The Emergence of "Guardian Democracy"

September 25, 2007

Despite the transitions from direct military rule in Latin America and the emergence of market democracies in nearly every country, many governments, in the face of the economic hardship and social dislocations caused by neoliberal restructuring, have adopted authoritarian measures and bolstered the state’s capacity for repression. Many of the region's new democracies remain marked by institutional legacies of military rule and persistant guardianship by military forces. In addition, new U.S.-sponsored missions for the Latin American armed forces, particularly counter-drug, counter-terror and counter-subversive activities, draw heavily on low-intensity conflict doctrines and lead easily to missions of social control and guardianship.

In fact, there are two conflicting, yet intertwined, movements in the region today. Struggles to democratize and open up political systems have been cuntered by efforts to limit and control social movilization and political opposition. The result has been the emergence of what we called "guardian democracy." In guardian democracy, military power endures as the check against and counterweight to popular majorities, and the political space for opposition is circumscribed.

The security apparatus, ever alert to potential "threats from below," remains a political actor that monitors and contains civil society. The latent threat of military reaction has the power to shape government decision making and inhibit political participation by social groups.

While the Clinton Administration has suported the downsizing and professionalization of Latin American militaries, its national security policy exhibits some striking elements of continuity with Cold War objectives. In 1995, the Administration's first national security strategy document defined U.S. strategic objectives as "protecting, consolidating and enlarging the community of free market democracies" through active, if selective, U.S. engagement worldwide.[1] In that context, the Administration has stated its commitment to democracy and against military coups, and indeed, it has provided important backing for democratic forces on several occasions, as in Guatemala during the 1993 self-coup by President Jorge Serrano. On the other hand, stabilizing the "new world order" has been one of the Administration's major objectives. As a result, U.S. policy makers are often content with the procedural trappings of democracy such as formal elections as long as the regimes in question welcome U S. i~ivestment and political guidance. The U.S. military has, moreover, maintained close relations with armies engaged in outright political repression, as in Indonesia and Colombia, using justifications reminiscent of the Cold War.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Clinton government and the Penta gon's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) have aggressively pushed the Latin American militaries to assume an expansive and multidimensional role in confronting drug trafficking, terrorism, insurgency, immigration and refugee flows. Beyond that, Washington has encouraged a prominent military role in conflict resolution and peacekeeping, inter-American joint operations, social welfare and civic action including "nation-building," a mission popular during the counterinsurgency era of the 1960s and environmental protection. There is evidence that the U.S. Government seeks to unify all the American armies in a continental force under its leadership, though Latin American militaries, fearing the loss of national sovereignty, have indicated their wariness of such a U.S. led unified force.

Meanwhile, security forces in Latin America have not been institutionally restructured since the periods of direct military rule. Elements within the region's military and police forces involved in dirty wars against their own citizens remain on active duty and in many cases have been promoted within their instimtions. U.S. policy makers still seem to privilege military-to-military relations over support for weak civilian institutions and societies and still fear "instability" as a central threat to "market democracy" throughout the world.

The drive to expand the role of the armed forces in Latin America has disturbing precedents. Expansive missions and internal security doctrines in the 1960s provided the justification for the armed forces to assume central roles in state and society.The militaries took control of security and development, and the "internal enemy" thesis focused military intelligence and operations on broad sectors of the population. Role expansion helped create politicized militaries that came to believe themselves uniquely qualified to represent "permanent national interests" and lead their nation-states. Herein lies the central contradiction of Clinton policy: while espousing democracy, the Administration strengthens the military forces that have been the region's greatest threat to democracy over the past generation. While few analysts believe that another round of coups is likely in the current international context, an enlarged military role in state and society presents dangers to fragile democratization processes.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry's 1994 formulation of the new "inter-American security agenda" provides insights into the thinking of the national security establishment.[2] Perry called for adding a military arm to the Organization of American States and sharing responsibility with Latin American militaries for surveillance, patrol, search-and-rescue operations, defense of the Panama Canal and operation of the School of the Americas. Perry also proposed that a hemispheric military force deal with unauthorized immigration flows, peacekeeping and natural disasters.

Perry was echoed by Argentine General Aníbal Laiñio at the 1995 Conference of American Armies held in Argentina. Laiñio identified the challenges to the nation-state as poverty and lack of social development, massive migration flows, environmental issues, structural inequalities within states, drug trafficking, terrorism, subversion, tensions caused by economic competition, and territorial disputes. He called for an army role to resolve them.[3] Given the fact that Argentina's military is considered by many analysts to be the most tccepting of democracy in the region, the general's promotion of such an all-encompassing "guardian" role is significant.

Six trends in the region pose dangers to genuine democratization and reveal a "guardian" process. These are: 1) the enlargement of the military presence in civilian institutions; 2) the use of authoritarian practices by civilian governments; 3) new internal security and domestic-intelligence doctrines and imssions for the military; 4) the use of political intelligence organizations; 5) continued impunity for violators of human rights; and 6) acts by paramilitary groups and unregulated private security organizations. The interaction of these trends has produced militarized forms of politics in which democratic freedoms are constrained and important sectors of society are intimidated and/or excluded.

The first trend is the enlargement of the military presence in civilian institutions. New non-combat roles in social welfare and infrastructure building privilege the military over the civilian labor force and increase military rather than civilian capacities. Throughout Latin America, the armed forces remain convinced of their right to intervene in politics and society, and such missions give the militaries justifications for maintaining large forces in the absence of credible threats. Militaries in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala and elsewhere legalized and institutionalized guardian structures and tutelary powers before or during the transitions to civilian government. Impunity for past human rights abuses was guaranteed, parallel military powers preserved, and nation" security values and institutions incorporated within constitutiom ameworks to hamper structural change. While the militaries can now claim to be acting within the law, these institutional frameworks delimit democratic functioning-they were designed to make direct intervention unnecess,ary. In other cases, notably Colombia, Mexico and Peru, military prerogatives have expanded during civilian rule.

Chile, like other countries formerly ruled by the military, has made democratic advances. Yet Chile's institutional foundation was deformed by the Pinochet regime's 1980 Constitution and by laws imposed before the transition. The Constitution was designed to make an authoritarian democracy permanent after the transition from military rule, with undemocratic and unrepresentative mechanisms built in to prevent another leftist challeage.[4] It gave the military the right to intervene at any time to defend the institutional order and national security. The Constitution established nine "designated" senators out of 47 (four are former military commanders), enabling the extreme right to wield political weight that exceeds its social base. The right in the Senate has defeated many of the Aybvin and Frei governments' democratizing initiatives, including bills to protect human rights, reform repressive state security laws, and remove civilian crimes from the jurisdiction of military courts.[5]

The nine members of the Chilean Supreme Court were named by General Pinochet before the transition, making the Court another institutional legacy of the military regime. It has often ruled in favor of protecting the prerogatives of the military and upheld the amnesty law issued by the de facto military regime in 1978. The military-dominated National Security Council, another authoritarian legacy, exercises a supervisory function over government policy and laws still obstruct civilian con;rol by eliminating the president's right to name and remove comnianders of the armed and security forces and by providing the military a guaranteed budget based on copper sales. In 1998, Pinochet left his post asarmy commander, but he assumed office as a lifetime senator, thus securing the political control of the extreme right in Chilean politics.It has been noted that much of the civil-military leadership of the dictatorship is now in the Senate, ensuring that efforts to democratize authoritarian institutional structures will be blocked in the intermediate future.[6]

In Brazil, the political system still features a military presence tinder President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. There are five imlitary ministers in the cabinet, and the military continues to exercise an internal security role, carrying out surveillance of the militant landless movement and intervening in domestic conflicts if commanders deem it necessary.[7] The armed forces took direct action in public-security situations an estimated 48 times between 1985 and 1997, including the repression of strikes and demonstrations.[8] The military retains its hegemony over the weapons industry, nuclear policy and the development of the Amazon region, where it is building military bases and roads. Finally, the military's commitment to democratic structures is tenuous. In 1993, military chiefs, along with some civilians, advised President Itamar Franco to close Congress and the courts and impose a military-backed self-coup, but he refused.[9] Military political power is enshrined in the Constitution, and there is substantial evidence that central ideological concepts of the national security doctrineespecially the "threat from below"-continue to orient the Brazilian military.[10]

The second trend visible in Latin America is the use of authoritarian practices by civilian govemments. In much of the region, strong executives, backed by military-security forces, dominate political and economic decision making. Presidents such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Menem in Argentina, and Cardoso in Brazil have used authoritarian measures to implement economic shock therapies, limit popular participation, weaken political opposition, or bypass constitutional institutions. In Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Panama, presidents have maneuvered to revise national constitutions in order to permit themselves new terms in office, undermining institutional checks on presidential "monarchies."

The most clear-cut case of civil-military autocracy is Peru. Fujimori faced mounting congressional opposition throughout late 1991 and early 1992 to a series of presidential decrees, including harsh antiterrorist measures in the context of the counterinsurgency war against Shining Path. In response, he carried out a self-coup in April 1992 with the backing of the military. Fujimori closed Congress and the courts, suspended the Constitution, and ceded control of the counterinsurgency war to the military. Until August 1998, power was concentrated in three figures: Fujimori himself, Vladimiro Montesinos, the shadowy intelligence advisor, and General Nicolás Hermoza Ríos, the head of the armed forces, who was replaced by Fujimoni in August. According to dissident general Rodolfo Robles, Montesinos ran a death squad called the Colina Group between 1991 and 1993 which was responsible for two high profile massacres as well as several bombings and kidnappings. [11]

Fujiniori reopened Congress after new elections gave his personalistic party majority control. He has greatly widened the powers of the military and the intelligence apparatus, which keeps politicians, businessmen, journalists, unionists and others under surveillance, and tortures opponents. When a television station reported on torture and political surveillance in 1997, the military closed it down and revoked the citizenship of its foreign-born owner. When opposition deputies summoned General Hermoza to explain, 35 high-ranking military commanders marched into Congress with him in a clear gesture of intimidation. Fujimori and his prime minister defended the military's behavior.12 In May 1997 his Congressional majority engineered the removal from the Constitutional Tribunal of judges who ruled against the president's bid for a third term. When in July 1998 citizens presented a petition with one-and-a-half million signatures calling for a popular referendum on Fujimori's third-term presidential candidacy, the Fujimori-dominated Congress voted the attempt down.[13]

In Argentina, Menem has weakened the country's constitutional institutions, "stacking" the Supreme Court and by-passing Congress with his frequent use of decrees. He shows little sympathy for the democratic role of a political opposition or of a free press, routinely attacking both in harsh language that evokes military rhetoric. Menem pardoned military seditionists and the junta commanders of the dirty war, and he has consistently acted to ensure military impunity. He reappointed military officers of the dirty war era to the State Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE), which is widely suspected of harboring antidemocratic and anti-semitic "mafias" and of carrying out political intelligence against opposition parties as an arm of the president.[14] He has also moved to relax legal restrictions on an internal security role for the armed forces.

General Hugo Bdnzer, who overthrew the Bolivian government in a coup in 1971 and ruled for seven years, was elected to the presidency in June 1997. His Administration implemented unpopular austerity measures, expanded the military's counterdrug role, and attempted to rewrite flational security laws. Human rights and workers' organizations protested in March 1998 when Bdnzer unveiled a bill that criminalized social protest and curtailed freedom of speech. The bill gave the president the power to declare a national emergency in conditions of war, natural disaster, subversion or internal unrest, removing a role for Congress. Areas of unrest would be declared military zones with armed forces commanders superseding civilian authority.[15]

Not only has the newly independent media been targeted for harsh criticism by presidents in Argentina, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico, but journalists have been subject to physical attack throughout the region. In Argentina, there have been some 1,000 threats or attacks against journalists during Carlos Menem's two terms, and two journalists have been killed. The Argentine Association for the Defense of Independent Journalism called 1997 "the year of the worst regression for freedom of the press in Argentina since the restoration of democracy in 1983." Other journalists have been murdered in Mexico and Colombia, and several govemments have proposed laws to limit press reporting. [16]

In sum, presidents in Latin America, allied with military forces, are creating truncated and militarized forms of democracy as they simultaneously carry out economic restructuring, often by decree. As Atilio Borón and others have argued, the tension is not between state and market, but between democracy and the market.[17] Executives have used national security laws reminiscent of the military states and mobilized the rallitary and security forces to enforce order. There seems to be an affinity between neoliberal prograins and policies to limit democracy and accountability.[18]

A third trend in civil-military relations is the promotion of intelligence and internal security roles for military forces. In most of Latin America, military forces consider internal security and intelligence to be inseparable from national defense and part of the military mission. Social unrest and "narcosubversion" have been identified as new "nontraditional threats" in several Conferences of the American Armies, the iriter-American gatherings of top anny commanders that occur about every two years. Although some officers remain reluctant to take on a counter-drug mission, there is increasing acceptance of it throughout the region. Armed forces are involved in counter-drug missions in Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Caribbean countries, while the militaries in Argentina, Chile and Brazil appear to be moving toward such a role.[19] In Peru the armed forces play a central role in counter-drug operations, despite the fact that Mentesinos and high-ranking officers have been linked to drug traffickers.[20] In Colombia, counter-drug operations have been fused with counterinsurgency operations characterized by massacres, torture and assassination. A military mission targeting "social unrest" represents a warning to those hurt by or opposed to the socioeconomic model.

The Chilean military has defined the concept of "internal frontiers" to indicate the parts of the country left behind economically, with weak infrastructure and low population rates. This concept assigns the military a idamental role in ational integraion and economic development. One military commander envisioned a broad role for the military to "conquer internal frontiers" and eliminate "all those factors of insecurity that constitute aspects of weakness in political, economic, social and military dimensions that significantly alter or make vulnerable the security of the nationstate."[21] Chilean officers also insist that their role is permanent and unchangeable, not subject to the political machinations of transitory elected officia.[22] Prominent officers identify terrorism, drug trafficking, poverty and social unrest as key military threats, as well as vague "political, cultural, or ideological influences that try to impose different values" upon the national identity.[23]

In Mexico, where important political opposition has emerged and the power of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has declined, significant militarization has taken place. President Ernesto Zedillo ordered a military response to the uprisings by the Zapatista National Liberation Anny (EZI,N) and other new guerrilla groups, and counterinsurgency operations have expanded in large areas of southern and central Mexico. Tens of thousands of troops patrol in Guerrero and Chiapas, and Zapatista villages have been attacked with tanks, mortars and bazookas. Paramilitary groups, responsible for a number of massacres, including the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas, have assumed an important role in the militarization process.

Zedillo has also expanded the military role in law enforcement and in drug interdiction. Military officers now command the federal police in Chihuahua and Mexico City, thousands of police were replaced by soldiers in the federal capital and in Buja California.[24] Military officers command most of the country's counterdrug agencies. Budgets and troops have both enlarged in the last few years, and U.S. counternarcotics aid and materiel have been used by the Mexican military for counterinsurgency purposes in Chiapas.

A secret military document leaked to the press in 1995 provides insight into the evolving doctrine of the Mexican military. The document called for the immediate establishment of special forces units, training programs in urban and suburban operations, and a permanent rapid reaction force in Chiapas. It proposed a redefinition of the traditional mission of national defense to encompass a role in internal security, and called for a larger intelligence capability.[25] These changes—particularly the emphasis on social unrest and on urban and counter-drug operations—are likely to result in a larger political presence for the military in policy making and in society, less civilian control, and, potentially, more repression and more human rights abuses.

Similar documents have been uncovered in Argentina.In August 1997, press accounts revealed a Defense Ministry document calling for the return of intelligence and internal security functions to the military, specifically surveillance and repression of illdefined "social, cultural, or political destabilization" as part of a System of Common Security for Mercosur countries. In this case, as in others ' the public outcry led the government to deny that it sought to relegalize a military internal security mission. However, a 1996 presidential decree on defense had subtly enlarged the latitude for a military internal security role, and in December 1996, President Menem announced—without consulting Congress—that the role of the Argentine military in drug interdiction and counter-terrorism would be significantly expanded to give the armed forces a new prominence in intelligence and air control.[26]

U.S. policy makers apparently have encouraged their Argentine counterparts to restore a counter-subversive mission as well. In one May 1998 meeting reported by the Argentine media, Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Argentine defense minister and the chiefs of the armed forces that "radicalized groups" were a danger to peace and democracy, and he warned of popular uprisings such as those in Indonesia.[27] Such advice strengthens the influence of the most reactionary elements of the armed and security forces, who are already convinced there is a "subversive resurgence" in the country.

The three remaining trends toward guardian democracy can be discussed more briefly. One is the use of political intelligence organizations by civilian governments. Such intelligence organizations, both civilian and military, pose a threat to civil liberties, especially when agents within them continue to harbor Cold War national security concepts. In the national security states, the intelligence organizations directed the repression carried out by the militaries, and most are still unreformed and unrestructured.

In Argentina there is widespread suspicion that SIDE, along with "parallel" intelligence groups directed by the government, are responsible for political surveillance and harassment. Both SIDE and military intelligence organizations make use of civilian operatives and retired officers from the days of the dirty war. These apparatuses still operate without constitutional control. There is no law governing the intelligence bodies, and civilian oversight is extremely weak or nonexistent.

Opposition deputies in Argentina have denounced wiretaps on their phones in Congress and suggested that official intelligence services are to blame. In one recent scandal, private phone conversations of the family of the opposition govemor of the capital were taped, leaked to a newspaper and published. Human rights organizations routinely report break-ins of their offices and robbery of files and computer disks with information on the dirty war. Two major bombings of Jewish targets have not been solved, and many believe SIDE and government figures are blocking the investigations. In a recent statement, an Argentine rabbi blamed -powerful fascist cells within the Buenos Aires police and the State Intelligence Agency (SIDE) that prevent us from getting at the truth."[28]

Another trend in the region is the continued impunity for violators of human rights. In most of the pacted transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule, military institutions demanded and received guarantees that they would not be prosecuted for their roles in the dirty wars. The mantle of impunity continues to shield human rights abusers, who can go on to commit new crimes. Some of the most notorious architects of state terror retain positions of power. Torturers remain free and may still be employed by the security apparatus. In other words, the impunity of the past reaches into the present and the future, profoundly shaping the limits and possibilities of new democracies. Impunity is corrosive to democracy because powerful sectors that were beyond the law during the military era remain so even after the transition. A crucial indicator of civilian control is whether the military is accountable to a constitutional judiciary. When this accountability is lacking, confidence in civilian government and the rule of law is undermined.

The final trend toward "guardian democracy" is the increased activity of paramilitary groups, notably in Colombia and Mexico, and the activities of uncontrolled private security organizations, as in Argentina. Paramilitary groups and death squads operate in a nebulous zone between military command and autonomy. Such organizations serve a guardian function, creating terror, limiting democratic rights, precluding policies seen as threatening to elites, and keeping the population fearful and politically inert. They also afford the state deniability.

In Colombia the military faces a powerful insurgency, but many of the thousands of persons targeted by military and paramilitary forces have been unarmed civilians. In May 1998, the office of the Justice and Peace Commission in Bogotd was raided by a heavily armed patrol of the army's Special Counterguerrilla Forces, which filmed the office and its computer files and threatened human rights workers. Also in May, hooded paramilitaries invaded four neighborhoods in Barrancabermeja with lists of persons to seize. They executed eight in the plaza and "disappeared" the rest. The army, which had surrounded the town and set up checkpoints, did nothing. Later, a presidential commission said at least one military officer participated in the massacre.[29]

In fact, the Colombian army was deeply involved in the development of the paramilitary project, using these groups to conduct intelligence and dirty war operations. Human Rights Watch (HRW) obtained a secret 1991 military intelligence reorganization plan called Order 200-05/91, which institutionalized the military-paramilitary partnership.[30] HRW also reported that Pentagon and CIA officers worked with the Colombians on the intelligence reorganization and counseled them to strengthen their ties with the paramilitaries. The military units most closely connected with the paramilitaries were recipients of substantial U.S. counter-drug aid, and the officers accused of directing paramilitary terror were promoted through the ranks.[31]

In Guatemala, where all sorts of paramilitary groups were used by the military during the armed conflict, the assassination of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi was claimed by Jaguar Justiciero, a death squad linked to intelligence sectors of the army during the dirty war. In May 1998, Jaguar Justiciero also threatened electoral candidates of the center-left New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG). In June, U.S. lawyer Jennifer Harbury released a list of 23 military officers who might be part of Jaguar Justiciero, and in July the Bishop's Human Rights Office accused several military officers of involvement in the Gerardi assassination. Some of the officers named by both were members of the Presidential High Command, an elite military corps that, during the civil war, housed the "Archivo," a sophisticated intelligence apparatus that directed the repression, The human rights report of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office—which Gerardi had presented to the public two days before his murder—said that the Archivo participated in creating paramilitary groups and death squads, including Jaguar Justiciero, in the 1980s.[32]

Private security agencies that incorporate former dirty war operatives and military personnel also represent rentrants of the dirty war apparatus. In Argentina, members of these agencies have been implicated in destabilization campaigns and in terrorist attacks. There are multiple private security agencies in Argentina, which operate beyond any constitutional control, employing some 90,000 persons.

In sum, despite the positive transitions that have taken place in Latin America, forms of militarized politics have emerged that have impeded the expansion of political freedoms, undermined the functioning of democratic institutions, and intimidated civil society. As long as structural and ideological legacies of the national security states remain, democratization is at risk. New internal security missions for military forces strengthen the most anti-democratic sectors within them and endanger the rights of citizens to protest, to influence their governments, or to fight for social and conomic change. Legitimate opposition to the neoliberal model or to authoritarianism might again be identified as a threat to national security. The trends identified here pose threats to the struggles in the region for social justice and more inclusive forms of democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J. Patrice McSherry teaches political science at Long Island University-Brooklyn. She is author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (St. Matin’s Press, 1997). This article is based on research conducted in the summer of 1998 thanks to a grant from LIU-Brooklyn.

NOTES: 1."A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement" (Washington: General Publishing Office, 1995): p, 5, quoted in Robert H. Dorff, "Democratization and Failed States The Challenge of Ungovernability," Parameters (Washington: U.S. Army War College, Summer 19

Tags: democratization, neoliberalism, militarization, intelligence, repression

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