The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed governments worldwide, and many have turned to their military for support. In many countries, the military has helped enforce stay-at-home orders and provided logistical assistance for struggling health care systems. However, particularly in Latin America – a region with a long history of brutal military dictatorships – increasing reliance on armed forces’ has raised concerns. By placing often unaccountable military forces alongside citizens for an indefinite period and at the whim of leaders with weak commitments to democracy, the pandemic may leave countries in the region with a civil-military dynamic reminiscent of that of previous military regimes. Once the pandemic is over, civilian governments must roll back the militarization that they are now embracing.
In times of public insecurity, civilian governments in Latin America may turn to the military, effectively expanding their power, authority, and independence in the region. While there are risks associated with the excessive use of military power, there are many reasons for utilizing armed forces to preserve national security. According to the Wilson Center, civilian leaders recognize the military’s independent power center. They may seek to co-opt military power brokers because civilian authorities cannot handle certain policing functions or that the government wants to respond to public demands for better security. As one of the most violent regions globally, Latin American governments often find that they lack a robust public service framework outside of the armed forces. The military’s ability to control borders, confront the growing influence of gangs and drug cartels, and strategies to plan and create public health policies, therefore benefit civilian leaders in combating crises.
Moreover, the corruption and lack of professionalism prevalent in civilian law enforcement engender public demand for better security. Militaries are often better resourced, better trained, and have greater discipline than civilian law enforcement, making their deployment apt in times of internal security threats. Thus, the use of military power in Latin America has been a widespread trend in contemporary society. The frequent use of militaries can be seen in the fight against gangs and extreme violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Concerning the COVID-19 emergency, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports that virtually every country in the region has turned to the armed forces to quickly mobilize and provide the critical resources that their national civilian agencies desperately lack.
Latin America’s militarized response to COVD-19 has shown compelling examples of the benefits of military control over a nation. For months, militaries have engaged in an impressive array of operations in response to the pandemic, providing valuable support to civilian authorities and agencies. First, and perhaps unsurprisingly, armed forces have ramped up their security role by enhancing controls at many of the border crossings and ports of entry that have been closed or restricted to foreigners. In many countries, militaries have also been working alongside police to ensure compliance with stay-at-home and curfew measures and—in some cases—monitor the mandatory wearing of masks. Furthermore, many armed forces have reallocated their resources and services to serve the public. For instance, military factories have shifted production to make much-needed medical supplies in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, according to World Politics Review (WPR).
Additionally, military hospitals and medical establishments have been available to aid overwhelmed civilian health care systems in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. Most remarkably, military personnel have also contributed to strategic planning to create public health policies. In Argentina, for example, WPR reports the Joint General Staff’s Bureau of Health coordinated with civilian agencies to develop care protocols for high-risk patients. Despite the negative civil and political implications associated with their increased role in internal security, there is no question that the military has provided substantial expertise, staffing, and resources that have helped combat the overwhelming health crisis throughout the region.
That said, it is essential to note the harms of the growing militarization in Latin America. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the armed forces in Venezuela have arbitrarily detained and prosecuted health workers, journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents since mid-March 2020 as part of a state of “emergency and alarm” declared in response to the pandemic. Likewise, COVID-19 restrictions have been used as a pretext for suppressing political protests and demonstrations in Bolivia, Honduras, Chile, and elsewhere. Soldiers deployed for crowd-control operations are reported to have committed numerous human rights violations, according to HRW. These instances barely scratch the surface, and examples of Latin American military abuses have a long history that must not be forgotten.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make militaries in the region even more critical to everyday life, the question remains: will governments be willing and able to roll back the militarization they are embracing once insecurity has passed? While the coronavirus pandemic may make some expanded use of the military necessity, for now, governments in the region must resist the temptation of depending too much on their armed forces. The fact is that, in many Latin American countries, the military remains among the state’s most capable and best-equipped institutions to handle the pandemic; however, the expanding influence of the armed forces greatly concerns all because it will be difficult to reverse.
According to WOLA, the danger in empowering military forces beyond their legitimate and limited roles in society means further empowering an institution with a monopoly of surveillance equipment, legal weapons, and personnel trained in lethal skills. After heavily entrusting them with so many traditionally civilian roles, it’s a giant leap of faith to expect the armed forces to remain apolitical and non-deliberative. As such, the COVID-19 era may risk the military expecting a more significant say in their country’s administrations, which will significantly undermine democracy and stability.
To ensure that armed forces return to the barracks when the pandemic is over, civilian governments must exercise more significant influence over the military and strengthen their power as a whole. Namely, countries that have not already done so should appoint civilians as defence ministers to ensure the armed forces’ cabinet supervision. To gain further control, countries should also consider cutting the size and budgets of the military. Moreover, civilian governments must build – or rebuild – well-funded, transparent, and competent civilian institutions. Specifically, civilian institutions, rather than the military, need to lead the way in assuming essential functions like health care and sanitation, maintaining infrastructure, resolving disputes, and keeping citizens safe from organized crime. Essentially, demilitarization will require governments to bring tasks back under capable civilian control, and, as such, they must invest time and resources into fulfilling their fundamental duties and responsibilities.
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