Politics and the Military in Latin America

Reading time: 8 mins approx.

The recent anniversary of the end of the Porfiriato, the 30-year period in which Mexico was ruled by the military dictator Porfirio Díaz, and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution offers us a chance to reflect on how relations have changed between civilian governments and the military in the century since his regime was ended at the hands of Mexican revolutionaries. While the period in which Latin America was dominated by military regimes is long past, and almost all of the region’s countries boast healthy democracies, recent years have seen the military return to prominence. In a marked departure from history, however, the renewed importance of the military often arrives the express consent and encouragement of civilian politicians, who appreciate the operational capabilities the armed forces provide, as well as the public support that can be attained through close association with one of the most trusted institutions across the region.  

The development of Latin American nations and their politics has long been intertwined with the region’s armed forces. From the wars of independence and the formation of nation-states in the early 19th Century, to the installation of military dictatorships in many Latin American countries throughout the 20th Century, up to the present dynamic of cooperation with democratic civilian governments, the military have consistently retained a prominent place in the political life of the region. The relative lack of external threats to national security has meant that the military often looked inwards, seeing itself as the defender of the “patria”, seeking to protect the nation against perceived internal threats. (Kruijt 2019).

The relationship between the military and the state has fluctuated heavily over time. In the early 1800s, leaders of independence movements in South America such as Simón Bolivar and José de San Martin overthrew the Spanish empire with military power, but were strong proponents of democracy. The rise of caudillismo in the mid-19th Century introduced a more authoritarian brand of politics led by military strongmen, although without any strict ideology. Figures such as Juan Manuel de Rosas, who employed a secret police to repress opposition, censored the press, and demanded public displays of his image, were typical of the time.

Although the military’s reputation in Latin America is tarnished by their role in brutal dictatorships, the idea of the military institution forming a government was unheard of until the 1960s (Mora and Fonseca 2019). Before that, the military had intervened as a ‘stabilising’ force in times of democratic instability, restoring order before returning to the barracks and allowing civilian government to rule. From the 1940s, however, newly-founded military research institutions across the region began producing ‘security doctrines’, outlining their vision for the role of the military in the development of the nation, including plans for economic development, regional entrepreneurship and development of the Amazon rainforest, along with an increased emphasis on employing counter-insurgency tactics domestically. The 1964 Brazil military coup saw many of these ideas employed on a national scale, and set an example for the wave of military governments that came afterwards in Latin America (Kruijt 2019).

The return to democracy throughout Latin America in the late 1980s and 1990s led to a public rejection of the human rights violations and authoritarian rule of military dictatorships. New constitutions were written that gave the military a specific, and limited, role in public life. However, with the exception of Argentina, no country convened a Truth Commission to formally hold responsible those individuals who committed or authorized atrocities. As a result, people gradually forgot about that time, some even growing nostalgic for a more peaceful and orderly daily life, and trust in the armed forces remained high throughout the 1990s and early 20th century. According to Latinobarómetro, the armed forces is consistently the second most trusted institution in Latin America after the clergy (although this varies considerably by country – just 20% of Venezuelans trust the armed forces, a figure that goes up to 65% in El Salvador). By comparison, confidence in the government was 27% in 2020, less than half of the score for confidence in the armed forces (Latinobarómetro 2021). Economic stagnation, corruption scandals, and high levels of crime met with excessive police violence have eroded public trust in key institutions. The armed forces’ relatively low profile over the last two decades has meant they have not been tarnished with the same brush.

Today, militaries throughout Latin America are called upon to carry out a wide array of activities, ranging from overseeing COVID-19 testing and vaccination operations, to directing traffic, to repressing social protest and combatting the international drug trade (Guerrero 2020). The reason for increased military involvement is not a renewed desire to participate in civilian life on the part of the armed forces; rather it is civilian governments’ inability to resolve crises that come under their own remit. Instead of working to find political solutions to society’s problems, many Latin American governments seek out the superior organisation, capacity and authority of their armed forces to fix the issue.

In the short-term, this is not a significant issue. However, it elevates the armed forces to the position of all-purpose problem solver for the government, a level of power that no institution should have, and one which in effect makes civilian governments dependent on the armed forces, and not the other way around. When politicians use the military as a crutch in times of waning political support, as has frequently occurred in recent years, the military becomes the arbiter of the country’s politics. Governments must instead work to build institutions and capacity so that the armed forces are not needed to perform such a wide range of operations and activities. The close association of the military to the government is further indication that the armed forces are following civilian orders, and that the renewed prominence of the military is because of civilian control rather than in spite of it. Indeed, the military are often aware that following civilian orders such as breaking up protests, which the military are not appropriately prepared for, is not in their best interests. Yet military subordination to the civilian government is a key pillar of democracy, and so the armed forces must suffer the inevitable reputational damage that follows these acts (Pion-Berlin & Agacio 2020).

As well as assigning the military to perform civilian roles such as managing vaccination programmes, in several countries, high-ranking officers are appointed to cabinet positions. This brings its own set of challenges as military officers are not always best placed to perform civilian duties. In Brazil, 8 out of 21 members of Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet are military figures, and as a former army captain himself he has consistently declared his support from the armed forces throughout his political career. However, due to Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, which led to accusations of corruption within his inner circle, some senior military figures are reconsidering their support for the president as his popularity plummeted during 2021 and the beginning of 2022. The Vice President, General Hamilton Mourão, has been an open critic of government policy throughout Bolsonaro’s term, to the extent that another general will take his place as Bolsonaro’s running mate for the 2022 election. Fernando Azevedo e Silva, the former Defence Minister removed from office in March 2022, felt it necessary to write in his statement of resignation that “[I] always preserved the armed forces as institutes of the state”, seen by many as a thinly veiled criticism of the president’s attempts to interfere with military activities (CNN, 2022). The armed forces’ distancing from the damaged Bolsonaro ahead of the 2022 election is a sign that they are aware of the need to protect their reputation (Folha de São Paulo, 2022). Becoming too closely involved with maligned governments can bring its own problems for the armed forces and harm the reputation of the armed forces. Furthermore, allowing the line between the executive and the armed forces to be blurred weakens the state as an institution and can facilitate abuses of power by the president.

The relationship between politics and the military in Latin America is a long and complicated one.  Gone are the days of authoritarian strongmen and military dictatorships, replaced by a closer and more symbiotic relationship between civilian governments and armed forces. This is in large part due to the weakness of civilian governments across the region, whose problems are exacerbated by chronic slow economic growth and corruption. A lack of public trust in politicians has made the relative stability, competence and authority of the armed forces an attractive proposition for leaders seeking to reinforce their image and to solve issues that would otherwise remain unsolved. The consequence of this is that the armed forces are given disproportionate amounts of power and influence within civilian governments, even if it is those governments that call on them for assistance. While there is no immediate threat to democracy in the region because of this, it creates the conditions for an abuse of power should the political climate deteriorate. Governments across the region should seek to strengthen institutions and organs of power in order to build capacity to run vaccination programs, manage the refurbishment of roads, provide aid for impoverished families and education to children through civilian institutions rather than military ones. The armed forces should only be called into action in the most extreme emergencies, and not with such frequency as has been the case in recent years.  



Gielow, I. (2022) “Afastamento de militares de Bolsonaro é sinalização a Lula”: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2022/01/afastamento-de-militares-de-bolsonaro-e-sinalizacao-a-lula.shtml

Guerrero, M. (2020) “On the Back of the Pandemic, the Militarisation of Latin America is Gathering Momentum, Analysts Warn”: https://www.ipsnews.net/2020/11/back-pandemic-militarisation-latin-america-gathering-momentum-analysts-warn/

Junqueira, C. (2022) Distanciamento das Forças Armadas de Bolsonaro motivou demissão de Azevedo: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/politica/distanciamento-das-forcas-armadas-de-bolsonaro-motivou-demissao-de-azevedo/

Kruijt, D. (2020) “MILITARY INVOLVEMENT IN LATIN AMERICAN POLITICS”, Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, 47(1), pp. 1-20.

Latinobarometro Informe 2021: https://www.latinobarometro.org/lat.jsp

Mora, F. and Fonseca, B. (2019) “It’s Not the 1970s Again for Latin America’s Militaries. Here’s Why.”: https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/its-not-the-1970s-again-for-latin-americas-militaries-heres-why/

Pion-Berlin, D., and Agacio, I. (2020) “The Return of the Latin American Military?”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 151-65.

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