/FOLHAPRESS

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This article is adapted from the Fall 2015 print edition of Americas Quarterly. To subscribe, please click here

The severe tone of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of September 8, 1982, was worthy of the darkest moments of the Cold War. It warned that if Country A built a nuclear device, “security relationships” in the entire region “would be upset.” Furthermore, it warned Country B “could be prompted to move as quickly as possible to attain a nuclear weapons capability to buttress its own security and sense of national prestige.”

It scarcely seems possible in today’s context, but Country A was Argentina and Country B was Brazil. Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, South America’s two biggest countries were on the verge of a nuclear race. With a long-standing diplomatic rivalry, they were now bent on developing sensitive nuclear technology, including enriching and reprocessing uranium, and building ballistic missiles.

Making matters worse, military regimes governed both countries at the time, and this work took place with little if any civilian scrutiny. National security doctrines in both countries identified each other as a major potential security threat, with the armed forces having contingency plans in place in the event of war.

Yet, starting in the 1980s, the two countries set out on an ambitious path of nuclear cooperation. In the process, they imposed new restraints on their nuclear programs and rewrote national security doctrines to eliminate the possibility of war. To everyone’s surprise, they also built a mechanism of mutual nuclear inspections that was unprecedented anywhere.

This set the stage for the bilateral relationship of today, which — apart from occasional skirmishes over trade, or on the soccer field — is entirely peaceful. Indeed, South America as a whole is free of interstate conflict, due in part to the two countries’ success in defusing tensions during that era.

How did it all happen?

A Common Threat

Argentina and Brazil began cooperating on nuclear matters in large part because of the policies of President Jimmy Carter’s 1977–1981 government. The White House was trying to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear technology by curtailing third-party exports of sensitive technologies, while also pushing against the human rights violations perpetrated by the military regimes.

Both Buenos Aires and Brasilia saw Carter as a threat to their national “rights” to nuclear technology development. And, crucially, they thought U.S. policies denying them technology were even more threatening than the risks emanating from the other’s nuclear program.

We now know this perception made some sense. After all, at a three-day conference in 2012 to explore this chapter in history, documents reviewed by a group of experts revealed that neither Brazil nor Argentina were anywhere close to developing full-fledged nuclear weapons programs. Foreign intelligence agencies overestimated their achievements. Documents also show that neither country built its nuclear program primarily as a response to a perceived nuclear threat from the other.

Interpersonal Trust

Previously secret documents also indicate that, due in part to the perceived threat from Washington, Argentine and Brazilian officials were able to establish a high degree of empathy and trust at the highest levels. Two episodes in particular stand out because they could have led to a serious deterioration in the relationship, but ended up leading to greater nuclear cooperation instead.

The first was in November 1983, when the Argentine government announced its mastery of the technology to enrich uranium in a pilot-scale lab at the then-secret facility of Pilcaniyeu. The announcement caught Brazilian authorities by surprise, and they doubled down on their effort to develop uranium-enrichment capacity at the Aramar facility — which they achieved in 1987.

Yet, before they went public, Argentine authorities made a point of giving their Brazilian counterparts early warning. The governing junta sent a private letter to Brazil’s military president, João Figueiredo. The gesture was welcomed in Brasilia. Brazilian authorities knew Argentina lacked the industrial capability to enrich uranium, and thereby to develop a nuclear explosive.

A month after the Pilcaniyeu announcement, civilian rule returned to Argentina and Raul Alfonsín became president. Alfonsín understood the risk of Brazil and Argentina becoming ensnared in a nuclear arms race, and recognized that diverting resources to wasteful military competition could wreck his plans for securing Argentina’s democratic transition.

In early 1984, Brazil presented through informal channels a proposal for a joint declaration renouncing nuclear tests. Argentina agreed, and soon afterwards it put forward a proposal to develop a system of bilateral safeguards and mutual inspections.

Still, there was no guarantee yet that tensions would be fully defused. So when civilian rule also returned to Brazil in 1985 and José Sarney became president, the two leaders began working quickly to build trust. When they met for the first time, Alfonsín said he wanted to visit the Itaipú Dam, which for over a decade had been at the heart of a bilateral dispute over the use of international waters in the River Plate Basin. During that same trip, Alfonsín made an additional gesture of trust by inviting Sarney to visit the Argentine nuclear facility at Pilcaniyeu. The new spirit of reciprocity required that Sarney extend the same courtesy to Alfonsín, who visited Aramar in 1986. These symbolic visits filtered down to deeper and more frequent cooperation between scientists and technicians, including visits to each other’s installations.

The second big test of the cooperative relationship came in August 1986, when the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo revealed two major shafts in the Serra do Cachimbo site in northern Brazil. According to the newspaper, the boreholes had been drilled by the air force as testing sites for nuclear explosions.

Argentine officials were taken aback by the leak, and let Brazil know. In Brasilia, the government moved quickly to inform their Argentine counterparts that the boreholes were repositories for nuclear waste similar to ones Argentina had built in Patagonia.

In a recent newspaper interview, Sarney took pride in how the relationship he achieved with Alfonsín helped avert a bigger crisis. “We established a trusting relationship between us,” the former president said. “What we see happening now with immense difficulty with Iran, we did here in South America without international mediation.”

A Concerned U.S. Congressman

It is indeed true that nuclear rapprochement in the Southern Cone did not necessitate foreign mediation. But it would be unfair not to recognize the role of a congressman from the United States.

The first proposal for an Argentine-Brazilian system of mutual nuclear inspections was developed by a U.S. congressman from Illinois, Paul Findley. In 1977, Findley traveled to Buenos Aires and Brasilia to argue that a system of bilateral inspections could help mitigate suspicions in the United States and elsewhere about the countries’ nuclear intentions. A month later, the Findley proposal appeared in The Washington Post.

The Brazilians dismissed Findley’s plan at once. Yet in subsequent years, officials in Buenos Aires came back to it time and again. Alfonsín repeatedly insisted with his Brazilian counterparts that such a mechanism would pave the way for greater stability in South America. Sarney eventually agreed to explore mutual inspections. When he did, Findley did not seek credit.

By the early 1990s, the two countries set up a binational agency to carry out inspections and controls. In 1994, Argentina and Brazil joined the Tlatelolco Treaty that established Latin America and the Caribbean as a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Shortly thereafter, they both joined the Nonproliferation Treaty, definitively establishing themselves as non-nuclear actors — and, above all, peaceful neighbors.

Spektor is an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil and a columnist at Folha de São Paulo, a leading newspaper. He is author of 18 Dias: quando Lula e FHC conquistaram o apoio de Bush (2014), Kissinger e o Brasil (2009) and, more recently, he coedited The Origins of Nuclear Cooperation: a Critical Oral History between Argentina and Brazil (2015) with Nicholas Wheeler and Rodrigo Mallea.

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