It sounds like something off John Lennon’s wishlist on Imagine, but there are currently more than 20 countries in the world who have chosen to dispense with defence (or attacking) forces to bring peace and stability to their countries. Instead of vast amounts of money spent on equipping and paying the military, these funds are available to finance worthier projects such as education, health initiatives and old age. Two of these countries are in Latin America: Costa Rica and Panama. In both cases, the decision was nothing to do with flower power or bed-ins, but pragmatic thinking to bring peace and stability to their countries.
In 1948, Costa Rica experienced a short but bloody internal conflict, following disputed elections. After victory, opposition leader Jose Figueres made a declaration: ‘The Regular Army of Costa Rica today gives the key to its military base to the schools… The Government hereby declares the National Army officially abolished.’ The decision was signed into the Constitution a year later.
Abolishing the army was evolutionary not revolutionary though, says Ivan Molina, a Costa Rican historian at the University of Costa Rica and coeditor of The Costa Rica Reader. ‘Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Costa Rican army had begun to lose importance. This was primarily due to a redistribution of the national budget for spending on education, health and pensions. And throughout the twentieth century, peace had been a key content of the Costa Rican national identity. The abolition of the army was more the culmination of a long process, rather than a sudden transformation.
‘The abolition of the army avoided the military forces that won the 1948 civil war becoming a key political player,’ he adds.
40 years later, Panama followed Costa Rica’s lead. In 1989, the US Government invaded Panama to remove the country’s military dictator Manuel Noriega and put President Guillermo Endara in his place. The following year, President Endara abolished Panama’s army, creating in its place the Panamanian Public Force (PPF), which included a National Police Force, National Air Service and National Maritime Service, and was intended to have limited military capacities. As in Costa Rica, the change was added to the constitution; Panama prohibited the existence of a standing military in the country.
Costa Rica has not had an army for over 60 years, Panama for around 20. In both cases it’s been judged a success. ‘Both countries abolished their militaries following periods of extreme national crisis and overt militarism’ says Dr Robert C Harding, author of The History Of Panama.
‘For both, the elimination of a permanent military was seen by policymakers as a way to ensure a transition toward a more peaceful future and to guard against resurgent militarism. Costa Rica has used the absence of a military as a building block to create a peaceful social democracy. Panama is still in transition, but demilitarisation has been very successful in preventing a recurrence of military intervention in national politics, which was commonplace from the country’s birth in 1903 to the invasion.’
There are other advantages, too. Colombia spends 3.7 per cent and Guatemala 0.4 per cent of their GDP on their militaries. That money could be put to use elsewhere, in development, education, tourism, conservation.
Costa Rica, for example, has set itself the ambitious target of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021. The millions it saves go towards this. ‘Because Costa Rica has no army, it has more funds for social programmes, social investment and social capital building,’ says Dr. Victor Valle, Associate Vice Rector of the UN-mandated University For Peace in Costa Rica. ‘But the most important outcome is that in Costa Rica there is a culture more inclined to civilian rule and peaceful conflict settlement. The Panamanian case is more recent but the effects will be similar: more funds for social change and a more civilian-oriented culture.’
The absence of an army is, particularly in Costa Rica, a source of national pride, according to Ivan Molina.
‘Since the nineteenth century, Costa Ricans have sought to differentiate themselves in cultural and symbolic terms, and to build a power that is not based on military force, but on its social, political, cultural and environmental achievements. Costa Ricans are proud to say that Costa Rica is a country with more teachers than soldiers. However, it should be noted that since the first half of the twentieth century, Costa Rica has entrusted its defence to the United States, directly or indirectly.’
It is not entirely clear where the money goes, though, says Molina. ‘Certainly, the fact of having no army has allowed public resources to be directed primarily to meeting the needs of the population, health and education. However, these resources have also been oriented to promote various forms of capital accumulation, often by corrupt means.’
Dr Harding makes the point that the knock-on effect isn’t clear in Panama either:
‘While Panamanian politicians have argued the peace dividend would find its way into social spending, this has not been the case, though the military budget was never very large to begin with – at most US$30 million annually.’
Not having an army brings its own problems. ‘Of course, there are challenges,’ says Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, author of What If Latin America Ruled The World? ‘Chief among them, what happens if you do it but your neighbours or potential enemies do not?’
Does not having an army have an impact on a country’s standing in the region and in the world?
‘This was more the case before, than it is now,’ suggests Guardiola-Rivera. ‘Brazil is a good case in point. It does have an army, but has renounced the obvious next step in the evolution of a country’s army which is to equip it with nuclear weapons. It leads by example, not by hardest power, and it works. Its standing hasn’t been diminished because of its position on nuclear militarisation. In fact, because of its position it has gained clout and is seen as a trustworthy actor and negotiator. The same goes for Costa Rica.
‘Costa Rica and Brazil, in their different ways, have shown to themselves and to the world that actually acting with such maturity makes them more respectable in the eyes of the US than the attitude of an unconditional ally under armed protectorship.’
Could the no army idea spread? Many believe other countries could benefit, especially if their military is propping up a dictatorship or creating instability. Costa Rica’s former President, Dr Oscar Arias Sanchez has made the case for demilitarisation in some Africa countries:
‘I do believe, and I have made this argument with African presidents, that it is vital for leaders to start making demilitarisation a central priority of their governments…. I agree that the threat of invasion makes it more difficult for a country to contemplate demilitarisation. Indeed, the very purpose of an army is to protect a country from external aggression. But if you look at the real role of the military in Africa, you will see that it is the backbone of dictators and an instrument of internal repression.’
Dr Valles also believes the idea has the potential to spread, not least in Latin America. ‘There is a dream: a world with neither armies nor weapons,’ he says. ‘My personal opinion is that the Central American countries – Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – should start a process of dismantling and abolishing their armies and reinforcing the police forces. They would have more funds for social development. It could be a good historical legacy of the first half of the twenty-first century.’
Instead of vast amounts of money spent on equipping and paying the military, these funds are available to finance worthier projects such as education, health initiatives and old age.