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Does Central America Need Armies?

Just hours before polling stations were to open Sunday morning to conduct a “consultation” among voters on amending the constitution of Honduras, military personnel raided the home of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, pulled him out of bed and put him on a plane to Costa Rica while he was still in pajamas.

It was a page torn out of the history books – a situation that had happened often in the region’s past – but Central Americans are still shaking their heads in disbelief that it has happened again.

“We kept thinking to ourselves that this is a return to those dark days in Latin America, and we are living it now,” said Isabel MacDonald, who had spent five years of her childhood in the mountainous country and had returned as an observer to the consultation that was to have taken place there on Sunday. “No one saw this coming.”

As international councils and neighboring countries work to reinstate the deposed president and return stability to Honduras, there’s a larger question that remains to be answered. It’s a question that leaders in Costa Rica have been asking at regional meetings for years, and it’s one that they hope will come to the forefront as soon as the current crisis in Honduras ends.

“Do Central American countries need militaries?” Luis Alberto Cordero, executive director for the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, asked rhetorically.

“The answer is ‘No.’ They do not have a role here.

“They aren’t needed in fighting poverty. They aren’t needed to rid the country of organized crime and we don’t need them for political elections,” continued Cordero, who’s watched Costa Rica develop without armed forces.

The foundation he heads has adopted a mission of demilitzariing the region, constantly raising the topic for debate at international forums.

But their message is one that most Central American countries have chosen to ignore.

The region spends over $300 million a year on armed forces (excluding Panama and Costa Rica, which don’t have militaries), according to numbers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Guatamala is the biggest spender at $149 million yearly, and El Salvador follows on its heels at $112 per year. Honduras spends the third most at $75 million per year, according to 2007 numbers.

One barrier to dissolving armed forces in some Central American countries is that militaries have involved themselves in services like providing electricity and repairing roads, Cordero said.

“To suggest to them (an elimination) of armed forces… it’s not even fathomable,” he said.

But Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is not letting that stem his long-time campaign.

“My dream is to convert Central America into the first demilitarized region,” he said at a press conference this week. “The challenge is big, but countries as poor as (ours) don’t need to waste money on arms.”

Author Carlos Blanco, professor of Latin American studies at BostonUniversity in Massachusetts in the United States, is not sure that ridding Honduras of its army is the best solution.

“The military is a necessary institution… for one specific thing, national defense,” said Blanco, who teaches a course exclusively on the Latin American military. “It’s not for domestic security. It’s not needed to meddle in political affairs. It’s not even necessary for the fight against drug trafficking. But the military has a role for peacekeeping missions and some domestic situations (like a tragedy or natural disaster.)”

To prevent militaries from intervening in future political affairs, Blanco said, it’s important to limit their resources so that their power and political involvement don’t grow to the extent that they can overthrow the government.

Yet, Costa Rica has gotten along fine without an army for more than 60 years, Cordero said. Since President José Figueres dismissed the military in 1949, there has not been a conflict that couldn’t be resolved by police, firemen or other government institutions, he said.

Cordero, whose San José office faces the one-time military barracks that have since been converted into a museum, said, “With a disarmament…the situation in Honduras could have absolutely been prevented.”

Level of Military

Spending (in millions)

2007                                                     Percentage GDP

Belize                                       $11.6 (2006)                                          1 percent

Costa Rica*                               $0

El Salvador                                $112                                                     .6 percent

Guatemala                                 $149                                                      .4 percent

Honduras                                  $75.2                                                    .7 percent

Mexico                                       $3,931                                                  .4 percent

Nicaragua                                  N/A                                                       N/A

Panama**                                  $0

United States                            $524,591                                               4 percent

Venezuela                                  $2,262 1                                                .3 percent

* Costa Rica has no armed forces. Expenditure for paramilitary forces, border guard, and maritime and air surveillance is less than 0.05% of GDP.

* *The Panamanian defence forces were disbanded in 1990 and replaced by the national guard, consisting of the national police and the air and maritime services.

SOURCE: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute



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