Latin America’s generals, back in the political labyrinth

Latin America

After two decades of relative democratic stability, the recent upheaval in a few countries seems to herald a return of military control under tutelary democracy: a system in which civilian authorities run the daily affairs of the government but the military has ultimate veto power and makes the country’s important decisions. Tutelary democracies maintain the trappings of democracy — competitive elections and a free press — but the real power lies in the military apparatus, which reserves the right to intervene whenever its leaders deem the country to be going in the wrong direction.

Tutelary democracies were common in Latin America until recently. In Chile, for example, Gen. Augusto Pinochet remained the commander in chief of the armed forces and repeatedly warned the civilian president in public not to provoke the military, even after he had formally stepped down from the presidency after losing in a referendum in 1988. In Brazil, the military intelligence agencies continued to spy on citizens well after the country’s democratic transition in 1985.

Since the 1990s, however, the region has made important strides in reining in the power of the armed forces and bringing them under civilian control. Not only did civilian governments chip away at the military’s prerogatives, including reserved positions in the president’s cabinet and in the legislature, but they also created reporting structures within the ministries of defense that expanded civilian oversight and created some distance from the president, especially with the appointment of civilian ministers.

This healthy arms-length relationship is being reversed. The return of Latin America’s generals has followed four main avenues. First, in the most extreme path, militaries have propped up authoritarian regimes. In Venezuela, the military’s support is the main reason Nicolás Maduro remains in power. In spite of the international community’s rejection of Maduro’s government, the Venezuelan military — with some 2,000 admirals and generals — has stood by Maduro’s regime because of a deeply politicized leadership with a prominent role in lucrative economic and drug-trafficking activities.

Third, militaries are becoming kingmakers by deciding when popular protests reach a point that makes the incumbent government unsustainable. In Bolivia, the head of the armed forces “suggested” that Morales step down in the face of major post-election protests. After this, Morales resigned and fled the country, leaving behind a constitutional crisis. (The leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Juan Guaidó, has claimed to be the legitimate leader of Venezuela as president of the democratically elected National Assembly and has himself called on the military to end Maduro’s “usurpation” of power, thus reinforcing their role as kingmakers.)

The fourth and most prevalent avenue has been the military’s involvement in domestic law enforcement. The region is the most violent in the world, and governments have resorted to major military deployments to address significant public-safety deficits. In places such as El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua, soldiers have taken the lead in anti-drug operations related to interdiction, eradication and apprehensions. In Mexico, the armed forces’ involvement in public life is such that the government disbanded its civilian federal police to create a paramilitary National Guard, mostly formed by soldiers and marines.

While the militarization of a country’s internal affairs can be highly popular in times of crisis, opening this door is bad news for democracy. Whereas in the United States there is a long tradition of military subordination under civilian authority, in Latin America involving the military in internal affairs has often led to bloodshed and coups.

And there is little evidence that Latin American armies are effective at governing, whether directly or indirectly. Military governments during the 1970s resulted in economic catastrophes and rampant human rights violations. Today, the armed forces have been unable to make a difference in reducing drugtrafficking or ameliorating organized crime. Instead, militaries conducting domestic public safety have contributed to increased levels of violence and violations of human rights. The armed forces have also been exposed to corruption as they are tasked with fighting organized crime.

Latin American leaders and governments should resist the temptation to reach for the military to solve their countries’ problems. Rather than looking for seemingly easy solutions that further erode confidence in civilians’ ability to find solutions, they should invest in civilian institutions to address public-safety deficits, including investing in police reform, rooting out corruption in the judiciary and launching institutional checks and balances to reduce government abuse.

The United States has an important role to play, as well. Deploying the U.S. military to conduct anti-drug operations in Mexico, as President Trump offered recently to his Mexican counterpart after a horrible massacre involving U.S. citizens, will only further empower that country’s armed forces at the expense of civilian rule.

Instead, the United States should leverage its influence in the region to encourage civilian oversight over military affairs, military accountability and respect for the constitutional order. This can be accomplished by redirecting U.S. aid from military purposes to the strengthening of civilian institutions. Otherwise, in the absence of civilian solutions, the specter of military rule — both direct and indirect — will increasingly haunt the region for the foreseeable future.

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