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Military Muscle Makes A Comeback In Latin America

From Venezuela to Brazil, Latin American armed forces are returning to front-line roles in response to political crises and fighting organized crime. But will they threaten democracy again?

Military parade in Caracas, Venezuela
Military parade in Caracas, Venezuela
Rosendo Fraga

BUENOS AIRES — Geopolitical conflict, political crises and the continued threat of organized crime are renewing a longstanding question: is the role that armed forces have played in Latin America since the 1980s fundamentally changing?

The first factor to consider is an increase in geopolitical conflicts. The fight between the United States on the one side and Russia and China on the other has touched the region as it has elsewhere in the world. Its ambits are trade, technology, geopolitics and space technology, and its risks include tensions and possible confrontation.

The administration of President Donald J. Trump has publicly voiced its concerns with China's advances in Latin America in areas of investments, trade and finance; as well as Russia's military and strategic presence in some countries in the region. The Venezuelan crisis illustrates this well. While the United States is backing its provisional leader, the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, while China and Russia have so far refused to recognize his legitimacy.

The crisis in Caracas is increasing regional tensions and giving relevance to three actors. Venezuela, with its 97,000-strong army, Colombia with 265,000 troops and Brazil, with 340,000. These three countries have between them 70% of all troops in South America, and it is on their frontiers that conflict could break out. President Trump's National Security Adviser, John R. Bolton, has insisted all options, including use of force, remain on the table against President Nicolás Maduro. Beyond this, other options may become possible if the crisis were to be prolonged. One is humanitarian aid, which could only be brought in and distributed with the help of soldiers. Another is the risk of armed resistance that might force a provisional government to seek the help of a multinational peace force for its consolidation.

Bolsonaro's cabinet has a good half-dozen soldiers.

The second element is the political role the military are acquiring in such evolving crisis situations. In Venezuela, the opposition is clearly pursuing the strategic objective of dividing the armed forces and breaking the regime's monopoly of their support. In that perspective, military force is a decisive factor in this crisis.

Elsewhere in the region are other similar examples. In Nicaragua, the opposition has publicly criticized the army for not reacting to the regime's repression and called on it to disobey President Daniel Ortega. Still, it is in Brazil that the military role has become most evident. A retired army captain, Jair Bolsonaro, has been voted in as president. His cabinet has a good half-dozen soldiers, including the Defense Minister General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, the Secretary-General of the Presidency, the head of the country's intelligence service, the Science and Infrastructures ministers, and the Comptroller-General.

The new Health Minister is a civilian who managed some of the country's most important military hospitals. The outgoing Army chief, General Eduardo Villas-Boas, who led the Armed Forces in a complex time over the past four years, has publicly recognized the army's role in preventing Lula da Silva's candidacy. One may consider it an exception, but Brazil is Latin America's biggest nation, with an undeniable influence on the region.

Brazilian armed forces — Photo: Ministério da Defesa

Lastly, public security problems are also giving regional armies a more relevant role. In Brazil in the last two years, troops have on several occasions assured the security of big events like sporting matches or the Pope's visit. They have intervened for police strikes in several federal states and have taken over the country's borders, a jurisdiction created in response to rising drug trafficking and the spillover from the Venezuelan crisis. They have also taken part in disarming criminal groups inside prisons dominated by the two major gangs of Rio and Sao Paulo.

In Argentina, 500 members of the Army are deployed to guard the northern frontier. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had promised while campaigning to curb the army's role in domestic security, has now said they will remain involved during his six-year presidency. More specifically he is planning on forming a National Guard — effectively a fourth military force — to fight drug trafficking and organized crime.

In Colombia, President Iván Duque has ordered a renewed military-led offensive against the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Marxist rebels that have stayed on the sidelines of the country's peace process. They are thought involved in drug trafficking and have, alongside recalcitrant members of the disbanded FARC guerrillas, support bases in Venezuela.

The political challenge for the region is specific: how should the military's enhanced role in geopolitical conflicts, political crises and public security fit into the broader goal of reinforcing democracy? It is about accepting the present while looking at the past to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

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