Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced Wednesday that he would end Colombia’s mandatory military service in the event that a peace deal emerges from peace talks with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC.
As part of his ongoing reelection campaign, Santos had previously promised that the peace talks, which began in November 2012, will come to a conclusion within the calendar year.
“If Colombia achieves peace, which we will this year, I will immediately eliminate the mandatory military service,” said Santos, in an interview with Colombia’s Blu Radio.
Currently, two years of military service are obligatory for all Colombian males, with exceptions granted for disabilities, indigenous ancestry, or previous injury suffered as part of Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict. Further exemption can be purchased for between $100 to $500, depending on socioeconomic status, a fee many families cannot afford to pay.
The military currently acquires roughly 150,000 troops through the mandatory program.
In place of the current system, however, Santos proposes two years of mandatory community service, regardless of socioeconomic status.
“The mandatory military service will be converted to a mandatory community service for all Colombians. Socio-economic status won’t matter, this well be implemented when we end this conflict,” said the president.
|“Only the poor and most vulnerable pay obligatory military service.”|
The proposal, Santos suggested, could become a driver of social change in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, and one with pronounced human rights concerns in various parts of the country.
“This will be a factor for equality, because we would put all social strati to work for the vulnerable, for the most poor, for those who most need it,” he said.
Education, in particular, would be a focus of the new national service program, said Santos.
The change would also have broad implications for the nature of the Colombian military.
“As soon as we have finished with this 50-year war, we will have to change the paradigm and become a more conventional Army,” said Santos. “[The Army] would no longer exist to fight an asymmetrical war, but rather a conventional war, and that means doing what most conventional armies do and being ready to defend Colombian autonomy, guard the borders, and enforce a presence where there currently is no state presence.”
Santos, himself a graduate of Colombia’s Naval Academy, is one of the few presidents to have a son actively serving in the military during his presidency. In the interview, Santos pointed to his son’s service as one of the influences on his policy proposal, saying that his son has told him many of his fellow servicemen had never previously eaten three meals a day.
President Juan Manuel Santos is 11 days away from the heavily contested second round of elections with hardline right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, of former President Alvaro Uribe‘s Democratic Center (Centro Democratico) party.
The FARC peace talks promise to be one of the focal points in deciding what remains, according to the most recent polls, a tight contest.
Zuluaga has been a staunch opponent of the Santos-led talks since their inception, and promised until recently to immediately suspend the peace process as soon as he entered office.
Update (2:14 PM)
According to El Pais newspaper, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon stated after Santos’s announcement, that the president’s plan to eliminate Colombia’s obligatory military service would be a long-term goal and cannot take effect as immediately as the president implied.
“It is for when the country is at total peace and totally organized,” declared Pinzon, adding that it was not the time to have the debate and “would take five to ten years.”
All previous attempts to end obligatory military service have been defeated in Colombia’s congress despite a number of initiatives by presidents and congressmen.