The relationship between the United States and the militaries of its hemispheric neighbors is long and tangled. President Jimmy Carter brought much needed sanity to the relationship 19 years ago when he banned the export of advanced weaponry to military dictatorships in Latin America.
President Clinton recently decided to remove the ban.
It's true that the region's political evolution since Mr. Carter's term in office has been heartening. While there are still governments with autocratic leanings, the generals are no longer in charge. Democracy, however turbulent, is the rule.
That, however, is not sufficient argument for removing a policy that, overall, has been a plus for both the countries of Latin America and for the US. The unavailability of US heavy weaponry has dampened the impulse to amass more fire power than one's neighbors - particularly in those parts of the continent long subject to border tensions. Argentina and Chile, for example. Or Ecuador and Peru. And money not used to build up armaments is freed for more productive investment.
Moreover, the ban weakened one element in Latin Americans' traditional perception of Uncle Sam as the hemisphere's heavy - i.e., the US as supporter of militaries with a history of repression.
Not that Latin America's armies and air forces haven't been shopping elsewhere. Chile has been eyeing Swedish or French planes to upgrade its air force. And Peru recently bought a shipment of Mig-29s from Russia. Lockheed Martin, with its F-16s, and McDonnell Douglas, maker of the F/A 18 used by the US Navy, have announced their readiness to compete for the Chilean contract. Shouldn't US suppliers be able to put in their bids for this business, especially since it could mean added profits and jobs in the US economy?
Two points worth reiterating:
1. When the world's preeminent arms exporter brings its enticing goods to the marketplace, a move to modernize defenses can too easily become a race to outdo potential regional adversaries. US companies rake in nearly half of the $26 billion to $30 billion countries spend each year for high-tech weaponry.
2. The narrow US economic interest in allowing arms manufacturers a chance to sell south of the border doesn't outweigh Washington's larger interests - political, humanitarian, and economic - in promoting long-term stability in the region. Those interests are not served by encouraging the purchase of major weapons.