Brazil has suddenly become one of the world's major arms suppliers -- and some of its South American neighbors are casting worried glances in its direction.
What's more, small-arms-producing countries like Israel and Belgium are concerned that Brazil's new role as an important supplier of arms threatens their own arms sales.
"Made in Brazil" tanks are part of the arsenal of several Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Libya. Brazilian-made rifles and machine guns are used by soldiers in such African nations as Angola and the Congo (Brazzaville).
Other Brazilian weaponry -- from bazooka launchers to guided missiles -- as well as nonlethal military hardware, such as jeeps and trucks, are in use throughout the world.
They are the products of a rapidly expanding arms industry that has become a booming export business for Brazil, propelling the South American nation into the top rank of world arms manufacturers. Brazil is now among the top 10 armsmakers in the world. The Soviet Union, followed by the United States, France, Belgium, and Israel, top the list. Brazil fits in just behind them.
During 1980, according to government statistics, Brazil sold more than $3 billion worth of arms to nations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East -- triple the 1979 total.
In 1981, exports are expected to top $5 billion and could go higher.
Brazil wraps the arms industry in considerable secrecy, and most Brazilians know very little about its size and scope. But as more and more weapons are sold, particularly in the Middle East, the industry's size is becoming something of an open secret.
For Brazil's neighbors, the expanding arms industry is the cause of major concern. Argentina to the south, long a manufacturer of small arms for its own military, is uneasy about any new development in Brazil. Newspapers in Buenos Aires have lately called attention to the Brazilian arms industry and raised questions about possible Brazilian Army use of these weapons against Argentina.
Such concern in no way deters the military-dominated Brazilian government, which sees the arms industry as a way to earn much-needed foreign exchange.
Brazilian arms salesmen are combing the world for new markets and use Iraqi Army testimony to help market such equipment as the Cascavel light armed tank.This top-of-the-line item, equipped with a 90-mm cannon and two 50-mm machine guns, performed quite well in the Iraqi-Iran war earlier this year. Iraq, which has 200 of these tanks, is reportedly negotiating for an additional 200.
Sales to countries like oil-rich Iraq have the added benefit of helping assure a steady flow of petroleum -- perhaps Brazil's most critical need at the moment.
Engesa, the Brazilian firm that manufactures the Cascavel, says it is the world's best-selling light armored vehicle.
The arms industry is likely to soon begin manufacturing sophisticated jet aircraft and may even produce submarines.
The importance of the industry to Brazil and to its military is seen in the recent inauguration in Brasilia of a new headquarters for the Brazilian War Materiel Industry board, the semiautonomous government agency that coordinates the manufacture, sale, and export of the armaments.
Brazilian President Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, the fifth general to head the nation since 1964, dedicated the facility.
Besides creating more foreign exchange, the arms industry creates jobs in a country where unemployment runs at more than 20 percent by official admi ssion. Moreover, it dramatically boosts Brazil's prestige.