Latin American Studies

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Debating Civil–Military Relations in Latin America


David R. Mares is Institute of the Americas Chair for Inter-American Affairs and Director of the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Rafael Martínezis Professor of Political Science, Universitat de Barcelona and 2003 recipient of the Spanish Defense Ministry National Prize for Peace, Security and Defense Research.

The study of civil–military relations in Latin America produced a rich debate and research agenda prior to 2000. But this agenda was largely abandoned during the past decade as the specter of military dictatorship has virtually disappeared, with the political role of the military in many countries dramatically diminished. Indeed, in no country that has initiated a process of holding the military accountable to civilian control has the military openly rebelled. Yet, the institutions and public attitudes that guarantee democratic civilian control of the military exist in a general context of political polarization, citizen insecurity and in many countries a sense of developing ungovernability. The military coup in Honduras (2009), the military response to the police rebellion in Ecuador (2010), and the speculation concerning the Venezuelan military’s behavior in the event that Hugo Chavez is incapacitated or dies (2013), demonstrates the relevance and importance of the civil–military relationship today.

In this volume leading scholars from Latin America, the U.S. and Spain debate the ability of contemporary Latin American civil–military relationships to weather these challenges. The authors examine new types of regimes (the rise of participatory democracy), new political orientations (the renaissance of the Left in Latin America), and new missions for the military. Debate centers on the indicators to evaluate the level of consolidation of civilian control, the manner in which these indicators are measured, and the empirical ambiguities that arise. These challenges must be confronted in order to effectively address the question of how much progress has been made in the region in subordinating the military to civilian control, which countries are lagging behind, and why.

University of California, San Diego

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-591-5
Hardback Price: £50.00 / $69.95
Release Date: December 2013
Page Extent / Format: 224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Prologue: Narcís Serra
Preface by Series Editor Carlos Waisman

Rafael Martínez and David R. Mares

Part I Civil–Military Relations in the Transition to Democracy
1 Objectives for Democratic Consolidation in the Armed Forces
Rafael Martínez

Part I Evaluating How Far We Have Come
2 Latin American Civil–Military Relations: What Progress
Has Been Made?
David Pion-Berlin

3 Citizen Security, Democracy and the Civil–Military
David R. Mares

4 Latin America and the Military Question Reexamined
Rut Diamint

Part II New Missions: Threats or Contributors to
Consolidation of Democratic Civilian Control?

5 The Profile of the Colombian Armed Forces: A Result of the
Struggle against Guerrillas, Drug-Trafficking and Terrorism
Alejo Vargas Velásquez

6 The Making of Socialist Soldiers: Radical Populism and Civil–
Military Relations in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia
Deborah L. Norden

7 Latin America’s Increased Role in UN Peace Operations:
Current Trends and a Note of Caution
Arturo C. Sotomayor

Appraisal and Challenges
David R. Mares

The Editors and Contributors

Reviewed in Latin American Research Review
Bruneau, T. C. (2021). Putting the Military Back into Civil–Military Relations. Latin American Research Review, 56(1), 251–259. DOI:


This volume brings together a series of papers on the nature and limits of civilian control of the military in contemporary Latin America.
... This relationship is a central component of the two processes that Latin American political institutions have confronted in the past three decades: the transitions to democracy, and the construction of the post-transitional regimes. Between World War II and the collapse of Communism, almost all countries in the region had long periods of authoritarian rule, mostly military dictatorships, or of civilian government placed under military tutelage or subject to the military’s veto power. The dismantling of authoritarianism entails not only the establishment or re-establishment of government by elected officials, freedom for opposition parties and organizations, and the process of institutionalization of civil and political rights, but also the re-definition of the military as an organization within the state apparatus, subject like all the others to effective civilian control and oriented toward missions consistent with the new political institutions. Latin American countries vary substantially in the extent to which this transformation of the role of the military has been completed.
... Most post-authoritarian regimes in the region are now democracies, in terms of the minimal Dahlian criteria (government elected in competitive elections, freedom for the opposition, basic political rights),* but they vary enormously in relation to the quality of this democracy. Two models of democratic rule have emerged in the past two decades: republican democracy, based on the division of powers and strong adherence to constitutional and legal norms, and plebiscitarian democracy, whose central characteristic is the strong concentration of power in the Executive, occupied by a charismatic leader who endeavors to extend indefinitely his term in office. Contemporary Latin American countries vary in terms of the extent to which their institutions approach these models, and in terms of the stability of their institutional trajectories.
... The location of the military in the state apparatus varies in these two types of democracy. In the first, the ideal position of the military is as a professional agency under “objective”, i.e. institutional, civilian control. The second calls for a politicized military, loyal to the leader or his faction rather than to the institutions of the state in general.
... A return to military rule is unlikely. The internal and external factors that were conducive to this kind of regime in the second half of the twentieth century are no longer there: domestic elites anxious about real or imaginary domestic revolutionary threats associated with Communism in its several variants, and pressures from the U.S. and other Western powers which saw the Latin American military as the most effective counter-revolutionary force in the region. At most, there could be short-term military interventions in cases of secession, domestic upheaval, or serious intra-elite conflict. However, the institutionalization of the new military role is still an open question in most countries. In some, because democratic institutionalization, be it republican or plebiscitarian, is still weak; in others, because this particular issue appears as less pressing than others, or political actors perceive it as potentially perilous.
... Besides, plebiscitarian democracy is in itself unstable, because of two traits inherent to this model: the unpredictability of its rules and policies, which are based on charismatic legitimacy, and its inability to resolve the problem of leadership succession. On the other hand, in many of the countries oriented toward republican forms of democracy, the military have been depoliticized, but the mechanisms of effective civilian control are not yet in place. Since this is one of the many simultaneous issues confronting these new democracies, the new institutions governing the relationship between government and its military are taking shape, and in many cases their contours are still diffuse. The construction of these institutional mechanisms is a complex process, driven by government actors’ political incentives, the military’s organizational incentives, and the competing issues that make up the countries’ political and economic agendas.
... The papers in this volume examine the theoretical and comparative issues in this process of institutionalization, and discuss the short- and long-term consequences, for both the civilian leadership and the military, of regime type and, more specifically, of the different domestic and international missions assigned to the military. Taken together, these papers represent a major contribution to the literature on civil–military relations not only in Latin America, but also in new democracies and post-authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world.

* The classic reference in this regard is Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (Yale University Press, 1971).

Written in the technical language of political science, this anthology looks at the recent history of relationships between civilian and military authority in Latin America. Contributors focus on the years since WWII. Part one looks at relations in the transition to democracy. Part two is evaluations of how far these countries have come in dealing with the problem of military dictatorship. Part three looks at new missions for the military, and whether military authority is operating as a threat or a contribution to civilian authority in drug trafficking, socialist popular movements, and UN peacekeeping forces. It will be suitable as a textbook for majors and graduate students in political science or readers with a specialist interest in the subject issue and a background in political science scholarship.

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