The invisible hand in Latin American democracy

There is a long history of military involvement in political transitions in Latin America. So, as Luis Horacio Nájera asks, can we actually expect a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela?

By: /
May 15, 2019
Venezuela flag
The Venezuelan flag is seen reflected in broken glass ahead of a rally against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, May 11, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

This past weekend, Juan Guaidó’s administration reached out to United States Southern Command, which oversees US military activities in Latin America, saying it would welcome its involvement with “strategic and operational planning so that we may fulfill our constitutional obligation to the Venezuelan people.”

Though worrying for some, the request for US military involvement should not come as surprise. The letter comes two weeks after Guaidó and his supporters failed to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power. Since the beginning of the uprising — there have now been three attempts to oust Maduro by Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly — the operation relied on support from soldiers and at least one lieutenant colonel. However, despite Guaidó calling on Venezuela’s armed forces to join him and liberate the country, the Maduro regime retaliated by deploying troops on the streets to brutally repress protestors, while incarcerating those soldiers identified as rebels.

Military involvement has always been key when it comes to political transitions in Latin America. Recently, the international community, Canada included, has increased its call for Venezuela’s armed forces to recognize and support Guaidó as its constitutional leader, while Maduro continuously harangues the troops to be prepared to fight to protect the country and his government.

After contested elections, numerous demonstrations and protests that included deaths and injuries, flagrant abuses against the population, and unsuccessful attempts by the opposition and foreign governments to negotiate with the Maduro regime for a peaceful transition, it seems that a military insurrection is the last hope for a change in Venezuela. Thus, and as has happened before in Latin America, the armed forces are the invisible hand that, when required, reveals and exerts its power.

Unfortunately, however, lessons from the past show that when the boots hit the ground, violence comes right after.

In Latin American countries, the relationship between the armed forces and governments has been historically complex, because of the roles assumed by the military during the three major social transformations that occurred across the region since the early 1900s: dictatorships, neoliberalism and the “pink tide,” or leftist turn. Such roles have been deeply influenced by the United States and its distinctive security doctrines in the region: the war on communism and the war on drugs.

Historically, the incorporation of generals into politics in the region also gave the military significant leverage to maintain or expand its privileges and interests. For instance, between 1877 and 1946, Mexico had only four civilian presidents (three of them served on an interim basis, one of them for only 45 minutes). Furthermore, to secure continuity in the government, General Plutarco Elias Calles founded in 1929 Mexico’s National Revolutionary Party, later renamed as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which through rigged or uncontested elections held the presidency until 2000. Since its foundation, the PRI has formally included three cadres (peasants, unionized workers and civil society) while informally also recognizing and benefiting the military elite.

"Lessons from the past show that when the boots hit the ground, violence comes right after."

The “dictatorial” era in the 1960s, 70s and 80s saw the seizing of power through violence, systematic and extensive abuses of human rights that included torture, disappearances and killings, and significant restrictions to freedoms of speech and press. Guatemala, Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay and Argentina all suffered the consequences of military regimes. Panama and Nicaragua suffered from de facto governments that were actually led by generals.

The US backed dictatorships through its anti-communist doctrine that included economic assistance and “the School of the Americas,” a regional hub dedicated to training militaries from all over the hemisphere in counter-insurgency techniques and tactics that included torture and repression. The school closed in 1984 and reopened in Fort Benning, Georgia, as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, where it continues its training. It is estimated that more than 64,000 soldiers and officers from Latin America — including the 14 founders of the notorious group of Mexican assassins “Los Zetas” — attended the centre.

In the early 80s, governance in Latin America radically changed after dictatorships ended, free elections restored democracy, and neoliberalist policies facilitated free trade. For the armed forces, transformation involved redirecting their energy toward fighting drug cartels, which, at least in Mexico and Colombia, had consolidated their criminal power by taking advantage of a more interconnected region and its access into the United States.

Because of fear or bribes, local law enforcement failed to effectively fight the cartels, so the military became the best response from the state. Again, armed forces were empowered by the US with training and equipment. However, as cartels splintered because of greed and competition, corruption worsened and fractured the military, particularly in the early 2000s, when Mexico and Central America became the main smuggling route between the Andean region and the United States.

An ideological transformation within Latin American armies occurred early in the 2000s as the “pink tide” of socialist governments emerged. Historically, the military elite concealed their political preferences under institutional loyalty, but the possibility of leftist, democratically-elected governments brought openness into the armed forces, as happened in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez. Once in power, Chavez broke with the US and partnered with Cuba and Russia for training and advice on national security and intelligence services, while expanding the influence of the military elite by giving them control of critical non-military programs with massive access to food distribution, oil production and arms.

So what does this mean for present day Venezuela? What would it take for the military’s loyalty to swing from Maduro to Guaidó? Money and power — both legally and illegally obtained — are the missing pieces of the puzzle to understand why a coup d’état led by the military in Venezuela has not yet happened.

In addition to the military’s alleged patriotic loyalty to the Maduro regime, the involvement of the armed forces in facilitating drug trafficking operations since the rise of Chavismo has been extensively documented. Hence, it is unlikely the military would actively work to bring Guaidó to power, based on the possibility that the new administration — working closely with the US — would eventually facilitate arrests and deportations under organized crime charges.

Furthermore, the power of the paramilitary groups, or “colectivos,” that largely support Maduro adds another layer of risk and complexity to a potential military intervention or insurrection. Since Chavez’s time, thousands of members of the “colectivos” have been trained and indoctrinated by the Cuban military while supported by the Venezuelan government. If violence erupts in an attempt to change the government, having the “colectivos” in the mix would certainly aggravate the situation.

But some military support of Guaidó, especially if backed by US forces, is still possible, and a transition-by-force — bringing with it some form of violence — continues to be the most viable option for him. This would put a peaceful transition even further from reach, signalling troubled waters ahead for both Guaidó and his foreign supporters.