Coup-Proofing Vulnerable Presidencies in Latin America
- Eric RittingerEric RittingerDepartment of Political Science, Salisbury University
In Latin America, democratization in the 1980s and 1990s brought greater military subordination to elected leaders and a promising new era of civil–military relations. Yet the threat of coups lingered—particularly where leaders most threatened elite interests and where coups could be justified as “restoring” democracy. Such was the case in the early 21st century for presidents on the radical, populist side of Latin America’s “New Left,” including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. In response, these presidents sought to guard their “contestatory” agenda by diminishing the armed forces’ ability and willingness to derail it. They adopted strategies like increasing spending on military hardware and salaries, stacking the officer corps with loyalists, indoctrinating the armed forces into the government’s political ideology, and raising citizen militias and parallel security forces. To different degrees—and with different degrees of success—they attempted to secure the military’s loyalty and to raise the costs of executing a coup. In other words, they engaged in coup-proofing, a practice used by vulnerable leaders around the world.
The study of coup-proofing in Latin America can advance research on comparative civil–military relations and democratization in several ways. First, scholars usually treat coup-proofing strategies as a response to the elevated risk of a coup. But when they threaten the military’s conservative corporate identity or limit its autonomy from civilian control, those strategies themselves could end up elevating that risk. Cases of coup-proofing from Latin America’s New Left would prove relevant for research seeking to disentangle this complicated causal relationship. Second, coup-proofing could jeopardize democratic consolidation, if not survival, if it shifts the military’s loyalty from a democratic, constitutional order to a particular leader and ideology. But if coup-proofing prevents unelected leaders from usurping office, then it might protect democracy. The short and long-term effect of coup-proofing on democratic institutions thus remains an open question. And third, if coup-proofing is to retain its conceptual utility in a region populated by democracies and hybrid regimes, then the definition of a “coup” has to remain limited to an illegal, undemocratic seizure of power involving at least some elements of the armed forces. Otherwise, coup-proofing could become conflated with impeachment-proofing. In practice, however, it becomes difficult to distinguish efforts aimed at preventing a coup from efforts aimed at escaping legal constraints on presidential power. This presents a challenge but also an opportunity for future research.
The record of coups and attempted coups in Latin America over the first two decades of the 21st century shows that while the coup d’état is no longer a fixture of political life in the region, it remains a real possibility. That reality calls for more research into coup risk, the ways that leaders respond to it, and the political consequences that follow.