Since 1945

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Since 1945

Military rule had been endemic to Latin America, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, but has nearly vanished since the 1990s. While its origins may be traced back to Spanish colonialism, its prevalence during most of the second half of the twentieth century was attributable largely to the weakness of civilian political institutions and the failure of elected governments to secure popular legitimacy.

Postwar socioeconomic development in much of South America expanded the political participation and influence of the growing middle and working classes. By the 1960s the previously excluded rural and urban poor were demanding a greater political voice. Rather than strengthening democratic institutions, however, increased political mobilization, coupled with wide socioeconomic inequalities, often intensified political polarization. Frequently, students and intellectuals radicalized the debate. In some cases, rising class tensions and civil unrest eroded democratic institutions and renewed military intervention.

Prior to the 1960s, military rule often took the form of personalistic dictatorships. Using the armed forces as a vehicle for upward social mobility, caudillos (commanders, authoritarian strongmen) seized power based on personal or regional loyalties and concentrated authority overwhelmingly in their own hands. Most caudillos lacked ideological or programmatic agendas, their objectives often being limited to personal aggrandizement and enrichment.

Personalistic dictators have persisted until relatively recently in Latin America's less developed nations. Notable examples include Panama's Manuel Noriega in the 1980s, the Somoza clan in Nicaragua (1937–1979), and Cuba's Fulgencio Batista (1933–1944, 1952–1958). In the last two cases, extensive corruption and repression delegitimized the political system, opening the way for radical revolutions.

As the armed forces became more strongly institutionalized, however, the number of personalistic dictatorships declined. Caudillos were incapable of dealing with the demands of a modernizing military and a more complex civil society. Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner (1954–1989) was, perhaps, the region's last personalistic dictator.

During the Cold War, as a consequence of enhanced military education, overseas training, and the development of advanced academies for military officers, Latin American armies became more professionalized. Unexpectedly, however, increased professionalism often enhanced the military's proclivity for political intervention.

Institutional military dictatorships were created by more bureaucratized and cohesive armed forces. Whereas a single leader, such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990), occasionally dominated, authority was normally vested in a collective leadership. Typically, one officer served as president, and he was limited to a single term in office.

Institutional military regimes were often more repressive and brutal than personalistic dictatorships. Their governing style, however, was more sophisticated, commonly drawing on the talents of trained civilian technocrats. They were also more likely to espouse a coherent political ideology and program. Political objectives included the repression of mass political movements, political stability, and economic growth. During the 1960s and 1970s a new type of institutional military government was established in some of Latin America's most advanced nations: Argentina (1966–1973, 1976–1983), Brazil (1964–1985), Chile (1973–1990), and Uruguay (1973–1985). Unlike previous dictatorships, these bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes envisioned a fundamental reordering of society.

Two factors underlay the rise of such regimes. First was the perceived leftist threat to the economic and political order. A Marxist president, Salvador Allende, had been elected in Chile in 1970, and a leftist electoral coalition attracted considerable support in Uruguay. In all four countries, the military and their industrialist allies felt besieged by labor unrest or guerrilla activity. Second, the armed forces wished to extricate their countries from the severe inflation and economic stagnation in which they had become mired.

From the perspective of the military and their technocratic allies, stability and growth necessitated a fundamental restructuring of political and economic institutions. Consequently, authoritarian rule had to be more intensive and enduring than under previous military dictatorships. Lacking sufficient expertise, the military delegated economic decisionmaking to conservative técnicos drawn from the private or state sector. Their policies were designed to eliminate budget and trade deficits, control wages, reduce inflation, stimulate foreign investment, and reduce the size of the state sector (including social welfare programs).

Because these structural adjustments initially reduced popular living standards sharply, and because the military feared a resurgence of working-class and student mobilization, bureaucratic-authoritarian economic policies required substantial political repression. Political party activity was banned, at least temporarily; strikes were prohibited; unions were crushed; and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. In Argentina and Chile many people were killed or "disappeared."

Peru's institutional military dictatorship followed a very different approach toward controlling radical political activity (primarily among the rural poor) and developing the nation's economy. Unlike bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes, General Juan Velasco Alvarado's left-nationalist government (1968–1975) considered Peru's oligarchy, not the Marxist left, to be the primary source of the country's problems. Consequently, it implemented a sweeping land reform, increased the economic role of the state, and tried, with little success, to mobilize the masses behind its programs. Far less radical and ambitious Peruvian-style military dictatorships emerged in Ecuador and Panama. All of these military governments were far less repressive than bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes had been.

Starting in the late 1970s, military dictatorships throughout Latin America gradually stepped down in the face of declining legitimacy and, other than Chile, poor economic performance. Military rulers were more successful at crushing the radical left, often at great cost to human rights.

The end of the cold war eliminated military governments' professed role as protectors of their nations against communist subversion and the wave of democratization that has swept much of the Third World has deligitimized military rule. In particular, the United States has abandoned its erstwhile permissive attitude toward military coups in the hemisphere. In many Latin American nations, however, the military continues to influence the political system and reserves for itself the right to remove "unacceptable" civilian presidents.

See alsoAllende Gossens, Salvador; Argentina, Organizations: United Officers Group (GOU); Batista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio; Brazil, Revolutions: Revolution of 1964; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Military Dictatorships: 1821–1945; Noriega Moreno, Manuel Antonio; Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto; Somoza Debayle, Anastasio; Somoza Debayle, Luis; Somoza García, Anastasio; Stroessner, Alfredo; Velasco Alvarado, Juan.


Biglaiser, Glen. Guardians of the Nation?: Economists, Generals, and Economic Reform in Latin America. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Collier, David, ed. The New Authoritarianism in Latin America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Garretón Merino, Manuel Antonio et al. Por la fuerza sin la razón: análisis y textos de los bandos de la dictadura militar. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 1998.

Pion-Berlin, David, ed. Civil-Military Relations in Latin America: New Analytical Perspectives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Silva, Patricio, ed. The Soldier and the State in South America: Essays in Civil-Military Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

                                Howard Handelman