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Weapons dubious prize for Latin democracy

Now let's see if we've got this right. Since Chile is making so much progress in its moves toward democracy, it has earned the right to purchase millions of dollars of the United States' most advanced, death-inflicting jet fighter airplanes.

The Clinton administration last week reversed a policy established in 1978 when the Carter administration imposed a ban on sales of the most advanced U.S. weapons because of human rights concerns.

In recent years, however, the Pentagon and the nation's military contractors have pressed the White House to lift the ban, citing movement toward democracy.

The logic of this new policy would have it that spending these many millions on advanced weaponry is precisely what the majority of the Chilean people, basking in their new democratic powers, want of their government.

Sorry if we missed the plebiscite.

Indeed, there was no vote. Had there been one, we suggest most Chileans might have voted for, say, greater access to health care or better education for their children or, perhaps, better housing conditions.

Reports out of Latin America last week cited no groundswell for this policy shift outside military circles. More toys for the generals.

Others expressed great concern that pressure would now build in other Latin American nations to upgrade their weapons, sparking a new arms race.

Argentinean generals, in particular, were described as gleeful. They have long wanted more sophisticated weapons and are now getting in line to bring their lists to Washington.

The big winners were the U.S. arms manufacturers who stand to make billions more in this reopened market. The Chilean purchase of two dozen F-16s comes to a nifty $400 million. The Lockheed Martin Corporation, which produces the F-16s, and McDonnell Douglas had lobbied hard to lift the ban.

How ironic that the Clinton administration should cite democratic reforms in Latin America as paving the way for the policy shift. Increasingly, U.S. policy makers in both parties have perverted U.S. democracy by allowing it to be purchased outright by special interest groups.

The arms industry contributed $10.8 million to political causes during the 1996 campaigns. The 78 House representatives and 38 senators who signed letters asking Clinton to lift the ban received more than $1 million from PACs controlled by Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas and the major F-16 subcontractors. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the leaders of the drive to lift the ban, received $27,000 in PAC money from the F-16 manufacturers. Lee Hamilton, ranking House Democrat, received $18,500.

Yes, government works -- but it works best for those wealthy enough to buy it in support of their own financial interests.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997