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Civilian vs. Military rule in Latin America

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In any study regarding the relationship between military and civilian rule In Latin America, it is important to have an understanding of the extensive role that the military has played in the region. The almost inseparable link between the civilian political system and military authority is key to gaining an insight into the challenges of attempting to consolidate rising democratic trends in a post-transition environment, from military to civilian rule. A case in point, in illustration of the influence of the military in Latin America, is the deliberate measures taken in order to ensure that the peronist movement in Argentina was kept from gaining political influence in the aftermath of Peron’s exile. In 1962 as well as 1966, those measures rose to include military take-over in order to ‘correct’ the results of popular elections (Skidmore & Smith, 2005, pp. 92-94).

The transition from military to civilian rule in Latin America is a precarious one, and so the challenge faced by any new political system is one of striking the right balance between military and civilian actors when trying to implement reforms and achieve a consolidation of democracy. Gradual change is key. Immediate and widespread reform carries the risk of military coup due to the inherent perception, in Latin America, of the position of the military as having a guardian role. On the other hand, too little reform and the political system may never fully develop the democratic institutions needed to step out from under the shadow of the military and gain civilian control of the armed forces. Any hope of achieving this must rest on the ability to successfully reduce the political influence of the military in such a way that, during the process of reform, a coup can be averted by addressing the concerns of the military while maintaining, as a principle goal, the establishing of a legal framework to which the military is subject (Fitch, 1998, pp. 134-135).

Democratic consolidation is a difficult process made even more challenging by the inequality of cohesion, organisation and influence between democratic and military institutions that allowed for the existence of a military regime in the first place. The political environment created by transitioning from a military regime leaves the political process of democratisation in a vacuum where it has to prove its worth, while being compared to an institution vastly superior to it in all but ideology (Fitch, 1998, p. 159). Should the emerging administration find itself unable to establish political cooperation between fractioned parties or its relationship with the legislative system, it runs the risk of losing its credibility with the people as well as the military. If the political realities characterised by civilian rule is trapped in a crippling gridlock in the initial stages of democratisation, it is far less probable that the military would even consider subjecting itself to the rule of law (Fitch, 1998, p. 173).

In the aftermath of the transition from military rule, the rule of law is a notion that has proved challenging to the consolidation of democracy. In Latin America, military dictatorships have far too often been instituted through the use of repression against the general population. The military has therefore, in times of transition, taken measures to protect itself against being held accountable for crimes committed. As such, the military has, as a general rule, imposed conditions on relinquishing power and hand it back to civilian rule, principle of which has been immunity. Negotiations between the military and civilian actors posed to take over political power, and ultimately the decision to accommodate the military’s demand for impunity is damaging when trying to establish a political system based on democratic values. Accepting the idea that certain elements within society is in effect above the law is detrimental, not only when attempting to promote the ideology of democracy, but also when trying to argue the importance of the participation of the people in the political process (McSherry, 1992, pp. 463 – 464).

Granting the right of impunity for out-going military regimes carries with it another threat to consolidated democratic rule – the threat of having to accept the existence of a state within the state. In many instances where transition has occurred from military to civilian rule, significant structures within the military complex have been allowed to remain in place in a position of political power. A system is often established, at least initially, where the military remains in control of much of government under the guise of civilian rule by which civilians hold office. Impunity allows the military to cling to power, in some instances, through the concept of political decisions being subject to military approval (McSherry, 1992, pp. 469–470). The role of the military as an institution that can set aside policy efforts made by civilian governments remain in place and as such the military is subject to civilians in theory only, weakening the prospect of democratic consolidation (Fitch, 1998, pp. 38-40)

Despite the heavy influence of the military in Latin America during the post-transition phase, civilian leaders have shown a remarkable resilience to succumbing to military tutelage. Despite the indirect influence of the military, emerging democracies have shown the strength to produce civilian leaders with the ability to politically challenge the military in instances where it has encroached upon non-military policy issues (Fitch, 1998, p. 48). This has served, for some countries, to act as a counterbalance and prevent sliding back into authoritarianism. In the case of Honduras the election of Rafael Callejas in 1990 came to signal an era in which the political influence of the military was significantly reduced in a sort period of time. As the United States withdrew much of the military aid given in previous years and grew to become an avid critic of military corruption and abuses, Honduran society too began to voice its disapproval. By 1994, newly elected Roberto Reina managed to end obligatory military service, cut defence spending by 10%, cut military personnel by 40% and end military participation in non-military policy debates (Fitch, 1998, pp. 50-51).

It can be argued that the existence of a strong military presence, even after the transition from military to civilian rule, at least in part, has contributed to the notion that a strong form of political leadership was best. The need for and the ability of civilian political leaders to resist military tutelage might very well have fuelled a different threat to democracy, the concept of presidentialism.

Presidentialism is a term used to describe a political system in which the executive branch assumes a position in government from which it can dominate the legislative and judicial branches. The strong political leadership needed carries the risk that the elected president considers his or her political mandate as a right to govern without care for imposed checks and balances. This sentiment, centred around the concentration of presidential powers, can ultimately lead to decretismo where the president deliberately encroach upon the authority of the other government branches by adopting legislation without the consent of congress and in knowing violation of the constitution (O’Toole, 2011, pp. 97-98).

The reason then why most of Latin America is gradually moving toward increased democratisation might in the end not be contributed as much to internal factors as to external factors. The growing influence of foreign capital exhibited the static nature of military rule as parts of society demanded free markets, privatization and more accessibility to direct political control. Capitalism, it seems, provided a vital incentive for society to adopt changes to take advantage of new opportunities and to take measures, which required a change of government to democracy. (McSherry, 1992, p. 482).


Skidmore, Thomas E. & Smith, Peter H., 2005. Modern Latin America. 6th ed. New York. Oxford University Press.

Fitch, Samuel J., 1998. The armed forces and democracy in Latin America. Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

McSherry, Patricia J., 1992. Military Power, Impunity and State-Society change in Latin America, in Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 25

O’Toole, Gavin, 2011. Politics Latin America. 2nd ed. Harlow. Pearson Education Limited.

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