‘A Very Dangerous Game’: In Latin America, Embattled Leaders Lean on Generals
An old but far from forgotten sight is returning to Latin America: presidents facing TV cameras, addressing the nation in a moment of crisis — flanked by their generals.
In Ecuador, military leaders stood at attention behind President Lenín Moreno as he announced a state of emergency. A few days later, Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, did the same with a dozen camouflage-wearing officers at his side.
Both countries, reeling from the kinds of protests sweeping much of the world, also deployed troops to the streets — a jarring step in a region that has worked hard to put its history of military dictatorships behind it.
But presidential evocations of the military have extended, in recent days, beyond countries hit by anti-establishment unrest, suggesting there is more at play here.
In Peru, President Martín Vizcarra appeared alongside military officers to declare that he would not give in to pressure from the opposition-led Congress to cede power. In Bolivia, amid a disputed presidential vote, the incumbent, Evo Morales, gave a speech to military officers urging them “to guarantee the national territory” and maintain the country’s political unity.
This is not a return of the military to power, as during the dictatorships that dominated Latin America for much of the Cold War, scholars say. Rather, rising dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo, along with worsening top-down political instability, is exposing a contradiction that has remained just beneath the surface of Latin American democracy.
Its militaries retreated from politics after the end of the Cold War but retain tremendous cultural sway and autonomy. And because civilian institutions remain weak, presidents sometimes lean on the military to stopgap those institutions and bolster their own legitimacy.
The informal pact has largely worked, though it has locked in place a system in which weak leaders facing major crisis will be tempted to bring in the generals.
But rising unrest and political instability are leading presidents to call on their militaries more frequently, more visibly and at increasingly tense moments.
Their intentions appear far less threatening than they might have been a generation ago: to signal they have the support of a well-liked institution and that the military is unlikely to oust them.
But even a photo op can erode hard-won taboos against military involvement in politics, said Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
It implicates the generals in day-to-day partisan politics, pressuring them to take sides. And it reinforces perceptions of the military as the ultimate decider.
“It’s a very dangerous game,” Mr. Pérez-Liñán said. “If all presidents need to do this in order to survive, then re-politicization of the military would be unavoidable.”
In Chile, street-level troop deployments have already driven up body counts and resurfaced traumatic and not-so-distant memories of military rule — a reminder that the stakes are far from theoretical.
The New Militarism
Latin American militaries have a good thing going under democracy, said John Polga-Hecimovich, a scholar at the United States Naval Academy.
As an unstated condition of retreating from politics, most kept a special place in society, along with business holdings and partial autonomy from the state.
But the generals “needed a reason to exist, and to justify their budgets, in a region that doesn’t really engage in interstate wars,” Mr. Polga-Hecimovich said.
At the same time, democracies were straining to establish themselves in societies still polarized and riven by corruption and class conflict.
Civilian and military leaders arrived at a bargain that Rut Diamint, a political scientist at Torcuato Di Tella University in Argentina, termed a “new militarism.”
Generals, rather than opposing democratic rulers, “returned to the center of the political sphere as allies of — and often substitutions for — elected Latin American governments,” Ms. Diamint wrote in a 2015 paper.
Civilian leaders tasked militaries with policing, infrastructure projects large and small, even administering social services. The officers got to keep their budgets, their autonomy and their “direct and privileged relationship with society,” Ms. Diamint wrote. Presidents got to present themselves as partners to the armed forces, which in many Latin countries enjoy higher approval ratings than every institution save the Catholic church.
Latin American democracy grew throughout the 1990s and 2000s, one of the world’s great success stories. But as crises inevitably emerged, leaders developed a habit of playing up, or hiding behind, their generals.
Left-wing presidents in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua portrayed themselves as leaders of a civil-military revolutionary vanguard beset by enemies foreign and domestic. Right-wing presidents in Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil have responded to rising crime by holding up their militaries as bulwarks of virtue and safety.
Even leaders wary of the military’s political influence have relied on its institutional muscle. Mexico’s left-wing president, after promising to pull soldiers off the streets, instead integrated them into a new police force.
The result, Javier Corrales, an Amherst College political scientist, wrote in a column last week, has been the steady “militarization of democracies” — culminating in this month’s drumbeat of presidential appearances alongside their top brass.
Stalling Democracies, Rising Unrest
This has coincided with long-mounting frustration at inequality and corruption that, while improving in much of Latin America, remain problematic.
As a result, faith in democratic institutions like elections and courts has declined across the region, polls show. Political polarization is up as well, further deepening a sense among many citizens that the political system is broken.
In much of the world, including Chile, that has contributed to a sense of collective rage and a belief that only mass uprisings can bring real change.
But even in societies not engulfed in protest, the worse that civilian governments look, the better militaries seem in comparison.
“They like to present themselves as moral authorities,” Mr. Polga-Hecimovich said, referring to the militaries. “That they are in defense of the constitution, or the flag.”
For most of the post-Cold War era, that meant intervening only in moments of great political crisis, when citizens seemed eager for a neutral and widely trusted arbiter to bring quick, peaceful resolution.
Now, as democracies fall short of expectations and unrest grows, militaries are getting pulled in to bail out besieged presidents.
This is creating a new dynamic, in which leaders appear alongside generals as a way to discourage political rivals and protesters from seeking that leader’s ouster.
“The president is saying, ‘The military has not abandoned me, so I will persist. You can burn as much as you want in the streets, impeach me as much as you want, and I’m still here,’” Mr. Pérez-Liñán said. “It’s a very powerful signal.”
This new practice should not be mistaken for a threat to use military force, he said — an order that today’s officers seem likely to refuse even in conflict-plagued Venezuela.
Rather, in Ecuador, for example, the president seemingly intended to pre-empt his opponents from persuading the military to drop political support for his government, particularly as he asked troops to secure the capital from protesters.
And, in Peru, where the government fell into crisis over conflicting interpretations of the constitution, the president was conveying that his interpretation had the military’s backing — more from its moral authority than any threat of force.
Mr. Polga-Hecimovich, who has long rubbed elbows with Latin American officers, said he suspected that few were eager for this new role as guarantors of each president’s policies and political standing. But the bargain they struck at the end of the Cold War left them with little choice.
“If you’re not fighting wars, you better respond in times of crisis,” he said. “If that is not the military’s role, then what is it?”
Changing The Rules
The great risk, scholars say, is that repeated invocations of the military, particularly on contentious partisan issues, could re-politicize an institution that Latin Americans spent the last generation collectively removing from politics.
Every cycle of crisis risks heightening perceptions of the military as a partisan institution and weakening taboos against its involvement.
At the same time, elected leaders the world over are growing bolder in defying checks on their power. In Latin America, Mr. Pérez-Liñán said, they are also growing more fearful of unrest.
An unspoken rule in Latin America, like in many transitional democracies, is that if protests demanding the leader’s removal reach a certain threshold and have a certain degree of institutional support, then he or she will step down.
“That is in question nowadays,” he said attributing presidents’ willingness to defy protesters, as well as their seeming desperation in holding on to power, to lessons drawn from Venezuela’s descent into chaos. “The implicit rules of the game have changed.”
“Presidents are reaching the conclusion that if society is polarized and if there’s disagreement about which side should prevail, then if they have the military, they will survive.”