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The Military in Latin America

Proceso 684, Editorial, 1 November 1995

The military has had a permanent presence in Latin American history, at least since the republics were formed. Throughout the twentieth century, its influence has been decisive in shaping the political and institutional life of each of the region's nations. To a great extent, at least until the end of the 1980s, the Latin American states were configured under the shadow of military power, whose influence became particularly strong starting in the mid-60s, when the reign of the "bureaucratic authoritarian regimes" began with the Brazilian coup of 1965.

The post-World War II period saw the rise of a type of military intimately linked to what began to be called Pan-Americanism, which was not merely the expression of a transformation in international economic relations, but also a political and ideological program whose principal goals were "the defense of democracy" and "the struggle against communism." It was in the context of those goals that the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty) and the Mutual Security Act of 1951 were signed; these documents laid the groundwork for U.S. cooperation with Latin American armies.

The signing of the Rio Treaty bore enormous political and military significance, since it legitimized U.S. military intervention in any Latin American country. The purpose of the treaty was to "ensure peace by all possible means, provide effective reciprocal aid to confront armed military attacks against any Latin American state, and prevent threats of aggression against any of them" [unofficial retranslation].

As a consequence, this became the era in which important bilateral accords were signed which allowed thousands of military officers and technical personnel to attend training courses in the United States or, until 1984, at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. One crucial aspect of the training imparted to Latin American military officers in the United States or Panama had to do with counterinsurgency or "special war" techniques, among which a prominent place was given to "interrogation methods" (torture) used to fight the "communist threat."

But the Latin American military cadre went to the United States to learn not only counterinsurgency techniques, but also the new role they were to play in the defense of their respective nations, as well as in the defense of the "free world." And from that moment on, the Latin American military began to see itself as the most important sector of society: the only ones capable of guaranteeing "national survival" that was threatened by the "communist cancer." This was the dawn of the National Security Doctrine, which in 1965 -the year of the Brazilian coup which marked the new style of authoritarian regime- became the world vision used to justify and make sense out of the almost-absolute power awarded to the Armed Forces from that point on.

Under National Security Doctrine, the military became the force ultimately responsible for Latin American security and development. But there is more: it also became responsible for the destiny of the western world, since the region was a spearhead for communism's incursion into the heart of the system: the United States. In this view, it was more than justified to accumulate economic and political power in the hands of Latin American military leaders; furthermore, any decision they took in any realm of national life was not to be questioned, because that meant not only being against national security and development, but also against western and Christian civilization.

In the economic sphere, towards the end of the 1970s the military had achieved a certain measure of "success" in implementing structural adjustment programs, accompanied by huge social costs, of course, including salary reductions and high levels of unemployment. In the political sphere, it could brag of having stopped the advance of communism, which in practical terms meant not only disappearing, torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands of political opponents, but also preventing the rise of unions and political parties, closing down legislatures and arbitrarily violating constitutions. In a word, the military broke up not only the structures of civil society, but also the democratic structures which had been consolidated before the advent of the military dictatorships; "order" was reestablished at the price of dismembering civil society and destroying democracy.

In the 1980s, popular pressure to restore democracy became increasingly unstoppable, as civil society slowly pieced itself back together and made its voice heard. The military were disarmed by demands which could not longer be written off as "totalitarian" or "extremist" and which, furthermore, came from a broad coalition of practically all political, economic and social forces. Thus began the transitions to democracy in Latin America, which ended up coinciding not only with the growing globalization of the capitalist economy, but also with the collapse of the socialist bloc.

Now that the Cold War is over, the "communist threat" no longer justifies the concentration of power in the hands of the Latin American military. Demands for getting economies on a competitive footing now preclude the excessive allocation of resources to a sector which by its very nature is unproductive. Furthermore, in the restructuring of the international economy over recent decades, the armed forces no longer have a well-defined role, and the process of globalization reveals not only the obsolescence of the military career, but also the need to reorient formerly military budget allocations to key areas of national development.

The military had it all; today, it is rapidly losing the economic and political power it accumulated throughout the decades. Worse yet, its very existence is being called into question by a process which is entirely independent of the enemy which they always feared. At least in this realm, the twenty-first century augurs very well for Latin American societies.

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