Macho militaries flex muscles

Across Latin America, militaries are itching to renew old influence on government.

When Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori abruptly announced his resignation last month, a rebellious lieutenant colonel holed up with fellow mutineers whooped and cheered in celebration.

But then it was back to their mutiny. "I won't stop this action," said Ollanta Humala Tasso - who had rallied 50 soldiers in his revolt against Mr. Fujimori - "as long as the politicians in coat and tie continue acting behind the backs of the people."

More than just a brief action against a crumbling leader, analysts warn, the Humala rebellion is indicative of the restlessness among midlevel military officers in a number of Latin American countries. Success of the military reforms Peru's new leadership envisions could determine, they add, whether Humala's mini-uprising becomes something more.

Tired of rampant corruption in civilian government and impatient with democracy's shortcomings, midlevel military officers in Ecuador, Peru, and even Mexico have left their barracks to publicly express their anxiety. In Venezuela, one of these nonconformist officers, Hugo Chavez, is now president. Specifics may vary from country to country, but the appeals these officers are making to national identity, honor, and the defense of the poor they see left behind by economic and democratic reforms represent recurring themes.

As such, uprisings in the barracks reflect both an impatience with democracy's shortcomings, including the support generals give to leaders like Fujimori and his alleged corrupt practices. But something more too: in some cases, demands that better democracies emerge, or in others that the military take on a guiding role in civilian government.

Late last month, Peru's Congress - now led by anti-Fujimori forces - granted Colonel Humala and his fellow mutineers a full amnesty. The charismatic Army officer who spoke during his rebellion of "lost national identity" and "the cultural discrimination against our diverse ethnic groups" has become a national hero to some. The hundreds of Army reservists who came out to cheer him on when he turned himself in to authorities earlier this month in Lima demonstrate that he maintains a fervent support base.

In the wake of Fujimori's departure, Peru's military has been quickly brought under new leadership. Following the lead of interim President Valentin Paniagua, officials are undoing the personal management of the armed forces the ex-president engineered and looking toward a "reinstitutionalization" of the military.

Mr. Paniagua has "retired" more than a dozen generals considered aligned with Fujimori and his fugitive spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. He has also called out of recent forced retirement Gen. Carlos Tafur Ganoza to become president of the joint command of the armed forces.

"We want a military that serves not a person, but the institutions of our country's democracy," says retired Gen. Jaime Salinas Salcedo. A frequent commentator on Peru's military, General Salinas was forced into retirement by Fujimori after he publicly criticized the "politicization" of the armed forces.

But much more than a housecleaning is needed, observers here say. Peru's current situation is the right moment to take up military reform, they add, but the reform opportunity is not going to last forever.

"Before our military was more like that of Chile, closed to any suggestion of reform, but in the post-Fujimori period the resistance is down," says Enrique Obando, a national security specialist in Lima. "We now have this open window of opportunity allowing important changes. But it's a window that will close if we don't take advantage of it."

Among the important points experts in Peru say a military reform must include are:

* Revision of the promotion procedure.

* A modernized education for soldiers and officers.

* A greater role for civilian society in overseeing military affairs - which in turn means a greater accountability of the military to civilian rule.

Under Fujimori, ascension of officers became a matter of personal preferences rather than seniority and merit. At the same time the president had the power to "retire" officers not to his liking. Thus Fujimori, under the guidance of former military officer Montesinos, was able to create a military leadership whose first responsibility was to him.

Critics note that the ex-president kept one commander of the armed forces for seven years of his 10-year presidency, when traditionally a commander held office for no more than two years. Peru's poor showing in the 1997 border war with Ecuador, as well as the arms-trafficking scandals now being investigated, are both results of a military that "lost its rightful mission," according to Salinas.

Officer candidates and simple soldiers need more extensive education in the military's role in a democracy, where the military is subordinate to civilian rule, critics say.

One huge obstacle, they add, is that for the past three decades Peru's military education has been focused on counter-subversion tactics. But today's military needs a firmer grounding in what national defense means in the 21st century, they say, and the concept of defending the Constitution and institutions over individuals.

In order for all that to happen, experts add, the military needs the participation and oversight of an informed civilian society - and that, they add, is what Peru and indeed many Latin American countries lack.

"The key to civilian control over the military is strong institutions - a viable and respected congress, political parties, social stability - all of which are lacking in many parts of Latin America," says Daniel Mora Zevallos, another general Fujimori forced into "retirement."

Others say it will be difficult for military reform to go where it should in Peru because civil society isn't prepared to demand it. "Any dialogue among civilians and military officials is practically impossible right now, because civilians don't understand what national security means," says Mr. Obando. "There is no core of experts to play that balancing role."

Still, one danger that could result from not reforming the military is that the kind of discontent evident in an uprising like Humala's finally boils over. "Care should be taken not to convert Humala into a martyr; that could backfire," says General Mora, noting that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez - who led a failed coup as an Army colonel in 1992 - was turned into a hero when he was imprisoned by leaders the public considered to be corrupt.

Noting that Humala's revolt gave him a platform to espouse his "nationalist, ethnic, anti-imperialist and anti-globalization discourse," Obando warns that "this could easily catch on in Peru, because the majority of Peruvians think in those terms."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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