Identity Crisis: The Military in Changing Times

September 25, 2007

Latin America was overly optimistic as the curtain fell on the 1980s. In almost every country, military and civilian leaders arrived at a gentlemen's agreement: the military would go back to the barracks, the governing political parties would be moderate or right-of-center, and the privileges which the military elite had grown accustomed to during their years of rule would be respected. This governing pact is-with few exceptions-honored throughout Latin America. Fernando Botero, Military Junta, 1973. 234" x 195," oil on canvas. RaDI Benitez Manaut is a researcher at the Center for Interdisci- plinary Research in the Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He is the author of La teoria militar y la guerra civil en El Salvador (Universidad Centroamericana, San Salvador, 1989). Translated from the Spanish by Kent Klineman.

Yet Latin America's body politic is undefined. Democracy has not been consolidated. The weakness of civil society, the economic crisis, and problems endemic to political elites have all made it difficult for the new political systems to stabilize. At the same time, this new-born democracy is shallow. It is characterized by a plurality of political parties and periodic elections, but other elements necessary for an effective political process such as an independent judiciary, strong parliaments, and military and security forces that respect the law and human rights-are notably absent.

The military-the decisive political player in the 1970s and 1980s-is now in the midst of an identity crisis. The "Communist threat" had given the military cohesion and power over society, and had been the raison d'etre of its strategies. With its disappearance, the military has had to rethink its mission. The para- meters of acceptable behavior have also narrowed. In the new unipolar world, coup d'6tats are no longer looked upon kindly. As a result, the military has little choice but to respect elected governments.

A new national security doctrine-created in the face of the fall of Communism-provides a more ambiguous role for the military. The new doctrine is based more on economic factors: containing social unrest sparked by the great economic crisis of the 1980s which forced millions into poverty; combatting the political and economic threat to the hemisphere posed by international drug trafficking; and dealing with the unknown consequences of ongoing neoliberal economic reforms. Between 1960 and 1990, many armies created elite battalions to fight the war against Communism. Now, special units are created to fight the war against drugs. The new doctrine of national security recognizes that the only form of government that can guarantee long-term stability and governability is political democracy.

Yet it is dangerous to generalize about Latin American militaries. One can't speak in the same breath of the Mexican military and the Chilean. An army that is fighting in a constant civil war, such as the Colombian, can't be compared with one that has only been active in military missions in the exterior, such as the Cuban army. Likewise, on what basis would one compare Argentina's racist and elitist army with an army with popular roots like the Nicaraguan? The decisive role that the military plays in Peru to combat Shining Path is yet another kettle of fish. In this article, I will make special mention of the militaries in El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela. They represent three totally different national realities, and thus illustrate the new challenges facing the armed forces. The Salvadoran army could not win a military war against the FMLN, yet neither was it routed. With the signing of the peace accords, the army has rapidly redefined its national security doctrine and internal organization in order to adjust to the post-war period. The Mexican army without doubt, the most subordinate to civil authority in Latin America-has thrown itself whole- heartedly into the war against drug trafficking. The Venezuelan military-which for 30 years was subor- dinate to civil power-is now one of the most impor- tant expressions of so-called new military nationalism.

Historians attribute the origins of militarism in Latin America to the Spanish colonial legacy of centralism, authoritarianism, a powerful Catholic Church, and the absence of political elites. In the nineteenth century, the military coup was the traditional way for governments to change hands. In the late 1800s, a new form of government emerged: the "personal dictatorship," in which power was concen- trated in the hands of a few families that controlled the national wealth. The collapse of these oligarchies began with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) and extended into the 1930s. A new militarism emerged: "Cardenismo" in Mexico, "tenentismo" in Brazil, "Peronismo" in Argentina, and "Somocismo" in Nicaragua. This new militarism in some cases-such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina-modernized countries, paving the way for more or less democratic systems, while in other countries-such as Nicaragua- dictatorships were consolidated.

In the post-war period, the influence of the United States became a determining factor. Grounded in a pragmatism devoid of ethical values, the United States indiscriminately gave economic and political support to civilian presidents and military dictators alike. Democracy didn't matter. The only requirement was the government's capacity to exercise political control and maintain a stable political climate-by vote, or by military boot. The other objective for the United States was fostering the spread across the hemisphere of allied regimes against the Communist enemy. A militarist anti-Communist national security doctrine became general policy during the 1960s and 1970s, as U.S. fear of Cuban-Soviet expansionism peaked.

The crisis of military rule and the rebirth of democracy in the 1980s occurred because the exercise of political power through authoritarian means proved ultimately unviable. Political repression engendered radical groups in Central America that took up arms against the government. Outside pressures were equally important in convincing the military to abandon the direct use of power. In the absence of Cold War power games, the United States lost interest in propping up authoritarian regimes. Political parties from across the political spectrum also began to reappraise democracy. Leftist parties decided that it was better to accept part of the political pie under a democratic system, then continue to struggle on the margins. Many on the Left abandoned the idea of revolution, and took up the call for moderate social change. The parties of the Right-which were often unconditional allies of the military-also began to reappraise democracy, both because the military hadn't given them the share of power they had been promised, and also because permanent military rule had endangered sociopolitical stability.

The militaries themselves came to accept democracy as the most stable form of government. In Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia, military govern- ments relinquished power to avert greater social upheaval in their respective countries. Where the militaries clung to power-such as in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay-they were eventually corralled out of office. In Argentina, the decisive factor was the Malvinas War in 1982; in Chile, it was pressure from the whole society; and in Paraguay, a coup from within the military itself. Thus, little by little, both the military and the political parties began to see democ- racy as a goal, and not merely a tool.

Yet, the transition to democracy is incomplete. Military governments opened the floodgates to political lib- eralization as a survival tactic. Today, as a general rule, the military doesn't become involved in politics if a civilian government is able to maintain stability. Yet the military is inclined to intervene when police and security forces cannot quell protests in civil society. In such a situation, the military may act in two ways: at the behest of civilian authorities (for instance, in the form of an autogolpe, such as in Peru in 1992 and Guatemala this year), or on their own. In Guatemala, the autogolpe failed, and in a sui generis solution, the army respected the Constitution and promoted a politi- cal outcome that safeguarded democracy.

Generally, the military's sphere of activity has been hammered out through negotiations with controlling elites. When the military acts autonomously-with- out consultation with political elites-we have mili- tarism. Military autonomy is not limited to dictator- ships, but can exist under civilian-even democratic-regimes. In such cases, the military acts with impunity. Impunity-which places the military or other state security forces above the law-takes two forms: political and operative. Political impunity consists of autonomous decision-making, while operative impunity consists of autonomous actions with respect to civil society. In Latin America, the impunity of the military and the state security apparatus is one of the factors that has weakened the process of democratization.

In El Salvador, democracy-in its most restricted form-was combined with militarism and the anti-Communist national security doc- trine. The 1982 Pact of Apaneca, signed by political and economic elites and members of the military, and backed by the United States, made this possible. The pact implied that Salvadoran democracy was weak, and had to be backed by military force. During the civil-war years from 1980 to 1992, civilian governments changed hands in the elections of 1984 and 1989. Nevertheless, because wide sectors of the population-those loyal or sympathetic to the FMLN- were excluded from the process, the Salvadoran political system was able to accommodate the coexistence of democracy, militarism and counterinsurgency.


To put an end to the civil war, the Salvadoran gov- ernment and the FMLN signed the Accords of Chapultepec in January of 1992, which set the stage for the most profound military reform in El Salvador's history. The government agreed to reduce the size of the army from 62,000 to 34,000 members. It was also agreed that the high command would begin a process of retirement, which would culminate in June, 1993 with the complete retirement of the dominant faction of the army, the "Tandona," the Military School's class of 1966. The U.N. Truth Commission accused the officers of this generation of being principally responsible for the gross violations of human rights during the 1980s. The FMLN also agreed to disarm and disband its military units. This put an official end to the national security doctrine, as the FMLN would cease to be military threat.


Finally, the most important aspect of the accords was an agreement to end impunity. In El Salvador, the military had always been above the law. Until the international outcry over the murder of the six Jesuits in 1989 brought the officer who allegedly ordered the assassination to trial, no officer or soldier of the Sal- vadoran military had ever been tried for  The Mexican military sees itself as a professional army, uncommitted to any faction. The question, however, is open: will it remain apolitical if an opposition party obtains power? human rights abuse. Since the 1970s, the Salvadoran army had maintained two parallel structures: its regular detachments and the secret paramilitary "death squads." This second structure-in which the police and national security apparatus also participated- should disappear in the military reform. The military reform will also separate the national police force from the military structure. A new professional police force is being trained under international auspices. This force-the National Civil Police-is supposed to gradually replace the current militarized police.

Military reform is not yet complete. Its first test will come when the FMLN finishes disarming and openly competes as a political party. The litmus test of success will be whether or not the army respects this new political reality, and respects the lives of the ex-guerrillas. The army is currently divided in the face of this reform. One group supports the post-war process of demilitarization and is deeply committed to the consolidation of political democracy, including the involvement of the FMLN in the country's political process. Others, however, are heirs to the anti-Communist military tradition of Tandona, who don't believe in democracy. This group distrusts the FMLN, and is ready to revert to the old repressive practices. Today, this sector is in the minority.

In contrast to heavily militarized El Salvador, Mexico underwent the most profound and successful process of demilitarization in Latin America. In the 1920s, a series of revolutionary armies headed by caudillos were gradually transformed into a federal armed force, just as a powerful political apparatus was being constructed to centralize power. Mexico's ruling party-the PRI-is the child of the militias which fought in the Mexican Revolu- tion. Between 1934 and 1946, the caudillos made way for the civilian politicians; since then, civilians have governed Mexico. The political system-without being democratic-has slowly opened up, and though it remains authoritarian in nature, it is not militaristic. In the 1980s, the liberalization of the political process sped up; this has led by degrees to a process of democratization. The military has stayed on the mar- gins of the political struggle. It sees itself as a profes- sional army, uncommitted to any faction. The ques- tion, however, is open: will it remain apolitical if an opposition party obtains power?

The Mexican military has a share of power associat- ed with its new mission-the war against drug traf- ficking. This war has supplanted the anti-Communist national security doctrine. The fight against drug traf- ficking became a war in the course of the 1980s, when the U.S. government decided to bring Latin American armed forces into the battle, owing to the incapacity of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and police and security forces. In Mexico, as in the majority of countries, a growing share of economic resources and personnel are being funneled into this new war. The Mexican government allots a third of its budget to defense, and 60% of the Attorney General's budget goes to the war against drugs.

The internal structure of the armed forces has been profoundly transformed since taking on this new mission. Troops engaged in the drug war are highly specialized army battalions. Intelligence networks have changed their objectives. Before, they investigated unions, political parties, and organizations of civil society. Now, they investigate bank accounts, money- laundering operations, car dealerships, air and boat lines, and corrupt public officials. The Mexican war against drugs is a component of a hemisphere-wide U.S. interdiction strategy. Region-wide links with respect to production, transportation, sales and consumption have transnationalized the drug war and made national borders superfluous. The problem, of course, is that the national interests of many Latin American countries have been subordinated to the interests of the United States.

Another problem that the war against drugs produces is corruption. In many rural zones of Mexico, the army is the sole authority. Twenty-five percent of the army's resources are devoted to the drug war. If this portion increases, so too will the risk of corruption. In Mexico, the military has a high level of professionalism. However, the police and security forces-which are principally responsible for systematic violations of human rights-have a high level of impunity. An open conflict exists between the military and the security forces. The security forces are infil- trated by drug traffickers, while the military is waging a war against drugs on the ground. The link between non-military security forces and drug traffickers undercuts the military's effectiveness in the drug war.

Venezuela is a good example of the new military nationalism. Venezuela opened the way to democracy in the 1960s at the same time as it waged a successful counterinsurgency campaign against guerrillas. The military professionalized itself and accepted the new political elites. The country was able to consolidate democracy because resources from the oil boom were used to allay social conflict. By the end of the 1980s, the social and economic situation had deteriorated, and a crisis of political leadership ensued. Within the Venezuelan army, a nationalist and populist sector emerged, wanting to implement policies that benefit the masses. This sector, known as bolivariano, twice tried to seize power in 1992. The return of the military to politics reflects the limitations of democracy, the questioning of neoliberal economic policy, and the possibility that faced with a crisis of governability, a populist military leadership can emerge. This new military ideology of nationalism- populism is a reaction to the U.S. policies which have brought about demilitarization, free-market economics, and the transnationalization of countries.

The new military nationalism can be observed in other countries as well. Depending on the country, it may be rightist or leftist, and usually has links to important sectors of the economic and political elite. In Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador, mili- tary nationalism is of the Right. In Panama until 1989, and in Nicaragua and Venezuela today, it is of the Left. In Cuba, the military is directly tied to the Com- munist Party, and is highly politicized; there is little difference between the island's political and military leadership. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Lib- eration Front (FSLN) was the seed of the Popular San- dinista Army (EPS). Since the Sandinistas' defeat in national elections, the army has had problems separat- ing itself from the political functions it performed dur- ing the 1980s. In Mexico, the armed forces have a nationalist doctrine because of their origin, and are loyal to the PRI. However, as I noted earlier, they have exhibited a high degree of professionalism.

Even though anti-Communism is no longer the cohesive ideology of Latin American elites, democracy in the region is not standing on firm ground. The transition to democracy, in its original conception, was based on a controlled political process in which centrist and rightist political forces would dominate. Today, all Latin American presidents share the same neoliberal political ideology, and market-oriented reforms have opened countries up to the forces of the inter- national marketplace. Yet, the economic prospects for the poor majority are far from rosy, and eventual shifts in political loyalties are likely to occur. What will happen if the political arena moves to the left? What will happen if political stability becomes uncertain?

In the last two years, a number of significant political crises and democratic retreats have occurred: in Haiti, a coup d'6tat ousted a popularly elected president; in Peru, President Alberto Fujimori seized dictatorial powers in an autogolpe; in Venezuela, successive attempts to overthrow Carlos Andr6s P6rez were defeated, but his government fell through a parliamentary-legal-not military-formula; in Brazil, a corruption scandal led to a president's removal without military intervention; and most recently, in Guatemala, President Jorge Serrano's autogolpe failed.

It is worth noting that of these five countries, only in the case of Peru was a non-democratic formula for governing able to succeed, due to popular support for Fujimori and the military in the face of the Shining Path insurgency. In Haiti, the isolation of the military government, both within and without the country, opened the way for the return of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti. In the other countries, the military has kept to the margins, and has respected political institutions working parallel to the presidency, such as the parliament and the judiciary.

In Mexico and Brazil-the largest countries in Latin America-the new Left has made headway, and in the short- or medium term could win power. In Nicaragua, the FSLN is the most important opposition power. In El Salvador, the FMLN has become a force to be reck- oned with, and could gain political power at the parlia- mentary and municipal level. Will the military respect the emergence of the new Left on the political scene? Or will there be a return to the era of military coups against nationalist presidents? The questions are open ended; there are no definitive answers.



Read the rest of NACLA's Sept/Oct 1993 issue: "Peril And Promise: The New Democracy in Latin America."

Tags: military, democratization, military rule, repression

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