Lost Opportunities : Military Spending in Latin America

Óscar Arias Sánchez
President of the Republic

Auditorio Nacional, Museo de los Niños
19th of March, 2010


I am here because the organizers of this event wanted it to be inaugurated by the biggest nerd in Costa Rica… but Franklin Chang could only speak at eleven thirty. Because I also meet some of the requirements, they asked me to do it. My good friend, Roberto Sasso, also assured me that the auditorium would be filled with nerds like he and myself. But there are people here who are far too good looking. This means one of two things: either Roberto was wrong, or we are improving as a social species. If this is how nerds are looking nowadays, I think I must be the missing link in the evolutionary chain.

I see that I am several months older than you. About 400 or 500 months. But that is irrelevant. A person is as old as his or her ideas. When it comes down to chasing exciting ideas, I could be the twin brother of the youngest person with us here today. It is from that youth of thought, where the strength for change is born, that I want to address you this morning.

I have come here to speak about Latin America. I have come here to speak about the crazy cousin of humanity. I have come here to speak about that region which, as someone once said, could turn Kafka into a traditionalist. One cannot find a sliver of land in this world that is more filled with prodigies and contradictions. One cannot find a spot in this world where universal writers and illiterate peasants, political statesmen and military dictators, rich charlatans and poor intellectuals, puritan souls and unredeemable partiers, can live together in such disorder. We were born in the center of a cup which decants the best and the worst of the nectars of our species. This makes us prone to the absurd, but it also makes us sensitive to miracles: it is because Latin America is infinitely diverse, that its possibilities are also endless.


Imagine, for an instant, what our region would be like if we gave more power to programmers and designers, instead of to colonels and generals. If we allotted our resources to buying more books and computers, instead of more missiles and war tanks. If instead of high walls and fenced gates, our borders shared high-tension cables or fiber optic networks. If instead of repeating in our schools the eternal history of our war campaigns, our young students had the opportunity to attend conferences like this one. Imagine that Latin America of which I speak, desire it, want it… and roll up your sleeves, because it’s up to us to build it.

I believe that all of us here are chasing the same utopia: that of a region where development reaches the majority of the population; where all young people complete, at the very least, their secondary education; where each and every inhabitant has internet access and a mobile phone; where there is enough work for everyone and a universal health care system; where crime doesn’t rob us of hope; where poverty is no longer the bane of our people; where environmental degradation doesn’t threaten to erase the traces of human existence.

We are far from reaching that utopia. 42% of the world’s firearm homicides occur in Latin America, a place where less than 10% of the world population lives.

One out of three young Latin Americans never sets foot in a secondary school classroom, and only one in ten manages to enroll in a university. As a result, our young people spend, on average, a meager 8 years in school.

A third of the population in Latin America currently lives in poverty. Women and children bear the brunt of this scourge, which has its roots in the tremendous failure of our governments to reap the fruits of democracy, and raise the standard of living of our people.

Around 66% of the world’s loss in forest coverage that took place during the XXIst century, occurred in Latin America, which has also been a victim of the terrible consequences of climate change.  We are the most unequal region of the planet. Thousands of people in our nations die each year due to preventable diseases. Only a fraction of our inhabitants know how to use the internet. Our democracies are weak. Our innovation is stunted. But even though our past is a collection of missed opportunities, we are not a failed region. If there is something that Latin America does have, it’s potential.

Achieving that potential requires money. I have come here to tell you where we can get it. There is a savings account in the bank of time. A sum which until now we have not wished to touch: Latin American military expenditure. Last year, countries in the region allotted around 60 billion dollars to their armies. That is the cost of war. But, what would happen if we spent those resources differently? What would happen if we turned the costs of war into the dividends of peace?

If Latin American countries reduced their military spending by half, they could increase their investment in research and development by 1% of their Gross Domestic Product. In the case of certain countries such as El Salvador or Ecuador, this increase could be far greater.

But perhaps we might think that cutting military spending in half is too much. In that case, if Latin American countries reduced their spending on weapons and soldiers by a quarter, they would have enough resources to buy 150 million computers from the One Laptop per Child program. If they do this, a computer could be given to each and every child that is currently in the schooling system.

But perhaps we still might think that cutting military spending by a quarter is also exagerated. In that case, if Latin American countries reduced their spending on weapons and soldiers by 10%, there would be enough money to install free WiFi in the main cities of our region, enhancing opportunities for our people, who live mostly in urban areas.

And if you think a tenth is too much, I’m here to tell you that if Latin American countries reduced their military expenditure by just 5%, it would still be enough to  grant scholarships, such as the ones from the “Avancemos” program that my government introduced, for one year to 3 million young people. If they restrained themselves from buying just one armed helicopter, thousands of schoolchildren could be fed throughout their primary education. If they restrained themselves from buying just one combat airplane, they could protect dozens of square kilometers of forest. And if they stopped paying the salary of just one of their soldiers, they could pay the salary of at least one English teacher.

These are the dividends of peace. This is what Latin America would gain if it stopped betting on the Russian roulette of military spending. I have been speaking about this incessantly for 25 years. I have been speaking for 25 years to ears that don’t want to listen. Some may say that it’s not worth continuing the fight. But I assure you that conditions have changed. 25 years ago, it was not possible for the average citizen to start up a blog on any given day, or to have that blog become even more widely read than a newspaper or a magazine. It was not possible to create a Facebook group and convene, in a matter of weeks, 3 million people to rally around a proposal. It was not possible to turn a home video into a world-wide sensation.

This is the world that made Susan Boyle famous, with the power of a click. This is the world where Wikipedia has practically displaced encyclopedias, which for centuries had dictated the official word of thought. This is the world where any person can follow, without having to budge from their living room, Physics or Calculus courses for free from MIT, the most prestigious technological university in the planet. Never before have normal people, who are neither presidents nor generals nor managers nor directors, had so much power.

This is why I think there is hope. Because we have voice and muscle. Because we have the capacity to pressure for concrete and immediate actions. A mobile phone, an ipod, a computer, they are all powerful tools for change. Paraphrasing Khalil Gibran, today I ask you use these tools not to kill time. Let us use them to live it. To make a difference. To build even a splinter of the world we have always dreamt of.

For if technology has made normal people powerful, it must also make them responsible. From the moment you are able to speak out against oppression and injustice, you have the duty to do so, and you also have the duty to contribute to the ethical progress of humanity.

This millennium began with the most devastating terrorist attack, followed by a unilaterally declared war, and an economic crisis born from greed. It is obvious that a more interconnected world isn’t necessarily a more fair or humane world. Values don’t live in a laptop’s hard drive. They don’t come in mp3 format or in a new Twitter application. For that, there is only the human heart. There is only kindness and courage. The second decade of this century deserves more of what we have been able to build up to now, and less of what we have been unable to avoid. It is our task to give our region, and our planet, a new opportunity.


Human history is written as a draft. This is why it is a history plagued with crossed out bits and pieces, senseless phrases, repeated words and un-ended paragraphs. I don’t know how many times throughout the course of history someone has written the phrase “and we will live peacefully ever after…”.

But even though this phrase has been erased countless times from the human notebook, even though we don’t yet have a chapter without war and madness, in the centuries and centuries that we have lived in this piece of the universe, there is nothing to stop us from regaining our sanity. Nothing stops us from finally learning how to write, on a clean slate, the words of peace.

Indeed, reality has changed. This event is proof of it. If the nerds of the world can become good looking; if a president can learn how to use Youtube and how to Google at the age of sixty; if a group of young people can gather to ponder upon ideas that are worth spreading, then we are better off than we were at the beginning. Then we do have a reason to believe that we are capable of building a wonderful world. Where weapons don’t receive the resources that human beings deserve. Where intelligence is used to promote the sustainable development of peoples. Where technology gives people more and more power, and where people understand the immense responsibility that this power entails.

We should not forget the beautiful words of Margaret Mead when she said: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It is in your hands that the power to build utopia rests.

Thank you very much.