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  • Coronavirus Cavalry: Amid COVID-19 Chaos, Latin America’s Armed Forces Redeploy at Home
  • Benjamin N. Gedan (bio)

This article was contributed to Forum—the edition’s portfolio of thematic content—by GJIA’s Conflict and Security section.

In the United States, the National Guard has helped respond to protests in the capital and delivered food in the New York City suburbs. Navy medical ships treated patients in Los Angeles to ease the burden on overwhelmed hospitals. Similar scenes of coronavirus cavalry are occurring worldwide, as COVID-19 overwhelms the logistical capabilities of civilian agencies.

The sudden prominence of uniformed soldiers is unusual in democracies, such as Australia, where 1,000 troops were deployed to Victoria in June to lead a coronavirus testing blitz.1 However, in places such as these where civil-military relations are firmly established, the sight of troops operating domestically has not raised eyebrows. In other regions, however, the relationship between the armed forces and civilian authorities is a work in progress. This is true in most of Latin America where the suddenly hyperactive armed forces are worrisome, despite no immediate threat of a return to military rule. Though coups d’état are out of fashion in Latin America, the balance of power between political leaders and generals has been gradually shifting throughout the pandemic in ways that are not easily reversible.

Wave goodbye

A democracy is considered consolidated when its armed forces are under full civilian control. That is why civil-military relations are a crucial metric for the strength of a democracy. In a democracy, the military leadership should demonstrate “proper subordination” to “the ends of policy.”2 Latin America has a notorious history of military interventions in civilian affairs: in the six decades from 1907 to 1966, the region experienced 105 military coups d’état,3 including eight in Argentina and six in Brazil and Chile, typically in periods of economic turmoil.4 In the 1960s, coups d’état were arguably the “most characteristic feature of Latin American politics.”5 In all, from 1950 to 2010, the region suffered 145 coup attempts, second only to Africa (169) and more than double the number in the Middle East (72).6 Guided by the “National Security Doctrine,” Latin America’s armed forces saw themselves as caretakers of the political class and guardians of the national wellbeing, and they frequently waged war against perceived domestic enemies.

These dynamics began to change during the third wave of democratization, which reached Latin America in the late 1970s. In 1973, Latin [End Page 13] America’s only democracies were Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. By 1992, the region’s only dictatorships were Cuba and Haiti.7 Democratization, however, did not immediately subdue the region’s armed forces. Initially, military leaders retained a formal or informal veto over policy decisions in many countries. But the residual influence of Latin America’s armed forces diminished significantly over time. One important measure is the sharp reduction in military spending throughout the region. Under the region’s military dictatorships, military spending reached 9 percent of GDP in Chile, 6 percent of GDP in Uruguay, and 5 percent of GDP in Argentina. Today, the regional average is less than 1 percent, compared to 3.4 percent of GDP in the United States.8 Panama abolished its armed forces in 1990, and Costa Rica did the same even earlier in 1949.

For all its challenges, Latin America has largely avoided violent interstate conflict, so democratization left the region’s armed forces without a compelling mission. To keep troops occupied, countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay became major contributors to United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. The region’s armed forces, due to their superior mobility compared to civilian agencies, have also specialized in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, including response to earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. In Chile, for instance, the navy watches for tsunamis, and air force helicopters perform search and rescue operations.

Fragile control

Though Latin America’s armed forces have seen their budgets reduced and their missions circumscribed since the 1980s, the region’s democracies in most cases did not fully consolidate. Cuba never democratized. Other countries, most notoriously Nicaragua and Venezuela, have...


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