A Summary

In a Nutshell

Despite the conversion to democracy in Latin America fundamental aspects of antipolitics remain. The aspects most antithetical to democracy are

a)      The wide constitutional provisions that allow for regimes of exception.

  • These provisions ranged from partial or complete suspension of civil liberties to suspension of the constitution, and even to military law.
  • These were not new innovations, they have been a constant part of Latin American constitutionalism.
  • Such measures have frequently legitimised tyranny.
  • Regimes of exception were invoked frequently in Peru and El Salvador, in response to guerrilla warfare.

b)      The continued and in some cases expanded role of the military as guardians of the constitution, and arbiters of peace in the face of challenges both external and internal.

  • In the 50s and 60s the military expanded its mission by widening the definition of national security. The military saw itself as the founder of their nations as well as the guardians.
  • The transition constitutions not only continued to recognise this role, but they often expanded it. In Guatemala the military is charged with preventing presidents seeking re-election.
  • In effect the measures make the military an autonomous branch of government – the political arbiter of the new democracies.

c)      Draconian national security laws founded on a very wide principal of national security that allows for rights to be suppressed.

  • Examples being censorship, political repression etc.
  • They outlaw certain types of political activity based on the preservation of national security. In effect however they are no more than a permanent limit on civil liberties and rights.

The above factors question the depth of democracy in Latin America, and even if the provisions are not used, their presence in the constitution etc. is indication that Latin American states will continue to be protected democracies.

Their existence is nothing new, indeed they have been present in Latin American politics since the colonial era. Thus one of the reasons for their continued existence is that they were inherited by the transition governments. However, notwithstanding the truth of this statement, it is still the case that in many cases the measures were expanded under the transition rulers. This is the case with the national security laws in Peru.

Although there may have been some will amongst politicians to purge the law of antidemocratic provisions, the nature of transition governments meant that such a project was not feasible. This is because the military were not willing to allow their power to be curtailed; this manifested itself in an inability for governments to convict military personnel guilty of human rights violations under authoritarian regimes, and also a continued special place for the military in public life, including policy formation.

As the military governments were not ousted by popular uprising, they were not entirely discredited as an institution. Therefore a delicate tension remains between civilian governments and the military. The civilian regime must be careful not to enact policy that would impel the military to take action. This was no easy task in Latin America, as neoliberalism was provoked angry protest in several cases – Venezuela and Brazil being the most important examples. Thus pragmatism and centrism were the fundamental tenets of policy debate, rather than wide ranging political debate. That being said, the feeling that there were no alternatives to neoliberalism severely limited the ability of the military to object, no matter how unpopular the reforms were. There was a constant concern that there would be a military response should civilian governments act “imprudently” in matters of concern to the military.

Thus the transition democracies were based on compromise. Whilst power was transferred to civilian governments by free elections, this could only occur if a number of conditions held:

  • Impunity from prosecution for human rights crimes for military personnel.
  • Acceptance of military imposed restrictions on who may stand for office (continued exclusion of the Left).
  • Observance of significant restraints on incoming governments.

In sum, the civilian governments had to accept the reality of military guardianship meaning that the transfer of power had as a price tag surrender to the traditional impediments to full democracy.

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