By Will Freeman and Beatriz Rey
Thirty years ago, Latin America’s nascent democracies did what had once seemed impossible: They confined the militaries that had regularly overthrown them to their barracks.
But now presidents from Mexico to Brazil are coaxing the generals back out — and undermining their democracies in the process. By invitation of elected leaders, militaries across the region are reemerging as a political force: resolving election disputes, putting down protests and taking top government jobs.
In contrast to the region’s Cold War-era militaries, modern Latin American armed forces aren’t governing directly. Often, they’re reluctantly heeding civilian leaders’ calls to wade into politics and governance. But their resurgence nevertheless threatens democracies already beset by election deniers, economic hardship and civil unrest.
Less than a half-century ago, military rule was the norm in Latin America. From Brazil’s 1964 military coup until the fall of the Berlin Wall, generals habitually ousted elected presidents and formed authoritarian juntas, often with U.S. support and in the name of fighting communism. By 1977, repressive military regimes ruled all but four countries in the region.
But by the 1990s, with the lone exception of Cuba, Latin America had embraced democracy. Coup attempts dwindled as military officers accepted civilian rule. In Argentina, junta leaders faced trial. In Chile and Guatemala, where militaries clung to control of some government agencies and offices, elected leaders slowly but surely reformed them. It was a rare and remarkable story of democratic progress in a region with a long history of uncertain rule of law.
But once militaries are firmly under civilian control, it’s up to civilians to manage them responsibly. Most of Latin America’s elected leaders failed that test.
Driven by a combination of pragmatism and opportunism, politicians leveraged military forces to bolster their governments as de facto police forces, state bureaucracies and electoral tribunals. This trend started slowly but quickly gained steam.
Facing governance challenges ranging from rising crime to climate-accelerated natural disasters, elected governments leaned on their armed forces to perform tasks that weaker state institutions couldn’t. Militaries’ competence, loyalty and public trust across the region — second only to the church’s — made them useful to political leaders.
During the 2000s, Latin American leaders used professional soldiers in place of ill-equippmed local police forces, putting armies in charge of fighting crime.
In the 2010s, as the region’s economies slowed to a crawl, democracies got messier. Protests and election disputes proliferated, and elected leaders frequently called in the military for backup. The presidents of Chile and Ecuador used troops to enforce curfews and restore order after uprisings in 2019. In Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and, most recently, Peru, troops cracked down on protesters with lethal force.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Latin American governments have dispatched militaries to produce masks in Argentina, enforce stay-at-home orders in Chile and cajole people into quarantine centers in El Salvador.
The region’s politicians have also increasingly enlisted militaries as unofficial political referees. Honduras’ military, at the urging of its Congress, forced then-President Manuel Zelaya into exile in 2009. Bolivia’s military successfully “suggested” President Evo Morales leave office as anti-government protests raged in 2019. And El Salvador’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, pushed his 2020 agenda through the legislature by filling its halls with gun-toting troops.
Political opportunism has been another driving factor. As the region’s traditional political parties broke down, power-hungry presidents turned to the military in their stead. The late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, a former military officer, took the tactic furthest, filling the government with generals.
Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, himself a former army captain, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have both taken pages from his playbook. Bolsonaro, who staffed a third of his Cabinet with military figures, roped top brass into a fruitless hunt for evidence of fraud in last year’s election. López Obrador, who once promised to rein in the military, has instead given its officers roles in security, infrastructure and tourism while creating a new, military-staffed National Guard.
While the risk to Latin American democracy once came from from generals disobeying orders, it now comes from their tendency to follow them. Today’s generals don’t want to replace civilian governments. They’re more focused on safeguarding privileges, budgets and authority.
That doesn’t mean these democracies are safe. Although it’s unlikely that other militaries in the region will go as far as Venezuela’s by fusing with an autocratic ruling party, the militarization of governance and politics is already taking a toll on democracies’ health in a few ways.
First, militarization stifles critical voices in civil society even when it’s not undermining election integrity. Militaries’ capacity for secrecy and intimidation serve them well on the battlefield but don’t mix with healthy democratic politics. Mexican journalists recently revealed that military officials had accessed a reporter’s private messages by infecting his phone with spyware, the latest in a string of similar cases exposed since 2017. After the Peruvian armed forces killed 10 protesters and injured scores more in December, demonstrations began to decline.
Militarizing aspects of governance that are properly left to civilians can also lead to mismanagement, corruption and waste. After the military took over Venezuelan state-run oil company, its output nosedived. Military officials made costly mistakes as they rolled out Brazil’s pandemic response, sending some 78,000 vaccine doses to the wrong state; they did no better as an ad hoc police force tasked with halting the destruction of the Amazon. And in Mexico, López Obrador’s decision to put the military in charge of building and operating infrastructure shields government contracts from scrutiny.
Finally, militaries sometimes protect their own from accountability. While Colombia convicted 800 soldiers and put 16 generals under investigation for extrajudicial executions between 2002 and 2008, Mexico’s Supreme Court appears to have put all major rulings affecting the military on hold since López Obrador took office. Under a 2017 law, Brazil allows officers accused of abusing civilians to face trial in special military courts.
Brazil’s recently elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offers hope for rolling back militaries’ role in government. Since his inauguration in January, he has replaced military figures with civilians in more than 100 government posts. A general who vocally opposes an activist military, Tomás Paiva, became the army’s top commander.
At the same time, Lula is carefully building bridges to avoid alienating the generals. Ten years ago, that might not have been necessary. Today it’s a must — and a testament to how much ground Latin America’s democracies have lost.
Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beatriz Rey is a senior researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.