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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Sat Mar 25 06:08:28 2000
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 23:11:53 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: OUTLOOK 2000/CENTRAL AMERICA: Doubtful Democracy
Article: 91938
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Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Doubtful Democracy

By Maricel Sequeira, IPS, 23 December 1999

SAN JOSE, Dec 23 (IPS) - Demilitarisation and democracy, the two processes intended to bring peace to Central America, begin the year 2000 incomplete and without the confidence of people in the region.

On the one hand, the armies of Central America have lost political power, although they have gained influence in the economic arena. On the other hand, although there are popularly elected governments in every country, the lack of equality in income distribution continues to plague the region.

That is the consensus of experts and non-governmental organisations regarding conditions in the region three years after the signing of the peace accord in Guatemala, in December 1996.

Factor Mendez, coordinator of the Central American Commission in Defence of Human Rights in Central America, argued that the region has made few significant gains.

Mendez attributed that situation to the persistence of high levels of military participation in public life in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, the countries that suffered through long civil wars.

Mendez added that, although these countries' military budgets have been cut, there has not been effective reinvestment of those funds into social development.

"The indices of health, living standards and employment have not shown improvements for large sectors of the population. It's true that in a five-year period, it difficult to gauge the impact of demilitarisation. (But) what is clear, is that we don't know where the money that used to be earmarked for the military budget has gone," he said.

Mendez believes there is stagnation in some countries on this issue, while others have actually regressed, since despite the fact that fewer resources are being funneled into the armed forces, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Military spending was significantly reduced in Central America after the advent of peace. El Salvador's military budget went from 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1989 to 1.9 percent in 1994, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Similar cuts were made in Guatemala (from 2.6 to 1.1 percent of GDP), in Honduras (from 8.4 to 1.3 percent) and in Nicaragua (from 28.3 to two percent).

At the same time, the armed forces in those countries were relieved of certain functions, which were then entrusted to civilian institutions. Among these, the role of the police was emphasised.

But as they lost political power, the armed forces were expanding their participation in the economic sector with activities over which democratic institutions, like the Office of Public Spending, have no control.

Research carried out by the Arias Peace Foundation and Swiss Development Agency found that the companies owned by Central American military officers ran the gamut, from industry to agriculture.

The report, titled "Solders as businessmen," said the banks of the armed forces in Honduras and Guatemala figured on the list of the biggest banking institutions in Central America.

The study cites statistics from the Latin American Federation of Banks, according to which in 1995, there were 106 banks operating in the region, together holding or moving some 14.654 billion dollars.

On that list, the Banco Ejercito (Bank of the Army) of Guatemala was number 36, with activities worth 116 million dollars. At number 57 figured the armed forces of Honduras, with activities worth 64 million dollars.

In its detailed recitation of the military-owned businesses in each country, the study also planted doubts about the sources of the initial capital and the "equality" of competitive bidding for state contracts with other private companies, among other things.

It also expressed concern over the fact that in some cases, businesses are directly competing for police functions, such as private security.

Private guards are commonplace in capitals throughout the region - for example, soldiers moonlighting as supermarket security.

Aside from the ethical questions raised by the armed forces' change of direction into profit-making activities, since the arrival of peace, their very existence makes less sense.

Arnoldo Brenes, ex-director of the programme Central American Dialogue for Security and Demilitarisation of the Arias Peace Foundation, indicated that the region has been unable to resolve the dilemma of whom the modern armed forces really serve.

"There are no circumstances in the isthmus today that justify the presence of armies, because there are no more armed insurgencies and it is very improbable that one country will attack another, just as a foreign invasion is very remote," he said.

However, if the armed forces are being maintained just to avoid worsening unemployment, then "that is a different thing, a socioeconomic problem," he said.

Brenes thinks that the demilitarisation process in the region has been highly successful. "In 10 years, we have seen democracy take root, and there are legitimate, elected governments," he stated.

But he agrees that, in the social arena, there have been few advances.

The State of the Region 1999, the first regional "snapshot" taken by the UNDP, reveals that three of every five Central Americans are poor, and two in five live in extreme poverty or indigence.

In broader terms, it is estimated that more than half of the region's population is poor.

Indicators reflecting this poverty include the fact that some 11 million of Central America's 30 million population lack access to health services.

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have the lowest levels of access to health care. On top is Costa Rica, where health services are almost universally available.

In addition, more than 10 million people (29 percent of the population) lack potable water, the vast majority living in rural areas.

In El Salvador, for example, 76 percent of the rural population has no clean drinking water, while in Nicaragua, it is 72 percent. The primary victims of this situation are indigenous communities.

In Honduras, the life expectancy of the ethnic Peches and Lencas is 39 and 47 years, respectively, for men, and 42 and 57 years for women, while the average life expectancy of the general population is 65.4 years.

In Guatemala, 86.6 percent of indigenous people lived below the poverty line in 1989. The percentage was 53.9 percent for non- indigenous people.

Regarding Nicaragua, the report stresses that in 1995, nearly 66 percent of the indigenous population lacked access to education, their school drop-out rate was 40 percent, and 70 percent were jobless.

It is estimated that 60 percent of Central Americans are indigenous. (END/IPS/mso/dg-mj/ip-if-dv/ks/99)


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