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Presidential militarism in Latin America

This is characterized by the substitution of civilians for the military in controlling strategic tasks of public administration

AMLO con militares

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Why do democratically elected presidents, once in power, rely on the military to govern? Unlike what happened in the 20th century, when in several Latin American countries the military took power and installed dictatorships of different political signs — often supported by the United States, — in the 21st century the military has returned to the political scene with the help of democratically elected presidents. Over the last two decades, countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela have seen the militarization of various sectors of public administration.

Although constitutionally the military are responsible for state security, historically in Latin America they have also carried out social tasks and intervened in natural disasters. One of the characteristics of the democratization processes in the region was to clearly establish their functions and distance them from politics. This, however, has been partially fulfilled or not at all, especially in matters related to public security and the fight against drug trafficking.


Currently, however, the expansion of the presence of the military, promoted by democratically elected presidents, in tasks outside their institutional functions and capabilities, is a matter of concern. This has led to greater opacity in government decision-making, an increase in human rights violations and a progressive politicization of the new generations of military personnel.

A characterization of militarism

This “presidential militarism” is characterized by the substitution of civilians for the military in controlling strategic tasks of public administration, for which they have no need to mediate or formally consult other powers. In addition, these regimes benefit the Armed Forces with larger budgets and reforms to their structure in order to expand and strengthen their presence.

These regimes also include a political instrumentalization of the technical capabilities of the Armed Forces to carry out public security tasks to the detriment of the civilian police. A final characteristic is the gradual expansion of the military presence in state decision-making that is essentially only of a civilian nature, such as migration control or even education and the management of strategic economic sectors.

The governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and López Obrador in Mexico are three examples where the military have played a decisive role in the implementation of public policies. In Mexico, the military were assigned the construction of an airport, a train and a refinery, the control of the National Guard and the operation of customs among other tasks.

In Bolivia, the Armed Forces became a key part of President Evo Morales’ project since his arrival to power and their functions were expanded when the 2009 Constitution was enacted, and they were assigned the task of “participating in the integral development of the country”. While they never distanced themselves from Bolivian politics, their presence was key to maintaining internal order, not without serious consequences, during the crisis that led to the temporary exile of Evo Morales.

The case of Brazil is sui generis. In Jair Bolsonaro’s term, the military was given control of eight of the twenty-two ministries and, even though most of them were retired members of the armed forces, their incorporation was part of a strategy to reinforce his anti-political discourse in the absence of a strong party to support him. The role of the Armed Forces is very different in El Salvador, where the military is the backbone of President Nayib Bukele’s security policy, and in Venezuela since the arrival of Hugo Chávez and now with Nicolás Maduro.

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The populist changes promised by these “militarist presidents” are limited by two conditions. In the first place, the institutional deficits of states slow down the processes of policy implementation. In the second place, democracies require that the implementation of public policies be subject to evaluation processes and follow previously established procedures that are controlled by entities outside the executive powers.

Despite these limitations, the militaries respond constitutionally to the command of the president and have human and economic resources that can be mobilized quickly.

Effects and perspectives

The consequences of the military’s expanding presence in civilian tasks are serious for societies, as it jeopardizes the already weak democracies of the region. In Bolivia, for example, the relative “calm” following Morales’ departure from power would not be understood without the military’s tutelage over political actors; and in Nicaragua and Venezuela its presence is necessary to sustain the regimes.

For countries such as Brazil and Mexico, the consequences of the Armed Force’s presence in civilian spheres are still uncertain. Lula’s new presidency led to their loss of influence in the country’s major decisions. Meanwhile, in Mexico, it is more and more clear that the military have an important role in sustaining the so-called “Fourth Transformation” and are beginning to show a worrying posture regarding institutions such as the Congress and the Judiciary.

The Armed Forces are institutions that can dispense with democratic controls. They are not submitted to civilian justice, are not accountable to Congress, and can hide information according to the logic of “national security”. Considering the relative autonomy of this institution, it is necessary to pay special attention to these processes of militarization of civilian spheres, as they can affect the proper development of democratic processes.

*First published in Latinoamerica21

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times

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Fernando Barrientos del Monte

Fernando Barrientos del Monte

Politólogo mexicano, especializado en Política Comparada. Editor Responsable de la Revista Mexicana de Análisis Político y Administración Pública. Sus líneas de investigación son política comparada, sistemas políticos comparados, política y elecciones en México y América Latina, historia y desarrollo de la ciencia política, y teoría política moderna.

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