President Clinton is visiting Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina this week, just two months after making one of his most important, and damaging, decisions regarding Latin America - ending the 20-year embargo on high-tech arms sales to the region.
During his trip, he's focusing on the region's democratic transformation and the benefits to all from an expansion of free trade. But the threat of a regional arms race is an important subtext of the visit.
In his five years in office, Mr. Clinton's relations with Latin America can best be described as benign neglect - some decent development policies in a region that has hardly been on the administration's radar screen. But lifting the ban on sales of advanced arms was a truly bad decision - bad for democracy, prosperity, and security in Latin America, and bad for the US.
Almost everywhere in Latin America, civilians govern and democracy is the order of the day. But the transition to democracy is not a done deal.
The military still wields great power. Chile devotes 10 percent of its copper revenues to the military budget. And from the southern cone to Central America, military impunity for past human rights violations is more the rule than the exception.
The military is not yet back in the barracks. Its challenge to the rule of law can be seen in an attempted coup in Paraguay, military rebellions in Argentina, and support of the armed forces for President Fujimori's "self-coup" in Peru - all in the past five years.
Clinton's decision to end the high-tech arms embargo undercuts our commitment to civilian authority. It could easily tilt the delicate balance in civil-military relations back toward the armed forces.
Latin American governments have made real economic advances in the last 10 years, cutting inflation and moving toward healthy growth rates. But 40 percent of Latin America's people - 210 million - still live below the poverty line.
If the economic and political reforms are to take hold, governments must put more money into education, health, and housing. Clinton's decision encourages militaries to grab a larger piece of the pie.
Latin America has been fortunate in having few serious conflicts between nations. Military spending - on average 2 percent of gross domestic product - is low compared to other regions. But days after Clinton's decision opened the door to possible F-16 sales to Chile, Argentina felt threatened and was offered special alliance status with the US as reassurance. Politicians in Brazil demanded that their government speed up the purchase of fighter aircraft. Insecurity created by the US decision threatens to create conflict where there is little now.
Lifting the ban is no better for US workers than for Latin Americans. An in-depth 1996 study by William D. Hartung, "Welfare for Weapons Dealers," shows that taxpayer subsidies worth $7.6 billion accounted for more than half the value of total US arms exports of $12 billion in 1995. According to this study, that $7.6 billion invested in domestic programs would produce a net increase of 88,000 jobs in the United States. The only clear winners are arms companies that made nearly $11 million in campaign contributions in 1996 and stand to gain hundreds of millions in contracts from the lifting of the ban.
It's not too late. No decision has yet been made to approve specific weapons sales. Former President Jimmy Carter and his colleagues in the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government have proposed a two-year moratorium on high-tech arms sales. Twenty-three heads of state in the region have endorsed a self-imposed embargo. These, however, do not include the president's hosts - Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina - or Chile and Peru.
The best news Clinton could provide this week in South America is that the US will back a two-year moratorium and encourage these major regional powers to do the same. It would be a better legacy than a region in conflict spurred on by a shortsighted decision.
* Hugh Byrne is a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.