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Brazil's arms sales policy cannot stand forever

BRAZIL'S reported agreement to sell $2 billion in arms to Libya underscores the immense contradictions in Brasilia's foreign policy tradition. From a small, home-centered cottage industry only a decade ago, Brazil's armaments business has burgeoned. By most accounts, it now ranks sixth in exports worldwide, delivered to almost 40 countries on five continents. Its tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, and rocket launchers are less expensive and less complex than American, French, or Soviet versions and are increasingly in demand by developing and ``nonaligned'' nations. The Tucan single engine trainer, for example, is outselling its European competition and is considered by many experts to be the best in its field.

Brazil's weapons industry received an unexpected push when the Carter administration, citing human rights violations, ended its traditional relationship with the country. Mounting economic difficulties and a foreign debt of more than $100 billion have made the weapons industry an important hard-currency earner.

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In the process, Brazil sends one-third of its arms exports to the Middle East. Because it does not impose end-user restrictions, Brazil has become an armorer to both sides in the Gulf war. Iraq has been its biggest customer (troop carriers, multiple rocket launchers, bombs, and other ordnance), but Iran's arsenal also boasts similar weapons, more than likely acquired through Libya. Saudi Arabia is certain to surpass the Iraqis and the Libyans; it has signed agreements to purchase the entire array offered in the Brazilian catalog, including trainers, tanks, naval frigates and corvettes, air-to-air missiles, and a new fighter, the AMX.

There is no apparent hesitation or compunction in Brasilia about the dangers of arming both sides in a conflict that, if not checked, could involve both superpowers as active combatants. Nor do there seem to be any second thoughts about supplying weapons to countries that are involved in state-supported terrorism.

A Brazilian weapons industry catalog notes that ``Brazil abides by the principle that the sale of defense material is not a part nor an instrument of Brazilian foreign policy.'' A senior defense official, in a recent Reuters interview, perhaps put it best: ``We have a huge foreign debt and we need to export to pay interest. This is what we do.''

Arms sales are indeed an accepted way of doing business in the developed world and Brazil is certainly entitled to its market share. But when it does so at the expense of its traditions and better judgment it does neither itself nor its friends and allies any favors.

Over the course of its nearly 170 years of independence Brazil has been a close friend of the United States and a major political influence in South America.

It has conducted a nonconfrontational, consensus-oriented foreign policy throughout Latin America. Brazil is a founding member of the Amazon Pact and a member of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), the Lima subgroup on the Contadora Process, and the Cartagena Group on Latin debt.

Brazil has the increasing respect of neighboring states, which have harbored generations-old apprehension and mistrust toward it. Interestingly, it has largely refrained from selling weapons in Central and South America. Small-scale assistance programs to Paraguay and Suriname (to counter Cuban influence), and the sale of a squadron of Tucanos to Honduras, are the extent of what easily could be a Brazilian-armed continent.

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A nation with a responsible diplomatic tradition and alignment with the West cannot easily dismiss the consequences of its current arms-sales policy. Surely Brazil does not share with Iraq and Iran a desire to see a ``fight to the finish'' in the Gulf in which the West could wind up a strategic loser. And just as surely Brazil does not share with Libya and Iran a penchant for state-backed terrorism; on the contrary, it has joined in South American efforts to combat terrorism in this hemisphere.

In this context come reports that the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose representative in Brasilia operates out of the Arab League office, is seeking to expand its presence in Brazil. At present the only countries in the region that have granted the PLO full diplomatic status are Cuba and Nicaragua, not the kind of company Brasilia wishes to keep. There is no arms market to be gained by granting government permission for this request, only the growth on the continent of an organization hostile to western interests and dedicated to bloodshed and the politics of rejection. That is not Brazil's way.

Over the past decade Brazil has tried to walk the fine line between the West and the third world. Such a policy, particularly when it comes to ``no strings attached'' arms sales, cannot stand forever. As a regional power and near-charter member of the world's democracies, Brazil is obligated to forge policies consistent with its history. In turn, it deserves understanding and assistance from its friends in tackling its severe debt problems.

As its neighbors watch, Brazil can begin to set an example by rethinking its weapons relationships with nations that truly don't share its values.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is director of public affairs at B'nai B'rith International.

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