Commentary

South America’s New-style Military Coup

This appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 2003.
A new form of military coup d’état is emerging in South America.

Today’s new militarism is characterized by leftist military men who lead a rebellion, are jailed for it, and then emerge with the popularity to win the next presidential election with large majorities of the vote.

With the patriarchal blessing of Fidel Castro, the model of new militarism started with Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan colonel who led a failed coup in 1992, served two years in prison, and returned to capture the presidency in 1998. Ecuador’s President Lucio Gutierrez - an Army colonel who led a successful indigenous rebellion in 2000, was jailed briefly, and was elected president last November - has consolidated the trend that, without a doubt, will spread.

There are imitators of these caudillos everywhere on a continent where confidence in free markets has been shaken and prevailing public opinion is that democracy has failed.

In Bolivia, one such imitator, Evo Morales, seems to be very interested in exercising this new-style coup d’état. Though not a military leader, he is a populist who blames Bolivia’s problems on capitalism and explicitly admires Cuban communism and its military leader Fidel Castro. Mr. Morales has successfully roused indigenous masses to violent protest over economic hardship that has resulted, in part, from questionable economic policies. In February, those demonstrations led to street violence, including 33 deaths, the reversal of some government policies, and the weakening of the government.

Not long ago, here in Peru, we had another self-appointed upstart, Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala. Despite leading a mutiny during the last few days of the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, Colonel Humala has just been “rewarded” with the post of Peruvian military attaché to France. What tremendous foolishness: Three of Peru’s former military dictators - Oscar R. Benavides, Luis M. Sanchez Cerro, and Juan Velasco Alvarado - held the same post before returning to Lima to strike their blow. If the pattern holds, Ollanta Humala could be next.

This neomilitarism is characterized by a profound hostility to demo- cratic society and to an open economy. It also seems to have a pronounced populist accent and a dangerous dose of communist infiltration. In essence, it represents the popular dissatisfaction with democratic policy in Latin America.

The paradox is that this doesn’t seem to worry the United States. Of course, that’s historically typical - more so now, because after Sept. 11, American foreign policy seems to be based exclusively on national security criteria. If in the past, Washington was not bothered by Somoza, Trujillo, and Duvalier, why should it be bothered now by Chávez, Gutierrez, or whoever else might come along?

The first wave of Latin American militarism occurred after the wars of independence and was largely a settling of political control with military strongmen alternating in power, often overthrowing one another and plunging the region into a series of civil wars.

The second wave was characterized by a combination of the doctrine of national security and the military taking a role in managing economic policy. Brazil’s Getulio Vargas, Argentina’s Juan Peron, and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet all came to power at different times in this 20th-century wave of militarism and were influential in shaping modern economic profiles of their nations.

In today’s incarnation of militarism, which comes on the heels of two decades of democratic progress, it would not be possible simply to install a military government because of the international consequences and the isolation it would entail. Our modern caudillos resort to a stratagem of leading what they know will be a failed revolution in order to become democratic candidates against the system. It’s a kind of plebiscitary Bonapartist revival - and it’s a new perversion of Latin American democracy.

Enrique Ghersi is an attorney, a law professor at the University of Lima, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is co-author of The Other Path.