During most of the two centuries of independent republican statehood in Latin America, the military have been important, decisive, and often ruling political actors in all but a few countries of the region. While during the nineteenth century they were predominantly caudillos (military men with an armed retinue), from the early twentieth century onward the military institution became a key power broker in almost every nation of the region. It is no exaggeration to state that in Latin America the military profession is frequently a prelude to a political career. Only during the past two decades have so-called democratic transitions relegated the military to a less prominent role in domestic politics. In some countries – such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay – where paradigmatic institutional dictatorships ruled firm during the 1960s-1980s, the military apparently passed through an effective process of depoliticization in what looks like a definite ‘going back to the barracks’. This raises the question of militarism and its transformation in Latin America. Contrary to other historical and regional trajectories to state formation and nation building, especially in Europe and postcolonial Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (Tilly, 1990), conventional warfare has had only limited relevance for nation building in Latin America. In fact, very few inter-state wars were fought out in Latin America. At best one real war, the Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay, was waged in the 1930s. Maybe one should add the rather reduced campaigns of the El Salvador-Honduras conflict in the 1960s and the Falklands conflict in the early 1980s, where a British expeditionary force defeated an illtrained and ill-deployed Argentine army detachment. Most wars were prolonged but loose sequences of relatively insignificant military manoeuvres, whatever their number of casualties may have been. All other external hostilities and inter-state conflicts were in fact localized micro-wars, generally extended frontier incidents. Latin American countries do not have external territorial enemies in the sense of aggressive competitive states. Nobody thinks seriously of modern, large-scale warfare scenarios between, for instance, Brazil and Suriname, Argentine and Uruguay, Mexico and Guatemala. This means that militarism in a conventional sense – meaning the predominance of the military institution and its key ideological constructs in shaping national life because of real or perceived external security threats (Kaldor, 2001)
– is much less visible throughout modern Latin American history. Rather, we argue in this chapter that the meaning of Latin American militarism has been circumscribed by internal social and political conflict in a much more specific way. Latin America has been the continent of political soldiers and military politicians. During most decades of the previous century the true significance of the Latin American armed forces was in their political nature. As a stabilizing force, as disinterested arbiter, as a protecting power of the constitution, as guardian of national development, the military constantly intervened in political matters. This is our working definition of ‘political armies’ (Koonings and Kruijt, 2002). It is widely held that, after the 1980s, democratic transitions have diminished the influence of political armies. In part this has meant a move towards conventional, apolitical professionalism as the Latin American military sought new roles in a redefined national, regional, and global security environment. However, a much more prominent trend has been the militarization of law enforcement in a context of what can be called the ‘new violence’ in Latin America (Briceño-León and Zubillaga, 2002; Koonings and Kruijt, 2004). In part this amounts to a redefinition of the role of the military in domestic affairs and hence to a transformation of militarism in the region.