US policy tilts toward selling arms to Argentina

The possible resumption of US arms sales to Argentina is fresh evidence of the changed US policy toward Latin America under Ronald Reagan. This week's visit of Argentine President-elect Roberto Eduardo Viola suggests just how far the Reagan administration is distancing itself from jimmy Carter's great emphasis on human rights. The rights issue has clearly been downplayed in all of Lieutenant General Viola's meetings with Reagan administration people.

But the President's willingness to consider a request to Congress to repeal the embargo on US arms to Argentina is the issue that most symbolizes the change in Latin America policy between the Carter and Reagan administrations.

US arms sales and other military assistance to Argentina were suspended by President Carter in 1978 in a vigorous protest against human-rights violations by the Argentine military. In the ensuing months, relations between Washington and Buenos Aires became increasingly strained.

Then, in January 1980, when the uS cut off grain sales to the Soviet Union in protest at the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, grain-rich Argentina quickly began supplying two-fifths of the wheat, corn, and other grains that the US would have supplied. The Carter administration sought unsuccessfully to halt those sales, further cooling relations between the two nations.

Now the climate is changing markedly, as General Viola's visit indicates.

Gone are the contentions of the past; the angry words over human rights; the open disagreements on the grain issue. This does not imply, however, that President Reagan is satisfied with Argentina's human-rights performance. Indeed administration spokesmen go to great lengths to say that General Viola has been made aware of continuing "US concern about the disappearances of people in Argentina" and other evidence of governmental repression.

All this, however, has been said behind closed doors -- not out in the open in public forums. What has been said publicly has been most cordial. And in some measure what is not said publicly tells as much about the changing tenor of relations as what is said.

All this obviously pleases General Viola's entourage. One Argentine spokesman said, "It is a relief to at last be welcomed in a neighbor's house with a feeling that we are wanted and appreciated, even if the host doesn't always agree with us on everything."

That last remark hinted at the views expressed by the Reagan administration in private talks in Washington. The most visible manifestion of the changed climate, however, is the expected announcement of arms sales. Sales amounted to

Just exactly what may be involved in US sales to Argentina is not clear. But Argentine sources say their military is particularly interested in sophisticated jet fighters and various modern rifles and automatic weapons. Such sales could also be a significant boost to the US domestic arms and aircraft industries.

At the same time, Washington is under considerable pressure to win guarantees that Argentina will not use any new purchases of arms to escalate tensions with Chile in their squabbles over islands in the Beagle Channel at the tip of South America.

How such guarantees can be made is unclear. Chile is likely to want to purchase some of the same types of arms and aircraft. The Reagan administration will probably soon have to face this issue.

The policies -- especially if the President decides to advocate arms sales -- will face stiff opposition in congressional circles and from human rights groups.

But the Reagan administration feels it has enough votes in Congress to carry through sales. And it has already told various congressional committees that it regards Argentina as an important and valued ally in "the hemispheric defense against outside subversion."

The Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa has editorially called it "a dramatic and welcome turnaround."

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