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Arms race in Latin America a real possibility

The Clinton administration appears to be in the final stages of deciding whether to lift a decades-old ban on sales of high technology weapons, such as advanced fighter jets, to Latin America, raising fears of a new arms race in the region.

The policy review, stimulated by pressure from U.S. arms manufacturers, reportedly began two years ago. In the past six months the pace picked up with the backing of former Defense Secretary William Perry. Only in recent weeks, however, have North American religious leaders, fearing the consequences of a policy change, begun to sound the alarm through church channels.

Critics point out that a policy change could fuel a new arms race in Latin America, diverting precious resources from social needs to new military demands. They also say that lifting the ban will add fuel to smoldering Latin American conflicts, perhaps inflaming minor border disputes into regional wars.

The Clinton administration and major weapons makers contend, meanwhile, that the blanket restrictions imposed in the 1970s are no longer warranted because democracy is spreading. While U.S. weapons makers once argued that if they did not sell their weapons to potential buyers, the Soviets might. Now they simply say an arms embargo costs the United States jobs, in this case by allowing other foreign competitors to gain in the Latin American arms market.

Argentina, for its part, having made moves toward disarmament, is adamantly opposed to relaxing the ban. Argentine officials say they have told the Clinton administration they do not want to enter an expanded arms race with Brazil and Chile.

The Argentines also maintain that Chile and Brazil, which have expressed an interest in acquiring advanced fighter planes like the F-16, still do not have full civilian control over their armed forces and thus are poorly equipped to regulate the new military technology.

The New York Times reported last July a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher signed by several U.S. senators who said that "thousands of hardworking Americans depend on legitimate overseas defense sales" and that "the administration should do everything possible to make sure it is American working people who are producing the hardware purchased by our friends in Latin America."

The senators noted that France had sold about 200 fighter aircraft to seven Latin American countries in recent years and that the sale of 200 American-made fighters would represent more than $4 billion in exports and provide 40,000 jobs.

The Times reported that Frank Simpson, vice president for Latin America of Lockheed Martin Corp., which makes the F-16, said the United States did a disservice to Latin American countries by forcing them to buy from Europe and Asia.

It was the fear of sparking an arms race that caused the Carter administration to issue Presidential Directive 13 in 1978. That directive stated, in part, that the United States would not be the first supplier to introduce into a region newly developed, advanced weapons systems that would create a significantly higher combat capability.

It appears that two trends have emerged since the end of the Cold War that have prompted arms makers to lobby for ending restrictions on arms sales to Latin America. First, Pentagon weapons procurement dropped in the years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Simultaneously, after decades of dictatorial military rule, widespread human rights abuses and faltering economies, nations in South America began electing their governments and improving rights records. With the decline in sales to the Pentagon, arms manufacturers began looking abroad for new export opportunities and saw a chance to profit from the South American reforms.

Until now the Clinton administration has supported the high-tech weapons ban for Latin America, saying in its own arms transfer policy directive, PDD-34, released in February 1995, that any prospective arms sale would have to take into account "consistency with U.S. regional stability interests especially when considering transfers involving power projection capability or introduction of a system which may foster increased tension or contribute to an arms race."

Those who argue for lifting the ban say the United States has unilaterally frozen itself out of the Latin American weapons market. This is not true. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the United States concluded $2.4 billion worth of agreements in the region during the years 1984-94. That is 26 percent of the total. France, on the other hand, a country that is commonly cited as outselling the United States in Latin America, concluded agreements for $1.5 billion.

It may be late but not too late to remind President Clinton that if he truly cares about peace and stability, if he really cares about the social development of the nations of the world, if he wants to be remembered as the "education president," if he is to help his wife Hillary attend to the needs of children, fueling new high tech military sales in Latin America is not the way to go.

Lifting the ban will counter the region's civil society efforts to bring powerful militaries under greater civilian control. It will divert spending from much needed poverty alleviation to the military coffers. And it will help destabilize the region. The ban was right in 1978. It is more than right in 1998.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997