The Fuel for a Coup

By Oscar Arias
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Latin America is enveloped in a climate of uncertainty and turmoil that I had hoped our region would never experience again. The recent coup d'├ętat in Honduras, which has embroiled that country in a constitutional crisis, has provided a sad reminder that despite the progress our region has made, the errors of our past are still all too close. I have been asked by the leaders of our region to serve as the mediator in this crisis. Once again, we must trust that dialogue -- so often scorned as too slow or too simple -- is the only path to peace and the light that can guide us through these dark hours.

The resolution of the Honduran conflict will be known in time. Yet we need not see into the future to know that this incident should serve as a wake-up call for the hemisphere. We should recognize that such events are not random acts. They are the result of systematic errors and missteps that many of us have been warning about for decades. They are the price we pay for one of our region's greatest follies: its reckless military spending.

This coup d'├ętat demonstrates, once more, that the combination of powerful militaries and fragile democracies creates a terrible risk. It demonstrates, once more, that until we improve this balance, we will always leave open the door to those who would obtain power through force -- whether a little or a great deal, approved by the majority or only by a few. Furthermore, it shows what happens when our governments divert to their militaries resources that could be used to strengthen their democratic institutions, to build a culture of respect for human rights and to increase their levels of human development. Such foolish choices ensure that a nation's democracy is little more than an empty shell, or a meaningless speech.

This year alone, the governments of Latin America will spend nearly $50 billion on their armies. That's nearly double the amount spent five years ago, and it is a ridiculous sum in a region where 200 million people live on fewer than $2 a day and where only Colombia is engaged in an armed conflict. More combat planes, missiles and soldiers won't provide additional bread for our families, desks for our schools or medicine for our clinics. All they can do is destabilize a region that continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts.

None of this is news. These are skewed priorities that many of us have spent years struggling to change. These are skewed priorities that prompted the government of my country to propose the Costa Rica Consensus, which would create mechanisms to forgive debts and provide international aid to developing countries that spend more on education, health care, housing and environmental conservation, and less on weapons and war. This initiative would do more to defend human rights and protect regional democracies than any agreement or declaration ever could.

At one time in the history of the Americas, weapons and armies were associated with liberty and independence, and with new opportunities for our peoples. At one time in the history of the Americas, there were liberating armies. But today, we have seen far too many stories of tyranny, violations of human rights and political instability -- stories traced in the dust by the boots of our militaries. The liberating army we need in the Americas today is one of leaders who come together in peace, in the spirit of cooperation. We need an army of doctors and teachers, of engineers and scientists. We need a force that recognizes that only through development and liberty, through education and health care, through better priorities and wiser investments, can we achieve the stability we seek.

Two decades ago, when I introduced a peace plan designed to end the violence that was sweeping our region, I dreamed of a Central America that would embrace these principles. I hoped for a Central America that would become the world's first demilitarized region. Despite the tremendous gains and improvements we have made since that time, the recent events in Honduras have confirmed that this dream of peace is as urgent and as challenging as ever. Those of us who seek to protect democracies in this hemisphere have no time to waste. I urge all leaders in the Americas to see the Honduran crisis for what it is: an urgent call for the profound social and institutional changes our region has delayed for far too long.

The writer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, is serving his second term as president of Costa Rica.

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