Clinton Moves Closer to Easing Limits On Arms Sales to Latin America


Wade Boese

THE CLINTON administration appears poised to end a two-decade-old policy of restricting sales of U.S. high-tech weapons, such as fighter aircraft and advanced missiles, to Latin America. During the first week of April, the administration announced that it granted Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas, manufacturers of the F-16 and F/A-18, respectively, authorization to provide technical specifications and marketing information on these aircraft to Chile.

Administration officials insist that although a two-year policy review of the informal ban is not yet complete, the administration did not want to "disadvantage" any U.S. firms in competition for future sales if the policy is eventually altered.

Chile is seeking to modernize its air force with a purchase of at least 20 advanced fighters. To be considered for the sale, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas were permitted to submit the information to meet a Chilean deadline of March 31, 1997. Chilean interest and expectations concerning the potential availability of the F-16s and F/A-18s increased following the appearance of the fighters at a March 1996 airshow in Chile after their having been excluded from a previous Latin American airshow in 1994. Other aircraft vying for the sale include the Swedish JAS39 Gripen (which is also subject to the restrictions because the aircraft contain a large percentage estimated at 30 percent of U.S.-made components), the French Mirage 20005, and the Russian MiG-29. Brazil is also considering a modernization of its air force in the near future.


The Latin American Market

Although the Latin American arms market is relatively small, competition in the estimated $500 million annual market is intensifying. The region accounted for 3.3 percent of all international arms deliveries in 1995, but this represented a second consecutive year of growth after five years of steady decline. Recent military modernization programs by Latin American nations are responsible for the market's upswing. Despite the unilateral restrictions on high-tech equipment, the United States is still the leading arms supplier to Latin America, accounting for 26 percent of the value of arms deliveries between 1992 and 1995.

Since 1978, the United States has adhered to a policy of "severe restraint" on hightech weapons exports to Latin America. President Jimmy Carter imposed the restrictions in response to widespread human rights abuses by the region's dictatorships and military regimes. One of those dictators, General Augusto Pinochet, still serves as the commander-in-chief of Chile's army. Venezuela's purchase of 24 F-16s in 1981 stands as the only previous exception to the policy.

Support for modifying the restrictions has steadily accumulated during the Clinton administration's policy review. Military contractors, with the support of the Pentagon, have been urging the administration to allow new sales to the region. Their efforts received a boost in December 1996 when then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an earlier advocate of retaining the ban, signed a memorandum with then-Secretary of Defense William Perry urging President Clinton to change the policy. Perry's successor, William Cohen, firmly supports replacing the current restrictions with the standard U.S. policy of a case-by-case approach.

Advocates of a policy change contend that the current restrictions are outdated since all Latin American nations, except Cuba, have democratically elected governments and growing economies. A favored justification is that foreign firms will supply the weapons if U.S. firms do not, and that results in the loss of U.S. jobs. This argument prompted 38 Senators and 79 House members to sign a mid-1996 letter to Christopher requesting a removal of the restrictions.

Critics of the proposed policy change say the region's democracies are fragile and remain susceptible to a disproportionate amount of influence from their militaries. Many argue that in a region where one-half of the population lives in poverty, spending approximately $25 million per aircraft is unnecessary.

Another concern is that new U.S. sales could initiate an arms race and destabilize the present security environment. Argentina, a vocal opponent of Chile's impending acquisition, has repeatedly raised the specter of a new arms race. Only last November State Department deputy spokesman Glyn Davies expressed "concern" and "disappointment" over Peru's purchase of 12 Belarussian MiG-29s because it could provoke an arms race. Administration officials have not said whether new U.S. transfers of similar high-tech weaponry could have the same effect.

Most observers agree that the recent developments indicate an impending change in policy. Only very rarely will the U.S. government allow American firms to compete for a sale and then disapprove of it if the firm succeeds in winning the bid. Defense Secretary Cohen said April 15 that he expected a decision to be made within the next "month or two."