LAT: Military Strongmen Just Fading Away

Colombian Labor Monitor xx738 at
Sun Aug 1 16:02:45 MDT 1999

        [NOTE: "Free-market" triumphalism unfettered by rigorous
        analysis and blind to the oncoming groundswell of popular
        revolts against the neoliberal order.   -DG]

                The primary purpose of Washington's huge increase in
                military aid to Bogota is to buttress the government's
                bargaining position vis-a-vis the rebels. The drug war
                provides a convenient cover for this aid, primarily
                because the rebels rely on "drug taxes" to buy weapons.
______________  ======================================================

Sunday, 1 August 1999

                Military Strongmen Just Fading Away

        By Andrew Reding

SANIBEL, Florida -- For the first time since the Spanish conquest, the
military is losing its privileged status across much of Latin America.
>From Brazil and the southern cone to Honduras, economic modernization, the
end of the Cold War and the spread of a human-rights ethic are
contributing to a sea change in attitudes. Military budgets are being
slashed, public inquiries into past military abuses are being launched and
once-untouchable generals are being hauled into court.

The changes are not, however, universal. In a half-dozen countries, the
military remains well-entrenched. In some cases, its budget and role are
expanding. Significantly, though, this is happening in countries with
sharp ethnic divides.

Leading the way in marginalizing the military are the economic powerhouses
Brazil and Argentina. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and
Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem have both called on their citizens
to forget past military abuses. Capitalizing on the
goodwill these promptings have created in military circles, the two
leaders have slashed military appropriations without provoking an outcry.

As armed forces are downsized to trim budget deficits and improve
countries' standing with foreign investors, their influence diminishes
further, making them more vulnerable to challenges by civil society, which
itself is gaining strength as a result of economic reforms reducing the
state's role in the economy. In Brazil, Cardoso had to abandon his choice
of federal police chief after a priest testified that the president's
nominee had supervised his torture in 1970. In Argentina, where Menem
pardoned former military rulers for their roles in the "dirty war" of the
1970s, lawsuits by families of victims have led to new arrests and trials.
Nine retired officers, including onetime junta leaders Gen. Jorge Rafael
Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera, face charges of child stealing, a category
not included in Menem's 1990 amnesty.

In neighboring Chile, international human-rights law is fostering a
comparable transformation in the military's standing. The arrest last
October of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Britain, which shattered the myth of
his invincibility, emboldened civil institutions to reassert a degree of
authority over the military not seen since the overthrow of leftist
President Salvador Allende in 1973. Last month, Chile's supreme court
ruled that an army general and four other officers could be tried for the
disappearance of 19 Allende sympathizers. As in Argentina, the court
seized on a loophole in a 1978 amnesty: So long as the military fails to
account for the disappeared, the court ruled, they remain "kidnapped," a
crime not covered by the amnesty. This puts the army in the embarrassing
position of either having to admit it lied to the public for a
quarter-century or risk having its top brass go to jail.

Were that not humiliation enough, opinion polls show Ricardo Lagos the
odds-on favorite to be elected president this December, which would mark a
return to a more moderate, free-market-friendly version of Allende's
Socialist Party. With numerous domestic lawsuits being filed against
Pinochet, and with Lagos saying he favors placing the former dictator on
trial in Chile, Pinochet may have little to cheer about even if he evades
the courtroom in Spain. Lagos is also vowing to amend the constitution to
remove six senate seats reserved for the military, including one held by
Pinochet, which provides him immunity from prosecution.

Even Paraguay, long a military stronghold, has its first true civilian
government. In March, Paraguay's congress, backed by thousands of peasants
and students, forced the resignation of a president who was little more
than a stand-in for Gen. Lino Oviedo, who was imprisoned
after leading an unsuccessful coup in 1996. Paraguay now has its first
coalition government, ending 52 years of one-party rule and military

Panama and Haiti have abolished their armed forces outright, following the
example set by Costa Rica in 1949. In both cases, U.S. intervention paved
the way by overcoming each country's military establishments.

In Brazil, the position of defense minister has been turned over to a
civilian. In Honduras, the legislature voted unanimously to transfer
command of the formerly autonomous armed forces to the president and a
newly appointed civilian defense minister.

In countries where military authority and influence remain strong, there
tend to be large indigenous populations. With the end of the Cold War,
ethnicity has replaced ideology as a prime source of conflict. In Latin
America, with its common Iberian and Catholic heritage, the major ethnic
split is between indigenous peasant communities and the Iberianized ladino
communities that have long controlled national governments. Political
exclusion and economic marginalization have bred extreme inequalities,
exacerbating ethnic tensions.

In Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala, where indigenous peoples are in the
majority, ruling elites fear that democracy could lead their countries
down the path taken by South Africa. In Mexico and Colombia, where most of
the native populations have been assimilated in a mestizo culture, a chasm
separates the city from the countryside. It's as if there are two nations
in one country: one white, prosperous, educated and urban; the other
brown, poor, illiterate and rural. Nowhere is this more evident than in
Colombia, where rebels practically rule the countryside but have scant
support in the cities. Another source of instability in Mexico and
Colombia is that the two countries have become home bases for the
hemisphere's most powerful drug cartels.

In all these countries, fear of the indigenous underclass demanding
greater political and economic participation has pushed elites into the
arms of the military. It's a gamble that will probably buy security in the
short term, but at a high price. In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori has
stamped out guerrilla revolts at the cost of democracy itself. Relying on
the army, he dismissed congress and the supreme court and silenced a free
press. He is now barring a former president from challenging him in his
effort to secure a third term.

Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, is more of a risk taker. He
understands that urban-rural friction and large military budgets impede
modernization and participation in the global economy. That's one reason
he invited the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange to his country in
June to meet with a commander of the largest rebel group, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In effect, he was saying to
Colombia's urban elites that if the NYSE can talk to the rebels, why can't
they? Yet, for peace to come to Colombia, the rebels will have to become
less intransigent. The primary purpose of Washington's huge increase in
military aid to Bogota is to buttress the government's bargaining position
vis-a-vis the rebels. The drug war provides a convenient cover for this
aid, primarily because the rebels rely on "drug taxes" to buy weapons.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo is taking a middle path. He knows that
instability in southern Mexico spooks investors. But because the southern
states are among the last bastions of the Institutional Revolutionary
Party, he is reluctant to do anything that would weaken the party's hold
there, further jeopardizing its chances in next year's presidential
election. So the military budget continues to grow, as do reports of
human-rights abuses from the heavily militarized states of Chiapas, Oaxaca
and Guerrero.

A second reason for Mexico's increased reliance on the military is its war
on drugs. Unable to reform corrupt federal police, Zedillo has turned to
the army to do the job, with the unfortunate side effect of exposing the
army to greater corruption.

Still, the longer-term outlook is more promising. Democracy is taking hold
at all levels --municipal, state and federal-- of Mexican government as
elections are cleaned up. One consequence is that institutions once
sheltered from public scrutiny, such as the armed forces, are now held
more accountable. For example, the truth about the 1968 massacre of
students in Mexico City has finally emerged: The shots that triggered the
army's assault on the students came not from radical agitators, as the
government long maintained, but from plainclothes army snipers acting on
the command of the general who headed the presidential guard. Already,
politicians are citing the June revelations in calling for more civilian
control over the armed forces.

Civil society is well on its way to taming the military on Latin America's
southern flank. If reformers can prevail on the northern flank, the ghost
of the colonial fuero--the military exemption from civil law--will at last
fade into history, confirming the birth of a modern
Latin America.

        Andrew Reding, a Pacific News Service Associate
        Editor and Analyst of Latin American Politics for
        15 Years, Is Senior Fellow for Hemispheric Affairs
        at the World Policy Institute

        Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
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