President Clinton's decision to meet in Costa Rica with regional leaders indicated a desire to give priority to relations with Central America and the Caribbean. Hopes are now high that the links between the United States and her neighbors to the south - in the search for peace, democracy, and prosperity - will be strengthened.
Exactly 10 years ago, the peace plan agreed to by Central American heads of state opened an opportunity to end conflict, strengthen democracy, and rebuild economies. This past decade has been one of hope for Central America, but still it was only four months ago that Guatemala brought to an end the last of the region's civil wars. Even with important advances, the countries of Central America are very far from having won the fight for prosperity. Poverty and heightened inequality again threaten these nascent democracies. Popular disenchantment with democracy could lead again to ungovernability - and, worse, to violence.
Such danger derives from domestic problems within each of the Central American societies, problems only they can resolve. But also cause for concern are the errors characteristic of political relations between the states of our hemisphere. The responsibility for evaluating interstate relations and converting them into a instrument of peace, democracy, and prosperity lies with all nations of the Americas. But no effort in this direction can succeed without the United States. Its political, economic, and military power give it a logical leadership role. Yet it is extremely important that the United States convert that role into a moral one as well - becoming a force not only for economic efficiency or security but for justice and equality too.
Hemispheric trade zone
President Clinton's inclination to sponsor the establishment of a hemispheric free-trade zone to extend the advantages of liberal trade is praiseworthy. However, the process must be accelerated. Specifically, advantage has to be taken of the support offered by a group of bipartisan leaders in the US Congress willing to grant "fast track" authority for negotiating with Latin America and the Caribbean. In the meantime, the nations of Central America and the Caribbean should receive the same advantages as Mexican exports to the United States. Otherwise, foreign investment in those nations - essential to their economic recuperation after having been victims of the East-West confrontation for so many years - will stagnate.
Similarly, efforts undertaken by the governments of the hemisphere to end the scourge of narco-trafficking and drug addiction deserve absolute support. Drug consumption is a pressing problem for US society. While the US Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that the number of US citizens using illegal drugs has dropped by half, other statistics indicate that more than one-third of US citizens over age 12 have tried an illicit drug. Meanwhile, the majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries are experiencing rising drug consumption among the young.
Clearly, the struggle will be lost unless the demand for drugs is reduced further. The governments of the hemisphere should unite, as US antidrug chief Gen. Barry McCaffrey proposed, to address "the two sides of the challenge: limiting availability of illegal drugs and reducing demand." Many regional leaders believe that the unilateral US policy of certification should be replaced with a multilateral strategy, for which all countries in the hemisphere would share responsibility. Such a plan would aim at breaking the links between drug cultivation, industrialization, transportation, distribution, sale, consumption, and, finally, money laundering. All actions would be tightly coordinated.
Finally, and most important, excessive military expenditure is the most unfair burden on people in the region. It is the cause of a large part of the poverty here. Such spending diverts scarce resources from the basic needs of education, health, nutrition, and housing. Since signing the peace accords a decade ago, Central American nations have made great efforts to lower military spending. Popular campaigns have led to the abolition of the armed forces in Panama and Haiti. Troops and arsenals have been reduced in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador. As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean have lowered military spending more than any other part of the world. But the demilitarization process is threatened by the commercial export thrust of military industries in developed countries.
In the United States, the sale abroad of weapons receives state subsidies. More than three-quarters of the arms exported to developing countries come from the United States. Some in the US argue for arms exports as a source of jobs, but the true justification for this market of death is profits. In this respect, there's a sinister but logical parallel between arms trafficking and drug trafficking. One is legal and the other is illegal, but in the moral order of things they both provoke death and misery.
In both cases, efforts should be undertaken to reduce supply and demand simultaneously. For this, the collaboration of all countries - sellers and buyers - is necessary. Currently, Latin Americans worry that the United States may lift its ban on supplying high-technology planes to the region. Preliminary negotiations for the sale of F-16 fighters to Chile have been approved already.
Eliminating the restriction that President Jimmy Carter adopted with great vision and courage would start a tragic arms race. Tragic, not least, because it would signify a further increase in poverty for most Latin Americans.
A needed moratorium
The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean should accept a moratorium of two years before deciding to acquire high-technology weapons. During this period, they could negotiate a permanent agreement to prohibit the acquisition of such weapons.
The US government could assume a double leadership role at this critical juncture. First, vis--vis the countries of the region, the United States can recommend and respect the moratorium. Second, as a leader among arms producing and selling countries, it can strive to see that the others, too, commit to respecting the moratorium.
It is time that the voices of the children, which clamor for schools and not arms, be heard. It is time that arms dealers read the diaries written in Central American prisons by those who have suffered torture and mutilation at the hands of the militaries.
So long as Latin American and Caribbean democracies do not face the challenge of growing poverty, they will not fulfill their basic responsibility to protect human dignity. Out of poverty sprout social instability and desperation, which delegitimize governments that declare themselves democratic.
Inscribed above the entrance to the US Supreme Court is the phrase "equal justice under law." For democracy to survive, governments must comply with this principle, promoting justice and diminishing social inequality.
*Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, received the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.