Monday, November 04, 2019

The Eternal Latin American Military

It was just about a generation ago that studying civil-military relations was a hot topic. It's what I did in Chile and plenty of others were doing the same around the region. Most, like me, shifted to over topics over time (David Pion-Berlin is a notable exception--he's been studying this forever). By the mid-2000s or so, people tended to return to ignoring the role of the armed forces, deeming them as just another political actor (defending its bureaucratic interests) in an era of democracy.

Now interest is starting to perk up again as presidents either use the military to keep order or make a point of having the military's support.

I wrote a blog post about Javier Corrales' article on the topic. The New York Times warns of the military's return. The Mexican military (through a retired officer) is criticizing its president, which is highly unusual there and is a bad sign. Over the course of this year, we've seen analyses about the military's (re)growing power in Latin America. This all sounds so familiar.

As Brian Loveman reminded us in his 1999 book For la Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin America, "The armed forces' role as "guardians" in a system of "protected democracy" is thus part of Latin American political culture and is not restricted to the military subculture and militarylore" (xiv). This does not mean the military wants to govern or even to control decisions, but it does mean that presidents lean on the military for political support in ways that are often not healthy for democracy, while military commanders see themselves as ultimate guardians of the national common good, which at times means making political statements. Ousting the president or even taking over entirely is just the extreme version.

Added to the mix, of course, is the fact that democracy's shine has currently lost its luster in the region. As we see in LAPOP polling, support for democracy is down, from 67.6% in 2004 to 57.5% in 2018/2019. That is a dismaying drop. In 10 countries support is under 50% (versus 6 above 50%). The lowest is in Peru, and the highest in Costa Rica (which famously does not have an army).

Folks, the military never went away. We just weren't paying very much attention for a long time.


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