Military Revival in Latin America Stirs Unease Over Past Abuses

(Bloomberg) -- With the world anxiously waiting to see whether the Venezuelan military throws its weight behind National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, the role of the armed forces in Latin America has been regaining prominence.

After decades of democratization, with soldiers largely confined to barracks and borders, Latin American governments are turning to the military to run ministries, oversee state projects and fight crime, raising the specter of an authoritarian past.

Military Revival in Latin America Stirs Unease Over Past Abuses

The new governments in Brazil and Mexico, one on the right, the other on the left, are both dramatically increasing the role of their armed forces, moves that reflect their public’s preferences. Like elsewhere around the globe, Latin American voters enraged by corruption and fearful of rising crime are increasingly disillusioned with democracy, surveys show. They now trust the military more than any institution except the Catholic Church, according to a 2018 Latinobarometro poll.

“There’s this idea that civilian politicians are corrupt and that the military is somehow immune to corruption," Wagner de Melo Romao, a political science professor at Brazil’s Unicamp University, said. But the trend poses a threat: “When the armed forces are linked to a government’s political support, there is a greater risk of slipping into an authoritarian regime.”

Jesus Ramirez, a spokesman for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, said the government is taking steps to avoid abuse. He added that the military is the only body able to guarantee security in several parts of the country, and a civilian government is overseeing everything.

Brazil’s Government Affairs Minister General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz said the armed forces have earned respect because they are meritocratic. Asked why the government was leaning so heavily on them, he replied, “There are three factors: incompetence, corruption and ideology, three things that you don’t have in the armed forces.”

Brutal Dictatorships

Military regimes ruled much of the region until the 1980s. In Argentina, thousands were murdered by the junta, while the Chile of Augusto Pinochet became a byword for brutal dictatorship. Large swaths of Central America also remain traumatized by the violent repression of the armed forces. Venezuela has become increasingly militarized.

In Colombia, the army continues to play a big role in public security even after the signing of a peace accord with Marxist guerrillas. A car bomb that killed 20 in Bogota last week highlighted how serious the threat from guerrilla groups remains.

With the average murder rate in Latin America standing at 21.5 per 100,000 -- more than four times the U.S. average -- many in the region are willing to ignore past abuses and look to the military for solutions.

This is proving to be especially true in Brazil and Mexico, which together account for half the region’s population and where past military crimes have received relatively little attention.

Bolsonaro

This month, Jair Bolsonaro the first ex-military president of Brazil in more than three decades -- since the 1985 return of democracy -- took office.

At an Army handover ceremony in Brasilia, excitement ran high among the crisp green uniforms.

Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, sat silently on a raised platform among the serried ranks of the military high command as the outgoing army chief heaped praise on him.

“You have brought necessary renewal and freedom from the ideological binds that held free thought hostage, blunted judgment and fostered single-minded, dangerous thinking,” said General Eduardo Villas Boas. When the speech ended the president stood, saluted and hugged the general amid thunderous applause.

Generals on Top

Villas Boas was subsequently invited by Bolsonaro to form part of his security cabinet, adding yet another general to the new administration. Six senior former members of the armed forces form part of his 22-member cabinet. The vice-president is also a general, as is the presidential spokesman, while an admiral oversees the board of the state oil giant Petrobras. Other senior ranking officers occupy key positions at various ministries and state companies. Bolsonaro’s attachment to the armed forces is such that he refuses to describe the period of military rule from 1964-1985 as a dictatorship.

Military Revival in Latin America Stirs Unease Over Past Abuses

The Mexican President has far fewer ties with his country’s military, and during the campaign he denounced the past abuses of the armed forces. But since taking office, he has surprised many with his deployment of troops. An influential local columnist even nicknamed him “General” Lopez Obrador.

He has already sent more than 8,000 soldiers and navy officials to protect 58 strategic facilities of state-run energy giant Pemex as it seeks to crack down on rampant fuel theft. He has said the defense ministry will help run 500 tanker trucks they are buying to transport gasoline across the country amid shortages.

In addition, AMLO -- as the Mexican president is popularly known -- has pushed to modify the constitution to give the armed forces increased police powers by creating a national guard comprising members of the army, navy and federal police. The proposal, a reversal of his campaign promises, was approved by Mexico’s lower house despite the opposition of human rights groups and other nonprofit organizations.

Building an Airport

AMLO is following the tradition of the Latin American left, using the military for social goals, such as building an airport or helping Pemex, instead of focusing on war, says Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa.

The move toward more military involvement in Latin America’s two largest economies ominously follows the path of Venezuela where military personnel run everything from water supply to state oil company PDVSA.

Military Revival in Latin America Stirs Unease Over Past Abuses

Many observers argue that the collapse of the economy under President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime offers a cautionary tale of the risks associated with assigning the military tasks where they lack technical expertise and management skills. Without the military, interim leader Guaido won’t be able to run the country. Not by coincidence, Venezuelans have the lowest appreciation of the armed forces in the region, with just 19 percent, the Latinobarometro poll shows.

For Professor Ellis, the record of the military in the region doesn’t bode well for an extended role.

“The danger of using the military for domestic development objectives is the damage it does to the institution,” he said. “Similarly, in the history of Latin America, when the military got to politics: it seldom turned out well.”

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