Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 5-Latin America- Caudillos and Juntas
Latin America: Caudillos and Juntas
By a stairway of El Salvador’s presidential palace, just outside the president’s office, recounted
journalist Christopher Dickey, hangs a huge portrait of the nineteenth-century hero General
Manuel José Arce in a beautiful, ornate uniform. He holds a paper carrying the motto “The army
shall live as long as the republic shall live.” Concluded Dickey: “It might as easily and truthfully
say, at least as far as the nation’s soldiers are concerned, that the republic is the army and the
army is the republic.”
For more than 150 years it has been much the same throughout Latin America. The army
tolerates civilian rule under certain conditions, particularly when it does not challenge military
privileges. Even in nominally free elections officers often sponsor parties or candidates and
ensure their victory. An absence of uniforms in the chief executive’s office does not in itself
mean civilian rule. Julio César Méndez Montenegro, president of Guatemala from 1966 to 1970,
later commented that there were really two presidents, himself and the minister of defense, who
“kept threatening me with a machine gun.” Panama’s democratically elected president quickly
resigned in 1985, acceding to the army chief of staffs 2:00 A.M. phone call. The crisis took place
after the discovery of the mutilated body of a political gadfly who had accused the high
command of drug smuggling. He was last seen being dragged off a bus by soldiers. Politicians
are often either beholden to the military or unable to escape its power and influence.
Such civilian subordination is remarkably difficult for a country to escape. While the
mid-1980s seemed a springtime of democracy in the region, few states could boast of even a
decade out from under the shadow of dictatorship. Costa Rica succeeded in maintaining a
civilian democratic system by abolishing the army in 1948. Even Chile, long celebrated as the
model of consistent, stable civilian rule, succumbed to a 1973 coup which produced-as if in
revenge for so many years of army quiescence-the most stubbornly entrenched military regime in
South America a decade later. Despite more than 150 years of independence, Latin American
countries have been generally unsuccessful at maintaining democracy or avoiding military rule
for very long.
To explain the historically enduring fact of dictatorship, in its particular regional variety,
is the key issue in understanding Latin American politics. The basis for this peculiar system rests
on a Latin American historical experience quite different from the evolution of Western Europe
toward democracy. An authoritarian pattern of society emerged early. The bulk of the population
in most areas were desperately poor share-croppers or laborers rather than independent farmers.
As the descendants of Indians or black slaves the peasantry in most places was set apart from and
below the primarily Creole oligarchy. The urban middle-class businessmen, merchants, and
professionals who usually provide the main constituency for parliamentary rule rarely overcame
landed interests. The military developed as a largely self-governing institution that only
provisionally gave fealty to the state.
The Spanish colonial system did not bestow rights and encourage initiative among its
subjects. Rather it was, in the words of political scientist Howard Wiarda, “ a hierarchy of
despotisms,” from the king through his governor down to the plantation owners, who held the
powers of life and death over their serfs or slaves. Even after independence, added political
scientist Robert Wesson, “class divisions were deep; … habits of deference were strong;
individualism was weak; and poverty was abysmal.”
Under Spanish law, whose influence continued after independence, the military was a
special, privileged class the members of which were exempt from the jurisdiction of civil courts.
Citizens had no effective redress when soldiers seized goods and land or engaged in lucrative
smuggling. Enlisted men and officers owed loyalty to their commanders rather than to the nation.
As historian Richard Millett wrote, “In order to win military allegiance, governments had to
negotiate with individual officers.” Civilian factions eagerly used the military to promote their
own interests. While the military became an ally of the oligarchy, it had to he courted “through
financial support, cooptation into the elite by marriage or other means and expansion of its role
During much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one strong man after
another used the armed forces or a private army to rule. Bad as these rulers often were, factional
conflict threatened civil war or anarchy in the absence of strong leadership. Some of these
regimes survived only a year, others lasted for decades, but all were limited by the health of the
individuals on whom they depended.
All the key institutions militated against a strong democracy. The caudillo established a
tradition of subordinating the country to his will and sharing out wealth and offices among
cronies. The generally powerful Catholic Church defended the inequality of power and property
as the natural order of society. Landowners were determined to keep the peasantry dependent
and subordinated. The urban middle class was badly factionalized and often feared the poor more
than they did military rule. Workers’ and peasants’ groups in most countries were weak or
nonexistent. The army, faced with no credible external enemy, was psychologically prepared to
suppress anyone who challenged the status quo at home. U.S. influence, although periodically
directed in favor of civilian rule, often favored military regimes and generally created a mentality
of dependency in which foreign support could become an acceptable replacement for domestic
Despite the frequent use of the word “revolution” as a slogan in Latin America, the idea
of “rotation” more accurately expresses the course of events. Changes in rulers rarely meant any
real shift in the society, much less the march forward and upward sought by radical movements
and pledged by modern dictators. Rather, Latin American politics moved in a cycle,
with two forces-the military and the civilian “parties”–endlessly taking their turn in power. The
failings of civilian regimes produce coups, and the shortcomings of military regimes lead them,
voluntarily or under pressure, to permit a return to democracy.
The cycle of alternating civilian and military rule was remarkably consistent across Latin
America during the first century of independence. But this pattern also meant that dictatorships
repeatedly gave way to elections despite all the factors against parliamentary rule. In addition to
the innate internal weaknesses of the caudillo and junta forms of rule, there were countervailing
historical forces. The states of South and Central America were horn in independence revolts
against Spain in the early nineteenth century as part of the age of democratic revolutions. Latin
American thought and culture, despite their distinctive nature, belong to the Western political
tradition. No matter how frequently it exists, dictatorship is seen as shameful, aberrant, and
temporary, an attitude contrasting with prevailing thinking in the rest of the Third World.
Elsewhere in the Third World, coups and army rule have been revolutionary processes,
bringing lasting change to a weakly defined social and political order. In contrast, Latin
American dictatorships have almost always been conservative and self-consciously
antirevolutionary. In general, officers sought to preserve, rather than overthrow, the status quo,
although by the 1960s some of them concluded that even this required them to take the lead in
The factors behind the conservatism of Latin American officers are hardly a secret. These
men have links to the oligarchy-either by birth or by an acquired commonality of interests—or
use their careers for upward mobility to join this class. They adhere to a reactionary version of
Catholicism that stresses order above justice and are hysterically suspicious of anything that
smacks of modernism-liberalism, trade unions, women’s liberation, intellectuals, and social
reform. In recent times they have been obsessed with a communist threat which is not always
restricted to their imaginations. As individuals they are often narrow and rigid, with a political
vision limited to forcing society to behave and malcontents to shut up.
The militarism of modern dictators in Africa and the Middle East-and in Cuba or
Nicaragua as well-is symbolized by the May Day parade. They think in terms of a disciplined
nation marching forward under their orders. Traditional dictators, especially in Latin America,
are reminiscent of a sentry pacing ceaselessly back and forth, on guard against anything new.
Historically, Latin American officers felt no need to he social pioneers or creators of a new
order: their countries’ national identities and their preferred forms of society were already in
existence. Today the old-fashioned personal dictator and military regime have been largely
replaced by modernizing juntas that advocate economic development to forestall radical
revolution. These juntas still mistrust mass mobilization and the other earmarks of modern
dictatorship, but they believe it possible to organize economic growth alongside social and
structural continuity. In short, they seek to become conservative managers of change.
Another basic foundation for the rightist, traditional form of most Latin American
dictatorships is the structure of the army itself. The Latin American military tends to hold
political power collectively while in other parts of the Third World individual officers frequently
use the army to achieve power in order to implement their own blueprints for remaking society.
But the South American officer corps usually holds the chairman of its junta in check, curbing
his wilder schemes and diluting any intention he might have to build a regime based on personal
charisma and an appeal to the masses. While there are exceptions, the leader of a coup today is
more likely to be a faceless military bureaucrat than a dashing man on a white horse.
When someone more personally ambitious and potentially appealing does appear, the rest
of the large officer corps is ready to pull him down, as the Argentinian Army did to Perón.
These characteristics explain why it has been harder to institute modern dictatorships in the
region. The leader’s constituency is his fellow officers rather than the masses, and given the
military institution’s basic unity, he must seek consensus rather than the violent suppression of
other factions. In contrast, successive Syrian rulers, for example, have entrenched themselves in
power by purging the army and executing recalcitrant officers.
In Latin America the destruction of the army’s hierarchy and its subordination to political
authority were most effectively implemented by Marxist revolutionaries in Cuba and Nicaragua
who first defeated the soldiers in battle. Knowledge of this fact deepens the anticommunism and
concern about revolution of officers in other Latin American countries. In the Middle East,
Africa, and even Asia politically minded young men join the army to overturn the government;
in Latin America the same type of people join guerrillas to fight the army.
The conservatism of Latin American dictatorships, their social connections, reactionary
ideology, historical precedents, and the army’s institutional unity and identity have made such
regimes loath to adopt the modern dictatorship’s innovations. Inasmuch as modern dictatorships
rule through nonmilitary channels–single party, mass mobilization–they are anathema to the
Latin American coup maker who aims to rule over, rather than with the support of, the civilians.
This does not mean, however, that there has been no change in the style and structure of Latin
American dictatorship. Gradually the very consolidation of the military structure has led to a
transition from the historic caudillo to the bureaucratic junta more common today. Caudillos
arose in the nineteenth century before there were effective national armies. They were men who
were able by virtue of their ability–decisiveness, personality, machismo–to hold the loyalty of
their troops. Often they were political generals who emerged from the seemingly endless wars
between Liberal and Conservative parties that took place in almost every country. Once in
power, however, they ruled in their own right. By their constant improvisation, idiosyncratic
behavior, and treatment of the country as personal property, they were traditional dictators.
Somoza was one of the last survivors of that breed.
This kind of personal dictator has now been replaced almost everywhere by a more
sophisticated form of traditional dictatorship: the junta. juntas are committees of officers who
hold power as the directorate of the armed forces rather than as the pawn of an individual leader.
The head of the junta might he quite powerful personally, but he is also constrained by his
colleagues. Caudillos controlled the army; the junta chairman must maneuver within the
framework of the military’s interests, internal politics, and personalities. Ultimately he holds
power not as a national leader but simply as the man who stands on the top rung of the chain of
command. Below him are many younger officers jostling for promotions that can come only
when he retires. The most recent Argentinian junta had three chairmen serving four-year terms
during its tenure, and its Brazilian counterpart was ruled under a similar system of rotation. Junta
leaders, then, are fairly interchangeable, and their rise through the ranks over decades has made
them colorless. A caudillo, almost by definition, is indispensable and flamboyantly
By the 1970s there were few of the long-ruling strong men who had dominated the
region’s politics at the turn of the century. The old-fashioned caudillos were restricted to the
smallest, least developed countries: Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti, and Guatemala, Bolivia,
Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. These states not only were under
individual rule but often seemed to be the private property of the dictator, his cronies, and a
small circle of oligarchic allies. The absolute ruler, as with the Duvaliers in Haiti or Trujillo in
the Dominican Republic, can he a modern-day Caligula or, in the case of the revolving-door
Central American dictators, a man determined to accumulate as much loot as possible in his brief
tenure. As of the mid-1980s Alfredo Stroesner of Paraguay was the only one left.
One reason for the decline of the individual strong man, in common with traditional
dictators elsewhere, was the precarious nature of his balancing act. He must tirelessly and with
great delicacy outmaneuver cronies and henchmen while personally overseeing a perpetually
dangerous military. The elite must he kept satisfied and relatively powerless at the same time. It
must be plied with privilege while kept divided in factions quarreling over the caudillo’s
attentions and favors. He can allow no rival to emerge and so can rarely dare to name a successor
unless he has a hereditary heir, as with the Somozas and Duvaliers. But even sons, like Baby Doc
Duvalier, are rarely up to the level of cunning and ferocity of their fathers. When faced with
rioting, “Baby Doc” fled Haiti for the pleasures of a luxurious retirement. The dynasty ended on
In contrast, the contemporary Latin American junta can build on a ready-made chain of
command respected by the officers. The armed forces serve as a surrogate political party.
Consequently, the junta has become a more common basis for rule in Latin America than has the
individual strong man, even one who tries to develop a populist appeal. The situation in Africa
and the Middle East is the exact opposite. There the armed forces are often riven by factional
splits over ideology and ethnicity, forcing a coup leader to look elsewhere for support. He has an
incentive to broaden his links with the civilian masses, build political institutions, and smash
competing groups in the officer corps. A drive toward modern dictatorship, which would
produce a revolt within Latin American militaries and scant support from civilians, becomes in
other parts of the Third World not only an attractive alternative but a necessity for survival.
In view of conditions in Latin America, then, the contemporary junta is the highest form
of traditional dictatorship, and that region is its last stronghold. In the most developed countries,
particularly Brazil and Argentina but also places like Peru, Chile, and Uruguay, juntas have tried
to show that they can more effectively promote economic development than can their civilian
antagonists. Toward this end they copy sonic of the methods tried elsewhere in the Third Worldthough
their inspiration is more likely to be South Korea and Japan than the Soviet Union or
China-installing civilian technocrats who claim to have free market or mildly corporate state
answers to the mysteries of industrialization and controlling inflation.
Yet although these juntas represent a real departure from their predecessors, they have
made no serious effort to base their power on mass support, having an old-fashioned contempt
for systematic ideology or political parties. They are more likely to use death squads for wiping
out opponents than to combine repression with a populist drive to expand the ranks of their own
supporters. At most, they hope that prosperity will produce civilian gratitude, but in no case have
they been able either to deliver the former or to reap the latter. They remain traditional
Furthermore, while the junta may he better adjusted than an individual caudillo for
governing a complex modern society, it is not a very stable form of government. The very factors
that made it harder for a caudillo to rule-the rise of middle and working classes, economic
improvements, population shifts from countryside to city, and higher educational levels-also
gradually subvert the junta’s hold on power. Once the public gets over its demoralization over
the failings of past civilian rule, it begins to demand an end to the army’s control. Even the
oligarchs who are closest to the officers will not indefinitely tolerate a loss of direct political
power as soon as they feel that any threat of leftist revolution is past. As Richard Millett wrote
about the Guatemalan junta’s return to the barracks, “The right had promised the military that an
alliance would produce order, stability, and prosperity. Instead, it had produced conflict,
international isolation, and economic collapse.” Fearful that continued military rule would
jeopardize their own position, the officers ordered a return to civilian government despite the
The seeds of the junta’s end are always sown internally as well. Senior officers may find
it difficult to work out arrangements among themselves as they jostle for personal power. Rivalry
among the army, navy, and air force over political authority also heightens friction. A large
number of senior generals and colonels see themselves as professional soldiers and are eager to
get out of the governing business. Other officers, particularly the junior generals and the
colonels, seek the commanders’ retirement in order to gain promotion into positions of political
and military authority. There is also some inevitable factionalism around personalities and over
decision making. Some officers favor more repressions, others more concessions to civilians;
soldiers also start to argue over spending priorities, economic strategy, and division of the
military budget. Like a political party, the armed forces conduct their own primaries and
elections, with the counting of guns and units that support each side replacing the adding up of
The result is that the process of ruling together threatens the military’s unity and the
sanctity of the command structure. This makes officers nervous about the possibility of violent
conflict. The armed forces took power in the first place to protect their position, now the
continued exercise of political power threatens the institution. Unavoidable unpopularity arising
from their repressive activities and failed policies also demoralizes many officers. If the conflicts
become too threatening, the military will leave power rather than engage in internal battles. The
decision to return to the barracks is almost always made collectively and peacefully. Richard
Millett recalled a satirical pamphlet published while Guatemala’s constituent assembly was
drafting that nation’s new constitution. It suggested including an article specifying that “civilians
would take power whenever the military totally fouled things up, the military would take power
whenever the civilians totally fouled things up, etc., etc.” In short, the frequency of appearance
and relative conservatism of Latin American dictatorships are deeply rooted, but so are the
transient tenure of individual dictators and juntas and their persistent alternation with civilian
Generally, coups are launched when generals conclude that the normal political process is
deadlocked, the civilian parties and politicians have failed, and only the army can save the
country from collapse. If internal subversion or disintegration is the main threat to the nation’s
survival, they reason, the military is only carrying out its patriotic mission by seizing power.
Since the high command does not want politics to jeopardize the army’s unity, it must await a
consensus on the need for a takeover.
To point out the officers’ hesitation to seize power is not to justify their behavior. Their
discomfort with politics and their obsession with maintaining consensus within the military do
help explain, however, why military rule is always seen as being transient (even if it lasts twenty
years) and is reluctant to entrench itself as a modern dictatorship. Latin American officers act to
save what they see as a threatened social order; African and Middle Eastern officers act to
overturn what they perceive as an unjust social order.
In contrast with caudillos, most juntas often claim merely to he preparing conditions for
the return of civilian rule. This attitude, even when hypocritical, often proves ultimately to he a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Military attempts to stave off a return to civilian control by legitimizing
the junta’s rule through elections usually end in defeat. Perón twice outmaneuvered the
Argentinian military at the polls to gain power. Brazil’s junta set up a two-party system in which
the opposition constantly won; Uruguay’s military regime had to yield power in 1980 after losing
a plebiscite it had organized to prove its own popularity.
In power, the military tries to force its own values of order, discipline, traditional
morality, and hierarchy on society. But unlike modern dictatorships, it does not try to change the
existing patterns of family, religion, education, class relations, or ideology because it is not that
unhappy with what already exists. Obsessed with their separation from civil society, the officers
still cannot reconcile themselves to any effort for systematically cultivating popularity or civilian
support. Juntas have learned to he fatalistic even while following the same old pattern. Argentine
junta leader General Jorge Videla prophetically complained in 1976, “The civilians will simply
take everything we do and turn it around 180 degrees after we return to the barracks.” His regime
still went forward with its suicidal policies that ruined the economy, spread hatred of military
repression, and led Argentina to a humiliating defeat in the Falklands War.
Some civilians, however, also agree that their own failures lead to the military’s taking
power. Jose Sarney, later Brazil’s first post-junta president, commented on the 1964 to 1984
junta, “Democracy is in difficult circumstances in Brazil because there is a conspiracy of radicals
teaching people to unlearn it.” He admitted that civilian incompetence and radical disruption
helped produce the coup. When an opposition senator attacked the junta, Sarney had defended it
for allowing some measure of free speech: “What dictatorship is this that permits such
criticism?” Finally, although he had advocated expropriation of large landholdings in his poor
northeastern state, Sarney went to court to expel peasants who took over his own property. It is
no accident that “Order and progress,” in that order, is Brazil’s national slogan. Argentinian
newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman, who suffered harrowing torture in a junta prison, had
originally been an enthusiastic supporter of the coup as a means of ending the anarchy into which
his country had fallen. These events and statements demonstrate three reasons why many middleand
upper-class civilians are often willing to accept military rule: their fear of communism and
instability, the likelihood that repression will leave them untouched, and the fact that
conservative dictatorships protect their properties and positions.
When Socialist President Salvador Allende ruled Chile, conservative women threw
chicken feed at officers and called them cowards for not seizing power. The Chilean military did
not move against the government until it was convinced that much of the middle class supported
a coup. Many Argentinian civilians saw the military as their protector against Perónism and
mounting terrorist violence. In many cases the military takes power with wide, if minority,
civilian backing, particularly among the urban middle class. Equally, when a junta so
mismanages the economy as to threaten its future or when repression is so extensive as to
endanger too many people, the military loses whatever civilian support it has. There is an
increasing clamor for a return to civilian rule.
Military regimes have demonstrated that they can run the economy as well as do
civilians, but in Latin America this is not necessarily a compliment. Hyperinflation and recession
produce coups when civilians are in office and democratization when juntas are in power. The
same rule applies to civil unrest. Soldiers who do not hesitate to respond to guerrillas with
repression and death squads find mass protest far more perplexing. Most of the time the army
simply gives up, though the process can take several years and cost many lives.
This pattern has continued in the last fifty years, beginning with a wave of coups
reflecting the economic catastrophe and political instability of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
European Fascist regimes helped inspire the military to patriotic posturing and belief in its own
ability to rule, but the motivation for coups and the subsequent regimes were strictly based on
local traditions. Military leaders conspired within the ranks of the armed forces against weak
civilian regimes in Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, and other states. They had no
interest in mass movements, demagogic oratory or fancy new ideologies, although a civilian
politician, Getulio Vargas, experimented in Brazil with some of the new techniques and
corporate rhetoric. Perón was educating himself for his later effort by observing Mussolini.
Events in Nicaragua and El Salvador illustrate the traditional style of regional politics and
the ways in which caudillos establish themselves. In Nicaragua the Liberal and Conservative
parties had long contested political power. Both groups were factions of the urban and
landowning elite, each with its own private armies. Coups and warfare, torture and killing,
martial law and rigged elections were merely extensions of this contest for control of the country.
There was no institutionalized national army that stood apart from this battle.
After a series of coups in the 1920s a U.S. Marine contingent landed to enforce order.
One Liberal general, Augusto Sandino, refused to accept a U.S.-imposed compromise between
the parties and launched a guerrilla war from the hills. Sandino became a folk hero and a symbol
of resistance to U.S. power. Nevertheless, he enjoyed little military success at the time.
Washington’s policy was aimed at producing a democratic solution rather than at imposing a
dictatorship. When the Liberal candidate won U.S.-supervised elections in 1932, the marines
withdrew, and Sandino laid down his arms.
But U.S. intervention had added a new factor to the political equation. To preserve
stability after their departure, the marines had helped organize and train a National Guard. In
Nicaragua–as in Haiti and the Dominican Republic where a similar organization was
established–the guard commander had a base of power outside the party system that could he
used for gaining political control.
Here was the basis for a long-lived caudillo system. The army was the instrument of one
man rather than the arbiter of political power. Thus, Anastasio Somoza, the National Guard
commander, arrested and executed Sandino in 1934. Two years later he seized the presidency
and “won” election by a vote of 107,000 to 169. Thus began the Somoza dynasty. Somoza
ensured his control over the military and the country as a whole by using his position as
president to take over a large amount of Nicaragua’s land and commerce. This gave him a huge
fund for rewarding cronies, distributing patronage, and paying off officers.
Neighboring El Salvador, with a military establishment already in place, developed a
method for rotating caudillos. The tanda system linked together students in each graduating class
from the national military academy. As one rank of the officers’ group enriched itself under its
leader, it was pressed from behind by those more junior who wanted their turn.
While working together to defeat civilian reformers or revolutionaries, the Salvadoran
military found it difficult to assemble a lasting formulator rule. The events of the 1930s
temporarily solved this problem by producing a powerful threat to the status quo and a strong
leader at the same time. Typically, however, the appeal of this military establishment caudillo,
General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, grew among his fellow officers in direct proportion
to his ruthlessness against the civilians. When El Salvador collapsed economically from the
worldwide depression, he overthrew the staggering civilian cabinet in 1930. When the
Communist party organized a peasant revolt two years later, he massacred tens of thousands of
people, an event known in Salvadoran history as La Matanza (“the slaughter”).
The political fallout of World War II ended the 1930s era of dictatorships and turned the
cycle back toward the civilians. The Allies, in desperate need of Latin American raw materials,
paid premium prices that brought prosperity throughout the region. Argentina, for example,
found high-profit markets for all the wheat and beef it could export. The anti-Fascist struggle
made U.S. leaders suspicious of the loyalties of Latin American dictators while encouraging
Latin American intellectuals, professionals, and politicians to attack their own dictators.
In country after country the military was pressed to return to the barracks while liberal
reformers swept into office. In Argentina Perón used the popular demand for higher living
standards and hatred of the oligarchy to transform a traditional junta into a modern dictatorship.
If economic depression brought military regimes to power, recovery threw them out again. While
disillusion with parliamentary dithering and party bickering encouraged civilian passivity and
indifference, hope for renewed freedom made the population impatient with the stifling reign of
those in uniform.
Almost all of Central and South America went through a new turn in the cycle.
Hernandez Martínez was overthrown by a short-lived democratic upsurge in El Salvador in 1944.
A few weeks later some young Guatemalan officers staged a coup and held free elections, which
were won by liberal reformists. The new regime instituted universal suffrage, spent one-third of
the budget on social welfare, raised workers’ wages by 30 percent, and outlawed forced labor. In
Costa Rica a 1948 revolution brought land reform and ensured civilian government by
disbanding the army.
Once again, however, the military did not stay out of the presidential palaces very long.
The next round of military takeovers grew out of the usual factors along with a particularly
intensified fear that reformist civilian governments were paying the way for communism. The
onset of the Cold War brought a decisive shift in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Almost any
regime became eligible for U.S. aid and support if it took sides against the USSR. Repression
and coup making were overlooked if they could be portrayed in anti-Communist terms. Latin
American officers were quite willing to exploit this new attitude; in fact, they were the firmest
believers in the identity of liberal or social democratic reform with Marxism and Soviet
subversion. U.S. influence and the knowledge that Washington would back them often
encouraged Latin American generals to seize power.
As early as 1954 Washington’s concern over the progressive Guatemalan regime led it to
orchestrate a coup there. But the main wave of military seizures of power came in the mid-1960s
as a reaction to the Cuban Revolution and the guerrilla movements it inspired and promoted.
Castro’s takeover in Cuba made credible the possibility of similar upheavals elsewhere. While
Moscow had played no role whatsoever in his rise to power, Castro’s active support of
insurgencies throughout the region now made veal the concern about international subversion.
The colonels and generals judged the dominant civilian politicians even more harshly and
watched more carefully for any hint of a political breakdown.
Regeared for domestic counterinsurgency and concerned with the possible spread of
Marxist revolt, the military also became even more suspicious of civilian reformers. This era
began with the overthrow of Presidents Arturo Frondizi in Argentina in 1962 and Joao Goulart in
Brazil in 1964 and ended with the bloody coup against President Salvador Allende of Chile in
1973. Ironically, where radicals themselves failed to overthrow existing regimes, their efforts
inspired the officers to do so. In Uruguay the Tupamaro guerrillas set out to undermine that
country’s long democratic tradition, erroneously believing they could more easily organize a
revolt against a military dictatorship than against an elected civilian regime. But the armed forces
turned this analysis on its head; by seizing power and throwing off both parliamentary and legal
restraints, the army found it easier to wipe out both armed radicals and liberal critics.
Modernization of military training politicized officers, who were introduced to ideas
about a greater role for the military in national development and social welfare. Successfully
combating the “subversives,” they believed, required both unapologetic toughness and a
willingness to cope with some of the conditions that produced revolutionary movements. Whole
groups-teachers, journalists, militant trade unionists, even priests-were classified as likely
enemies. Luxuries like civil liberties, which might themselves encourage disrespect and
antigovernment activity, had to he eliminated. Torture or the deniable murders by death squads
were considered a low price to pay in order to obliterate the radicals.
Increasingly sophisticated officers knew, however, that repression alone was insufficient.
A strong economy and political stability were vital to undercut the appeal of leftist revolution,
they learned in U.S. training sessions and at their own staff colleges. Aware of the growing
demands by peasants, workers, and dissatisfied middle-class elements, the soldiers concluded
that unless the armed forces took the lead in ensuring economic progress, poverty and stagnation
would produce social upheaval. At the same time these conclusions made them only more
doubtful about the civilians’ ability to maintain stability. Without military rule to impose
discipline and political order, bumbling and quarreling civilian politicians would bring anarchy.
Yet while more and more officers knew that something new was needed to avoid
revolution, they were still suspicious of the techniques of modern dictatorship, which they
identified with communism, even though these strategies were used by many non-Communist
regimes in Africa and the Middle East. The fact that Cuba, their preeminent enemy and the
embodiment of communism, had a single party, land reform, and other earmarks of a modern
dictatorship tainted these institutions with Marxism.
As the armed forces took power in one country after another in the 1960s, they tried to
deal with these contradictions by developing a new kind of junta-a “modernizing junta”-that
could strengthen the fatherland and undermine the appeal of radicalism and revolution through
state planning, the fostering of domestic industry, and new jobs. Since political turmoil had
slowed development, the soldiers believed, only their firm control plus responsible fiscal and
social conservatism could ensure growth. To accelerate economic growth, military dictatorships
brought state planning to Brazil, land reform and nationalization of foreign-owned businesses to
Peru, and a large public sector to Argentina. This economic nationalism sometimes led to friction
with the United States although relations were generally quite friendly.
Despite these innovations, the overall conservative tenor of the juntas was preserved. A
well-entrenched chain of command and high standard of professionalism in the region’s armed
forces meant that radical junior officers could not split the army and unseat their superiors, a
frequent pattern elsewhere in the Third World. At the same time the most powerful conservative
officers identified the instruments of political mobilization with their leftist enemies. Mass
organization, for example, was seen more as a threat than as an idea that military dictatorships
might co-opt for their own purposes. Concessions to workers were seen as the kinds of programs
usually urged by irresponsible populist politicians to the detriment of the economy. As in the
past, the generals were paternalistic rather than populistic although, in contrast with earlier
caudillos and juntas, the juntas from the 1960s to the 1980s put a high priority on economic
Each junta had a different view, based on its country’s traditions and recent history, of
exactly how best to achieve economic progress. Peru’s junta of the late 1960s instituted land
reform and other left-nationalist policies, with a greater emphasis on undercutting the country’s
strong left-of-center parties than on organizing the peasantry. General Augusto Pinochet’s
Chilean regime reacted against the actions of overthrown leftist President Salvador Allende with
conservative free-market policies, including the return to private hands of state companies. The
Brazilian junta supported massive investments in projects for export promotion in the 1960s,
producing what was then called an “economic miracle.” Argentina, with a strong state economic
sector ever since Perón’s rule, lifted capital controls, price controls, and subsidies.
By the 1980s, though, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina were deep in debt. Since the
Argentinian military refused to cut spending on itself and its pet industries, the free-market
economic package made for runaway inflation. Brazil and Chile found that the lower prices of
the raw materials they produced and the rising cost of imports battered their economics. None of
these regimes came close to matching South Korea, the most successful combination of junta
rule and economic mobilization.
The military regimes are willing, even eager to use repression to suppress radical forces,
threats to their own rule, and complaints about their policies. The Argentinian junta’s “dirty
wars” of the 1960s began with a thirst for revenge against the guerrilla left’s kidnappings of
officers and armed attacks on army installations. After the revolutionaries had been decisively
defeated, the junta’s campaign only widened into indiscriminate torture, killing, kidnapping, and
“disappearance” of anyone who was outspoken against-or might conceivably oppose-military
The result was a more extensive and systematic repression than had ever been seen before
in Argentina. All institutions responsible for “indiscipline”–peasant and trade union
organizations, civilian reformers, critical journalists and professors, and anyone suspected of
sympathy with these groups–could become targets. More than 9,000 people disappeared, and
can be presumed murdered by the military, between 1976 and 1983. The torturers’ sadism
seemed to feed on itself, producing a viciousness that mounted as the threat to the regime
Nevertheless, this violence was far less “effective” than the modern dictatorships’
campaign to destroy or drive out whole classes and political groups. Latin American traditional
dictatorships are still able only to impose themselves on society temporarily rather than he
capable of transforming it. The very real reign of terror that went on under the Argentinian junta
made no apparent lasting change in Argentinian society. Many people were left untouched by the
violence, and afterward the country emerged with far fewer scars than might have been expected.
It is revealing that in chronically junta-ruled states like Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina the
same political parties that existed before the coup were revived after civilian rule had returned.
When the Brazilian military took over in 1964, it was trying to ensure the political destruction of
reformist, populist politicians like Jañio Quadros and Leonel Brizola. Twenty years later
Quadros was elected mayor of Saõ Paulo, and Brizola was elected governor of Rio de Janeiro,
the country’s two largest cities.
The nature of the civilian-military cycle and of the limits of traditionalist military
dictatorships can be most clearly seen in Chile, the country that so long held it at bay, and in
Argentina, a nation whose level of development would seem to make it a viable democracy.
Chile’s large middle class and democratic traditions sustained a parliamentary system for many
decades before it finally collapsed in civil strife over President Allende’s government. Allende
came to office by a vote in Congress after none of the three candidates could win a majority vote
from the electorate. His Socialist-Communist united front’s attempt to move Chile to the left
within a legal framework was opposed by conservative forces and by the United States.
The Nixon administration saw the Allende regime as intent on establishing a permanent
Marxist regime in Chile and, hence, as a geopolitical threat. Chilean conservatives opposed
Allende’s policies. The armed forces commander at the time of Allende’s inauguration, who
supported the military’s traditional apolitical stance, was murdered by rightist plotters associated
with the CIA. Chile’s economy declined as the result of Allende’s actions and Washington’s
sanctions. As society broke down, disrupted both by the anti-Allende right and by leftists who
thought the president was moving too slowly, the military, encouraged by conservative civilians,
decided to step in and take over.
Considering the high ideological passions involved, the coup was a very repressive one.
Having concluded that democracy had almost led to communism, the regime of General Augusto
Pinochet was determined to avoid any return to the old pluralist system. It promulgated a new
constitution to ensure the continuation of military rule into the distant future. Beyond that,
Pinochet’s prescription was for “protected democracy,” with the left excluded and the armed
forces as the protector.
Faced with growing opposition pressure-even many conservative civilians wanted to end
military rule-Pinochet gave little ground. He attacked political parties as factions useful only to
ambitious, self-serving politicians, and the division of the opposition made it much easier for the
army to stay in power. Gradually Pinochet overrode other members of the junta who were more
willing to compromise, and his control of promotions assured that he could count on the loyalty
of most officers. He assumed supreme power as president in 1980.
The Chilean experience demonstrated some of the main weaknesses that lead to the
fragility of democracy in Latin America. Both conservatives and leftist radicals claim that
reformist politicians-men like Perón, Frondizi, and Arturo Illia in Argentina or like Goulart in
Brazil and Allende in Chile–make changes conducive to political instability. The moderates’
policies fall short of a thoroughgoing revolution that would smash the old order, but their
innovations are extensive enough to convince defenders of the status quo that they are in a battle
for survival. From that point, extremists on both sides agree, the country must go either
“forward” to modern dictatorship
involving some version of Marxism or “back” to a rightist junta. Such is the strength of Latin
America’s political gravity that there are very few cases in which the military is foiled. Moderate
democrats who oppose both extremes triumph momentarily only to see the cycle swing around
As in other Latin American countries, the position of the army in Chile was so central
and intertwined with politics that it could not long stand aloof from the turmoil around it.
Similarly, the economic and political leverage of the United States also destabilized democracy.
Economic swings, whether genuine or artificially augmented, were hard to contain within a
parliamentary system. The gap between the wealthy and the poor created demands and
antagonisms on both sides that could not he mediated by legalistic structures. The rich would not
make even the kinds of concessions to trade unions, social welfare, and redistribution of land
taken for granted in the United States or Western Europe. The poor would no longer remain
indefinitely patient; much of the middle class, fearing anarchy and radical revolution, preferred
at least temporary military rule.
There were some signs of success for these modernizing juntas–the revolutionary
movements of the 1960s were smashed in virtually every country; financial and economic
changes, seemed to he producing results at first, too, most notably the Brazilian “economic
miracle”-but the ultimate results were disappointing.
So once again, by the late 1970s, the cycle was ready to take another turn. The soldiers
had worn out their welcome. Mismanagement created too many problems; the accumulation of
victims drove civilians to mounting protests. The leftist challenge had receded, and politically
unsophisticated juntas quickly lost control of experiments with tame political parties and limited
elections. Rising foreign debt and economic slowdowns made staying in power less attractive for
the officers. Even U.S. policy shifted against them, as President jimmy Carter pressed the issue
of human rights.
In Argentina the military regime’s foolish provocation and incompetent handling of the
Falklands War against Britain humiliated a junta already under increasing civilian criticism for
its torture and murder of dissidents. Free elections returned civilian governments to power in
Argentina (1983), Bolivia (1982), Brazil (1985), Ecuador (1979), Peru (1980), and Uruguay
(1985), among other countries. Although the return to democracy is welcome, there is no reason
to think that the cycle is ended.
As traditional dictators, Latin American military rulers may solve short-term problems of
instability, economic collapse, political deadlock, or revolutionary threat, but they do not put
their countries on different courses. Yet the preoccupation with economic development,
nationalism, and even some inklings of social consciousness have made these modernizing juntas
take on certain aspects of modern dictatorships as well.
Peru is the most interesting, if a rather atypical, example of these regimes. Officers, many
of them from poor peasant backgrounds, were trained at the Center for Advanced Military
Studies and at the National Planning Institute to think about the social structure’s shortcomings.
With civilian rule at a dead end and Marxist guerrillas in the mountains, the military took power
in 1968. Reform-minded officers won the struggle within the army. The junta took over the sugar
plantations, set up cooperatives, and nationalized several foreign mining firms. More
conservative officers eventually regained the upper hand and moved toward a more traditional
system. Faced with economic difficulties and mounting opposition, they finally gave up power in
1980. The developments in Peru show how Latin American juntas were changing and how they
fell far short of the African or Middle Eastern style of modern dictatorship.
The fact that the modernizing juntas were viciously repressive does not, in itself,
distinguish them from modern dictatorships. But while the Brazilian junta originally rationalized
its violence as preventing Communist revolution, once in power it claimed that dissidents would
sabotage the military’s own top-down revolution. Concluded a banker allied to the junta in 1973:
“We need to grow fast or we’ll lose the development war.” Repression, censorship, even torture
were permissible means of preserving security, reasoned the generals and their friends, but a
failure to bring economic growth would undermine the entire society. “Development with
security” was their motto since tight control was the necessary concomitant to development.
Strikes and collective bargaining were outlawed, wages were held down, and opponents of every
kind were rounded up.
The junta chose a four-star general as president every four years. Politics were not
abolished, said one Brazilian writer, but were simply transferred to the army. The military had its
own party and permitted a relatively tame opposition party. The electoral college that formally
selected the president was controlled by the junta through appointees and fixed elections. Thus,
General Ernesto Geisel, a retired officer and industrial administrator and whose brother was
defense minister, became president in 1974.
The Brazilian economy was turned over to technocrats. The powerful minister of finance
between 1967 and 1974 was a former economics professor, the planning minister was the head of
an economic research institution, and the minister of mines and energy was president of a state
mining company and a trained economist as well. They recommended a program of maximum
government investment and international borrowing, claiming they could avoid inflation by
indexing wages and prices.
During the Brazilian junta’s first decade this strategy seemed to he producing an
economic miracle. Annual growth was at around 10 percent, and there was more industry,
exports, and consumer goods. Brazil’s economy was under as much state control as any other
economy outside the Soviet bloc. Under the authority of the modernization-minded junta, 70
percent of investment came from the government. In 1971 state-owned firms held 82 percent of
the assets, 32 percent of the sales, and 51 percent of the jobs among the largest Brazilian
The regime promoted nationalist slogans like “Nothing will stop Brazil,” “Brazil has
teeth,” and even “If you don’t love Brazil, leave it.” The censored newspapers explained that
development required a “strong, pure and tough” state. Businessmen, landowners, and a large
segment of the urban middle class supported the regime. This attitude was not surprising since
the regime’s philosophy, as expressed by Minister of Planning Antoñio Delfim Netto, was that
“no one can achieve rapid development without concentrating wealth. You’ve got to make the
cake bigger before you can start slicing it up.”
But this growth-oriented strategy also overheated the economy. The turning point for the
economy was in 1974, when inflation bit 35 percent. The poor were hit hard, rising oil prices
destroyed Brazil’s balance of payments, international recession depressed its markets, and debt
reached new heights.
The faster the economy deteriorated, the quicker the military moved toward restoring
democracy and the more people voted for the opposition party. Geisel promised a greater degree
of freedom but warned that the junta would not allow “turbulent or errant minorities, which upset
national life.” He faced down military hard-liners, particularly in the air force, who held the
allegiance of fewer divisions than he did. But Geisel could not entirely restrain the interest
groups that had developed around maintaining the repression and that feared retribution if
civilian rule was renewed.
It took a full decade for the military to return to the barracks. Its development plan had
failed, having come close to wrecking Brazil’s economy, and civilian support for the junta was
long dissipated. On the other hand, it had lasted twenty years, a not inconsiderable span. Perhaps
future frustration with civilian rule will lend that era a certain air of nostalgia. At any rate, the
modernizing junta had shown itself to be a very different kind of regime from its less activist
Argentina underwent a similar, though even more traumatic, experience. But even after
its horrendous period under a discredited and defeated military junta, Argentina cannot he
considered immune to another swing of the cycle. Its return to democracy in December 1983
gave rise to celebration at home and among foreign well-wishers. Yet the elected regime of
President Rafil Alfonsín was very much constrained by the country’s economic problems, the
continuing threatening power of the military, and the political attitudes of most Argentinians.
Robert Cox, veteran editor of the Buenos Aires Herald who had fled in 1979, when death
squads threatened his family, returned to attend Alfonsín’s inaugural. “We sang the Argentine
national anthem. Its florid rhetorical stanzas, made meaningless by a half-century of military
coups, had suddenly become stirring, ‘Listen, mortals, the sacred cry: Liberty, liberty, liberty!
Hear the sound of chains breaking!’” Amid wild enthusiasm and high hopes, Alfonsín took his
oath of office not from the presidential palace balcony, defiled by Perón and so many junta
leaders, but from the building where independence had been declared in 1810.
The immediate changes were dramatic. The Ford Falcons without license plates used by
the military to transport kidnap victims disappeared from the streets. Police smilingly offered
directions instead of demanding identity papers. Yet in the midst of such joy Cox felt the “bleak
realization that democracy was no miracle after all, that it was no more likely than the military
coups of the past to cure Argentina’s ills.” The calls threatening Cox’s life started again; the
officers would let civilians try only the nine junta members for human rights violations. Lowerranking
torturers could not he tried or imprisoned-the military rejected the jurisdiction of civilian
courts-lest punishment provoke another coup.
During the era of military rule between 1976 and 1983, repression could not have been
more severe for those urban professionals, students, journalists, or others labeled, on, the
flimsiest grounds, likely “subversives.” Death squads operating with junta backing kidnapped
parents or children in front of their families. Thousands murdered by the military disappeared,
never to be heard from again. Torture became routine in scores of secret, small-scale
concentration camps, sometimes decorated with swastikas by the jailers.
The army’s rampage was partly a response to the killings, kidnappings, and robberies of
the Perónist and Marxist left which had convulsed the country in the 1970s. But by any measure
the junta’s “dirty war” went beyond any rational bounds. once armed opposition had been
crushed, the soldiers convulsively sought to destroy the roots of dissidence, which they identified
with any left-of-center political or modernist cultural views.
By 1983 the peso had shrunk to a one-millionth of its 1959 value. The junta twice created
a new peso, first by adding two zeros and then by printing four more zeros on the existing
currency. The Argentinian military attacked and easily occupied the Falkland Islands but
ultimately found the British a better-armed foe than its own civilians. Perhaps the military
thought that a dose of patriotism would excuse its poor economic performance, but the junta was
also genuinely drunk on its own macho and chauvinist rhetoric. The war turned into a
humiliating disaster that probably cut several years off junta’s longevity.
While Alfonsín instantly ended the repression, he had no easy answers to inflation.
Rising prices sparked disruptive strikes, a strict austerity program equally produced discontent.
The middle class began to complain, “So they call this democracy! “ Memories of repression
faded, and those of economic insecurity increased, just as the military had before been first
decried, then welcomed back to power.
In turn, the military’s arrogance proved unquenchable. Former Air Force Commander
Brigadier Gayo Antonio Alsina told a 1985 officers’ club banquet, “We are living in times of
absolute confusion in which it is said that we have passed from authoritarian repression to
marvelous liberty. Nothing of the sort. Let us be clear … and say no to libertinage, to the
corruption of undisguised pornography, to the questioning of our elders, to the deformation of
our youth through foreign music and drugs, to the dissolution of the family, and to the
subordination of the natural order and divine origin.” In its idea of order this statement could
have come from a hundred other dictators or would-be dictators of the left or right. Another
Argentinian general commented that the military merely did the dirty work for the civilians.
President Alfonsín responded at the armed forces’ annual banquet in July 1985 by
arguing that the military had dishonored itself by violating constitutional order and becoming a
prime source of instability in its own right. The only answer to “our current state of prostration”
was to avoid “dramatic extremes” and build a society free of fear, blessed with tolerance, and
able to safeguard civil rights. “All of this is called democracy,” he concluded. As part of this
effort Alfonsín managed to try the nine junta members for their human rights abuses, including
the disappearances of 9,000 people who must he presumed dead. Most of the tried junta
members were convicted.
Alfonsín’s struggle is a noble but a very difficult one. It will not be easy to break the
alternation of civilian and military rule. The replacement of caudillos by modernizing juntas is a
stronger trend. The techniques of modern dictatorship may come to Latin America via this new
style of junta or through Marxist regimes, as has already happened in Cuba and Nicaragua.
While traditional societies have produced traditional dictatorships, it seems likely that
changing societies will produce modernizing juntas or modern dictatorships. Asia has produced
both kinds of regime, with countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, and South Korea, for
example, following something like the Latin American pattern.
The prospects for traditional dictatorship, or for the democratic system Alfonsín would
build, are worse elsewhere in the Third World. Africa, a continent in search of political identity
and economic development, is full of countries that are being both wooed and controlled by a
new type of charismatic dictator.