Bullets or Books? US May Tip Balance in Latin America

As Clinton pushes education on trip, Latin countries are concerned that US move to lift arms ban will spark costly regional arms race.

Ask Oscar Arias what he thinks of the Clinton administration's decision to end a 20-year embargo on arms sales to Latin America, and the answer is swift and unequivocal.

"What the children of Latin America want and need are schools and health clinics, not F-16s," says the former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

To counteract the US move, Mr. Arias is proposing the presidents of Latin America adopt a two-year moratorium on advanced arms purchases, during which time he hopes the region could negotiate a permanent ban. The plan is designed to at least slow an arms-buying spree some analysts in Latin America foresee in the wake of the US ending its embargo on sophisticated conventional arms sales.

The US action, reversing a decision by President Carter in 1977, has raised suspicions among South American countries over how neighboring armies will respond to the US initiative.

The decision has also raised fresh questions about how safely confined to barracks are the armies of what in some cases aren't fully established democracies.

And it has caused some observers to question just what the US is up to in ending the ban.

In announcing the decision in August, the Clinton administration portrayed it as a natural response to the replacement of the military regimes of the Carter era by democratically elected governments. Officials said it reflected a "new level of maturity" in US-Latin relations and would bring US arms-sale policy in Latin America in line with that of other democratically governed regions. And they insisted no sales would be approved to countries with potential international conflicts.

President Clinton argues that the region's militaries have a right and obligation to modernize. This position coincides with US demands that Latin countries - including Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, the three countries Mr. Clinton is visiting this week - engage in an antidrug fight against ever-more sophisticated armed drug traffickers.

But many observers simply see dollar signs dancing in Washington's eyes. "This decision is motivated more by economic pressures than by political arguments," says Rosendo Fraga, a defense analyst in Buenos Aires. "Given the important political influence of the United States in the region, it represents a political green light to these governments to make these purchases."

The decision reflects arms manufacturers' needs for new markets after the end of the cold war, Mr. Fraga says. Ending the sales ban on Latin America could mean more than $5 billion in US arms sales over the next five years, according to a study by Gabriel Marcella, a professor at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania and former adviser to the US Southern Command.

Brazil alone will purchase $2 billion in sophisticated weaponry over the next five years, Fraga estimates, and Chile $1 billion. Chile is shopping for about $400 million in new fighter planes to replace its aging fleet. It is considering the US F-16. And Peru's purchase of Russian-made MiGs from Belarus earlier this year demonstrated that Latin governments wouldn't hesitate to look elsewhere.

Latin American countries offer a mixed picture on arms spending and the role of the military in general. The region spends 1.3 percent of GDP on defense, according to Fraga. That's about the same as a decade ago, but well below the global average of 2.3 percent.

But some of the region's armies enjoy special privileges that don't reflect a status completely subordinate to civilian rulers. In Chile, for example, the military receives a guaranteed 10 percent of the country's copper sales. Other vestiges of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship include the president's inability to dismiss a military officer - including General Pinochet himself.

In Ecuador, the military has received 15 percent of annual oil revenues since civilian leaders took the political reins in 1979. Perhaps not so curiously, in the eyes of some analysts, a border conflict with Peru broke out in 1995 just as the privilege was to expire. In the pro-military fervor, the Congress renewed the guarantee for 15 years.

Yet the argument that "if they don't buy from us, they'll buy somewhere else," doesn't justify capitulating to arms-sales pressures, some critics argue. Some members of Congress are seeking to establish "a code of conduct" based on human rights and democratic principles for governments seeking to buy US arms. "It is time for us to ... put freedom and democracy ahead of making a fast buck," says US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California, a supporter of the code.

"The US can't get around the fact that the decision is a strong contradiction, since otherwise its admonition to Latin America is to spend more on social needs," says Fraga. Indeed, among the agreements Clinton signed this week was one with Brazil promising greater cooperation on education and use of high tech in learning.

In a telephone interview, Arias said his discussions with Latin presidents indicate that "90 percent of them are opposed to these costly arms purchases. The problem," he adds, "is that in some cases these democracies are still fragile. [The leaders] just can't say to their military sector, 'I'm not going to give you the resources.' "

Some Latin leaders have been candid about their concerns that ending the arms ban and other recent US actions could have a destabilizing influence. After the White House announced the lifting of the ban and a decision to grant special "close, non-NATO-ally" status to Argentina, Chilean President Eduardo Frei signaled his irritation: "Assigning special privileges ... with some countries of Latin America impedes the creation of a climate of confidence, and creates unnecessary uncertainties within our subregional blocs."

Some Latin observers wonder if that is not, in fact, part of Washington's design. "You have to question why these [US] decisions are coming now," says Oscar Ral Cardoso, a diplomatic correspondent with the Buenos Aires daily Clarin. "The US has always wanted its dealings with Latin America to be a series of one-to-one relations," he says. "But now you have Mercosur [a regional customs union], which even US officials publicly state has prospered faster than they expected."

Mr. Cardoso says "intentional or not," the US moves have jostled the Mercosur cart carrying the fruits of regional trust. "Fidel Castro gave a seven-hour speech to [Cuba's] Communist Party Congress last week in which he spoke of the US decision to grant special status to Argentina, and he said the US is using Argentina to divide Latin America. Castro may be a madman," Cardoso says, "but in this case, he's telling it like it is."

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