As the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads across Latin America, civilian leaders are asking the region’s militaries to increase their domestic duties, from enforcing curfews and sealing international borders to providing public healthcare. This essay provides a comparative analysis which reveals that with the COVID-19 outbreak, Brazil and Mexico – which between them contain over half the region’s population – as well as El Salvador, are increasingly vulnerable to military interference in politics.

Brazil under Bolsonaro’s Militarized Populist Regime

Brazil’s right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has in the past openly called for militarization of the criminal justice system, declared his support for the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and appointed numerous military officers to ministerial roles within his administration.

However, the warm relationship between Bolsonaro and the military has soured with the onset of the pandemic. Recently, Bolsonaro was prevented from sacking his Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta by senior military generals. Reportedly, Bolsonaro managed to replace Mandetta with Nelson Teich only after Mandetta lost the backing of these generals. After a month, Nelson Teich also resigned because he could not prevent Bolsonaro from introducing the unproven anti-malarial drug chloroquine to the public. The interim minister, Eduardo Pazuello, a general supported by the military officers in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, has no prior experience in healthcare.

Although Bolsonaro’s support within the military and among his electoral base appears to remain unchanged, if a constitutional crisis breaks out because provincial governors oppose Bolsonaro’s attempts to lift quarantine measures early and reopen the economy, the military’s role as a powerbroker could potentially increase. Already, senior military officers in the administration have sought to influence the replacement selection for popular Minister of Justice and Public Security Sergio Moro, who was allegedly forced out due to his investigations of corruption allegations against Bolsonaro’s family.  

AMLO’s Reluctant Embrace of the Mexican Military

Mexico’s left-wing populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known as AMLO) has had a contentious relationship with the military. To combat drug trafficking gangs, he created the National Guard by extracting units from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Federal Police in 2019. AMLO viewed the National Guard as a kind of replacement for the military, though he acknowledged that it was unlikely to develop in reality.

In 2019, retired senior officers accused the president of political interference in a combined military and police operation against the son of the Sinaloa Cartel’s Chief El Chapo Guzman. The accusation resulted in a humiliating failure for the National Guard when they were forced to release El Chapo’s son. It further resulted in accusations by a senior military officer General Carlos Gaytán that the president was unduly interfering in the military’s operations. He also insinuated the president’s possible instigation of a self-coup. The relationship between the president and the military deteriorated to the extent that AMLO accused the conservative opposition of conspiring with the military to organize a coup against him.

The pandemic appears to have reworked this relationship between the president and the military in the military’s favor. The president asked the Army and the Navy to support public healthcare infrastructure, a process which includes managing 31 hospitals within the National Health Institute for Welfare (Instituto Nacional de Salud para el Bienestar or INSABI). The AMLO administration has also committed the military to converting military hospitals to serve patients affected by the virus, and to dedicate 20,400 personnel, including 3,694 healthcare workers. In turn, the military has publicly sworn loyalty to AMLO’s political and social agenda, thus, ironically revealing its inclusion as an institutional actor in the populist regime.

President Bukele’s Military in El Salvador

In Central America, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has relied upon the military to control gang violence but has also used it to intimidate legislators to approve loans for buying weapons and military equipment. Accusations that Bukele is using the military to arrogate power to himself are mounting.

Washington College Professor Christine Wade notes that aside from the loan, Bukele has increased the Defense Ministry’s budget allocation for 2020 from $145 million to $220 million, perhaps revealing the monetary incentives underlying the military’s continued loyalty to Bukele.

In the midst of the pandemic, Bukele announced that he would disobey Supreme Court orders to halt the arbitrary detention of individuals by the Armed Forces and the National Police for not following quarantine measures. Bukele also requested Defense Secretary René Monroy use the army to impose a cordon sanitaire around the port city of La Libertad and shut down any businesses in violation of the nation-wide quarantine measures. Bukele further announced a suspected outbreak of the virus within the legislative assembly, which led to the rapid dispersal of assembly members who have generally opposed these sweeping presidential initiatives. 

The U.S. Role (or lack thereof) in Preventing Political Militarization Across Latin America

Latin American militaries’ return to politics are based on a combination of domestic and international factors. In the realm of domestic politics, populist leaders gained power in response to chronic voter dissatisfaction with established political parties and state institutions. In order to fulfill their promises against recalcitrant legislatures, populist leaders have often expanded executive powers and relied on military reinforcement to implement policies. In terms of international influences, the U.S. is largely regarded as the main foreign power that has the potential to oppose these militaries’ return to politics. However, recent U.S. administrations have come to tacitly accept the military’s political role in and across Latin America.

President Bukele in El Salvador has received plaudits from President Trump for accepting Central American immigrants via a safe third-country agreement, despite his increasingly authoritarian rule. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has received support from Trump for their shared right-leaning ideologies and opposition to Venezuelan President Maduro. Despite being ideologically leftist, Mexican President AMLO has also earned the Trump administration’s support by accepting its conditions on trade and immigration issues.

This trend of renewed U.S. support for indirect military intervention in politics looks to be cross-partisan. On the one hand, the Republican Trump administration supported Guatemala’s populist president Jimmy Morales in order to acquire a third-country agreement to accept asylum seekers headed to the U.S. Morales’ political party was backed by sections of the country’s military, including the veteran officers’ organization, Asociación de Veteranos Militares de Guatemala (AVEMILGUA). Recently, the Trump administration also lauded Bolivia’s military intervention to remove anti-U.S. populist Evo Morales after allegations of electoral fraud were levelled against him. During the pandemic, Bolivia’s right-wing interim government led by President Jeanine Áñez has postponed elections indefinitely and is using the military to enforce quarantine measures with a maximum possible sentence of ten years for offenders. On the other hand, the Democratic Obama administration began the trend of implicitly accepting military intervention when the Hillary Clinton-led State Department accepted the Honduran military’s intervention to remove anti-U.S. populist president Manuel Zelaya.

Conclusion

A recent article claimed that Latin American militaries did not intend to return to 1970s-era politics, despite civilian leaders increasingly seeking military approval. The military, as an institution, is held in high regard by citizens across Latin America, particularly during crisis periods.

However, there are two critical assumptions underlying such explanations of military reticence. First, that a crisis like the pandemic is unlikely to change the political calculations of regional civilian and military leaders. Second, that the United States is willing and able to prevent a potential resurgence in military intervention. For the specific subset of countries with populist leaders, and by implication, weak political institutions and parties, however, the military’s return to complementing civilian administrations and even controlling parts of it during the pandemic, may lead to the military’s becoming a significant political player. This will be further augmented by the fact that the current U.S. administration seems unlikely to oppose these leaders’ political ambitions.


Vasabjit Banerjee is an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University. He is the author of “Undoing the Revolution: Comparing Elite Subversion of Peasant Rebellions” (Temple University Press, 2019).

Marisa Laudadio is a student double majoring in political science and communication at Mississippi State University ‘20. Her research focuses on rural development policies in Latin American societies.