The military temptation in Latin America

The paradigmatic case is the 1955 coup against the government of General Juan D. Perón in Argentina. Although he began his career in a military coup and in a de facto government, Perón had been elected in 1946 as the candidate of a political coalition that included the unions and represented the working class. His social and labour policies generated passion amongst his followers, who benefited from pensions, access to health care, education, housing and vacations. That same passion, but in the opposite direction, distinguished his detractors, who accused him of introducing personality cult, limits on press freedom and restrictions on dissent, and of imposing an obligation on all public officials to belong to the Peronist party. These sectors applauded the military coup of 1955, many of them hoping for a democratic transition like the one announced by General Eduardo Lonardi when he said, “There will be no winners, no losers”. However, the government that followed was brutal in its repression of anything associated with Peronism, in addition to reversing many of its public policies.

Perón had to go into exile, his party was banned, Eva Perón’s body was stolen and the mention of the name “Perón” was made a crime (he was named in the official speech as the “fugitive tyrant”). However, as it is well known, efforts to deperonize Argentina (and especially the unions) failed, and the impossible game of a Peronist majority that could not participate electorally given the banning of its party only led to more military coups and political instability in the years that followed (exacerbated by Perón’s interventions from exile).

The coup against Evo Morales has a similar flavour to the experience of historical Peronism. The government that replaced him, led by Senator Áñez, has installed a cabinet dominated by conservatives from Eastern Bolivia. They reject the indigenism that characterised the previous government, which has been replaced by an extreme Christian religiosity – the coup was characterized as a “return of the Bible to the presidential palace”. Initially, the response to the protest of the followers of the Movimiento al Socialimso (Movement to Socialism, MAS) was a brutal repression that produced 30 deaths, accompanied by a dramatic turn in symbolic policies. After an agreement with the MAS, which still controls Parliament, to call for new elections without the participation of Morales, the new government has called for the capture of the ex-president, a refugee in Argentina, on charges of sedition and terrorism, and has persecuted many of his followers. The Mexican government has even protested the “siege” of its embassy in Bolivia by security forces seeking the capture of politicians who have already been granted asylum. Although the participation of the MAS in the elections next May opens the possibility of escaping the worst legacies of the anti-populist coups, it does not seem to reduce the level of polarization, the long-term consequences of which are worrying. Therefore, there is uncertainty about Bolivia’s future, but even if a return to democracy is successful, the military card has returned to the deck and can be played in the future. This changes the choices of political actors, which, combined with increasing polarisation, creates the threat of a return to praetorianism rather than stable democracy. The recent experience of Honduras is an important point of comparison.

The military coup that ended Manuel Zelaya’s presidency in 2009 is the most recent case that is similar to the Bolivian one, even with the differences between Zelaya’s and Morales’ governments. Despite coming from a traditional party, Zelaya turned to the left, becoming closer to the government of Hugo Chávez and joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). His growing populism and his redistributive policies frightened the Honduran elite. When Zelaya tried to hold a referendum to propose a constitutional reform that would facilitate presidential re-election (which the Constitution does not allow to be modified by the reform procedures), against the Congress and the Supreme Court, the elite’s reaction was to turn to the military, which ended his mandate and exiled him. Although the governments of the region, and even the United States, denounced the coup d’état, the elite’s opposition to Zelaya was firm and did not succumb to international pressure. Despite the arguments put forward, this coup did not result in a stable democracy. Both Zelaya’s supporters and the left were repressed. The 2010 election, won by Liberal candidate Porfirio Lobo, is considered democractic, but the regime showed increasing democratic erosion. Lobo’s successor, Juan Orlando Hernández, similarly to Morales, ignored the constitutional ban on re-election and appealed to a dubious court ruling by an allied Supreme Court to run again for president in 2017.

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