Latin leaders: caught in the quandary posed by military power

Military coups have littered Argentina's history for the past half century, but its new democracy is considered to be one of the most stable in the region. Civilian rule returned in December 1983 following the disastrous defeat of the armed forces in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. The defeat discredited the armed forces and created the possibility for a civilian government to take over. No important political force was prepared to continue backing the military. That held true during the recent rebellion carried out by junior and middle-ranking Army officers, who surrendered to the President on Easter Sunday.

The spark of the rebellion was the course that human rights trials have been taking under the democratic government. In recent weeks, junior officers have been called to the courts, accused of abuses during the military's ``dirty war'' of the late 1970s, which left over 9,000 persons missing after their detention by security forces.

The leaders of the juntas that organized the repression were convicted in 1985. The junior officers argue that they were simply following orders and cannot be held responsible.

To ease tensions within Army ranks, the government is now looking for congressional support to introduce a new law that would limit the responsibility of the junior officers, and effectively absolve the majority of the 350 or so police and military officers that still face charges.


After the Brazilian military toppled a civilian government in 1964, it was 21 years before the armed forces vacated Bras'ilia.

But if the generals were sluggish in returning to the barracks, they were nimble in parleying their way into a peaceable, and not uncomfortable, retirement. That agility has not only spared the Brazilian armed forces an Argentine-styled ``revanchismo'' of damaging recriminations and human rights prosecutions, but also secured for the military an uncommon measure of influence.

The military's considerable sway today is the fruit of the ``slow, gradual, steady'' easing of martial rule designed in the late 1970s. Most important, the military declared a general amnesty in 1979, which pardoned exiles accused of terrorist acts and Army officers alleged to have tortured political prisoners.

The new civilian regime was born in part due to a pact between opposition politicians and dissident members of the military-backed party who had abandoned a sinking military government. Foremost among that group was Jos'e Sarney, who only months before joining the opposition had been the pro-military party president.

The military appears to have adjusted well. It has abided by two national elections. Despite a deepening economic crisis and heightened disenchantment with President Sarney's policies, it has stood firmly by the President.

The military says it has escaped ``revanchismo'' because it ruled more benevolently than did its counterparts in the southern cone. Others disagree.

A study compiled by the diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in Sao Paulo shows that 7,367 citizens were prosecuted for ``political crimes.'' Some 444 military officers and police were named as alleged torturers. Some of those named still hold government jobs. There appears, however, to be remarkably little public backlash against the military here. PERU

The military has long been a political force in Peru. Since independence in 1824, 52 of 78 presidents have been military officers.

Peru returned fully to democracy in 1980 after 12 years of military rule, though the controlled return to civilian rule officially began in 1977. In 1979, a new civilian parliament moved to limit military intervention in politics. The new Constitution prohibited military officers from voting and barred active-duty servicemen from seeking public office. It excluded an article of the previous 1933 Constitution that said the ``purpose of the armed forces is to assure the rights of the republic,'' but provided a role for the military in exceptional circumstances such as state of emergency.

At the end of 1982, the civilian leader used the military to combat increasing rebel subversion in the highlands. The military's attention is still directed at internal political affairs.

When Alan Garc'ia P'erez became President in 1985, it was the first transition from one democratically elected government to another in 40 years. Under Mr. Garc'ia, who is officially the armed forces' supreme commander, the military's main mission is still the counterinsurgency fight and internal security. The military retains what is called ``political-military'' control in a number of areas. Six of Peru's 24 states are under a state of emergency, with the military in charge of security.

Garc'ia has openly committed his government to punishing rights abuses of officers involved counterinsurgency efforts. He has given civilian courts jurisdiction over military personnel who violate the law. But few officers have been tried or sentenced. Garc'ia is going forward with plans to create a civilian-run ministry of national defense and to reduce the military's direct say in the cabinet.


Unlike those of other countries in South America, Uruguay's military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985 was the exception in a century of democratic civilian rule.

The return to civilian rule was carefully overseen and executed by the military after public pressure mounted against the armed forces' attempts to institutionalize their role in a new constitution. In the transition to civilian rule, the military prohibited participation of a number of key civilian party leaders in the electoral process.

Late last year, the parliament approved a general amnesty for military officers accused of human rights crimes after the military made it clear it would defy the justice system by not participating in civilian trials.

Uruguay's President recently warned: ``If the country wants social peace, the armed forces should never be made a target of persecution. If that happens, there is no doubt that sooner or later they will react.''

A group of citizens is seeking to overturn the amnesty through the public referendum process, and the law is being challenged in court.

Opposition spokesmen claim the military's repression apparatus is still intact. Government spokemen say the restoration of democracy is an ongoing process and steps are being taken to restore civilian control over functions formerly held by the Army. The country's intelligence service is to be transferred from the military to the civilian-run national defense ministry. Civilians will approve promotions for high ranks. The government is refraining from filling vacancies to decrease the Army's size and has reduced the number of military training schools.


In 1979 after eight years of military rule, Ecuador became the first of 10 Latin American nations to return to democracy. The military traditionally has taken over - four times since independence - because of the inefficiency or unpopularity of civilian leaders.

Despite the return to democratic rule, a national security law, adopted by the military junta in 1976, remains in effect. The law gives the armed forces a say in all major policy decisions by specifying that the defense minister must be a military officer and be represented on all key government decision-making bodies.

The armed forces have not used the national security doctrine as the basis to carry out violent repression, as has occurred in other countries. Democratic leaders also have used the law to control the population. But the law continues to provides legal justification for military intervention in civilian affairs.


After decades of military rule, El Salvador and Guatemala now have civilian Presidents. Diplomats and political analysts say, however, the military remains the most powerful institution.

The military forces remain strong because they:

Have not suffered a defeat as did Argentina's Army during the 1982 war.

Are an indispensable ally in the fight against persistent leftist insurgencies. Thus, they can't be weakened or alienated, despite past crimes. Have been promised by civilian leaders they will not be put on trial for rights abuses committed during the military's war to eliminate leftist insurgencies.

But while both armies remain powerful and influential, few analysts expect any military move against the civilian governments, barring a total breakdown of the governments.

In Guatemala, the military government passed an amnesty law just before leaving office. Despite that, the President is under pressure to investigate the disappearances of thousands during the Army's war against leftist guerrillas.

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