Friday, August 31, 2007

Truly Universal Military Service in Colombia

As I learned from my Colombian friends in the UK, Colombia has a universal military service requirement for all 18 year old men. After exiting high school, men are required to serve up to 18 months and their assignment is random. That means, that some will end up in Bogotá in a relatively low risk environment (parked on a street corner with a rifle) while others will be sent to the heart of the jungle to get after the FARC.

But, this requirement has a clear exemption. Wealthy or well-off families can pay a fee to avoid service. I always assumed that this was an under the table kind of deal but it’s actually a legally established exemption. The result is, of course, that men from wealthy families pay the money and never serve.

The government is now proposing new legislation to close that loophole.

This is good news. The economic and social stratification in this country will never narrow if the well off can simply pay money to avoid serving in the military. As long as the poor pay the price of the ongoing narco-war, it will continue. For too long the elite of Colombian society have been able to distance themselves from the conflict and act as if they were not active participants in it. By forcing everyone to serve, the government will create incentives for the conflict to end namely because the wealthy will be forced to take a direct interest in concluding the war.

Everyone here is responsible. The architect that gets rich selling giant penthouses to drug lords is part of it. The average Colombian who takes no interest or actively avoids confronting the truth of rural areas is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
Of late, there have been a number of movies highlighting this point. Hopefully this means that the culture is changing. For too long Colombians have been permitted to turn a blind eye to the conflict, to take an attitude that if it doesn’t affect me, then it’s not my problem. Forcing all Colombians to serve equally is the first step to making all Colombians, rich and poor, that they have an equal stake in the conflict.

UPDATE: It's a bit more complicated than what I described. The English language media basically ignored a lot of the finer points (the money to pay is on a sliding scale, the government wants to change the law in response to the Supreme Court striking down the payment provision, etc) but the sublties aren't particularly important for my post. If the new law makes everyone serve together, that's a good thing. Of course, it's Colombia, so now wealthy families are just going to pay under the table, but that's another issue altogether.



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