Military temptation and institutional instability in Latin America

Latin America’s turbulence shows the limits of democratic institutions to deal with political conflict and, as seen in Bolivia, the risk of military temptation. Español Português

María Victoria Murillo Steven Levitsky
11 March 2020, 8.59pm
A Cholita passes in front of a military vehicle guarding the entrance to Plaza Murillo after the police were attacked by the social movements supporting Evo Morales.
Gaston Brito/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

South America ended 2019 with tumultuous months, which showed us the limits of its democratic institutions to channel political conflict. Street protests against government institutions in the Andean region pointed to the inability of political institutions to handle the conflicts that divide those societies. Only in Bolivia, however, did the protests result in the early termination of a presidential mandate. In this case, President Evo Morales' decision to ignore both the constitutional law and the result of a referendum that denied him the possibility to run for a third re-election, encouraged protests from the opposition on suspicion of fraud caused by an interruption of the rapid vote count. Street protests were joined by police intimidation and a military "suggestion" that the president should step down. Under these circumstances, Morales went into exile two months before the end of his term.

Although the decline in economic growth has aggravated social tensions throughout South America, the role played by the security forces is distinctive in the Bolivian case. Moreover: in Bolivia, the Armed Forces initially demanded a decree for impunity for the consequences of repression, which had to be repealed due to international pressure from human rights organizations. If the actions of the Bolivian military signalled a return of Latin American armies to the role of political referees that characterized them for most of the 20th century, we would be facing a phenomenon with risks that cannot be underestimated. The possibility of knocking on the door of the military barracks offers an alternative to democratic negotiation. This reduces the incentives for politicians to seek compromises and to invest in the functioning of democratic institutions. In other words, cycles of institutional instability might return, such as the one experienced by Bolivia itself between 1920 and 1980, a period in which it suffered 13 military coups.

On the other hand, when lacking a military option, politicians are forced to invest in democratic solutions, even in the face of deep crises. The resulting political commitments reduce levels of violence and generate learning opportunities that allow for progress in building more durable institutions, despite the regional legacies of institutional weakness. That is why the risk of a return to military arbitration would mean throwing away the efforts of democratic construction that, despite zigzags, most countries in the region have gone through in recent decades. This possibility is particularly worrying given the increase in public support for the military. According to Vanderbilt University's Latin American Public Opinion Project (Lapop), the average support for military coups in Latin America is 39% in response to the increase in crime, and 37% in reaction to the increase in corruption. Furthermore, the growing prestige of the Armed Forces contrasts with the discredit of political parties in the regional public opinion.

The Bolivian case has been marked by the polarization generated by the populist experience led by Evo Morales, an experience that ended abruptly because of social mobilization that was supported by the security forces. It is therefore important to understand the limitations of coups against populist governments that had been elected by majorities, in order to reduce the polarization that preceded them. When the military becomes the arbiter of political conflicts in polarized societies, the result is often a deepening of political conflicts. In other words, coups against populist governments often fuel polarization and generate persecution that divides society and makes it difficult to establish both political commitments and effective democracies. Although the consequences of the coup in Bolivia remain to be seen, the degree of revenge shown in the short term by the government of Jeanine Áñez, who replaced Morales, is worrying.

When the military becomes the arbiter of political conflicts in polarized societies, the result is often a deepening of political conflicts

In the following sections, I will discuss both the impact of military coups on political stability and their consequences when the government that was replaced was populist. Thinking about the contemporary Latin American experience and the international context surrounding it, I close by drawing attention to the potential risks involved in a return to military temptation.

The Bolivian crisis, populism and the military temptation

The abrupt end of Morales' third presidency generated countless debates about its nature. Morales' candidacy for a third re-election ignored not only constitutional law, but also the result of a referendum which he called in an attempt to end term limits. Furthermore, the mechanism for circumventing the electoral result was to appeal to an absurd court ruling that declared this limit to be a contravention of his rights as a human being, which included electing and being elected - an argument which has been used before in the region. In this context, when the provisional recount of votes in the presidential election was interrupted with Morales below the ten-point difference to his most-voted opponent, which would force a second round of voting, his opponents began to accuse him of fraud. In the final count released the next day, the gap had widened enough to avoid a second set of elections despite polls suggesting that a Morales defeat was likely. The mobilization of the opposition centred in Santa Cruz and Potosi exploded and reported electoral fraud. When two weeks later the Organization of American States (OAS) announced in a report that it had found electoral irregularities and Evo Morales offered to call new elections with a new electoral authority, his offer failed to entice the opposition: the police had rebelled and the protests were becoming more radical, replacing former president Carlos Mesa, second in the October 20 elections, in favour of Luis Fernando Camacho, the president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee and representative of the most conservative and radical wing of the opposition. At that time, the Army "suggested" that Morales resign. In other words, faced with police and armed forces that abandoned their subordination to the president, Morales was forced to resign, which leads us to classify this event as a military coup. It is not the nature of the Morales’ government, but the way it ended, leads us to this classification.

This coup ignores the tragic lessons that praetorianism left in the region. Although military interventions have been rare in the new millennium, this is not the only case where civilians have once again knocked on the doors of the barracks. In Ecuador in 2000, Venezuela in 2002 and Honduras in 2009, sectors of the opposition also applauded military interventions of different political hues because they perceived the governments in power as inept, corrupt or authoritarian. In the cases of Venezuela, Honduras and Bolivia, moreover, where the governments in power were or are populist, the opposition applauded the military intervention as a democratic mechanism. With few exceptions, however, military coups do not have democratizing results. And those exceptions generally occur in conservative dictatorships, such as the coup against General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela (1958) or against General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay (1989). Coups against populist governments elected by large majorities, even if those governments showed authoritarian tendencies that eroded democracy, generally encourage polarization, provoke repression, generate greater political instability and install leaders who tend to take advantage of their access to power to establish revenge measures against their predecessors. These dynamics tend to generate not only greater volatility in public policies, but also persecution against deposed politicians and their followers. If the latter become radicalized and mobilize against the new authorities, the consequence is a spiral of violence and radicalization that is unlikely to create the conditions for the establishment of a stable democracy.

Coups against populist governments elected by large majorities generally encourage polarization, provoke repression, generate greater political instability

The paradigmatic case is the 1955 coup against the government of General Juan D. Perón in Argentina. Although he began his career in a military coup and in a de facto government, Perón had been elected in 1946 as the candidate of a political coalition that included the unions and represented the working class. His social and labour policies generated passion amongst his followers, who benefited from pensions, access to health care, education, housing and vacations. That same passion, but in the opposite direction, distinguished his detractors, who accused him of introducing personality cult, limits on press freedom and restrictions on dissent, and of imposing an obligation on all public officials to belong to the Peronist party. These sectors applauded the military coup of 1955, many of them hoping for a democratic transition like the one announced by General Eduardo Lonardi when he said, "There will be no winners, no losers". However, the government that followed was brutal in its repression of anything associated with Peronism, in addition to reversing many of its public policies.

Perón had to go into exile, his party was banned, Eva Perón's body was stolen and the mention of the name "Perón" was made a crime (he was named in the official speech as the "fugitive tyrant"). However, as it is well known, efforts to deperonize Argentina (and especially the unions) failed, and the impossible game of a Peronist majority that could not participate electorally given the banning of its party only led to more military coups and political instability in the years that followed (exacerbated by Perón's interventions from exile).

The coup against Evo Morales has a similar flavour to the experience of historical Peronism. The government that replaced him, led by Senator Áñez, has installed a cabinet dominated by conservatives from Eastern Bolivia. They reject the indigenism that characterised the previous government, which has been replaced by an extreme Christian religiosity - the coup was characterized as a "return of the Bible to the presidential palace". Initially, the response to the protest of the followers of the Movimiento al Socialimso (Movement to Socialism, MAS) was a brutal repression that produced 30 deaths, accompanied by a dramatic turn in symbolic policies. After an agreement with the MAS, which still controls Parliament, to call for new elections without the participation of Morales, the new government has called for the capture of the ex-president, a refugee in Argentina, on charges of sedition and terrorism, and has persecuted many of his followers. The Mexican government has even protested the "siege" of its embassy in Bolivia by security forces seeking the capture of politicians who have already been granted asylum. Although the participation of the MAS in the elections next May opens the possibility of escaping the worst legacies of the anti-populist coups, it does not seem to reduce the level of polarization, the long-term consequences of which are worrying. Therefore, there is uncertainty about Bolivia's future, but even if a return to democracy is successful, the military card has returned to the deck and can be played in the future. This changes the choices of political actors, which, combined with increasing polarisation, creates the threat of a return to praetorianism rather than stable democracy. The recent experience of Honduras is an important point of comparison.

The military coup that ended Manuel Zelaya's presidency in 2009 is the most recent case that is similar to the Bolivian one, even with the differences between Zelaya's and Morales' governments. Despite coming from a traditional party, Zelaya turned to the left, becoming closer to the government of Hugo Chávez and joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). His growing populism and his redistributive policies frightened the Honduran elite. When Zelaya tried to hold a referendum to propose a constitutional reform that would facilitate presidential re-election (which the Constitution does not allow to be modified by the reform procedures), against the Congress and the Supreme Court, the elite's reaction was to turn to the military, which ended his mandate and exiled him. Although the governments of the region, and even the United States, denounced the coup d'état, the elite's opposition to Zelaya was firm and did not succumb to international pressure. Despite the arguments put forward, this coup did not result in a stable democracy. Both Zelaya's supporters and the left were repressed. The 2010 election, won by Liberal candidate Porfirio Lobo, is considered democractic, but the regime showed increasing democratic erosion. Lobo's successor, Juan Orlando Hernández, similarly to Morales, ignored the constitutional ban on re-election and appealed to a dubious court ruling by an allied Supreme Court to run again for president in 2017.

The coup against Evo Morales has a similar flavour to the experience of historical Peronism

Also, in this case, the election was marked by irregularities, popular protests and a request from the OAS to recount the votes. However, the support of the now politicized military (and Donald Trump's government) allowed Hernandez to remain in power despite increased repression and the clearly autocratic direction taken by Honduras. The military coup that ended the incipient populism did not reduce polarization or result in the establishment of a stable democracy. These legacies are worrying in the case of Bolivia.

Reducing the military temptation and its institutional consequences

Succumbing to the lure of the military has long-term effects on democratic stability, and resisting it helps build more stable institutions, even in contexts marked by recurrent crises. Let's remember that Latin American countries were known for political instability from independence until the end of the twentieth century. During that period, military intervention was common, and the threat of intervention was a powerful deterrent for political actors. In most countries of the region, the armed forces were the arbiters of the conflicts that divided their societies. Military interventions not only disrupted democratic processes, but also reduced the incentives to invest in political institution-building, as resorting to barracks often appeared to be a better option for shifting the balance of political power. In other words, military coups not only affect democratic institutions in the short term, but also have long-term effects that make democractic institutions weaker and thus generate incentives to revert to the intervention of the armed forces.

The process of consolidating democracy implies the subordination of military power to civilian power and entails both legal and cultural changes. If the citizens trust the Armed Forces more than the legislators, the incentives to resort to them are stronger. If citizens perceive difficulties in maintaining public order, the security forces that promise "order" become more attractive to them. If, in the face of polarisation, politicians succumb to the military temptation, it is more difficult to build democratic institutions. This is a crucial moment for the region. Latin American democracies are no longer so young, and in the face of economic decline, they have shown clear limitations in providing the responses that citizens want. With low public opinion towards the political elite, that in many cases holds less respect than the army, and in a context of growing protests and difficulty in maintaining order, the military temptation seems to be increasing and, with it, the risks to democratic stability in the region.

In this context, it is crucial to not succumb to the military temptation and instead resort to political institutions, even creatively, in order to sustain democratic processes. In the second half of 2019, with economies in recession like Argentina's or with minimal growth like Uruguay's, polarization in these countries was expressed electorally and without violence. In both cases the result was a change in power (with a second round of voting in the case of Uruguay). In Argentina, a centre-right coalition (led by the now ex-president Mauricio Macri) lost and in Uruguay, a centre-left coalition (the Frente Amplio). In Argentina, once again on the verge of defaulting on its sovereign debt, the economic crisis led to a 3% decline in GDP, with inflation of 50% in an election year. Peronism won, with Kirchnerism as its centre of gravity. In Uruguay, the economic decline was less severe, but the Frente Amplio already had three administrations of the government, so citizens were somewhat tired. The National Party won (with support from the Colorado Party and other opposition parties in the second round). In both cases, the elections gave citizens the promise of change without the need for street protests and without resorting to the military. In both cases, the military has not been an option to political actors after the last bloody dictatorships experienced by both countries, which in the case of Argentina included a military defeat against British troops in the Falkland Islands.

In this context, it is crucial to not succumb to the military temptation and instead resort to political institutions, even creatively, in order to sustain democratic processes

Without the military option, politicians have no shortcuts and are forced to negotiate with the instruments given to them by the political system. While the absence of the military option does not prevent crises, it does serve to generate incentives to help find negotiated solutions. The experience of the Argentine crisis of 2001 is a good example of a country where great dissatisfaction with the political system was summarized in the phrase of citizens demanding "Let them all go", but where that demand did not result in the military occupying the political vacuum. In the Argentine case, the popular rejection of military intervention as a consequence of the last dictatorship and the cost of transitional justice for the military, has been key to explain why the political class does not resort to the Army and why it does not want to interfere in political crises either. After the succession of military coups that started with the overthrow of Perón in 1955 and culminated in the 1970s with the most violent dictatorship in Argentine history, which also led the country to a military defeat in the Falklands War, public opinion stopped trusting the Armed Forces. The trials for human rights violations and the reports of brutal repression and the military disasters that became public during the first democratic government, made society aware of the failure of the Armed Forces in power. This facilitated the emergence of a social and political consensus opposed to military intervention that cuts across political parties. Despite several military uprisings to resist the transitional justice that investigated human rights violations and the ups and downs they generated, the political consensus did not change with respect to the military interventions and politicians resisted knocking on the doors of the barracks despite the deep crises that in previous periods would have resulted in the call to the Armed Forces. In 1989, the combination of hyperinflation and looting was resolved by bringing forward the elections and the early transfer of power to the new government, but without recourse to the military. Twelve years later, a collapse of the economy that drove half the population into poverty and Argentina into debt default generated a massive popular rebellion against the political class. The resignation of the president and vice president complicated the democratic succession, as demonstrated by the country's subsequent succession of presidents in early 2002. However, Congress finally appointed a successor accepted by all parties, who ended the presidential term showing a democratic creativity that eluded the military temptation.

In Panama, where the National Guard had been the dominant political force for 30 years, the U.S. invasion of 1989 led to its dismantling with similar results. With no armed forces to call upon, Panamanian politicians were forced to resort to electoral procedures to resolve their conflicts. This limitation forced them to invest in democratic institutions. Panamanian democracy is now 30 years old, which is the longest democratic period in its history. In other words, by closing the door to military intervention, the conditions for democratic consolidation are being fostered.


In conclusion, the use of the military opens possibilities that generate greater institutional instability. When this alternative is no longer an option, the political system is strengthened because its leading players are forced to learn how to channel solutions for social conflicts through negotiation and democratic compromise, even when these become more acute, as is now happening in the region. In the case of coups against populist governments, even when these governments had already demonstrated autocratic tendencies and disdain for democratic institutions, military intervention tends to sharpen polarization in the long term. It is therefore difficult for a stable democracy to emerge, since deep social conflicts are not resolved, and no consensus is established on how to resolve them without military temptation.

In a regional and international context with increasing volatility and greater difficulty to establish democratic consensus, there is more urgency for each State to define the rules of the game. As was evident in the Bolivian case, the region did not have the necessary protagonism to control the crisis and most governments reacted according to their own political dynamics. The US reaction also followed this pattern: just as George W. Bush recognized the government that emerged from the coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002, confirming the anti-imperialist discourse of Chavism, the current government of the same party was quick to recognize the government of Áñez, despite the dubious presidential succession that followed the departure of Morales. The contrast with the reaction of Barack Obama's government to the coup in Honduras shows the importance of US domestic politics in order to understand the Latin American reality.

The growing polarization of the entire region and the emergence of social protests only accentuates the urgency of establishing consensus in each country on the need to avoid the military temptation.

This article previously ran in Spanish in Nueva Sociedad. Read the original here.

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