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Armies for peace

Latin America’s armed forces, once synonymous with political intervention and repression, are rarely in the news these days. The region’s citizens are less likely to be worried about a coup than about jobs, health, or their children’s education.

But while the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere, nearly every Latin American country has been engaged in a delicate restructuring of the relationship between military and civilian power.

Military reform is rarely seen as a sexy issue by politicians, who know it is not much of a vote getter. The armed forces themselves are naturally resistant to interventions that might diminish their privileges and power. Nevertheless, military reform has made slow but considerable advances in Latin America and the Caribbean during the last 20 years.

Perhaps the most significant single indicator of this evolution is the fact that ministries of defense are now run by civilians in practically all the region’s countries. Traditionally, that position was reserved for a senior uniformed official, a fact that underscored the autonomy of the armed services from the rest of government. Chile, a country once well-known for the influence of its armed forces, provides the starkest example of how much it has changed. Its ministry of defense is now headed by a civilian woman, Michelle Bachelet, who is also a socialist and the daughter of a Chilean general who was tortured to death in jail under the Pinochet dictatorship (see, Stepping in front of the ranks, link at right).

Latin American countries have also gleaned insights from older, more established democracies that have had to make similar transformations in the not-so-distant past. For obvious historical reasons, the case of Spain is particularly relevant. Narcis Serra y Serra was one of the first civilians to serve as minister of defense in Spain when it had just emerged from the long military dictatorship under Franco after the Spanish Civil War. Over the course of nine years, Serra worked to democratize, modernize and professionalize a military establishment whose authority had reached far beyond acceptable boundaries for a modern democratic system. This process was considered so risky that a contemporary politician compared it to “giving a manicure to a tiger.”

However, the beast proved less ferocious than expected. Agreements signed with the European Community and NATO required many of changes that Serra was charged with implementing. The participation of Spanish forces in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in support of the United Nations or NATO, for example, helped give a new role and legitimacy to the military.

Serra is now advising the IDB on military reform under Bank initiatives to promote modernization of the state in the region. During a recent visit to the Bank, he spoke with IDBAmérica about the status of military reform in Latin America.

IDBAmérica: Latin American countries are in the process of democratizing many of their institutions. Is reform of the armed forces part of this process or a separate case?

Serra: Democratization of the armed forces is a multiphase process that begins with a transition phase. Practically all the countries in Latin America have had military dictatorships, some quite recently. Many of them are at this first stage, in which the armies are no longer involved in politics. Among other changes, conflicts have been reduced, legislation on national defense has been passed, with newly defined mandates for the civilian defense minister, and a state intelligence agency has been established with civilian oversight for military intelligence. It is crucial that the military presence be reduced in the branches of government that are civilian in nature, such as policymaking and security, and in other less important areas such as air and maritime transportation.

Some countries have moved on to the second phase, in which the government prepares a military policy, military privileges are eliminated, and the concept of a professional military is developed. However, even though a civilian is at the helm of the ministry of defense, quite often he lacks the administrative means to direct military policy.

As for reform of military justice, most of the countries in Latin America still do not present the necessary conditions. They tend to stumble on the serious problem of accountability for crimes committed during dictatorships and armed conflicts.

IDBAmérica: What immediate obstacles need to be overcome for these reforms to flourish?

Serra: Based on my experience, I’ve concluded that there are two problems, one in society at large and one in the military. The problem in society at large is that until a democracy has been consolidated, people are not convinced that everything has to be organized according to a democratic process. In many countries, if the state is not meeting its obligations—in terms of education and health, for example—how are citizens supposed to believe that the armed forces should follow the democratic process as well? The problem is not usually just the military. It stems from weak government institutions and the attitudes of the leaders and the political elite. As the philosopher Jaime Balmes said, referring to 19th century Spain, “the state is not weak because the military is strong; the military is strong because the state is weak.”

The military has been shifting towards a more professional approach to the army, but not in all the countries and only very gradually. The military tends to consider itself an independent institution, with its own interests and role to play within the government apparatus. However, in stable democracies, such as in Western Europe, the armed forces are part and parcel of the state apparatus, just as teachers and doctors are. Achieving this status requires time and a phased-in program to transform the military mentality, accepting the fact that the military is useful as a piece of the government apparatus that specializes in security and the use of force by the state.IDBAmérica: Many of the region’s countries are still dealing with former guerrilla fighters, members of paramilitary groups, and armed forces with controversial and unresolved human rights records. Do these issues hinder democratization or are they a separate problem?

Serra: The end of internal conflicts does not mean an end of these problems. Just ask El Salvador. The current situation is much better than before but the problems haven’t been resolved. The former guerrilla fighters have no work, there is an economic crisis, and the standard of living has declined. These factors have led to an increase in insecurity and crime.

The problem of adjusting the armed forces to a democratic system is compounded if the army was involved in an internal conflict, like a civil war. In Latin America, this situation has occurred quite frequently. In Spain, the transition of the military to a more democratic regime occurred many years after our civil war had ended, when the wounds had already healed. This is not the case in many countries in Latin America.

IDBAmérica: How do average citizens become aware of the democratization of their military forces? Do they even notice it?

Serra: One of the best ways to improve the image of the military is to seek smart missions that promote democracy and governability around the world. In Europe, specifically in Spain, the missions that legitimized the armed forces were to support the United Nations, for instance for the referendum for the independence of Namibia, the Yugoslav crisis, or disarmament of the Nicaraguan Contras. It was a very positive factor for armies to be useful abroad. I strongly advocated expanding the Spanish army missions with the United Nations. In many countries the armed forces can be observed carrying out humanitarian missions, for instance in the wake of natural disasters. In Latin America, they have made major contributions to society. Their involvement not only helps peacekeeping efforts around the world, it also puts the military in contact with the military of other countries and accustoms them to fighting for peace rather than waging war.

Another way for the army to play a positive role is through regional cooperation to foster trust between neighbors and coordinate the work of their military. In the Southern Cone, an excellent example is Argentina and Chile. The two countries were on the verge of armed conflict due to border problems, but now they closely cooperate with each other. For instance, Argentina’s biggest warship was modernized in Chile.

IDBAmérica: Let’s talk about budgets. During a recent speech at the IDB, former Costa Rican president Carlos Arias discussed the issue of military spending and said that keeping military budgets a secret was “a form of corruption.” What do you think?

Serra: Transparency is crucial. Military security should not be associated with shadowy dealings and a lack of transparency. There is currently no reason for any country not to be fully transparent about military spending. Governments need to oversee military spending and have decision making authority. Moreover, governments and legislatures should cooperate on defense issues. The association between the military and secrecy needs to be replaced with an association between security and transparency.

The region does not invest that much in military spending, when measured as a percent of each country’s gross domestic product, so I don’t think the spending level is the main problem. And I think it would be utopian to believe that the military could disappear from Latin America one day, since the issue is linked very closely to the idea of national sovereignty.

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