Force in the politics

Account for the rise and fall of military rule in 20th century Latin America, and assess the likelihood of a revival of military intervention in the politics of the region in the 21st century.


Militarism was the dominant force in the politics of Latin America in recent history. The rise of military rule in twentieth century Latin America has to a large extent shaped the political life of the nations in the region and also produced literature on this form of authoritarianism known as "bureaucratic authoritarianism". These authoritarian regimes were unparalleled in their brutality and suppression of civil society and political movements. The bureaucratic authoritarian regime was the predominant political trend in Latin America during the mid 1960's which began with the Brazilian coup of 1964, Argentina in 1966 and 1976, Chile and Uruguay in 1973.

This essay begins with the military intervention from earlier years (1930) which will be distinguished from the succession of coups that began with Brazil in 1964, and then treats the factors that brings about military rule in the region, the rise and decline of military dictatorship in Latin America with focus on Brazil, Chile and Argentina. The kind of regimes the military puts up, the reasons behind their fall with particular emphasis and evidence on the fact that military rule is bad for development in the region and the possibility of a comeback of military dictatorship in the 21st century Latin America will also be highlighted.

It is pertinent to distinguish the succession of coups that began with brazil in 1964 from earlier interventions between 1930 and 1964.The military frequently intervened in national politics after 1929 - the Brazilian military acted as arbitrator in domestic conflicts in 1930, 1937 and 1945.The Argentine militaries overthrew the radicals in 1930, the conservatives in 1943, and Juan Domingo Peron in 1955 (Wynia, 1990).In later years, they interfered occasionally to subdue dictatorial presidents and help set up democratic governments as it happened in Venezuela in 1945 and 1958. Military rule was temporary during this period, Latin America armies engaged in breakthrough coups targeted at replacing one group of civilian leaders with another preferred with the use of their weapons. In contrast, the generals who took over after 1964 came to stay.

There are several reasons as to why the military constantly intervenes in the politics of Latin America, professional military officers in the 1960s and 1970s blamed the poor conditions in Latin America on the corruption of civilian politicians and the institutions of liberal democracy, they concluded that economic development and political stability could only be achieved with the establishment of long term military rule. Economic crisis prompted military interventions in that they could result in popular unrest which could provoke disorder; the government's inability to control the situation is a basis for military coups. The military was also motivated to create a more orderly political process distinct from what they were used to in the past of which they themselves contributed to with all the periodic coups. They were determined to create a new political order which they did with the use of force.

Military intervention in Latin America is also influenced by foreign governments who use local armies to defend and uphold their interest as at when due. Conspiracies involving foreign agents are covertly organised like the Chilean coup of 1973 of which Allende was overthrown and eventually killed and General Pinochet assumed president fully supported by US authorities (Livingstone, 2009). Revelations from the US senate investigations proved how foreign agents can trigger military interventions. The fact is that military intervention really made no difference in the economic development in the region nor did it bring to an end political unrest rather, resistance began to grow as many became affected, dissidents were either jailed or killed and many people began to disappear, so was the situation of things after the military took over the political life in Latin America.

The military of Brazil in 1964 adopted the national security doctrine which states that the nation's interest supersedes that of the individual, citizens are mandated to do everything possible to protect the nation. A succession of authoritarian regimes governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The military overthrew the Goulart government which was having difficulties controlling the state of the economy which had deteriorated rapidly in 1962 and 1963.The Brazilian generals created a regime in which they would govern the nation as leaders of the armed forces rather than hand power over to a single officer who would eventually become a one man dictator. However there was the need to elect one amongst them to serve as chief executive to enhance orderliness and also to prove to the public that someone was in charge. General Castello Branco was immediately elected as the new president by congress and served until 1967.during his regime, inflation was reduced but not as expected, his government was still unable to achieve economic stabilization. (Wynia, 1990)

President Artur Costa e Silva was the next military president to rule from 1967-1969, his authoritarian government used dictatorial measures to achieve its idea of rapid economic development. General Ernesto Geisel assumed presidency in 1974 after Costa e Silva suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 and years of guerrilla movements. Thereafter president Joao Figueiredo took over in 1979 and ruled until 1985.During this era of military rule in Brazil, political activists and dissidents were jailed as well as anyone who contended with the authoritarian rule. The military interdicted labour movements, political parties and student organisations, civilians had no say whatsoever.

On the economic scene, the implementation of structural adjustment programs aimed at controlling inflation actually achieved a certain measure of success and rapid economic growth thereafter causing the military to brag of performing a miracle when in actual fact it was just a case of the military being in the right place at the right time. Wynia (1990) states that what propelled Brazil to speedy economic growth was mainly the combination of foreign and state investments supplemented by domestic private efforts in commerce and agriculture. the use of authoritarian rule to enforce harsh austerity only made the plights of the peasants worse, the "miracle" began to fade, inflation had risen to over a 100 percent, foreign debts mounted reaching $80 billion in 1982 also the world recession in 1981 and 1982 depressed the value of Brazilian exports (Skidmore and Smith, 2005). This period marked the beginning of the decline of military regime in Brazil.

The Argentine military assumed power in June 1966 with the intention of a revolution after the removal of president Illia from office. Three successive army generals attempted to rehabilitate the country politically and economically. General Juan Carlos Ongania took over presidency and considered his regime irrevocable stating repeatedly that there would be no elections for a long time. Ongania made some economic progress by opening the mining industry to foreigners and slowing down price increases, however, his regime was more of the technocrat than the politician. He repressed the national labor movement and jailed its leaders, there was rising resentment throughout the country and in a bid to put an end to it, the military ousted Ongania from office and General Roberto Livingston was named president (Fernandez, 1973).

General Livingston's leadership was not any better despite all his political promise of Argentina returning to democratic normalcy. By March 1971, Argentines became openly dissatisfied at the economic and political crisis, the military stepped in once again, removed Livingston and General Lanusse was named president. Lanusse intention was to achieve a new political order and opted for a relegalization of political parties, he took even a greater gamble by allowing Peron return to presidency. The military returned after the Peronista government of 1973 and fell apart with the death of Peron a year later, Isabel his wife and successor could neither hold the government together.

General Jorge Rafael Videla took over in March 1976 and launched a vicious campaign "dirty war" against the opposition, guerrilla movements were on the rise seeking the overthrow of the government and the installation of a socialist regime along Marxist-Leninist lines. The junta embarked on an all out war against its opposition, there were the desaparecidos, those who disappeared and were never heard of (Skidmore and Smith, 2005).The dictatorship affected society in Argentina, people lived in fear and the economy suffered.

Videla handed over presidency to General Roberto Viola in 1981; Viola was replaced by Army commander-in-chief general Leopoldo Galtieri who went to war over the Falkland/Malvinas Island with Britain. The British defeated and humiliated the Argentines and also blocked European trade with Argentina for three months to punish Galtieri economically, the Argentine economy went from bad to worse. In 1983, there was a transition from military to civilian government with radical party candidate Raul Alfonsin emerging as president. The new regime was committed to prosecute military officers involved in the killing or disappearance of more than 10,000 people. Nine military commanders-in-chief were charged for crimes committed and sentenced to prison.No other Latin America government had dared prosecute its officers for crimes committed during a military regime (Skidmore and Smith, 2005)

The government of General Augusto Pinochet seized power on September 11, 1973 by overthrowing the elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende (Arturo, 1984). The Chilean coup of 1973 was justified by the new military government as necessary to restore order, avoid class warfare and salvage the economy, the government set out to impose on Chile a bureaucratic authoritarian regime. The first four years of the junta brought about terrible human rights abuses, thousands of civilians linked with the Popular Unity parties were murdered, tortured, jailed, brutalized or exiled. International organisations and the Roman Catholic Church condemned the widespread violations of human rights in Chile and as such, the church came into constant conflict with the junta.

General Pinochet emerged dominant figure; his government was a one-man dictatorship with the rest of the junta under his command. He made himself commander in chief of the military and chief executive of the state, Pinochet alone commanded power. Caistor (2006) reveals Pinochet's use of brutal force to impose order on the country in a reign of terror that killed more than 3,000 Chileans and thousands tortured or forced to live in exile abroad. The United States under the Carter administration criticised Pinochet for the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the US under the Allende regime. On the economic front, Skidmore and Smith (2005) states that civilian technocrats known as the "Chicago boys" introduced significant changes in the economic policy. They reasoned that what restricted Chile's economic growth was the government's intervention in the economy which results to reduced competition, artificially increased wages that leads to inflation. The economic boom proved to be short-lived, there was an economic crisis by the end of 1981, exports and foreign credit fell sharply, unemployment soared to 30 percent, real wages fell and GNP dropped 13 percent in the same year. (Edgardo, 1986)

General Pinochet stepped down in March 1998 after seventeen years as a military dictator; he was arrested in London in October 1998 at the request of a Spanish magistrate to prosecute him for human rights violation of Spanish citizens.

The periods of protracted military rule in Latin America failed to bring about enduring economic recovery or re-ordering the Civilian political system which were some of the reasons why the military claimed to have intervened in the politics of the region. They have proved unable to cope with crisis on the economic front, bereft of ideas once an initial policy has turned sour (Cammack, 1985). In essence, military rule can be argued to be bad for development as it does not produce durable solutions to political and economic issues. Its interest is more of selfish purpose is and always ready to shut down any opposition with the use of force, the people have no say whatsoever.

The twenty first century augurs very well for Latin America societies with the decline of military rule. Finer (1976) provides an explanation as to why these military regimes fall from power. He states that the military suffers from two "crippling" political weaknesses: their technical inability to administer and their lack of legitimacy to rule. The failure of the armed forces to establish legitimacy affected their downfall, legitimacy is necessary because a government cannot adequately rule by using force alone. However, this does not mean that a regime cannot rule without legitimacy, but as Finer implied, "the threat of physical compulsion is not an efficient, i.e. an economical, way of securing obedience." (Finer, 1976:16). Futhermore, rule by force alone will eventually be challenged by anyone strong enough to try, this explains the fact that military coups are often always followed by a succession of counter coups

The decline of military rule in Latin America can also be associated to the fact that the generals were not properly prepared for the task, their education hardly offered any preparation for the reorganization of complex economic and social institutions. Military regime seems to follow a similar direction in the region, starting boldly with achieving economic stabilization which eventually declines as a result of economic crisis or social and political reconstruction.

However, the military of Latin America may be out but definitely not down. It is rather utopian to say the military have abdicated from politics for good because recent coups though short-lived prove otherwise. On the 28th of June 2009, president Zelaya of Honduras was ousted in a military coup because the left- wing leader was seeking a change in the constitution to allow him stand for re-election; arrested in his pyjamas, he was sent into exile in Costa Rica. According to the Guardian (2009), Zelaya described his arrest as a "coup" and "kidnapping". Similarly, short-lived coups in Ecuador and Venezuela shows that the military still has a hold of political affairs. The Ecuadorian coup of January 2000 saw President Jamil Mahud deposed by Ecuador's Indians with the support of military leaders. Also, in 2002 there was a brief seizure of power when Venezuela's Chavez was ousted by the military and detained at an army base.

Interestingly, a recent edition of US magazine Newsweek, predicts that this year 2010 will see the fall of Venezuela's Chavez following a coup. In my opinion, the Chavez coup predictions is wishful thinking, the Obama administration will never duplicate what they did in Honduras. A civil war will break out if Chavez is ousted and a war against Venezuela implies a war against Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and possibly Brazil and Argentina; knowing that if Venezuela's leader is taken out by the US, they will be next.

Furthermore, in November 2009 Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo in an attempt to avoid being removed from office via a coup, fired his military chiefs and vowed that he would not be forced out of office before the end of his tenure in 2013.

As aforementioned, there is no guarantee that the military will not leave their barracks once again and get involved in political affairs although it cannot be compared to the 20th century when military rule was dominant in Latin America. However, the military is acquiring new roles both nationally and internationally; many of the regions armed forces have become overwhelmingly internationalized providing humanitarian assistance, security and stability needed to ensure political, social and economic development (Ross, 2004)


The role of the military in 20th century Latin America caused more harm than good; military intervention really made no difference in improving the economy rather resistance began to grow as people became affected by military dictatorship which constantly violated human rights. However, there is the potential for military coups in Latin America today but the risk of their intervention is reduced because of its legacy of the past. Ideally, the role of the military is to provide security and stability rather than harbour political ambitions.

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