Latin America: Who guards the guards? R. Diamint,

By Rut Diamint, Professor, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina

There is a broad overlap between scholars and politicians about the requirements for armed forces to adapt to the democratic scene. These include efficient democratic control without prerogatives or military challenges, a strengthening of defense ministries, regulation of military directives, oversight of the defense budget and deployed forces, accompanied debates in the post-dictatorship, and avoidance of military autonomy.

These works emphasized that it was crucial to commit the military to democratic values, but democratizing the defense sector has had pros and cons. While the past coups seemed to be gone, new forms of military power have emerged on the continent.

The democratic return made the military return to the barracks, but in recent years the armed forces have increased their participation in politics. These processes are different from the previous instances. The politicization and policing of the military are two ways of increasing their interference in politics with the consequential deterioration of the rule of law without the need for the military to conduct a direct seizure of power.

The Politicalization of the Military
In different ways, several presidents have appealed to the armed forces. Now, it is not the military who press to take over politics, but the elected authorities who use them for their own projects. While they assume new functions, military officers acquire greater connection with political power and an advantageous relationship with the civilian population. The armed forces are not allied with the losers of the election process, but are now summoned by the winners of the elections. They no longer enter the government houses with tanks, but through the privileged doors of the reception of authorities.

The forms taken by this relationship vary from country to country. In some cases, a military party is formed. In other processes, the military is installed as executors of social policies, dominate state intelligence, or receive economic concessions. The armed forces enjoy this sort of return, which no longer has them positioned as the repressive arm of the opposition. Now, they take power from the hand of the president in a process legitimized by the popular vote.

The political participation of the military defies democratic principles. The use of force for private interests undermines the military institution, while dismantling the functions of other authorities from which they usurp power. This is how democratic construction dissipates.

Venezuela represents the most defined example of the politicization of the military. Former President Hugo Chávez combined his military passion with his political objectives. The armed forces became the instrument of mediation and political support for the execution of the Bolivarian Project. Chávez empowered the military. He ruled under the fiction of an alliance between the leader, the people, and the army. Under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, military power was expanded further. The political and social crisis in Venezuela indicates that in either this government or a hypothetical victory of the opposition, the military will be guarantors of the political leadership.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales dedicated much of his initial management to beguile the military, who see him as the architect of political and economic stability. The armed forces are actively involved in social policies and the economic decisions of the country.

Former President Rafael Correa tried to reproduce these models in Ecuador, but stumbled upon the strong corporate defense of the armed forces. Correa was able to dismantle part of the industrial-military complex, but he had to allow a kind of autarky, practically a parallel state, with its own system of justice, education, health, social security and its business system, run by the military-industrial complex in the country.

Jair Bolsonaro has awakened a shrill military euphoria. Retired generals and other former officers ascended to several national offices and in Brazil there are seven military ministers, in addition to the president and vice president.

A case of different politicization is that of Cuba. The armed forces were born with the revolution in 1959, and the concept of national defense is closely tied to the revolutionary struggle. Since the end of the 1980s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces have relegated their military training to deal with economic tasks, production, and services. The current president, Miguel Díaz Canel, reaffirmed the power of the army and the Communist Party as instruments of the revolution.

Similar situations are seen throughout the continent. It is a vicious circle in which the absence of civil experience gives space to the military officers, who resolve political issues using military strategy and, simultaneously, under promote the professionalization of a civilian body of government, such as in the diplomatic field.

Mix of military and police
It is increasingly common for Latin American countries to use the armed forces in policing tasks. Justified by a reconfiguration of the threats, it seems natural for military and police officers to amalgamate. At the same time, the military patrol streets or control identity documents, simultaneously advancing their involvement in the political system.

The use of the military for police functions is chosen as an exception to the law and for a limited time. But, in reality, they never leave tasks. In addition, the new domestic functions give them bargaining power in a society that is ambivalent, as it rejects military repression but demands greater protection. Tacitly, citizens accept legal exceptions and this coincides with greater degrees of impunity for the military. Thus, the rule of law is undermined and the subordination of forces is weakened. The armed forces become security forces.

It is assumed that the biggest challenge for Latin American governments is how to prevent crime, not how to fight it without the use of military force. Insecurity is not resolved with the military in the street or in government.

The post-dictatorship democracies have worked without establishing the expected civil control according to the theoretical concepts regarding military subordination. The military have worked while maintaining high degrees of autonomy and, in many cases, prerogatives incompatible with the rule of law.

However, it has been the ineptitude, disdain and ignorance of governments that has led to the militarization of public security. Thus, the old Platonic question “who guards the guards?” again poses the dilemma of the subordination of forces to the law and to the politically constituted civilian authority.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Rut Diamint (2018). “Latin America: Who guards the guards?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, February 5, 2018, URL: