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.
Kai Michael Kenkel
Latin American states have become major providers of troops for UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) since the early 2000s. MINUSTAH (Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti), the UN mission in Haiti, 55% of whose troops were from the region, was a major watershed for local security cooperation and PKO contributions. Led by Brazil, these states were able to develop a specific approach to peacebuilding that reflects regional strengths and experiences, rooted in minimizing the use of force and bringing successful domestic development policies to bear abroad. This approach also reflects the common security and intervention culture that underpins policy in the region. Two states in particular have taken on a role as major providers of peacekeeping contingents. Tiny Uruguay, with a population of 3 million people, has maintained over 2,000 troops deployed on UN PKOs (more than 10% of its armed forces) since 2005. While Uruguay’s motivations are mostly economic—UN reimbursements exceed the country’s costs—Brazil’s ascendance as a major peacekeeping provider during MINUSTAH was part of a larger emerging-power foreign policy project. Participating in peacebuilding allowed the country to provide security through actions in the development realm, bridging a key gap in many rising states’ capabilities, and to mount an incipient challenge to the Western-led peacebuilding paradigm. The remaining states of Latin America show considerable diversity in their peacekeeping engagement, with many others sending small or token contributions and some no troops at all. Latin American states’ involvement in PKOs cannot be understood without looking at their interaction with patterns of civil–military relations in the region. In the case of such states, the effect of peacekeeping participation on civil–military relations, while a key point in need of monitoring, has not been decisive, as other factors prevail. Finally, PKOs have served as the locus for a significant increase in policy coordination and cooperation in the defense arena in the region. As the UN moves toward stabilization operations which privilege counterterrorism measures over the peacebuilding paradigm that is a strength of Latin American countries, PKOs may lose attractiveness as a foreign policy avenue in the region. Additionally, the swing to the right in recent elections may serve to reduce the appeal of a practice which came to the fore under previous left-wing governments.
Peter Feaver and Damon Coletta
The United States boasts an enviable record regarding the military’s role in politics: never a coup and never a serious coup attempt. However, this does not mean that the military always played only a trivial role in politics. On the contrary, as the Framers worried, it is impossible for a democracy to maintain a military establishment powerful enough to protect it in a hostile international environment without at the same time creating an institution with sufficient clout to be a factor in domestic politics. The U.S. military’s political role has ebbed and flowed over the nearly 250 years of the nation’s history. The high-water mark of political influence came in the context of the gravest threat the country has faced, the Civil War, when the military enforced emergency measures approved by Congress, beyond the letter of the Constitution, including during Reconstruction when the military governed rebellious states of the former Confederacy. These were notable exceptions. For most of the 19th century, the military operated on the fringes of civilian politics, although through the Army Corps of Engineers it played a key role in state-building. When the United States emerged as a great power with global interests, the political role of the military increased, though never in a way to directly challenge civilian supremacy. Today, the military wields latent political influence in part because of its enormous fiscal footprint and in part because it is the national institution in which the public express the highest degree of confidence. This has opened the door for myriad forms of political action, all falling well below the red lines that most concern traditional civil–military relations theory. Military involvement in the American political system may be monitored and evaluated using a typology built around two columns that highlight the means of military influence—the first column is comprised of formal rules and institutions and the second encompasses the norms of military behavior with respect to civilian authority and civil society. While traditional civil–military relations theory focuses on military coups and coup prevention, theory based on this typology can help explain American civil–military relations, illuminating the warning signs of unhealthy friction under democratic governance and promoting republican vigilance at those moments when the U.S. military takes a prominent role and wades more deeply into domestic politics.
The Honduran military has a long history of established roles oriented toward both external defense and internal security and civic action. Since the end of military rule in 1982, the military has remained a key political, economic, and social actor. Politically, the military retains a constitutional mandate as guarantor of the political system and enforcer of electoral rules. Economically, its officers direct state enterprises and manage a massive pension fund obscured from public audit. Socially, the military takes on numerous civic action tasks—building infrastructure, conserving forests, providing healthcare, and policing crime—that make the state appear to be useful to its people and bring the military into direct contact with the public almost daily. As a result, the military has ranked high in public trust in comparison with other institutions of the state. Most significantly, the military has retained the role of arbiter in the Honduran political system. This became brutally clear in the coup of 2009 that removed the elected president, Manuel Zelaya. Although new rules enhancing civilian control of the military had been instituted during the 1990s, the military’s authority in politics was restored through the coup that ousted Zelaya. As no civilian politician can succeed without support for and from the military, the missions of the armed forces have expanded substantially so that the military is an “all-purpose” institution within a remarkably weak and increasingly corrupt state.