is debating whether to spend $234 million on twenty-four new turboprop attack
planes for its air force. The aircraft the Defense Ministry has in mind are
likely to be a model made in Brazil
(though models from the Czech Republic,
China, and Poland are also
In a rare show of civilian scrutiny of the military budget, Colombiaâ€™s Congress
has proven reluctant to approve this expense. Two leading senators, GermÃ¡n
Vargas and Rodrigo Pardo â€“ both strong supporters of Ãlvaro Uribe â€“ have led
the challenge, arguing that a big airplane buy should not be a priority
right now, and that it is not clear how useful these airplanes would be for
an internal guerrilla war.
This is not the first time the Colombian Air Force has pushed for this $234
million purchase. A similar debate took place in the fall of 2002; at that time,
even Gen. James Hill, then the head of the U.S. Southern Command, felt compelled
to weigh in with a href="http://ciponline.org/colombia/02110001.htm">letter to Colombiaâ€™s
armed-forces chief opposing the sale. â€œThe U.S. Congress will probably not view
a light-attack aircraft fleet as the Colombian Air Forceâ€™s most urgent purchase,
and this could have a negative impact on the U.S.
Congressâ€™ support for additional aid,â€ Hill’s letter warned. The 2002 plan to buy planes collapsed
amid what El Colombiano href="http://www.elcolombiano.terra.com.co/BancoConocimiento/C/congreso_pide_frenar_la_compra_de_aviones/congreso_pide_frenar_la_compra_de_aviones.asp?CodSeccion=16"
target="_blank">calls â€œscandals of corruption and inappropriateness.â€
What is different today? Nobody is saying it in as many words, though it was
raised when Colombiaâ€™s congress
debated the issue in early December: Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€™s Venezuela,
flush with revenue from high oil prices, may be embarking on an arms-buying
spree. On a recent visit to Russia ChÃ¡vez expressed interest in a major purchase
of MiG-29 fighter planes.
It is not clear how turboprop planes would serve
as a deterrent against MiGs in some very unlikely future conflict between Colombia
in any case, itâ€™s now looking less likely that the ChÃ¡vez government will in fact go ahead
with the MiG purchase. (Incidentally, when asked in late November about Venezuela’s plans, an â€œunnamed Bush administration
officialâ€ giving a background briefing told reporters, â€œLet me put it this way:
target="_blank">We shoot down MiGs.â€)
air force is no doubt tired of its old fleet of planes. But for Colombia to buy
new ones right now would be a bizarre misuse of very scarce resources. Gen.
Hillâ€™s warning of two years ago is perhaps more relevant now. The U.S. Congress
is about to consider whether it will renew Plan Colombia or move foreign-aid money
somewhere else. Budget-cutters in both parties would view a $234 million aircraft
purchase as evidence that Colombia
either has enough money to buy planes it does not urgently need, or has its
priorities badly out of order. Either way, the purchase would strongly weaken
the case for renewed U.S.
aid at current levels.
current circumstances, $234 million is a lot of money. Many urgent priorities
arenâ€™t getting that much.
treasury plans to set aside $160 million to disarm, demobilize and
re-integrate all of the AUC paramilitaries, href="http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/opinion/reda/2004-11-07/index.html"
target="_blank">reports El Tiempo.
- Next year, Colombia plans to spend $120 million
to assist internally displaced people, according to the Consultancy for Human
Rights and Displacement ( target="_blank">CODHES).
- According to the U.S.
in BogotÃ¡, the United States
has spent $206 million since 2000 on alternative development programs
in Colombia. Total aid to displaced people
in all those years is $129 million.
- According to the
Department, the United States
expected to spend $207.6 million in 2004 just to maintain the planes
and helicopters already given to Colombiaâ€™s military
and police. For some time, Congress has been asking the administration to
to assume more of these costs, even requiring a report ( href="http://ciponline.org/colombia/040512dos.pdf">PDF format) detailing plans
for handing over more of these responsibilities. The congressional appropriators
who asked for this report will look poorly on a decision to spend $234 million
on new planes.
None of these priorities have received the kind of resources that the Colombian
government now proposes to devote to new planes of uncertain usefulness. Meanwhile
central government is running a budget deficit of 5.6 percent of GDP this year
(excluding profits from state-owned enterprises) â€“ about $5.4 billion or 23
times the size of the proposed aircraft purchase.