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Nations of the Americas Rein In Their Armed Forces

As civil wars and communism fade, the need for large armies is called into question and civilians demand limits on the generals.


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — President Leonel Fernandez shocked his nation this month by forcibly retiring two dozen generals, encouraging his defense minister to submit to questioning by the civilian attorney general, then firing the defense minister for insubordination--all in a single week.

Dominicans braced for a military reaction. Nothing happened.

Less than three months after taking office, Fernandez had called the bluff of the Dominican armed forces that more than three decades ago were so powerful they overthrew his mentor, Juan Bosch. The president showed that the military no longer determines the fate of this nation, analysts said. In the process, Fernandez provoked a public discussion about what the role of a modern military should be.

"What is striking is that this debate is taking place in the press and in cafes like this one," said writer Andres L. Mateo, waving his hand to encompass the bustling balcony overlooking this city's trendiest supermarket. "This is an important change in the style of the government."

Civilians across the Caribbean and Central America are engaged in similar discussions as, for the first time, they take charge of deciding where the once-untouchable armed forces fit in their societies. With civil wars over and the threat posed by communism long past, the rationale for maintaining a strong army has evaporated, and citizens almost uniformly insist on clearly limiting the military role in new democracies.

Neighboring Haiti dissolved its feared and hated army altogether, replacing it with a civilian police force two years ago, following the example Costa Rica set half a century ago. Guatemala's 47,000-strong armed forces--and the defense budget--will shrink to two-thirds of their current size when a peace pact ends that nation's more than three decades of civil war, probably by year's end.

Other countries have already placed constitutional limits on military power and reinforced them with pragmatic measures such as eliminating the draft, which was often used to terrorize peasants. As civilians limit the power of the armed forces, they also are beginning to talk openly about subjects that were once taboo. Military corruption and human rights abuses are being revealed and prosecuted.

The United States has played an important part by sharply reducing the military aid that poured into the region during the civil wars of the 1980s while encouraging the armed forces to find new, peacetime missions.

Last summer's U.S.-sponsored joint military exercises with Central American and Caribbean nations at the Palmerola Air Base in Honduras simulated a peacekeeping mission in a fictional country. Instead of practicing an invasion or defense against a guerrilla attack as they did a decade ago, soldiers from more than a dozen nations coordinated computer-simulated sniper and crowd-control incidents.

Many observers saw the exercises as an attempt to restore morale to armed forces that have lost their sense of purpose now that the U.S. is backing peace talks instead of armed confrontations.

"The Honduran army, as it exists, was created and developed by the United States," one former Honduran officer said. "Now that the United States has changed its policy in the region, they are left without a mission."

In fact, the Honduran army has been left largely without foot soldiers. Keeping a campaign promise, President Carlos Roberto Reina ended the draft early this year, before the National Assembly had found financing for a volunteer army. As their hitches were up, draftees flooded from the barracks and no one took their place. Officers have no one to command.

"There is a tradition of physical mistreatment of recruits that makes people afraid" to enlist, Honduran political analyst Victor Meza said. "There is no economic incentive, because privates earn $4.50 a month."

While Honduras is an extreme case, armed forces across the region are indeed shrinking. Besides the planned reductions in Guatemala, Nicaragua's active military has been cut to 15,250 from 90,000 in 1990, when outgoing President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro took office, and from 134,000 at the height of the U.S.-backed civil war during the 1980s. El Salvador's armed forces, at fewer than 30,000 members, are smaller than the force of 32,000 soldiers authorized by the peace agreement signed almost five years ago.

Just as important as numbers, the structure of the armed forces has altered markedly. Nicaragua's army was founded by the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front rebels who overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. The army remained Sandinista-controlled until Chamorro separated the armed forces and police from the Sandinista party.

Although the soldiers are still overwhelmingly Sandinista, the military has become professional. For example, few Nicaraguans worry that the armed forces will play a role in settling the dispute over last month's elections, which the Sandinistas lost.

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