Opinion: The Coup Temptation in Latin America

November 26, 2019


Overlooking the tragic lessons of the region’s dictatorial past, politicians are turning again to the armed forces to resolve crises.

By Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo (The authors are political scientists who specialize in Latin America).

At first glance, the fall of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, this month may appear to be a victory for democracy. After all, his populist government had grown increasingly undemocratic. Having already served three terms, Mr. Morales called a referendum in 2016 seeking to eliminate the Constitution’s term limits. When Bolivians voted the proposal down, the Constitutional Court, packed with Morales loyalists, allowed him to run anyway — on the absurd ground that term limits violated his “human right” to run for office.

In October, Mr. Morales “won” a fourth term in an election that an Organization of American States report says was marred by vote tampering. Widespread protest and a police mutiny erupted, opposition leaders called on the armed forces to dislodge Mr. Morales and army leaders “suggested” that he resign. Mr. Morales fled to Mexico, and an opposition senator, Jeanine Áñez, assumed the presidency. In effect, Mr. Morales fell prey to a coup.

Many Bolivians sought Mr. Morales’s departure. But he quit only after the police rebelled and the army chief called for his resignation — a call made after he had conceded to new elections under new electoral authorities, which offered a plausible way out of the crisis without military intervention.

The coup highlights an alarming development in Latin America: Ignoring the tragic lessons of the region’s praetorian past, many politicians are turning to the armed forces to resolve crises and even remove governments.

In Ecuador in 2000Venezuela in 2002Honduras in 2009, and now in Bolivia, opposition groups applauded when the army stepped in to remove elected governments they viewed as inept, corrupt or a threat to democratic institutions. Military intervention, they declared, was a means of defending democracy.

Such views are misguided. Military coups rarely lead to democratic transitions; when they do, it’s mostly in cases when the target is an established dictator, as in Venezuela in 1958, the Philippines in 1986 and Paraguay in 1989. Coups against elected governments — even populist ones with authoritarian tendencies — almost always push countries in a less democratic direction.

For a coup to bring democracy, interim governments must exercise extraordinary restraint. Unelected and without a popular mandate, they must limit themselves to forging a consensus around democratic rules of the game and overseeing clean elections.

Yet anti-populist coups rarely produce such restraint. Having come to power in a polarized environment, with many supporters driven by intense anger and animosity toward the former government, interim leaders are often tempted to engage in partisan revanchism: They indulge in policy reversals, purge the bureaucracy of the former government’s supporters, prosecute former officials and their allies.

Such measures almost invariably prompt a new round of polarization and conflict. Supporters of the previous government tend to close ranks, radicalize and mobilize against the new government, which, in turn, brings repression. This spiral of mobilization and violence tends to strengthen the hand of government hard-liners who call for the jailing, exile and even banning of the populists in a retreat into authoritarianism.

This is what happened in Argentina after the overthrow of Juan Perón in 1955. Peron’s support for unions and generous social welfare policies won him the support of the Argentine working class. Yet he governed in a polarizing and autocratic manner, generating fierce opposition from the middle class, the wealthy and sectors of the military.

After Perón’s ouster, many believed Argentina would return to democracy. These hopes were soon dashed, however, as the new military government attempted to eradicate Peronism from Argentine society. Perón was exiled, his supporters were persecuted, and his party, the country’s largest, was banned. Even uttering his name became a criminal offense. The effort to eradicate Peronism brought nearly three decades of instability, including three more coups and two periods of military dictatorship.

More recently, an anti-populist coup in Thailand proved similarly destructive of democratic institutions. The military’s removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 polarized Thai society. And when the army responded to heightened conflict by attempting to destroy Mr. Thaksin’s political movement, it destroyed Thai democracy.


Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, at the presidential palace in La Paz on Wednesday. She took over after Evo Morales fled the country in the face of military intervention.Credit...Jorge Bernal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There are signs that Bolivia may be embarking on a similar path. Like Argentina in 1955, Bolivia’s interim administration has been revanchist. The new cabinet is dominated by religious conservatives from the eastern lowlands who are bitterly opposed to Mr. Morales’s secular and indigenous-based Movement Toward Socialism party. Instead of prioritizing elections and negotiating democratic rules of the game with Mr. Morales’s party, which remains Bolivia’s largest, the new officials declared their intention to “hunt down” and prosecute party leaders and their allies.

Predictably, this generated protest, which was met with repression. Using language reminiscent of the 1970s, South America’s most repressive decade, supporters of the new government have described the Movement Toward Socialism as a “cancer,” while government officials threatened to prosecute opponents for sedition and claimed to possess lists of subversive journalists. Most ominously, President Áñez granted the security forces immunity from criminal prosecution for acts undertaken while maintaining public order — in effect, carte blanche for the military to engage in lethal repression.

The next day, military and police forces fired on protesters in Cochabamba, killing nine and wounding more than 100 others. Although internationally mediated negotiations and new elections offer a possible way out of the crisis, the spiral of mobilization and violence — at least 32 deaths have been reported — has generated fear that Bolivia is moving toward a low-intensity civil war.There is another, more basic, reason to resist the temptation to call on the military to resolve crises: Military intervention undermines the development of democratic institutions.

Most of Latin America was plagued by military interference for the first 150 years of independence. Military officers directly seized power, removed or installed governments, or threatened to do so to exert power behind the scenes.

Armies established themselves as the ultimate arbiters during crises, with deleterious consequences for democracy. Rather than relying on elections and the rule of the law to resolve conflicts, politicians often turned to the military. Research shows that each intervention reinforces the norm that the army can (and maybe should) intervene in politics, which makes future interventions more likely. The result, in many countries, was decades of instability and military rule. Bolivia, for example, experienced 13 coups, more than one every five years, between 1920 and 1980.

Establishing a civilian rule is a long and difficult process. Each time military officials step in to resolve a crisis, no matter how benign or even democratic their motives may appear to be, the process of institutionalizing civilian control is undermined. Only recently has Latin America began to break out of this vicious cycle. After 1980, the number of coups declined significantly. At least partly as a result, the last three decades have been the most democratic in Latin American history. The renewed willingness to accept and even seek out military intervention is deeply troubling.

The political scientist Alfred Stepan, an expert on Latin American militaries, wrote during the 1980s that the key to preserving the region’s new democracies lay in ensuring that no civilian group knocked on the barracks door. In other words, politicians from across the political spectrum must agree that under no circumstance will they seek out or support a coup. Without civilian allies, militaries rarely intervene. These lessons are especially important today as Latin America enters a period of heightened polarization and unrest.

The lessons extend to the international community. If foreign governments choose sides in the region’s conflicts, tolerating coups that favor their ideological allies rather than consistently defending democracy, it will encourage a return to the violence and instability that Latin Americans struggled so hard to end.

Steven Levitsky, a professor of Latin American studies and of government at Harvard, is a co-author, with Daniel Ziblatt, of “How Democracies Die.” María Victoria Murillo is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia.

Source: The New York Times