Return of the Generals Is Foreshadowed in Many New Latin Democracies

<i> Jonathan Power writes a column for the International Herald Tribune. </i>

Will 1989 be the year of the return of the generals in Latin America?

The Carter-Reagan years saw a dramatic shift toward democracy. In the mid-1970s all the countries in South America except Colombia and Venezuela were run by the military. By mid-term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, military rule survived only in Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay and, indirectly, Panama. But today many observers of the Latin American scene fear that the trend may be reversed.

Pessimists see a cyclical movement in Latin American politics. Badly run economies lead to disgruntled electorates voting in the left, who then alarm the generals, who in turn throw them out.


Already the warning signs of an unhappy military are all too apparent. Junior officers revolted twice in Argentina. There was a similar revolt in Guatemala, a higher-level one in the Dominican Republic, and in June the Brazilian army bullied the constituent assembly into extending the term of office of the highly unpopular president, Jose Sarney. In Panama, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega has sidetracked the power of the civilian president. In Peru, the army waits in the wings as the country shudders under the collapse of the authority of President Alan Garcia, the onslaught of the increasingly destructive Shining Path guerrillas, and the likelihood soon of the election of a Marxist, Alfonso Barrantes, as president. In El Salvador, an ailing President Jose Napoleon Duarte seems less and less able to constrain the army’s return to sponsoring death squads and summary justice.

The present debt-induced crisis is the perfect recipe for the military’s sweeping return to power. If this is the turn of events, it is going to present an enormous headache for George Bush. One reason that the United States has been able to ride high on the international stage in its holier-than-thou crusade against the Soviet Union is that, Central America excepted, Washington has been able to boast about a very nice back yard.

Yet, if the flowers of democracy are going to be plucked one by one, the United States could look by 1992--the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage and, inevitably, a time when the world will take stock--like a gardener without blooms or blossom.

Martin Edwin Andersen, in the current issue of Foreign Policy, argues with great persuasiveness that if this happens Washington has no one to blame but itself. “Despite the major U.S. role in the creation of Latin American armies,” he writes, “and the American training of tens of thousands of Latin American officers, the U.S. style of civilian-military relations has failed to take hold south of the Rio Grande. Instead the programs have been unable to prevent--indeed are accused of having helped spread--a hysterical brand of anti-communism, legitimating an emphasis on internal repression rather than material defense, and fostering interventionist ‘national-security’ doctrines that call for the military to maintain a tutorial role over civil society.”

This is quite a charge, yet it sticks. Since the days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, when Washington was full of the notion of counterinsurgency, the United States has been deeply engaged in building and strengthening Latin American armed services--and supposedly propagandizing them with the virtues of liberal democracy.

However, it has been clear for years that while the Latin American armies have gladly accepted the U.S. role of military coach, they continue to intend to play politics with a different ball than their mentors. Indeed, back in 1973 Congress voted to end police aid programs to Latin America after it had become all too evident that the assistance had contributed directly to repression, torture and disappearances.

Although the Jimmy Carter Administration attempted to reverse the reflexive anti-communist philosophy that tolerated this behavior, it found that it had an uphill battle on its hands.

President Reagan, while publicly welcoming the Latin American march toward democracy, quickly rolled back what inroads Carter had made on the military front.

Now the Latin American connection is, to use Gen. Brent Scowcroft’s phrase, one of “so many things that need to be cleaned up.”

While there’s only so much that Washington can do to halt the slide back to military rule--a good debt-relief program would perhaps work wonders--it can make sure that from now on it puts the essentials of human rights and democracy right at the center point of its military aid and training programs in Latin America.

It will take a generation to work itself through the system, but the present flawed experiment with democracy has shown that without a sympathetic military the effort is probably doomed. Next time around, if the right decisions are made now, we could get it right.