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DON’T LIFT ARMS-SALES RESTRICTIONS

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President Clinton would be wise to leave intact current restrictions on sales of advanced military equipment to Latin American countries. That region is enjoying a fragile peace, and a distribution of attack aircraft could strain it to the breaking point.

American weapons contractors are putting pressure on the president to end 18-year-old restrictions on sales of F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters. The Pentagon is also in favor of changing the policy.It seems those who produce and use such equipment don't see the danger in making it available to countries that are struggling economically and politically and don't have the best records in the area of human rights.

They should look more closely. The possibility of an arms race among the neighboring nations threatens the progress they have made in forming trade alliances and ending border wars.

The claim that increased arms sales would mean more jobs for Americans is not justified. The market for weapons is limited unless a war or arms race develops. Americans would be better off working to produce and sell other goods with better repeat sales.

There is little cause for concern that other countries will take over the weapons market in Latin America. The United States already controls 22 percent of the market there, double the market share of the nearest competitor.

But to relieve that concern, Clinton should encourage our allies to refrain from selling weapons in the region by assuring them current U.S. restrictions will remain in place.

It is in America's best interest to help improve the economies of Latin American nations to boost exports and investment opportunities. Encouraging an arms race or inciting a war would only damage our neighbors' chances to become major economic players.