The countries of Latin America and the whole of the Third World possess an unexplored source of wealth: demilitarization.
As a citizen of Costa Rica, which disbanded its army in 1948, I can offer tangible proof of the benefits and dividends offered by the peace that our country has enjoyed in the decades since that decision.
Elimination of the army alone, and amending existing rules that in one way or another confer political agenda-making power on the military, will not solve all the problems related to the institutionization of democracy and the construction of a more just society. But in many Third World countries, a similar decision would remove one of the biggest obstacles to democratization, and would allow the people to enjoy their sovereignty in a climate of responsibility and security.
Putting an end to the interference of the armed forces in civilian life is sufficient reason for a nation to resort to the guarantees provided by international law and eliminate the institution of the army. Another, no less important, reason is that this would do away with the costly spending involved in maintaining military contingents and arsenals that stunts a nation's development potential. An immediate result of the unilateral disarmament proclaimed by Costa Rica in 1948 has been an annual peace dividend that, in 1987, stood at over $100 million.
In the same year, the government bodies that control the various police bodies (government ministries and public security) cost each Costa Rican $8 and a handful of cents. For the rest of Central America, Panama included, the cost per inhabitant of military institutions was almost $50.
There is no getting away from the fact that the amount of money Third World countries, despite their poverty, spend on their military budgets represents an act of aggression against the well-being of their peoples. United Nations studies show that numerous Latin American, African and Asian governments invest more in the military sector than in the education and health sectors together.
In recent years, many of these countries have embarked on structural adjustment programmes that involve huge social sacrifices, most visibly demonstrated by a deterioration in the attention paid to health and education. Only rarely do military institutions accept comparable restrictions.
What has taken place in Costa Rica has a material, countable value which helps explain a number of the outstanding $l achievements of the country in the fields of health, education, electricity supply, supply of drinking water and construction of public housing. At the same time, one has to recognize the other incalculable value represented by a political structure that incorporates institutional stability and a respect for human rights that underpins democratic progress.
It could be argued that, at the global level, the disarmament of Costa Rica and even of all Central America would have a completely insignificant impact. But its value as an example is immeasurable.
On a global scale, the problems of misery, ignorance, illness and environmental decay are piling up at the same time as humanity continues squandering astronomical sums of money in building up another equally monstrous accumulation of arsenals of conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Most of the responsibility for this inhuman waste lies with the industrialized nations and, above all, with the major powers. It might be argued that only they can take decisive steps towards demilitarization, that only they can generate a considerable saving of resources through the dismantling of the military, that they have the possibility of accumulating abundant peace dividends.
Those of us who have sounded the warning over armaments know one thing for sure. Most of all wealth that would be sufficient for doing away with misery, restoring the environment and developing nature for the benefit of humanity is concentrated in the most militarized societies of the world.
The ideal would be a concerted, simultaneous process of disarmament in all nations. Within this process, the heaviest responsibility would fall on the big, rich, super-militarized nations that have the duty of redistributing their wealth to close the misery gap that separates them from the poorest countries.
This said, however, if the small countries of Central America can give an example, we should rush to help them.
Oscar Arias Sanchez is the former president of Costa Rica. This commentary was distributed by Third World Network Features.