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.

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.