Stirring in S. America's barracks

Many question how 'democratic' Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela democracies really are.

When pamphlets indicating deep discontentment within the military began circulating in Venezuela - a country governed by a former Army officer who before being elected president led a failed coup - it was a sign of uneasiness in the military barracks of several South American countries.

*In Ecuador, the officers who joined with indigenous leaders in January to force President Jamil Mahuad out of office are now in prison. But they promise to take power through the ballot box when they get out - just like Venezuela's President Hugo Chvez did.

*In Peru, former dictator Gen. Francisco Morales joined Alejandro Toledo, who'd boycotted Sunday's runoff presidential vote, in his election-night call before thousands of Peruvians for "mobilization" against President Alberto Fujimori's reelection. The former military leader's gesture was seen as a public message to Peru's military.

*In Chile last month, President Ricardo Lagos publicly criticized the country's military leadership for meeting independently and then announcing their inconformity with the case being pursued against former military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

*And in Paraguay, the aftershocks of last month's short-lived coup attempt by officers supporting fugitive Gen. Lino Oviedo continue to rattle a shaky government.

"We're seeing a return of militaries that in theory are subjected to civilian power, but in reality are maintaining and in some cases going beyond a kind of vigilance or tutelage over democratic institutions," says Enrique Obando, an expert in military affairs in Lima, Peru.

This is not a uniform, continent-wide tendency, Mr. Obando says. Argentina leads another group of Latin American countries where once-ruling militaries are now clearly respectful of civilian democratic order. Ecuador presents a situation where the military's "tutelage" is strongest. It's perhaps the weakest in Chile, but still a factor in what experts call the country's "imperfect democracy."

And the Peruvian case is unique, he says, where a civilian leader "uses the armed forces to support non-democratic practices."

But Obando and other analysts say South America could see stepped-up military involvement in civilian affairs if elected governments fail to address economic and social crises, as in the case of Ecuador. It's not simple coincidence, observers say, that Ecuador's rebelling officers and Colombia's FARC leftist guerrillas have both invoked the memory of South American liberator Simn Bolvar - following Mr. Chvez's lead.

A building malaise with how the military is being used by the government is another possible impetus.

While no one foresees a return to the military governments of the past, experts don't rule out the Ecuador-style quick intervention that responds to instability by deposing one elected leader for another - a coup in "democratic" clothing.

Rumblings in Venezuela suggest that both of the likely causes of military intervention foreseen by experts are present. What has part of the country's military most riled up are Chvez's leftist ideology and the way the red-bereted president is incorporating the military into his social program. There is growing discontent with his class-war rhetoric and periodic homages (toned down of late) to Fidel Castro's Cuba.

"Save the fatherland from the communist menace!" read pamphlets being handed out in Caracas and other cities by an organization of retired military officials and reservists. Another group of retired officers, including a former defense minister, is criticizing Chvez's "fracturing" of the armed forces.

Most are supporting President Chvez's chief rival in upcoming national elections, Francisco Arias Crdenas. Some polls have found that better than two-thirds of the military will go against Chvez - when soldiers can vote for the first time.

"Arias is presenting himself as the ... last defense against a dishonored military and chaos," says Samuel Moncada, a historian at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas.

Ironically Arias was one of four officers who along with Chvez led an aborted 1992 coup attempt. Arias, a former state governor, had supported Chvez until early this year.

But Arias says Chvez has betrayed his own "democratic revolution" and is sinking the country deeper into economic turmoil. He asserts the president is also demoralizing the country's armed forces by assigning them to civilian projects they shouldn't be involved in - like road-building and crime-fighting.

Mr. Moncada says he expects Chvez to win reelection. But he says the deep discontent in the military, fed by the campaign's strident rhetoric, could lead some to consider a coup. And if that happened, says Moncada, "it would be of the more traditional variety - from the right."

Few people in Peru expect any move from the military against President Alberto Fujimori, reelected to a third term Sunday in elections sharply questioned both inside and outside the country. But experts and some military leaders say the social instability likely to dog what the opposition considers an "illegitimate" government could have unexpected consequences.

Even vice president-elect Francisco Tudela said last week that while he did not see the conditions in the country for a "Mahuadazo," referring to Ecuador's deposed president, he added "there are sectors that want a constitutional crisis."

If Fujimori ends up branded with the "illegitimate" label and social turmoil continues, he could find it difficult to serve his full five-year term, some observers say. "The Peruvian armed forces would never move against the will of the majority," says Daniel Mora, a retired Army general. "But unresolved instability would lead to a lot of reflection in the military cupola."

Mr. Mora says he was forced into early retirement last year for expressing his concern over deterioration under Fujimori of the Peruvian armed forces' professionalism. He says promotions, for example, are based on loyalty rather than merit, and are largely decided by Vladimiro Montesinos, chief of the country's murky National Intelligence Service. Mr. Montesinos is thought to be one of Fujimori's closest advisers. And this particularly vexes mid-level officers who, as in Ecuador's case, are the core of the military's discontent.

A growing number of these mid-level servicemen and retired generals are deeply unhappy with the way they say President Fujimori has "co-opted" and "de-professionalized" the armed forces by using the military to serve an authoritarian presidency rather than democratic institutions

Soldiers have been sent out to paint Fujimori signs, Mora says. And in rural areas where the military is admired for having defeated the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, soldiers are expected to counsel residents to support Fujimori.

"That's breaking the Army's institutionality," says Mora. "A lot of retired and active officers are unhappy with that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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