Albion Monitor /News

Clinton Approves Advance Weapon Export to S. America

by Jim Lobe

Could set off a regional arms race
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The decision by President Bill Clinton to allow a U.S. defense contractor to provide Chile with technical data on sophisticated warplanes is the first step in reversing a 20-year policy of barring the sale of advanced weapons to Latin America, according to political analysts.

The decision, announced last month, had been aggressively pursued by major U.S. arms exporters for more than a year and could set off a regional arms race, analysts believe.

"The slippery slope to a South American arms race has begun," according to Tom Cardamone, an expert on conventional weapons at the Washington-based Council for a Livable World (CLW).

Ban on the sale of advanced weaponry to Latin America was imposed under former President Jimmy Carter when he was promoting human rights as a key element in U.S. foreign policy
Department insisted on Apr. 4 that its policy of restraining arms sales to Latin America remains under review and has not changed. Spokesman Nicholas Burns explained the decision to provide the technical information to the Chileans as a way Santiago "can measure the obvious superiority of American products against other foreign aircraft."

Pending the end of the policy review, he said, Washington doesn't "want any American be knocked out of the competition early on, because they couldn't even put in front of the Chilean government the basic technical information about the fighter aircraft."

Critics and supporters of the administration, however, scorned this explanation.

"It's very unlikely that the administration would allow that information to be provided if it had not already decided to allow a sale to occur," noted Cardamone. "I think this marks a de facto end to the policy."

"This is a pretty important first step in letting U.S. companies compete with foreign companies in Latin America," added Chip Manor, press spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the makers of the F-16 Falcon fighter jet.

Chile intends to decide on the purchase of 15 advanced warplanes, worth an estimated $500 million, by the end of this year. The F-16's will be competing with French and Swedish jets, as well as the F/A-18 fighter built by McDonnell Douglas, another major U.S. firm. Unlike Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas has not yet received word on its request to provide Chile with technical data, but corporate officials said on Apr. 4 they expected it to be approved.

The ban on the sale of advanced weaponry to Latin America was imposed under former President Jimmy Carter when he was promoting human rights as a key element in U.S. foreign policy. At that time, most of Latin America was ruled by military dictatorships.

The ban had been observed by Carter's Republican successors and, despite growing pressure from the potent arms lobby in Washington, by Clinton during his first term. During the 20 years in which the policy has been in effect, only one exception was made: in 1981, Lockheed was permitted to sell a fleet of F-16s to Venezuela.

The result, say the ban's advocates, was a reduction in interstate tensions in Latin America and the lowest defense budgets as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) of any major region in the world.

But with declining Pentagon budgets at me and somewhat reduced arms sales in the bonanza markets of the Middle East and the Gulf, U.S. defense contractors have been itching to sell to Latin America, especially as the region has emerged from the debt crisis and begun to attract substantial foreign investment.

A great deal of money may be at stake. In addition to the $500 million that may go to the winner of the Chilean competition, Brazil plans to buy at least 70 new warplanes worth about two billion dollars. Some Latin militaries are eager to get other high-tech weapons long denied them by the policy, including sophisticated attack helicopters that are far more advanced than the Blackhawks which Washington provides its partners in the drug war.

While opening up the Latin American market to advanced arms sales will help shore up jobs and earnings at major U.S. manufacturers, arms-control advocates argue that it's not worth the potential costs.

"The issue is not job creation in America but stability in the hemisphere," warned the Los Angeles Times last year.

The President's own Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy, while not addressing itself specifically to Latin America policy, argued last year that economic arguments should always take second place to foreign policy concerns. "Unwise arms sales remain unwise no matter how many jobs are involved," the board said.

Will divert money desperately needed for infrastructure and social programs to expensive arms procurements and press civilian leaders to bow to the demands of their armed forces
Critics of the policy change worry about spurring a new arms race in Latin America, similar to one that broke out in the 1960s when the major South American nations bought fleets of supersonic combat aircraft.

According to Keith Krause, an expert on Third World militaries, the procurement by just one country of a major weapons system can "lead to an upward spiral of armaments and military spending, the exacerbation of conflicts by worst-case thinking, and a concomitant decline in interstate security."

Cardamone says that is just what happened only last year, when, despite its role as a guarantor of the peace treaty between Ecuador and Peru, Washington approved the sale of four Israeli Kfir fighters (that included U.S. technology) to Ecuador.

While the justification for the sale was to replace aircraft that had been lost or damaged, Lima perceived it as a new threat, and, before the year was out, bought MiG-29 and SU-25 aircraft to counter it.

But Peru's purchase has spurred a new chain reaction. Although Chile was already in the market for high-performance aircraft at the time, the fact that its traditional northern rival had acquired them bolstered its case in Washington. If Chile buys advanced warplanes, Argentina, which has lobbied against possible U.S. sales to Santiago, is almost certain to come under pressure from its military to do the same.

A new arms race throughout the region risks destabilizing new democratic governments, according to Bill Spencer, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) here. It will both divert money desperately needed for infrastructure development and social programs to expensive arms procurements and press civilian leaders to bow to the demands of their armed forces, he said.

"It's particularly inappropriate to proceed towards our first advanced weapons sale in Latin America in Chile whose military is still not under full civilian control and which spends the highest percentage of its gross domestic product on arms of any country in the region," said Spencer.

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Albion Monitor May 3, 1997 (

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