The Military and Modern Latin America

Zachary Morgan

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
The Military and Modern Latin America

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The history of modern Latin America can be understood through the lens of militarization. In fact, the field of military history touches nearly all aspects throughout the development of modern Latin American society. Much of the literature examined here was produced since the rise of the authoritarian dictatorships, and a disproportionate quantity of scholarship focuses on this period and its impact on the modern state. However, the history of the Latin American military was linked to the rise of the modern state during the colonial period. Since the Creole-led Wars of Independence—wars won in no small part due to the participation of free and freed African-descended and indigenous soldiers—the military has played a central role in defining and defending the modern Latin American nation-state. The early 19th century is defined by the rise of caudillos, regional military overlords heading personal militias, often with backgrounds in the Wars of Independence. The most powerful of these men rose to positions of national leadership, often as dictators who struggled to hold the new nations of Latin America together under their patriarchal rule. From the late 19th century through the economic crisis of 1929, the growing export economies of Latin America demanded stability and infrastructure. There was a call for “Order and Progress” in both Brazil (where the preceding call for modern positivism became the motto of its flag) and Spanish America, and the required stability was often supported by the establishment and expansion of professional militaries, both armies and navies. Nations were forged through the small number of cross-border wars in the region—the War of the Triple Alliance/Paraguayan War (1864–1870), the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), and the Chaco War (1932–1935)—and through internal military movements such as Argentina’s Conquest of the Desert (1879–1880) or the War of the Contestado (1912–1916) in Brazil. In the years preceding World War II, these professional militaries showed a growing willingness to intervene in national politics, toppling the federal governments in Brazil (1930, 1945), Argentina (1930, 1943), Cuba (1933), and Peru (1914, 1930), among many others. While noteworthy, the military juntas that take power in most cases remain committed to the timely return of power to constitutional civilian authorities. This would change during the Cold War, which saw the rise of the authoritarian state throughout Latin America. In their multipronged wars against the specter of Communism, fiscal irresponsibility, and social reform implemented by nationalist and populist leaders (and in some cases—such as that of Argentina—an actual armed left), the military took control of the federal governments in the 1960s and 1970s with no intention of returning power to civilian leadership until those crises had passed. Overall, the wars against the left were much easier to win than putting so-called economic houses in order. In this period the authoritarian states of Latin America turned their weapons, their methods of investigation, and their tools for the extraction of information against their citizenship. The so-called Dirty Wars were primarily waged against a nation’s own citizens. Understanding these institutions offers insight into ideas of modernity, nation, race, and citizenship in modern Latin America.

Article.  14437 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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