Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Forget the Peace Dividend?

No budget worries in peacetime? Colombian soldiers in training.
In yet another move to buy the military's support for a likely peace deal with the guerrillas, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas tells the Wall Street Journal that post-peace treaty Colombia will not cut defense spending.

That makes no strategic sense, of course, since Colombia faces no significant foreign threats (and less than ever, with Venezuela's soldiers patrolling supermarkets). But it does make sense for a government determined to keep military leaders backing the peace negotiations which would make them less relevant. Colombia has already been criticized by human rights advocates for broadening military courts' jurisdiction for crimes committed by soldiers.

No new hi-tech toys, please.
Not cutting back South America's second-largest military budget (after only that of the much-larger Brazil) also makes no sense when Colombia is scrambling to stretch its budget in the face of plummeting world oil prices. Does it really make sense to pay soldiers rather than, say, doctors, schoolteachers or construction workers on Bogotá's much-dreamed-of metro system?

Besides all of that, peace will bring tens of billions of dollars of its own costs, including rural investment and integrating ex-fighters into society.

Last year, Colombia spent 3.4% of its gross domestic product on the military, actually an increase from the previous year. That's apparently not including the huge police force, which often carries out military-like functions. In contrast, Venezuela spent 1.2% of its GDP on its military, Brazil 1.4% and Ecuador 3%. Argentina spent 0.7% and tiny Uruguay 1.9%. None of those nations got invaded, so what's Colombia worried about? (All numbers come from The World Bank.)

The $15 billion which Colombia budgets for defense is about the same that it spends on its educational system, which badly needs a boost.

Of course, Colombia will get other important benefits from any peace deal, including reduced violence, expanded government control of remote parts of the country, a better international image and an estimated 2% increase in economic growth. Pres. Santos has also said that he will end obligatory military service for young men. That would end a patently unjust system, since the wealth pay their way out of service.

But if Colombia intends to maintain its military budget after the armed conflict ends, please God don't let them blow the money on useless hi-tech toys like fighter jets and submarines. In peacetime, Colombian soldiers can play a useful role patrolling against illegal mining and logging, not to mention protecting neighborhoods from the criminal gangs which will continue trafficking Colombian cocaine.

In the same WSJ interview, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said as much. Hopefully, the government will match its words with pesos.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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