Comparative Politics of Latin America Essay

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Military Rule: Shaping Politics and Economics in Latin American Democracies

In their theoretical overview Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan go to some lengths to point to the differences between mere liberalization and actual democratization. Clearly liberalization is a good first step towards democracy albeit liberalization is just the beginning of the transition towards a full democratic state. Liberalization can mean a tweaking of policies by the ruling government; it could mean releasing political prisoners just to show good faith, or it could mean being more tolerant of protests against the government. Full democratic governance though must go well past the "electoralist fallacy" (Linz, et al., 1996, p. 4), where perhaps some democratic policies are instituted -- for example, voting is permitted -- but the power remains firmly entrenched in the hands of one person, or a few persons, and justice is a facade.

This paper will examine two democracies in Latin America that previously were under military rule, and now are fully democratic; are the legacies of that military rule still having a profound impact on the society in question? Did the military rule leave an enduring imprint? If not, why did the impact of military rule fade away? These questions and others will be addressed.

General Pinochet and the 1980 Constitution in ChileDownload full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Essay on Comparative Politics of Latin America Assignment

J. Samuel Valenzuela writes that just because there is a retention of a seemingly democratic government following a transition of leadership from military to democratic, that doesn't mean there has been a "consolidation of a democratic regime" (Valenzuela, 1992, pp. 58-59). On page 60 Valenzuela points out what constitutes the "…procedural minimum" of a democracy: a) secret ballot elections; b) universal adult suffrage; c) regular elections; d) partisan competition; e) "associational recognition and access"; and f) "executive accountability." Valenzuela embarks on an examination of the attempt by Augusto Pinochet to hold on to near-dictatorial power even though the Chilean government enacted a new constitution in 1980.

Pinochet had seized power in 1973 during a coup d'etat -- ending the democratically elected administration of Salvador Allende -- and had ruled with an iron hand, reportedly killing thousands of people and torturing many other thousands. In 1980, bowing to some pressure, Pinochet signed off on a constitution -- one that gave Pinochet the "institutional and organizational basis for exercising military tutelarity over the democratic process" -- Valenzuela explains (pp. 63-64).

The constitution Pinochet put in place states that the Armed Forces will "guarantee the institutional order of the Republic" -- but does not stipulate how that guarantee might work, Valenzuela writes (p. 64). And in order to keep the military in the forefront of power, the 1980 constitution allowed Pinochet to place four military officers (the heads of the Army, Navy, National Police and Air Force) into the National Security Council (NSC) (which has 8 seats); two other members of the NSC were hand picked by Pinochet. The objective of the NSC is to be responsible for national security of course, but also to examine "any matter" that may "…gravely undermine the bases of the institutional system"; any member of the NSC may also demand information from "any government or state official," Valenzuela continues (p. 64).

When the constitution was approved (1980) it gave Pinochet the right to continue to serve as "Commander in Chief of the Army for 8 years following the "first democratically elected presidential term of office," Valenzuela points out on page 64. When Chile did indeed elect a new president democratically, that man, President Patricio Aylwin, who began serving his term in 1990, asked Pinochet to resign, but Pinochet refused, Valenzuela writes (p. 64). Meanwhile Pinochet, who obviously had no intention of backing away from whatever power he could retain, established the "Political-Strategic Advisory Committee" that had 50 members and was clearly a format for allowing Pinochet to "keep tables on every aspect of national policy" (Valenzuela, 1992, p. 64).

What Pinochet's slick move towards retention of brute power actually shows is a great example of the "reserved domains" of policy making and authority, Valenzuela explains on pages 65-66. Reserved domains are not ambiguous nor are they generalized kinds of tutelary power but rather they are "specific areas of governmental authority and substantive policy making from the purview of elected officials" -- and Pinochet was able to show his muscle and use that power until 1998, when he stepped down from being in charge of the Army (8 years after his dictatorial leadership had officially come to an end) (Valenzuela, 1996, p. 65).

When Pinochet stepped down formally in 1990, he had made sure to leave his legacy and his power base in tact. To wit, the 1980 constitution reserves 9 important seats to be filled by people who are appointed by the president, supreme court, and other state offices -- but not to be filled by elected individuals -- that have been "…closely connected with the authoritarian regime," Valenzuela writes on page 67. So the "transition of power" in this case was actually not a true transfer because the departing president (in this case, Pinochet) left behind power brokers who side with his authoritarian, anti-democratic policies.

Did military rule by Pinochet leave an enduring imprint in Chile? Valenzuela's essay was published in 1992, so there was hardly time for him to present an objective assessment. However Wendy Hunter writes in a 1997 edition of Political Science Quarterly that "…Chilean politicians have diminished the armed forces' institutional powers and made policy decisions against military preferences" (Hunter, 1997, p. 455). The way in which Chilean politicians went about the business of democratizing their nation -- and minimizing the lingering power left by Pinochet -- was an "impressive achievement," Hunter writes, "in light of the extensive institutional safeguards the military preserved in the regime transition" (p. 455).

Granted, Hunter's essay was published 1995, and much has happened in Chile since then, but she points to the fact that the "center-left" governing coalition that succeeded Pinochet used a "deliberate and assertive" strategy to reduce the military influence -- and that coalition was careful not to push the military too far, fearing actions that could stir up old passions. The president that was elected after Pinochet (Aylwin, 1990-1994) did have to accept the fact that the constitution forbade him from dismissing military commanders -- and there were those 9 senate seats subject to appointment not election. And yet, Hunter (p. 458) notes that Aylwin used constitutional powers to reject some of Pinochet's suggestions for army promotions, and Aylwin firmly rejected the demand by the army to be part of a new anti-terrorism agency.

The president that followed Aylwin, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, further diminished "military prerogatives" which made for a fairer electoral system, Hunter explains (p. 458). Because he was elected with a strong majority (58% of the vote), and because his economic policies brought prosperity and stability, President Frei (Hunter, p. 458) "undoubtedly" was able to strengthen the democracy and weaken the power of the military. Frei also submitted to Congress a proposal to eliminate those 9 designated senate seats and re-design the national Security Council, but he was unable to do so; in 1996, the reforms were blocked by "right wing senators," Hunter explains.

[Note: though the readings do not go far enough into the future, it should be explained that in September, 2005, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos signed reforms into law that basically eliminated those 9 appointed senators; part of the reforms also gave the president the authority to remove commanders-in-chief in the armed forces. The reform package also included the provision that a president can only serve 4 years rather than 6, as it was in the 1980 constitution.]

The economy of Chile was struggling under the dictatorship of Pinochet, and the military was assured ample funding -- including 10% of the profits from copper mines -- but with the democratic government's influence, the armed forces have been "subjected…to budgetary constraints" and the economy grew during Frei's years in office (Hunter, 1997, p. 459). The growth of the economy allowed Chile to raise levels "…of social spending in order to undertake improvements…" in healthcare, housing, social security and education, Hunter explained (p. 459). The armed forces share of the national budget shrunk from 11.34% (in 1989) to 8.65% in 1995 (Hunter, p 459), which allowed social spending percentages to rise from 64.75 in 1989 to 67.52 in 1995.

The Rise & Decline of Military Influence in Argentina

Author Patricia Weiss Fagen points out in her essay ("Repression and State Security") that four Latin American countries were governed by military dictators in the late 1960s and early 1970s; they were Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. These four countries had no historical precedents for having a military regime conduct terrible human rights violations; meantime, the cultural, political, and social lives of citizens in those four countries were dramatically "transformed" by the military (Fagen, 1992, p. 39). The military rulers in Argentina (and the other three countries) treated "subversives" much like the Nazis treated Jews, Gypsies and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Comparative Politics of Latin America.  (2010, October 22).  Retrieved November 26, 2021, from

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"Comparative Politics of Latin America."  22 October 2010.  Web.  26 November 2021. <>.

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"Comparative Politics of Latin America."  October 22, 2010.  Accessed November 26, 2021.