- The New Military Autonomy in Latin America
Latin America was once called a “living museum” because archaic elites never quite disappeared from the scene. 1 Instead, they became part of an “exhibit” which, far from being inert, actually ran the place. Now, on the eve of the twenty-first century, Latin America is more politically diverse and dynamic. The tanks that not too long ago roamed the streets have vanished from sight, military uniforms seem passé and coups obsolete, and the era of the generals appears finally to have been consigned to the archives.
Most observers and practitioners seem to agree that Latin American military governments are a thing of the past, and that the future will probably look like the present. The autonomy of the armed forces, according to this vision, will likely remain limited by the defeat or discrediting of the military. But a degree of autonomy will also remain guaranteed—by transition pacts in Chile and Uruguay; by a high degree of homogeneity among military and governing elites in Brazil; by the sheer debility of democratic control mechanisms, as in Paraguay and Nicaragua; and by historical settlements that long ago simultaneously imposed a low profile on the army and secured its place among state institutions, as in Mexico and Ecuador. 2
This conventional view is neither particularly optimistic nor pessimistic, neither a best-case scenario (deep institutionalization of [End Page 115] civilian-democratic supremacy) nor the worst alternative (military insubordination). But it may not be realistic, either. For the ways and means of military autonomy are changing. Everywhere in the region, officers are metamorphosing into a combination of armed seigneurs (in increasingly unsafe societies) and soldiers-cum-entrepreneurs (in restructuring economies). They are crafting institutional and individual strategies to meet an expanded definition of “threats to national security,” even as they take advantage of new opportunities to pursue profits. And the new democracies condone these trends in different ways, some more obvious than others, all pernicious in the end.
So disarming is the notion of the obsolescence of military rule that for the last decade it has led the region’s political elites and civil society activists to neglect the balance between civilian-democratic authority and military autonomy. Domestic political actors repeat the old mistake of accommodating—with varying degrees of comfort—the military’s self-insulation. Elected officials, in the main, favor streamlining military establishments; but after making resource allocations, they leave the armed forces to their own devices. Politi-cians tend to avoid the military question. And while civic assoc-iations multiply rapidly, they pursue particularistic agendas, which in any case are often shaped or reshaped by those same elected officials and politicians whose involvement in military matters, to say nothing of their leverage over the armed forces, is quite limited.
Feudal Autonomy and Military Entrepreneurs
Democratic states, like all others, depend on organized coercive power. Hence the unavoidable need for armed forces endowed with sufficient institutional autonomy to perform their duties well. At the same time, democracies are democracies in part because their armed forces remain both functionally integrated with the state and subordinated to legitimate authority. Put another way, civilian authorities bar soldiers from making independent forays into civil and political society, or even into the international arena, and subject the military to the state’s internal rules of accountability.
This bundle of prohibitions and allowances is at the core of “dedicated autonomy”—our term for the kind of autonomy that allows the military discretionary decision-making authority and reserved zones of expertise and action, but harnesses its institutional prerogatives to the service of a higher order that it does not determine. The 1960s and 1970s were dark times for Latin America precisely because militaries freed themselves from the prohibitions and controls imposed by civilians and enjoyed unbounded autonomy. But the end of the unbounded autonomy characteristic of military dictatorships does not necessarily mean that we can take for granted the establishment of the dedicated [End Page 116] autonomy so essential for a democratic order. The 1980s and 1990s may well turn out, instead, to be a prelude to the era of a new kind of...