Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Are Latin America’s Militaries Taking on Too Much Power?

Militaries throughout Latin America have been taking on an increasing number of tasks and have had a political impact in some countries. // File Photo: Peruvian Army. Militaries throughout Latin America have been taking on an increasing number of tasks and have had a political impact in some countries. // File Photo: Peruvian Army.

Over the past year, Latin American militaries appear to be taking on more visible roles in countries’ domestic security and politics. In Bolivia, the military’s backing of the interim government led former President Evo Morales to flee the country. In Venezuela, the armed forces’ support for President Nicolás Maduro has been crucial for his retaining power. Meanwhile, military officials have assumed key government roles in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, and Mexico’s military has largely staffed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Guard security force. To what extent has the role of the military in Latin American countries changed recently, and is it cause for concern? What similarities and differences can be observed as compared to their part in the region’s history? Should the armed forces’ functions be limited to defense, or can they provide valuable contributions to some aspects of governance?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “By the end of the Cold War, elected governments had replaced military and personalist dictatorships across the Americas, Cuba aside. Militaries continued to carry weight in public affairs, but by and large, they have kept their distance from national politics. Since 1991, the armed forces have not assumed presidential powers anywhere in the region. Recently, however, civilian leaders have been turning more frequently to their militaries for help and support. Current and former high-ranking military officers now fill one-third of Brazil’s cabinet posts—although the armed forces did not openly press or lobby for these positions and, indeed, have served as a pragmatic, moderating influence on the Bolsonaro government. In Bolivia, the top military commander called publicly for President Morales to resign, but only after massive demonstrations had demanded his ouster, and an OAS investigation concluded that vote totals had been manipulated to assure Morales’ re-election. In Chile, it was elected President Piñera who ordered the military to keep order and halt property destruction. In these nations and elsewhere, the military was not seeking power or political gain. It was responding to appeals, mostly from governments, but sometimes from opposition leaders. It’s hardly surprising that the new, more active roles of Latin American militaries have emerged concurrently with massive, unexpected, sometimes violent protests in many nations. It appears that democratic institutions, public and private, are losing legitimacy and public support, and are increasingly viewed as lacking the competence to govern. It is impossible to disregard the prospect that popular demands for change could become louder and more radical, and lead to even more expansive military intrusions.”

Douglas M. Fraser, senior fellow at National Defense University and former commander of the U.S. Southern Command: “The role of the military in individual countries in Latin America has grown over the last decade—not because the militaries sought increased involvement in matters outside of defense, but rather because governments chose to use them to address intractable security problems posed by violent criminal gangs and transnational criminal organizations. The military is the wrong tool to use to address these long-term internal security challenges. The military is a capable, effective organization when performing its defense role. But while it can be used to help governments address non-defense security problems, it alone should not be used to solve these chronic, long-term problems. These problems can only be addressed when all institutions of the government work together in a coordinated and well-financed effort. Because the military is the most respected institution in many countries in Latin America, some political leaders have selected current and retired military leaders to serve their administrations in non-defense roles. Retired military personnel can be effective leaders in the political process but are generally not accustomed to addressing the varying political interests associated with working non-defense positions. Therefore, I think military leaders serve best in political positions when they run for and are elected to public office. Only by fighting through the political process and winning an election do they gain the support of the public and can then bring the full potential of their military leadership to political office.”

Kristina Mani, associate professor of politics and chair of Latin American studies at Oberlin College: “Increasingly, the military is being called upon to influence political outcomes, but the common driver is civilian politicians’ inability to resolve fundamental crises in their societies in the context of electoral democracy. In some cases, there is an acute political crisis in which the military is called to support the president (Peru), or oppose him (Bolivia). In others, politicians call on the military to back up police in countering protests over economic austerity (Ecuador and Chile). Different are the cases that turn the military into a de facto power—as in Venezuela, where populist Maduro inherited a state he cannot manage and ceded virtually all tasks of governance to the military. The right-wing authoritarianism of Bolsonaro has militarized some offices, but it’s really more ‘the military party’ he represents stepping out in a still-diverse political arena. All of these cases are worrisome because the military is designed to fight wars and defend territory—not settle politics, much less govern or make public policy. Military roles should be strictly limited to national defense, and only a severe natural disaster or humanitarian crisis should ever bring soldiers to the rescue, then always under clear civilian direction. When the military takes roles such as policing, civic action or road building, it’s because civilians have ceded those roles to the military since it makes them look effective in the short term and gives the military workful tasks; but it also makes the military an all-purpose problem solver, and no institution should have that mandate in a pluralist polity. What’s needed is long-term civilian capacity-building and effective institutions that serve the public interest.”

Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, professor of political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame: “Military officers are gaining a new role in Latin American politics. The last quarter of 2019 featured the ousting of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the dissolution of the Peruvian Congress with military acquiescence, the use of security forces to handle mass protests in Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and the consolidation of military influence in Brazil and Venezuela. The army is increasingly playing a ‘moderating’ role in Latin American crises, but one that is very different from the one theorized by students of civil-military relations in the 1970s. Soldiers are providing a shield that moderates the impact of opposition attacks on presidential survival. In contemporary Latin America, the main force destabilizing governments is not military intervention, but social protest (such as Argentina in 2001 or Bolivia in 2003) or congressional impeachments (Brazil in 2016 or Peru in 2018). Yet, the Venezuelan experience—where sustained mass protests have been unable to displace Nicolás Maduro from power—has inspired an important lesson. Social movements and legislative maneuvers are insufficient when the army remains loyal to the government. If the military, on the other hand, withdraws its support for the executive, the president is doomed. Governments in the region took note of this lesson, and they are using the military to contain political threats. Unfortunately, if security forces become the decisive gatekeepers, Latin America may risk going back to an era when generals were the arbiters of the political game.”

Rut Diamint, professor of political science at Torcuato Di Tella University: “Amid protests for rights, and against presidents’ shady management, the manipulation of elections and prevailing corruption, the armed forces have been reinstalled as a political arbitrator. Democracies painfully achieved at the end of the 20th century are collapsing, having failed to meet expectations. Countries’ return to democracy has not ensured citizens’ economic and social rights. Authoritarian reactions do not come at the hands of generals, but rather from the elected governments themselves. It is those governments that politicize the armed forces and militarize public order. The new domestic functions grant governments bargaining power before a society that is ambivalent, because it rejects military repression, but that demands greater protection. While assuming these new functions, the officers resume their relationship with the political power and build an advantageous relationship with the civilian population. They don’t tear down governments—they are their saviors. The use of military personnel to combat insecurity also entails the lack of the police forces’ professionalization. It is an unreasonable decision from the perspective of public spending and the general organization of state administration, since it overlaps tasks and doubles expenses. Finally, the armed forces, with their overwhelming coercive capabilities, are potentially a constant threat to the social order and stability. The military trains for combat and the annihilation of enemies, not to resolve conflicts or investigate crimes. Resorting to the military is the very denial of politics.”

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