Should Colombia’s Military Industry Grow in a Post-Conflict Scenario?

Posted on Jan 21 2014 - 1:29pm by Rico
(Photo: Foreign Ministry)

Colombian Ministry of Defense told EFE at the end of 2013 that the Colombian military had received over 450 million dollars in revenue that year. Now that a peace agreement between the FARC and the government is on the horizon, the public ministry will need to brainstorm how to redirect those resources. In particular, if the deal is reached, it will significantly reduce the need for domestic use of military weapons. Under these circumstances, the Colombian armed forces have begun to anticipate future use for their military expertise, and ensure the continuation of this prosperous industry.

The armed forces are “ready to conquer new markets by selling innovative products” to the world, said vice minister of defense, José Javier Pérez. Colombia also “has a great participation in the military industries of Central America and the Caribbean through consultancies in aerial and naval interjections” while “África and South American regions have potential” for increased business.

These declarations signal a latent paradox: now that Colombia is a step away from signing a peace agreement, will the end of a domestic conflict contribute to armed conflicts abroad? Does ending a conflict in Colombia mean fueling military action in Central America, neighboring countries and conflict ridden African states?  This article sheds some light on the logic of war and military expansion and traces a short history of Colombia’s military developments under US assistance. Using world literature and recent military reporting, I aim to challenge Colombia’s military future prospects.

The logic of war and the perpetuation of poverty

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic work that explores the logic behind war, military expansion and social control. In this brilliant mid-20th century dystopian novel, Orwell provides a few key points to understand why internal peace may promote war abroad. Orwell explains that the end of war is to maintain a hierarchical society, through the perpetuation of poverty in some sectors of the population. The means to achieve such a goal is the state’s perpetual expansion of military capabilities.

Specifically, in Part II, Chapter IX, under the figure of a clandestine book designed to explain the novel’s main character his contemporary political context, Orwell writes:

“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of spending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed.”

Orwell reasons that war is a tool of social control that maintains the status quo by ensuring the precarious living conditions of politically marginal populations—in Colombia, these would include indigenous peoples and afro-Colombians, small-scale campesinos, low-wage workers, among others. If people had a minimum standard of living guaranteed and universal educational access, people would have the strength and resources to challenge hierarchical governing structures—such as a centralized government running all decisions from Bogotá, or any given capital city.

Since war industry produces goods unnecessary for human development, it receives large amounts of resources under the banner of “national security” while it simultaneously sidetracks the governmental duty to eliminate poverty. How many times have government technocrats claimed there is not enough money for welfare or poverty alleviation programs, while millions of dollars are spent daily on war equipment? Reminiscent of the blockbuster movie The Hunger Games this past winter, the theory is simple: the creation of a social dynamic—call it war, the hunger games or a world-wide anti-terrorist crusade—displaces the populace’s attention from their material reality— their poverty, hunger or repression—and moves it to the internal script of that manufactured social dynamic.

In the Colombian case, the social dynamic enacted to evade persisting social inequalities was Uribe’s oxymoronic “democratic security”—oxymoronic because security policy has done everything but promote substantive democracy. In 2010, this policy took over 84,3% of the nation’s budget, from which 20,9 billion COP were destined toward the defense and security sector. Most importantly, however, is the fact that said amount was ten times the budget allocated for higher education. This stark contrast is what economists call the Production Possibility Frontier; for every additional gun that is produced with the nation’s budget, a student won’t be able to access public higher education.

Uribe’s policy had an extraordinarily resemblance to 1984 and The Hunger Games’ fictional worlds. On the one hand, wiretapping of dissident voices and forceful incorporation of civilians into the armed conflict turned people in small rural communities against each other. The democratic security paradigm ruled that “anyone could be a guerilla or narco-terrorist,” thus civilians needed to become army informants or soldiers themselves. In such constant search for the enemy within, the policy forcefully involved civilians into the script of war, thereby negating these communities’ social space to assembly and challenge their oppression. On the other hand, the exorbitant allocation of state resources to the war industry represented a strategic way to direct resources toward “security” at the expense of poverty alleviation, as current president Juan Manuel Santos noted last week. As such, how can one ignore Orwell’s lucid writings when assessing Colombia’s contemporary context?

Orwell reveals that “the need for national security” is a mystifying discourse intended to neutralize popular uprisings and the struggle for equity and egalitarianism. Most importantly, that the social dynamic of war conveniently allows governments to evade their legal responsibility to end poverty.

Fueling the Colombian military: US aid and assistance

The other side of the coin regarding endless military expansion is how US-Colombia military cooperation packages are designed. Since the late 1990s, programs such as Plan Colombia have prioritized lobbying groups’ quest for monetary benefits over evidence-based policies. Though one would expect policy to be based on rigorous empirical studies advanced by a broad and ideologically diverse group of constituencies, the fact of the matter is that groups who have a vested interest in receiving economic rewards for transnational aid programs largely design these policies.

Plan Colombia began in July 2000, when the U.S. Congress approved the Clinton administration’s request for “emergency” aid to Colombia and its neighbors. “Of the initial $860 million for Colombia, three-quarters went to the country’s security forces. Over the next ten years, successive U.S. administrations would provide Colombia with an additional $6.5 billion, with the same three-quarters going to Colombia’s army, navy, air force and police”, noted a comprehensive report by two major human rights advocacy organizations in Washington D.C. in 2011. The data speaks of an undeniable support from the US to kick-start the Colombian military, which made the North American country a major contributor to the Colombia’s now 450 million dollar annual revenues for the military.

Critical analysts have denounced that Plan Colombia as not constituting an aid program, but rather a way of subsidizing the military industrial complex in the United States. When debated in US congress, Plan Colombia’s discussions were primarily concerned about the share of the package that would go to military helicopter manufacturers—such as Sikorsky, the Black Hawk producer. Such discussions also meant the policy design would come at the expense of substantive research on the impact that Plan Colombia would have for Colombians on the ground—as evidenced by the human and ecological costs of aerial fumigation. In fact, at the time of Plan Colombia’s policy discussions in Congress, reporters warned about “the emergence of a narco-industrial complex: a proliferation of U.S. companies lining up, with congressional support, to obtain public money for anti-drug campaigns overseas.”

Black Hawk helicopters were a major driving force behind approving such a militaristic Plan Colombia, but these helicopters would make news over a decade later because they had turned out to be an ineffective anti-insurgent strategy. “The story was always the same. U.S.-provided Black Hawk helicopters would ferry Colombian troops into the jungle about six kilometers away from a camp. The men would creep through the dense foliage, but the camps were always empty by the time they arrived. Later they learned that the FARC had an early-warning system: rings of security miles from the camps” wrote Dana Priest in a controversial article on the Washington Post titled Covert Action in Colombia published during Christmas week last year.

Since the helicopters were not doing the job properly, Priest documents, US officials began to funnel smart bombs to Colombia through the CIA. These new weapons contained a “$30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb.” The new equipment was “capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.” From black hawk earmarked manufacturing to smart bomb developments, Priest’s article highlights how military equipment evolved to assist the Colombian army in combating rebels. The issue, however, is that the renovation of weapons and equipment will progress eternally unless the underlying logic of war is challenged and subverted.

Plan Colombia’s technical evolution supports Orwell’s lucid remark that weapon production conveniently spends labor power on products that do not sustain life whatsoever. This war manufacturing industry comes at the expense of producing goods that could ameliorate the lives of Colombians on the ground.

War without borders—Made in Colombia

In a post conflict scenario, what will be the new novelty good to waste public resources on? That is, what will follow the mass production of Balck Hawk helicopters and GPS guided bombs? EFE’s reporting, with which I opened this article, hints at the answer (at least for the Colombian domestic market); the Colombian military already manufactures fluvial patrol boats for Brazil, ocean patrol boats for South Korea and provides Galil rifle parts to Israel.

If the war business continues beyond Havana peace negotiations, it will be clear that weapon production is not the means (war) to an end (ending conflict), but an end in itself. Such end, as Orwell reminds us, is to use up manufactured products without raising the general standard of living. This effect perpetuates poverty and guarantees the continuation of our hierarchical structures of power and domination. Given the Ministry of Defense’s revelation that the Colombian military will expand to international markets, the ministry will contribute to the perpetuation of poverty and hierarchical regimes, not only within Colombian borders, but globally.

The danger of continuing to expand the Colombian army’s capacity, beyond the confines of the internal armed conflict, is precisely the tradeoff between war and eliminating poverty. That is, the more weapons we produce, the less resources we will have to address and eradicate poverty. Thus, the summarizing question becomes: should Colombia’s military provide war expertise to the world without first eliminating poverty and inequality within?

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