Francisco Toro and James Bosworth, founders of two of the longest-running Latin America blogs (Caracas Chronicles and Bloggings by Boz, respectively), have a good column on the Washington Post website today, warning about how authoritarian populist leaders—right or left—screw up their countries’ delicate civil-military relations.
There seems to be something about men in uniform that populists just can’t resist. It’s impossible to miss that Mexican generals find themselves in the middle of this mess, just as U.S. generals face a similar fate: their troops deployed to the border and facing the possibility of Trump declaring a fake national emergency to divert funds and Defense Department personnel for a useless wall.… Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control.
Every so often, I look back at a commentary I wrote for the Center for International Policy about Venezuela in September 1999, just before my 29th birthday. Today, it only exists on the Internet Archive. I made the same argument that Toro and Bosworth are making. Months into Hugo Chávez’s first year in office, I was worried about how the new populist leader was distorting the military’s role in Venezuela’s democracy.
Much has been made of Chávez’s populist politics and fiery rhetoric, with many observers speculating that the former paratrooper is leading a slow-motion coup, doing away with forty-one years of flawed democracy and ushering in a military dictatorship by popular acclaim. Actually, Chávez’s strong-armed – yet so far legal – effort to write the country’s twenty-seventh constitution poses little threat to Venezuela’s democracy, which desperately needs reform anyway.
The real threat lies in the president’s vision for the Venezuelan military. In just seven months in power, Chávez has enormously increased the armed forces’ role in government and society.
… President Chávez’s changes in the military are popular, but among all of his reform efforts they are the most likely route to dictatorship. They are the aspect of Chávez’s program that needs to be watched most closely by Venezuelans, by the media and by the international community.
I look back on that piece not only because I still agree with every word. Now that Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship with military officers occupying many top positions, that article is also a source of anxiety for me. I wonder what would be different today if I’d stuck with this issue and made Venezuelan militarization a top priority for my work, instead of a back-burner trend on which I checked in every so often.
I didn’t throw myself into this issue because at that exact moment—September 1999—the Clinton and Pastrana administrations were drawing up “Plan Colombia,” the largest U.S. military aid program in the history of Latin America. Monitoring and trying to change that strategy would take up the majority of my time over the next 10 years. In September 1999, Colombia was also in the first months of a peace process with the FARC. And the funding climate for Venezuela civil-military relations work was bleak: it would have been hard to afford plane tickets to Caracas, much less devote hours per week to the issue.
But still. While I worked to limit the Bush administration’s damage in Colombia, right next door Venezuela’s regime was dismantling democracy and civil-military relations through a gradual but inexorable string of baby steps, many of them too small even to get attention in the United States. While I was consistently critical, I didn’t host events and delegations, write reports, or lobby Congress.
Now that we’ve got several authoritarians around the region pursuing similar models (including Donald Trump), I wonder what I could’ve done differently, what difference it would’ve made, and how to apply those lessons today.