Latin America’s Military Factor

BUENOS AIRES – In 2009, Latin America scored an unrecognized achievement: the global economic crisis did not affect the continent as dramatically as it did other regions.   Politically and institutionally, however, Latin America’s weaknesses and perils worsened.

Indeed, while the various legislative and presidential elections held throughout Latin America reinforced – beyond the outcomes in each case – popular commitment to pluralism and democracy, they also reflected growing levels of political polarization and persistent institutional shortcomings. In a way, this reveals a paradox of Latin American democracy: exclusive, minority governments that devalue and weaken the state are no longer acceptable, while the rise of personalismo – a concentration of power and coupled with refractory political tactics – are bringing about fragmentation and unruly governance.

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In the region’s international relations, there were both promising and discouraging signs. On the one hand, Brazil continued its successful rise as an emerging power with global aspirations. On the other hand, intra-regional ruptures were an indication of the deterioration of Latin America’s current collective negotiating power, despite the inclusion of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico in the G-20. The region as a whole continues to lose weight in world politics, largely because it lacks a coherent, common project.

The greatest cause of concern, however, is that the military question has reappeared. The coup d’état that brought down President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, for example, made that country the first case of successful neo-putschism in Central America in the twenty-first century. Its repercussions could be enormous, because the contradictory and erratic response of the United States to the coup could be interpreted as tacit encouragement for other would-be coup leaders elsewhere in the region, at least in Central America.

Moreover, there has been an alarming increase in regional tensions. In some cases, they involve border disputes (Peru and Chile, Bolivia and Chile, and Colombia and Nicaragua). In others, they concern armed factions (Colombia and Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador), the environment (Argentina and Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador), migration (Mexico and Guatemala), human rights (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and energy (Brazil and Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, Argentina and Chile).

With few exceptions, such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, the militarization of the “war on drugs” is also starkly evident. The armed forces’ role in fighting narcotics – which has been ineffective in every country where it has been tried – is encouraged by a coercive, misguided, bipartisan US strategy.

Ominous examples of the rising importance of the military in Latin American political affairs include the reinforcement of Plan Colombia and implementation of the Merida Initiative in Mexico and Central America, the reestablishment of the American Navy’s IV Fleet (deactivated in 1950), and the growing importance of the Southern Military Command in US foreign policy in the region.

There have been significant increases in defense budgets and weapons purchases, particularly in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Venezuela. This could rekindle security dilemmas and degenerate into uncontrolled conflicts.

On top of this, José Alencar, Brazil’s vice-president, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have reintroduced the nuclear question with statements that seem to point beyond legitimate peaceful use of nuclear energy. Alencar has suggested that Brazil should “advance” in the development of nuclear weapons, while Chávez has strengthened his alliance with Iran on this front.

Finally, Colombia’s unresolved and cruel conflict persists. Moreover, under a bilateral agreement, the US will have access to seven Colombian military bases, deploying up to 1,400 men (800 soldiers and 600 private contractors) with legal immunity under Colombian law. Beyond the arguments about the wisdom of this treaty, this agreement seems certain to raise the probability of a negative internationalization of Colombia‘s problems.

In sum, 2009 ended with a mixed panorama in Latin America, with economic, political, and international progress accompanied by regressive and worrying trends. The military question – believed to have been resolved after the region’s transition to democracy which came with the Cold War’s end, the effort to achieve regional integration, and the push toward globalization – has reappeared.   Indeed, it is now clear that one of the main regional challenges is to preserve civilian control of the military, which will require that Latin American elites avoid the temptation to strengthen disproportionately the armed forces’ place in their countries’ domestic and international politics.

If that challenge is not met, 2010 will be a year in which Latin America will live dangerously. The socio-economic context is critical. The region’s performance during the global financial crisis has not hidden fundamental problems: the heavy burden of an unrealized agenda of social inclusion and a combination of inequality and injustice that could turn lethal in the near future.