Arms Race in Latin America a Real Possibility

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

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 argued 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. …

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