The Return of Latin America’s Military Problem

Strategic Insight 021/2023

Gabriel Cohen

20 July 2023

The Return of Latin America’s Military Problem 

The storming of Brazil’s government buildings on the 8th of January evoked more than simply international backlash and parallels to the United States. For many within the government and elsewhere, the incident in which rioters sought to call on the armed forces to halt the democratic transition demonstrated a troubling specter of recent years, that of a resurgent military presence in domestic politics. Far from exclusive to Brazil, this specter has increasingly marked the turbulent democracies of Latin America as a region.

Contentious relations between Latin American governments and their armed forces are rooted in historical memory. The region has been plagued by coups for centuries, with militaries taking control of civilian governments over one hundred times since 1900 alone. For most governments of the region, with Cuba as a notable exception, the democratization process which accompanied the end of the Cold War in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a gradual shrinking of the power of the military as a political institution. Generals and officers turned over the reins of the country to civilian leaders, often with the implicit understanding that they would maintain some privileges and protections from prosecution. And even with human rights commissions and historical memory trials such as those seen in Argentina and Uruguay, elected officials were all too happy to oblige and see the military threat recede.

In recent years, however, the relationship has turned from one of cooperation and mistrust to co-dependency. From Mexico to Brazil, the dual crises of rising crime and weakening governmental legitimacy have led to leaders inviting the military to take on a larger role within the political sphere. The subsequently strengthened position enjoyed by armed forces has often led to deadly results for both human rights and regional democracy.

Crime has served as an understandable catalyst for growing political militarization, as mano dura policies which emphasize results over human rights have exploded in popularity among both left-wing and right-wing leaders. Conservative Salvadorean President Nayib Bukele, who is one of the region’s most popular – if polarizing – leaders, has utilized the military to both pass his desired legislation and crack down on cartels, locking up roughly two percent of his country’s population in the process. Neighbouring leftist leader Xiomara Castro has implemented a similar approach in Honduras, while numerous leading candidates in the Guatemalan presidential election have pitched themselves as mano dura politicians in order to attract votes.

Even outside of Central America, crime – argued to be a contender for the most defining policy issue in the region in the 2020s – has invited increased militarization. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) may have been elected on a “hugs not bullets” message emphasizing the end of Mexico’s drug war, but his government has nonetheless allotted increased responsibilities – and powers – to the country’s armed forces. Meanwhile, Chile, which has long served as one of the most stable and prosperous democracies in Latin America, has since 2019 seen a large uptick in military spending and activity as the country deals with an alarming surge in violent crime. As half the country’s population deems such crime the most pressing issue facing their country, it’s little surprise a similar amount is open to more draconian measures to combat it, including permitting the military to patrol the streets. All this in a country still haunted by the shadows of the two-decade military dictatorship which ruled it between 1973 and 1990.

Citizens’ support forms part of the other core pillar driving militarization. Most Latin American governments were wracked by corruption scandals and internal crises over the past few years, leading to a drastic weakening of institutional strength and legitimacy. As faith in presidents, congresses, and electoral authorities has weakened, traditional non-political institutions such as the military (or the church) have seen steadier support—something duly noted by politicians.

The Peruvian military’s support of Congress in December proved decisive in former President Pedro Castillo’s self-coup failing, while Venezuela’s autocrat Nicolas Maduro has for years placed generals in key positions in his government to ensure the survival of his regime. From troubled democracies to dictatorships alike, the region’s leaders have attempted to absorb some of the institutional strength and popularity of the military.

Perhaps nowhere has this been easier seen than in Brazil. Ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain with an affinity for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, staffed his government full of figures from the armed forces, including most notably a retired four-star general as vice president. Bolsonaro latched on to the military on the campaign trail in order to strengthen his credibility as a presidential candidate; throughout his administration, the top brass served as an institutional counterweight to the more ideological wings of his government such as evangelical conservatives. Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro remained deeply popular amidst members of security forces such as the military police, an at-times troubling fact which resurfaced following the January insurrection.

Past any one leader, though, the return of Latin America’s militaries to the political stage is distinct from that of the Cold War era. In contrast to the juntas which deposed civilian governments in that era, today, military commanders are far more hesitant to rule directly. They have seen their role grow gradually over the last three decades into a more significant custodian of their countries’ constitutions amidst deep ideological splits and sheer political chaos in countries such as Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Even as they have been handed large mandates over traditionally non-military matters such as infrastructure in Mexico and fighting deforestation in the Amazon, regional militaries have been less willing to step back into the fray and act as an established political force. And while historically the impetus to this changing was interstate conflict or any matter which impacted their institutional sovereignty and budget, today the catalyst for growing militarism is far simpler.

So long as Latin America’s governments continue to hemorrhage legitimacy and suffer from instability, the region’s military leaders will continue to amass power. This year was not the first time that calls for a military coup d’état echoed throughout a country’s population. The 2018 truckers’ strike in Brazil, 2019 unrest in Chile, and governmental crisis of recent years in Peru have all led to similar calls, demonstrating that stability and security are the greatest tools that civilian leaders have if they wish to hold off military strength at their expense.

Recent reporting has revealed that there was a concentrated, if discreet, campaign by the U.S. government to pressure the Brazilian military into not interfering with the 2022 presidential election in which Lula was elected to his third term. Though the survival of Brazilian democracy should above all be attributed to the strength and resilience of national institutions, the very real threat posed in January to Latin America’s largest country, not from abroad but from a domestic institution which already once ruled the country for two brutal decades, is worth evaluating. Lula and his peers throughout the region should be wary of the effects instability can have on their countries—particularly if there are commanders there to capitalize on it.

Gabriel Cohen is a doctoral fellow at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and senior editor at Latinometrics. He is a monthly columnist at The Brazilian Report and has also had his writing published by Americas Quarterly and Global Americans. 

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