Dictatorship in Latin America

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It is a somewhat common refrain in Latin America that countries need the mano dura (strong hand) of a military dictatorship in order to get things done. Surveys in the early twenty-first century reveal a growing disenchantment with civilian governments, with a surprisingly large minority of Latin Americans stating a preference for a dictatorial form of government over democracy. Such sentiments date back to the founding of the Latin American republics in the early nineteenth century. After the removal of the Iberian crowns, conservatives argued that the new states were like children who needed parental guidance. These conservatives favored a centralist form of government in which a small group of elites would hold power and rule paternalistically on behalf of the rest of the country. Positivism, with its emphasis on order and progress, often provided a philosophical basis for such regimes in Latin America.

Military rule has been a feature of Latin America dating back to the colonial period. Rather than interpreting this as a cultural phenomenon, many observers have pointed to a failure of civilian institutions to address persistent problems of poverty and corruption. Some twentieth-century military dictatorships follow the pattern of nineteenth-century caudillo leaders who often ruled more through a use of personal charisma than brute military force. In fact, the only remaining nonelected executive in Latin America at the end of the twentieth century was Fidel Castro in Cuba, and his personalist style was more in line with the leadership of classic caudillos than what many would understand as the defining characteristics of a military dictatorship. However, while caudillos could be civilians and presented a variety of ideological stripes, "dictatorship" in Latin America normally refers to right-wing rulers who maintain themselves in power through overwhelming military force. For example, the Somoza and Pinochet dictatorships in Nicaragua and Chile maintained power more through repressive means than through personalist, caudillo styles of government. Particularly in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes like those in Chile and Argentina attempted to use the power of state institutions to enact a fundamental reordering of society.

In Nicaragua, a series of three Somozas established a family dynasty that ruled the country from 1936 to 1979. The United States placed the first Somoza, Anastasio Somoza García, at the head of a national guard in order to continue a fight against the nationalist hero Augusto César Sandino after the United States withdrew its military forces from the country. Somoza, as well as his two successors, his sons Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastacio Somoza Debayle, spoke English fluently and remained submissive to United States foreign policy objectives. As Franklin Roosevelt allegedly said of the elder Somoza, "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch" (Schmitz, p. 4). Over time, the Somoza family dynasty became increasingly brutal as it extended complete control over the country. A growing disparity in land distribution and gaps between the rich and the poor led to increasing discontent. Mounting repression and corruption finally led to alienation of the middle class and evaporation of business support for the regime. On 19 July 1979 Sandinista guerrillas overthrew the dictatorship and implemented a leftist revolutionary government.

In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a bloody 11 September 1973 coup. Allende was the first Marxist elected to the chief executive office in Latin America in freely contested elections. His goals of agrarian reform, nationalization of industry, and a shift in production from luxury to consumer goods alienated the United States, which helped engineer Pinochet's coup. In power, Pinochet proved to be vicious, destroying the existing political system, engaging in extensive human rights abuses, and privatizing industry while taking services away from the lower classes. Although supported by the United States, Pinochet's military dictatorship dealt a staggering blow to democracy, freedom, and reform. Until handing partial power back to civilian leaders in 1990, Pinochet provided a classic example of a military dictatorship.

The Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces, which came to power in Peru in 1968 under the leadership of General Juan Velasco Alvarado, provides an interesting counterpoint to these conservative military dictatorships. At first, Velasco's rise to power appeared to be just another military coup, but he soon announced plans for deep changes in government, including the nationalization of industries, worker participation in the ownership and management of these industries, and a sweeping agrarian reform law designed to end unjust social and economic structures. In implementing these reforms, Velasco challenged the incompetence and corruption of civilian politicians who were unable to implement badly needed reforms. He announced a "third way" of national development between capitalism and socialism. As a result of his reforms, food production increased, and peasants' wages and quality of life improved. Much as nineteenth-century caudillos sometimes brought positive changes to their countries, supporters viewed Velasco's military government as what Peru needed to improve and advance the country.

While progressive military governments in Peru and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador and Panama ruled in favor of the lower classes, implementing agrarian, labor, and other reforms, their ultimate aim was to undercut leftist organizing strategies. Providing agrarian reforms, even though they were partial, limited, and served to support the existing class structures, drew strength away from peasant and guerrilla demands. Ultimately, however, these reforms failed to address fundamental structural problems in society. These failures reveal how difficult it was to escape from dependent development without radical structural changes in class, property relations, and income distribution. At the same time, this history reveals that military governments are not always as reactionary as one might think. Furthermore, various branches of the military also tend to have different ideological orientations. Specifically, the army is sometimes seen as progressive because of its development work in rural communities, whereas the navy is usually affiliated with the elite and the police are often accused of committing the bulk of human rights abuses. This reveals the need for a more careful and complex interpretation of the role of the military, to break away from simplistic and unidimensional perspectives on the history of dictatorships in Latin America.

See also Authoritarianism: Latin America .


Hamill, Hugh M., ed. Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York: New Press, 2003.

McClintock, Cynthia, and Abraham F. Lowenthal, eds. The Peruvian Experiment Reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Schmitz, David F. Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 19211965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Zimmermann, Matilde. Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Marc Becker