Home / Robert Farley / Shifting Attitudes Towards the Military in Guatemala and Haiti?

Shifting Attitudes Towards the Military in Guatemala and Haiti?


Interesting pair of articles on Latin American military institutions.  First Guatemala:

They burned villages, killed children and, just a winding road away from here in 1982, the Guatemalan military also massacred hundreds of Mayan peasants, after torturing old men and raping young women. But now, all across these highlands once ravaged by a 36-year civil war, the region’s bloodiest anti-Communist conflict, Guatemalans are demanding the unthinkable — a strong military, back in their communities.

That is how desperate this country has become as gangs and Mexican drug cartels run fever-wild, capturing territory and corrupting institutions so that Guatemala will remain a safe haven for cocaine, guns, money laundering and new recruits…

Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday could represent a turning point. The three top contenders have all called for a stronger, crime-fighting military, borrowing heavily from the Mexican model of attacking the drug cartels head-on, even though that strategy has claimed more than 40,000 lives without yielding peace.

Then Haiti:

The military was disbanded over human rights abuses in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after years of political turmoil, making Haiti one of a handful of countries without an army.

But now President Michel Martelly is pledging to revive it, pressing forward with a plan to reconstitute the Haitian military as a kind of national guard or civil defense force to supplement the weak national police.

His $95 million proposal calls for an initial force of 3,500 personnel to patrol the border, help put down civil unrest and provide badly needed employment to legions of young people. It sets aside $15 million to compensate former soldiers who have long complained they are owed a pension.

I don’t know a ton about either case, but a couple thoughts. First, the stance of the United States matters for concerns about military intervention in politics. During the Cold War, the US explicitly valued friendly regimes over democratic regimes, and rightist military officers responded to either direct suasion or plentiful hints. Now, the US is considerably less friendly to direct military intervention in politics, even if (as in Honduras) the US response is relatively tepid. Broadly speaking, this means that the threat of a politicized military doesn’t loom as large as it did in the1980s.

Second, global norms of appropriate military behavior have shifted in the direction of deference to civilian control since the 1980s, in a development that’s not unrelated to the end of the Cold War. This has tended to make coups less common and less bloody, and also means that concerns about the having the military play a direct role in politics and law enforcement may not raise as many red flags as it once did. In the Haitian context, it probably does make sense to rebuild a military institution capable of reacting more capably than the police to disasters, and so forth.

All that said, it’s appropriate to be concerned about direct military intervention in a drug war, because of course the military may become inclined to employ the same method that drug cartels use. Moreover, it hardly seems impossible that the military will develop an interest in a piece of the action through the process of becoming familiar with the trade, attacking cartels, and so forth. I can appreciate the frustration that Guatemalans feel regarding the cartels, but asking for greater intervention from the military seems to be a recipe for trouble.

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