This piece has been updated
When Chilean President Sebastián Piñera went on television to extend the country’s state of emergency on Sunday, he was surrounded by military figures – trying to convey a message of strength and unity amid massive protests and violence in the streets. Inevitably, comparisons with Chile’s dark military past flooded the Internet.
Only two weeks before, Ecuadorians had witnessed a similar scene. As demonstrations against a multi-billion dollar austerity program spiraled out of control, President Lenín Moreno appeared surrounded by his generals to impose a nationwide state of emergency. In both countries, the army was deployed to the largest cities with a broad mandate to re-establish order.
Latin America used to be known as the land of the military junta. It is now at risk of becoming the land of militarized democracies.
The scenes from Ecuador and Chile are a warning that democratically elected governments throughout the region, facing rising domestic unrest, are relying on the military to survive. If history is any guide, this does not end well.
Social unrest has spread throughout Latin America in the past several years. The relatively quiescent period that prevailed during the era of the latest commodity boom, which spanned from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, has come to an end. As governments confront the need to reduce spending, often to pay for the debt left behind by populist governments, they have targeted vulnerable sectors. Unable to deliver high economic growth, governments are disappointing the middle class. In response, vulnerable and middle-class sectors decide to protest. Some of these protests have resulted in violence.
To meet this unrest, governments have decided to rely on the military and intelligence agencies. In Ecuador and Chile, security forces used brute force against protesters – with some videos of abuses going viral online. In Brazil, protests surrounding the Amazon fires prompted President Jair Bolsonaro to turn even more openly to the military for support; under Bolsonaro, the generals have gained a level of power in government unprecedented since the country’s return of democracy. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales just called on the military to respond to protests surrounding irregularities in the recent elections, arguing, as if he had never lived in his own country, that “the armed forces unite all Bolivians.” Militarized responses by governments are generating casualties and exacerbating polarization.
Democracies are supposed to limit the powers of the military. This is especially important when there is a long history of military intervention in politics, as is the case in Latin America. But what we are seeing is that when democratic governments feel threatened, they are tempted to expand the powers of the military. In Mexico, the ongoing drug war prompted Congress, controlled by the ruling party, to approve a new National Guard composed largely of soldiers almost unanimously.
Empowering the military is worrisome, even when most citizens support the idea. Governments end up being indebted to generals. Generals get too used to certifying or setting policies. Policies become too focused on the need to maximize security. And security is conceptualized mostly in terms of repression.
Left and right versions
The trend toward militarized democracies in Latin America did not start in 2019. In the 2000s, Latin Americans celebrated (or bemoaned, depending on their ideology) two trends in the militarization of democracies – one on the left, the other, on the right.
On the left, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela popularized the notion of a civil-military alliance to help the poor and defend his revolution against “reactionaries.” On the right, Álvaro Uribe in Colombia popularized the notion of reliance on the military to achieve “democratic security,” defined primarily in terms of fighting guerrillas and drug lords.
Today, Chávez’s legacy of using the military to defend revolutions is dominating politics in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. The Uribe model of relying on the military to defend citizens against crime is popular in Brazil and much of Central America.
And now, we are seeing a new justification for militarization: to deal with organized civil society.
The problem is that often times organized civil society in Latin America is not that civil. The recent wave of protest in Latin America has different causes, which vary depending on each country. Yet all protests are exposing the traps that Latin American societies find themselves in – and that is why they are so powerful.
We used to think that the region’s worst trap was poverty and inequality. But in the 2010s we realized that these two traps were not that inescapable: countries were able to introduce policies to reduce them.
The region’s most difficult traps now are different and harder to address. There is the middle-income trap, or the idea that the Latin American labor force is too expensive and underskilled (or under-incentivized) to compete against tech exporters, thus curbing growth and diversification. Another trap is resource dependence. In the 2000s, Latin America returned to overreliance on commodity exports. Now that the price of oil, natural gas, soybeans, and copper is down, the economies are contracting, even when macroeconomic management is decent. Finally, there is the party trap. In some countries, citizens are trapped by political parties that refuse to open up the political system to new forces or are catering too much to extremists.
Latin America’s rising unrest has far more to do with the middle-income, resource, and party traps than perhaps the traditional poverty and inequality traps. This is the reason we are seeing protests in countries that are no longer that poor. This moment of unrest thus represents an opportunity for governments, citizens, and international lenders to activate discussions about how to unlock these new traps. There are no easy answers. But one thing is clear: over-empowering the military is never the solution to any of these challenges.
This piece has updated to clarify the nature of Piñera’s announcement on Sunday.
Corrales is a professor of political science at Amherst College and member of the editorial board of Americas Quarterly. The second edition of his co-authored book Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez came out in April 2015.