Citing a new maturity in Washington’s relationship with Latin America, President Clinton on Friday scrapped a 20-year ban on the sale of sophisticated weapons to the region and said he would consider sales on a case-by-case basis.
The decision cleared the way for two major U.S. defense contractors to advance their bids to sell a squadron of high-tech fighter planes to Chile, in a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the move was decried by armscontrol advocates and some Latin America specialists, who fear it will undercut new democratic governments struggling to address social needs and curb military influence.
The action effectively ends a unilateral U.S. ban on sales of high-tech weapons to Latin America imposed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
U.S. officials noted that a region then ruled largely by military dictatorships is now governed by democratic leaders.
“The old rules just don’t apply as they did in the 1970s,” said Mack McLarty, the president’s special envoy for Latin America.
Praising a “new level of maturity” in bilateral relations, the White House said, “It is in America’s national security interest to promote stability and security among our neighbors in the hemisphere by engaging with them as equal partners as they modernize and restructure their defense establishments.”
Spokesmen for two leading defense contractors interested in selling planes to Chile, Lockheed-Martin and McDonnell Douglas, similarly hailed the move as the end of a patronizing policy. In an increasingly competitive arena, both companies have lobbied hard for access to the Latin American weapons market, which has accounted for less than 2 percent of worldwide sales.
Critics countered that lifting the ban would subject elected governments to military pressure to spend scarce resources on weapons at the expense of development. At worst, they say, it could spark an arms race.
Even Chile, which restored democracy in 1990, remains vulnerable to military influence; it earmarks fully 10 percent of its budget for a military that remains under the command of its former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is prominent on Latin American issues, ridiculed the White House rationale. “I find it hard to believe that selling sophisticated aircraft, such as F-16s, helps to maintain regional security and stability,” said Dodd, who has offered legislation to codify the ban.
Jeffrey Davidow, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, denied that private-sector pressure was behind the decision and insisted that the United States continues to advocate a policy of “restraint.”
The administration will consider sales “case by case,” he said; an interagency committee will review potential deals with nations, with the goal of “strengthening democracy” and insuring that “resources are focused on development.”
“We are not opening any floodgates for weapons sales to Latin America,” Davidow said.
Defense industry officials say Brazil is next in line for a major weapons purchase, including planes, within five years.
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