Latin America’s Generals Know Their Place

Mac Margolis

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The first time I caught a glimpse of Latin American democracy in peril, it hadn’t even arrived. This was Brazil, in 1983, when the military government was stewarding what General Ernesto Geisel, president from 1974 to 1979, called a “slow, gradual and secure political opening.” Jobless protesters and union militants were in no mood to wait and, blessed by politicized Catholic bishops, capped three days of rage by rushing the governor’s palace in Sao Paulo. Police beat them back and the governor — the first elected by popular vote since the 1960s — threatened to call in federal troops. “The street violence is testing the opening to democracy,” President Joao Baptista Figueiredo, a retired general, warned. After two decades of military rule no one needed a translation.

Sao Paulo’s state house did not fall that day and federal troops did not ride to the rescue. Brazil’s tenuous opening to democracy crawled apace and has not been interrupted in the 35 years since. Despite massive foreign debt, two presidents brought down by impeachment, unprecedented graft, violent demonstrations and a lately hepped-up military presence in Brasilia, the armed forces are not making a comeback. What’s in play today in Brazil and its neighbors is not a return to martial rule, but the parlous state of democracy, and lingering doubts over whether elected leaders can meet the rising expectations of a demanding public without trampling the rule of law or ringing for backup.

Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia: Every week seems to bring another conflagration in the Americas. Authorities are bewildered and lash out, answering the rolling fury in the streets with truncheons and tear gas, or worse. When none of that works, besieged leaders retreat behind palace doors and a phalanx of military commanders.

Latin America’s praetorian temptation has plenty of reasons. World-beating criminal violence, the venal political establishment and the slowest growing economies corrode confidence in the ability of civilian authority to deliver stability and relief, never mind prosperity. And when frustrations flare, as they have from Tegucigalpa to Santiago, enfeebled leaders know whom to call. “There’s still a widespread feeling among many in Latin America that in times of trouble, the armed forces are the last resort,” Christoph Harig, a Latin America scholar at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Germany, told me. “In many ways, they were never gone.”

This assessment might seem incongruous. Rule by junta went out of fashion decades ago. Except for Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the armed forces are part of the governing franchise, free and mostly fair elections are the regional standard. In most countries of Central and South America, the courts and legislatures keep presidents in check, or when they don’t, people protest — sometimes to a fault.

Sure, some unreconstructed military men are only too willing to reprise an imagined martial golden era. Even after they vacated the palace, the Brazilian brass made sure to extend their lease well into democratic times. The current charter of 1988, which was stuffed with safeguards against authoritarian fiat, had a fail-safe provision (Article 142) enshrining the armed forces as the guarantors of “constitutional powers.” It was as if everyone agreed “that the republic still needs a crutch,” writes historian Jose Murilo de Carvalho, a scholar of military politics.

Increasingly, however, the region’s military commanders accepted their new brief and busied themselves with professionalizing the armed forces, leaving politics to politicians and mostly holding their noses when civilians misbehaved. Not coincidentally, coups have declined sharply since the region’s return to electoral democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Part of the new abstinence owes to shifting sensibilities in the barracks. Younger officers raised after the dictatorship have a deeper connection to democracy. They know that military minders not only eclipsed freedom and political liberty across Latin America but also sponsored horrific violence and unspeakable human rights violations that have left scars, not least on their own corporation.

Even the old guard is aware that the age of juntas didn’t end well, and that the restoration of civilian rule also comes bundled with truth commissions, human rights trials and demands for reparations. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Argentina, where a combination of crimes (the Dirty War), strategic blunders (the disastrous Malvinas/Falklands war) and retribution shamed the armed forces into retreat. “There was a time when off-duty military wouldn’t wear their uniforms in public,” said Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein, of the New School for Social Research. “There is no place for the Argentine military in politics today.” The reticence over crossing lines even extends to Chile, where the memory of General Augusto Pinochet still makes recrudescent hardliners’ pulses race. “Chilean military are not interested in a new state of exception,” said Harig. “Like most armed forces, they are wary of taking on governing functions and fear institutional backlash if things go wrong.”

The retreat from politics after democracy’s return has helped to cleanse the armed forces’ reputation and restore their standing and image as honest brokers. It was never quite that way, yet the fantasy has earned the armed forces, long disgruntled over under-funding, some quid pro quo: South American military spending rose 3.1% last year. In turn, civilian rulers cashed in on the military’s reputational collateral. “There are reasons why the military becomes a useful political tool,” Matthew Taylor, a Latin America specialist at American University, told me. “They have fairly enduring legitimacy when other institutions have seen declining approval.”

The point was not lost on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who packed his cabinet with decorated retired generals, outdoing even the bygone military governments he so admires. Never mind that most of Bolsonaro’s brass are far more politically moderate than he.

The danger is when struggling national leaders call upon the military to solve problems it has no business taking on. Latin America is the world’s most murderous region, and metastasizing violence has undermined faith in justice, law enforcement and most of the political establishment. Hence the preference by officials in high-crime nations to deploy soldiers for police work. In Mexico and Brazil, traditional police are overwhelmed or compromised by drug trafficking. In Colombia, armed forces have long been part of the domestic response to outlaw gangs and insurgents.

Aside from credibility-seeking leaders, however, militarizing police work pleases no one. It brings the weapons of war to crowded city streets and miscasts soldiers, trained to subdue and kill an enemy, as peacekeepers. The risk is of disproportionate violence, increased human rights violations and tarnishing the military’s own brand. So it was in April, when soldiers assigned to contain street crime in Rio fired more than 80 rounds into what they mistook as a stolen vehicle, killing a 51-year-old musician and wounding two of his family on their way to a baby shower.

Nonetheless, the military’s relative cachet has proved expedient when democracy turns messy and civilian authorities stumble. In Bolivia, self-declared socialist President Evo Morales actively courted the military high command, a deference that backfired when he lost his grip in the turbulent aftermath of a tainted election. In Brazil, Workers Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva  lavished the troops with big budgets and gadgets, including a questionable $5.4 billion bequest of 36 fighter jets from Sweden — although none of that did his hapless successor Dilma Rousseff any good when she flirted with calling on the military to prevent her impeachment.

In many situations, the military has been called into action to defend constitutional order, not to usurp it. Blocked by an intransigent opposition-controlled legislature, Peru’s Martin Vizcarra invoked a controversial rule to dissolve parliament and call new elections, leaning on the military as a backstop. A transitional congressional committee will prevail until the January elections. In October, Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno turned to the military when protesters surrounded the palace in Quito after he declared austerity measures that were fiscally salutary but politically disastrous. After all, while the Ecuadoran military has rarely clung to power, “they’ve loomed behind every political upheaval and regime change since the restoration of democracy,” says Andres Mejia Acosta, a lecturer of political economy at Kings College London.

In Bolivia, Morales precipitated his own fall by seeking a fourth straight mandate, flouting the public will and the term limits laid out in the constitution that his own party wrote. Yes, the military overreached by advising him to resign — a request that civilian leaders ignore at their own peril. However, it did so only after the streets exploded, the police mutinied and the Bolivian Workers Central, a longtime ally, called for Morales’s resignation upon widespread evidence that he’d claimed victory in a stolen election. Worries of military overhang in politics eased last week when the Bolivian congress, dominated by Morales’s party, voted overwhelmingly to hold new elections. Bolivians will see if the caretaker government of Jeanine Anez, a rabid Morales critic, sticks to her transitional mandate or warms to the throne.

The last thing Bolivia and its neighbors need is an activist military, which may exact temporary redress against adventurers and wannabe tyrants but is anathema to the rule of law and constitutional order. In a proper democracy, defending the constitution is a job for the courts and legislatures. Too often, both institutions are weak or captured, creating a vacuum where epaulets stand in for the checks and balances upon which democracy flourishes or fails. The challenge today is not so much how to contain an overeager armed forces, but how to fix an under-performing political class all too eager to trade on borrowed prestige.

Latin Americans might take a cue from Uruguay. In October, when right-wing lawmakers stoking fear over spiking crime proposed a constitutional amendment to militarize policing, tens of thousands of angry citizens poured into the streets of Montevideo — not to jeer a discredited government but decry what they saw as a menace to democracy. Happily, Uruguayans voted to keep the military where they belong, in their barracks.

To contact the author of this story: Mac Margolis at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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