September 19, 2007

Bolivian Army's Evolving Mission

Two articles came out in La Razon yesterday and today dealing with the Bolivian Army's elite baking unit, the 44th Regimental Baking Company. Just kidding, that's not the name of the unit. And the Bolivian Army doesn't have an elite baking unit. Not yet. (sidebar: boy, La Razon is really a good paper to get information dealing with Bolivian security forces. You'll notice I cite them aplenty) .

Anyway, these are a good set of articles to discuss the role of the armed forces in society. According to the articles, Evo Morales presented the Army with a "gift" of some industrial ovens and now the Service has a new mission, to make bread for the surrounding community. The concept, apparently, is that the Army will bake the bread and sell it at a reduced cost to citizens. There is some debate over details, such as should the bread be primarily for the consumption of the Army and only the surplus sold to civilians or should enough bread be made to feed the Army and sell to the civilians, but it seems clear that the future for some Army units means baking bread for the surrounding population.

Though it seems silly on the face of it, in fact this is not necessarily a bad use, if inefficient, of Bolivia's armed forces. Unlike militaries in developed countries, militaries in underdeveloped countries like Bolivia are already being used in to supporting civilian infrastructure. For example, in Bolivia the Air Force already operates commercial flights to the interior. In other countries, such as Armenia, Army garrisons make their health facilities available to townspeople. These types of "additional duties" are not necessarily bad and they do provide a valuable service to the country (though some "services" are more controversial than others, such as when the military provides school teachers, as has happened in Venezuela).

Of course, there are trade-offs. While these types of duties may aid the country in some ways, they can also hamper it in others and, as well, retard the capabilities of the military. In this case, the subsidised military bread will surely undercut some family-owned, small business bakeries. Of course, every time the military gets involved in commercial sales the possibility of graft and corruption are there. And if the business generates enough revenue, then effective civilian and democratic control of the military can also become an issue if not adequately controlled. On the other side of the coin, while the Army's bread may be cheaper for civilians, the cost to the government to produce the bread is likely significant in actual cost and in the opportunity cost associated with having soldiers baking and selling as opposed to training for combat or civil disturbance. And, let's be candid, Bolivia's armed forces need all the training they can get.

A related question, and one that is beyond the scope of this current post, gets at the shifting threat environment in Latin America and how this affects, or should affect, the roles and responsibilities of the region's militaries.

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