Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Reinvention of Latin American Militaries

Many of the region’s militaries are changing their roles in ways that have kept them out of trouble at home but are raising troubling new questions.

Since the last third of the nineteenth Century, Latin American countries have only rarely taken up arms against each other—an astounding record of peace experienced by few other regions of the world. Despite all their tanks and epaulets, the continent’s militaries are generally reluctant or unable to fight each other, or are prohibited by treaty from doing so. In a rationally functioning world, one would expect nation-states in such circumstances to simply legislate their militaries out of existence—thereby saving themselves resources that could be used for socially beneficial purposes, as well as avoiding the potential for armed internal challenges to democracies. But the world does not function rationally, and Latin America is no different.

While Latin American military expenditures as a percentage of GDP have declined in most of the continent, defense chiefs continue to accumulate glittering and expensive military trinkets ranging from submarines to the latest in electronic gadgetry. The Latin military owes its survival, at least in part, to the persistent global mindset that makes standing armies, even in the absence of direct threats, an expression of national pride and sovereignty. But just as importantly, Latin America’s military establishments have reinvented themselves by taking on alternative tasks and responsibilities that make them apparently crucial to the stability of many of the region’s economies while expanding their international profile.

Latin American armed forces are now playing three major new roles. They serve as international peacekeepers under United Nations auspices; as law enforcement institutions (particularly in narcotics interdiction) substituting for often incompetent or corrupt domestic police; and as social workers and entrepreneurs…


Tags: Carabineros, Cuban armed forces, Fabricaciones Militares, Forca Nacional de Seguranca Publica, Latin American military, Miguel Angel Centeno, The Reinvention of Latin American Militaries
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