In April 2018, Nicaragua inaugurated a season of social explosions in Latin America followed by Ecuador (October 2019), Bolivia (November 2019), Colombia (one round in October 2019 and another in mid 2021), Chile (October 2019 and following months) and Peru (November 2020).
Although these mobilizations are different in origin, motives and volume, they all triggered acute political and governance crises. In this scenario, it is worth highlighting the role played by the Armed Forces, where, unlike in past times, they chose not to get involved in the contingency or venturing beyond fulfilling their constitutional role.
Are we in the presence of a new institutional doctrine? Did the Armed Forces make a relatively common reading of their political incursions in the recent past? Are they indifferent to the serious disturbances to public order that we are experiencing in some countries?
These questions are difficult to answer for two reasons: first, the military remains cautiously silent in the face of contingency, and second, these are processes that are still unfolding.
A final warning: this is about analyzing the behavior of the Armed Forces and not the police or other forces of order, such as Gendarmeries or National Guards. The Armed Forces constitute the main strategic instrument of a State, equipped and trained for defense, and should not be confused with the forces of order, much less speak of “the uniforms” to refer indistinctly to these institutions.
The maxims of recent history
Contemporary history seems to have left several lessons for the military world. Retired soldiers from several countries agree on one thing: when the armed forces intervene in a country’s situation, they usually restore some sort of order, but often at high costs. They also know that once calm is restored, so-called Truth Commissions are created, which usually end up suing the High Command at the time and exonerating the political leaders who ordered the intervention. In the end, the prisoners are predominantly military.
A lesson imposes itself: social and political problems cannot be resolved with force; it is the responsibility of the political level to open paths of understanding. Given that the regular channel establishes that the connection between the Armed Forces and political power is through the Defense Ministries —or direct dialogue with the President— the definitive answer to any inquiry will only be reached when we have access to the declassification of these dialogues.
Prudence or moderation?
The main mission of all the Armed Forces is the defense of national sovereignty. To this are usually added two others: participation in peace operations and assistance to the population in the event of natural disasters.
The maintenance of public order is not the direct responsibility of the Armed Forces; it corresponds to the political authority, which has police forces. By the way, any displacement of the Armed Forces in the face of internal emergencies is enshrined in most constitutions in the so-called “states of exception”, which involve the temporary suspension of individual guarantees. This is only possible with the agreement of the Legislative Power.
But recent events show that in many cases presidential authority conflicts with Congress; there are even cases in which it is the authority itself that instructs the Armed Forces to carry out tasks that go beyond their mission.
What happens when police forces are overloaded? In theory, the Executive should declare some kind of state of exception, with the approval of the Legislative Power. And if you don’t? Or if you do so without consulting the legislature or the judiciary, as the case may be? We witnessed some cases, something like that has already happened.
Furthermore, the initial situation can be aggravated when the protest is degraded with elements of vandalism or the threat of armed confrontation between civilians. Add to that the fact that there is no shortage of weapons in Latin America. In such circumstances, more than one official will have wondered how much destruction he must endure until political power builds a solution.
If social and political problems cannot be resolved by force and it is up to the political level to find a way out, the situation worsens when the authorities mistakenly diagnose a crisis, as happened when the Chilean president, in the agitated spring of 2019, denounced that Chile faced “a war”. According to a report on the Ex Ante portal, in those hectic days, the Army planned to evacuate the president of Moneda to get him safe. It is said that it was suggested to him that a political solution was needed and that would explain why the right in Chile agreed to constitutional reform. The chronicle has not been denied.
In Ecuador, at the height of instability during the protests in Quito, then-president Lenin Moreno had to take refuge in Guayaquil under military protection. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, in November 2019 and in the midst of a strong social polarization where hundreds shouted “Now, civil war! ” and with a government that was collapsing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Kalimán, suggested to President Morales that he resign. Before that, political and social organizations had done the same. Suggestion or scam? This is being analyzed today by the Bolivian judiciary amid complaints from the current opposition.
What is evident is that in all these cases, although there was violence and, unfortunately, numerous casualties, they were basically due to the action of police or parapolice forces.
It is worth asking, then, whether the Armed Forces have favored the maintenance of order, but by inducing political power to build a way out, avoiding their direct participation. If so, we would be in the presence of a new stabilization factor.
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