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  • Managing the Military
  • Larry Diamond (bio)
Rethinking Military Politics: Brazil and the Southern Cone by Alfred Stepan. Princeton University Press, 1988. 167 pp.

In the study of democratic transition and consolidation, no problem is more vexing and inescapable than the role of the military. When civilian politicians fail, the military intervenes to restore order, or at least a military version thereof. Once the Rubicon of political intervention is crossed, both the institutional mission and the structure of the armed forces expand, as does their appetite for power. Democrats find that bringing the generals into power is much easier than getting them out, and that even after they relinquish formal control of the state, soldier-politicians may leave behind a drastically altered balance of power and an ominous array of new institutional constraints on democracy.

Despite the voluminous scholarly literature on the causes and consequences of military intervention in Third World politics, rather little attention has been given until recently to the behavior of the military in the transition to democracy, and especially to the means for restoring the eroded boundary between civil and military authority. Of the emerging new generation of scholarly works, this brilliant collection of essays by Alfred Stepan is sure to become a classic.

Stepan takes as his focus Brazil—about which he has been writing since 1964—and the three countries of Latin America's Southern Cone: [End Page 113] Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina. His analysis, however, is rich with implications for nations throughout the developing world. In South America and elsewhere (for example, South Korea, and more recently Nigeria), the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of a new type of military rule. This "new professionalism," as Stepan first termed it in the early 1970s, focused on defense against internal threats to national security. It encompassed—and socialized new officers into—a highly expanded and politicized role for the military, involving both internal security and national development and requiring not only military but political and administrative skills. Hand in hand with this new national security ideology and expansive military mentality went—most ominously for the democratic prospect—an enduring expansion in the size, scope, and autonomy of military intelligence agencies.

Stepan's scholarly exposure of this chilling and little-studied phenomenon is an original and sorely needed contribution. Although Brazil's military regime committed the smallest number of human rights violations (in proportional terms), it created the most powerful, autonomous, and entrenched intelligence apparatus in Latin America, the Serviço Nacional de Informaçõdes ( SNI). Paradoxically, the SNI not only formed one of Latin America's most troubling institutional impediments to democracy, but also helped to undermine the authoritarian regime it was supposed to serve. For as the SNI came to invade and monopolize more and more state functions, with no oversight short of the head of state, it increasingly became—as unaccountable intelligence agencies are wont to do—a law unto itself.

The SNI had a virtual monopoly over all intelligence operations and training; a statutory right to a cabinet seat for its director; an office in every government department, state enterprise, and university; and privileged, covert access to resources. Along with other new and even less accountable military intelligence organizations below it, it became a "state within a state." Like Frankenstein's monster, the SNI and its cohorts found themselves powerful enough to challenge their creator, the military regime itself. These new military intelligence networks, which operated outside the normal chain of command, were evidently responsible for the worst human rights violations in Brazil, including torture and "disappearances."

In the ominous expansion of these agencies, Stepan also finds an explanation for the anomalous growth of disappearances during the early years of regime liberalization or abertura (opening): "the repressive apparatus itself had acquired a significant degree of autonomy and was struggling as much against the [official policy of] abertura as it was against the armed combatants of the Left." Using political ploys, threats, and actual violence, this hardline faction within the Brazilian national security establishment stubbornly resisted the transition to democracy until its completion in 1985. [End Page 114]

Costly though it was in human terms, this division within the regime proved a crucial...


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pp. 113-117
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