In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990

  • Introduction
  • Pioneer Overview Studies
  • Constitutional and Statutory Missions of the Armed Forces
  • Military Justice
  • Military Coups, 1960s–1980s

Political Science Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990
Brian E. Loveman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0079


Before the wave of military coups and military governments from the early 1960s until 1990, the social science and history literature on civil-military relations in Latin America was virtually devoid of serious empirical research. In response to the surge in military governments in the region, this literature burgeoned. This article gives priority to landmark theoretical treatments, comparative research, and selected country studies with extensive bibliographical materials. While this article may have inevitably omitted the favorite books and articles of some researchers, it includes work illustrating diverse theoretical, empirical, and normative approaches to civil-military relations in Latin America. It does not include the much more extensive literature on comparative civil-military relations. In a broad sense, “civil-military relations” refers to the contact points, formal and informal, of the armed forces with civilians and civilian policymakers as well as civilian perceptions of military institutions and military perceptions of civilian and government institutions. Such contact points may include, among many others, military participation in various government agencies and policymaking councils, legislative oversight of military budgets, approval of promotions of high-ranking officers, appointments to military academies, definition of the curriculum in military schools and academies, collaboration on formation of defense and national security policy, and connections of military officers to political parties, voluntary associations, religious institutions, and other arenas in which civilian and military contacts occur. Media access to, and coverage of, the armed forces may also be an important aspect of civil-military relations. After first identifying the “pioneers” in the study of civil-military relations in Latin America, the sections of this article then focus on studies of the constitutional missions of the Latin American armed forces and their statutory authority, from internal policing to developing numerous economic enterprises, public works, and providing disaster relief. A subsequent section considers the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians both in normal times and under regimes of exception and emergency authority (state of siege, state of assembly, state of internal commotion, and other temporary suspension of constitutional rights and liberties included in almost all Latin American constitutions). Following the sections on formal and institutional treatments of civil-military relations, the article turns to the vast literature on the causes of military coups in Latin America, comparative and case studies of civil-military relations from 1959 to 1990, the transitions back to civilian government (1978–early 1990s), discussions of “civilian control” or “civilian supremacy” over military institutions, the literature on post–1990 civil-military relations in the region, and, finally, a section on the most recent research (2009–2020) on Latin American civil-military relations.

Pioneer Overview Studies

Before the 1960s, social science and history literature in English on civil-military relations in Latin America was virtually nonexistent. Alba 1959 anticipates the rise of military populist nationalism that occurred in the following decade. The Cuban Revolution (1959), and what Nunn 1992 [cited under The “Time of the Generals,” 1959–1990] called the “time of the generals” (1961–1990), generated research funding and extensive publication on topics related to the armed forces in Latin America. Written by a pioneer in the field, Lieuwen 1961 notes that “no one had previously attempted to study the social and political role of Latin America’s armed forces” (p. viii). Lieuwen suggests that prior to World War I, two Ecuadorians touched on the subject of militarism, and that the topic of military coups and dictatorships in the region had been discussed in a number of pre–World War II studies—but not the general topic of civil-military relations per se. Studies did exist, however, on the role of the armed forces in particular countries. Johnson 1964 focuses more particularly on the Latin American officer corps, including its training, professionalization, and role in public policy, both when in direct control of government as well as when it was not. Johnson 1964 refers to Lieuwen 1961 as the first in English to treat the Latin American armed forces in general terms. McAlister 1961 and McAlister 1966 (cited under Review Essays) provide the first surveys of the professional academic literature on civil-military relations. Social and political “causes” of military intervention in politics were early themes, exemplified in Germani and Silvert 1961 and Nun 1965 (cited under Military Coups, 1960s–1980s). Non-external defense roles, including civic action and policing by the military, are considered in Glick 1964. Horowitz 1967 is a benchmark for early sociological theory focused on the armed forces. A four-case comparative study by historians in McAlister, et al. 1970, carried out from 1963 to 1966, assesses the political role of the armed forces in Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. The authors of this study prefaced their work by saying that “there are almost no empirical studies in depth of particular national situations which might provide the bases for comparison and sophisticated generalization [regarding the role of the military in Latin America]” (p. 2). Grigulevich 1982 is important as a seminal treatment of civil-military relations in Latin America by Soviet academics.

  • Alba, Víctor. El militarismo ensayo sobre un fenómeno políticosocial Iberoamericano. Mexico City: UNAM, 1959.

    Analysis of the attitudes and psychology of Latin American officers; precursor of the literature on the “modernizing” role of the armed forces. Alba’s subsequent study (El ascenso del militarismo tecnocrático [Mexico City: B. Costa-Amic, 1963]) anticipated the rise of military populists and nationalists (Nasserists) in the region.

  • Germani, Gino, and Kalman Silvert. “Politics, Social Structure and Military Intervention in Latin America.” European Journal of Sociology 2.1 (1961): 62–81.

    DOI: 10.1017/S000397560000028X

    Among the first studies to call for comparative study of Latin American coups and similar events in Asia and Africa. Focuses especially on underlying social conditions and lack of legitimate political institutions rather than only the immediate precipitating conditions for coups. A benchmark in the literature on civil-military relations.

  • Glick, Edward. “The Nonmilitary Use of the Latin American Military: A More Realistic Approach to Arms Control and Economic Development.” Background 8.3 (1964): 161–173.

    DOI: 10.2307/3013619

    Focuses especially on the developing civic action role of the Latin American armed forces in the 1960s and the connection between armed forces and economic development. A more general, comparative treatment of the topic by the author is Peaceful Conflict: The Nonmilitary Use of the Military (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1967).

  • Grigulevich, J., ed. El Ejército y la Sociedad. Vol. 13, America Latina: Estudios de Científicos Soviéticos. Moscow: Academia de Ciencias de la URSS, 1982.

    Nine studies on the participation of the armed forces in socioeconomic and political processes in Latin America, viewed within a “Marxist-Leninist conception of history.” Includes a survey of work by pioneer Soviet social scientists (from the early 1960s) on Latin American armed forces. Case studies on Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.

  • Horowitz, Irving Louis. “The Military Elites.” In Elites in Latin America. Edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Aldo Solari, 146–189. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    Synthesis of a pathbreaking sociologist’s early theorizing on civil-military relations in Latin America. Emphasizes the armed forces’ internal missions, role as political arbiters, relative autonomy, and potential role in economic modernization, as well as the connection between military elites and the United States. Extensive bibliographical notes.

  • Johnson, John J. The Military and Society in Latin America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964.

    Historical treatment of the role of the military in Latin America since independence by one of the leading scholars on this topic in the mid-1960s. Special attention given to the soldier as citizen and bureaucrat, military views on national issues, and public perception of the armed forces. Two chapters on Brazil.

  • Lieuwen, Edwin. Arms and Politics in Latin America. Rev. ed. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1961.

    The mentor to a generation of scholars dedicated to civil-military relations discusses the origins and evolution of Latin American militarism and caudillismo from 1914 to 1959. Provides brief descriptions for twelve countries, and considers changing military roles and the growth of professionalism. (See also an updated synthesis: The Latin American Military: A Study for the Sub-committee on American Republic Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Washington, DC, 1967).

  • McAlister, Lyle N. “Civil-Military Relations in Latin America.” Journal of Inter-American Studies 3.3 (July 1961): 341–350.

    DOI: 10.2307/164841

    Seminal article in the literature on civil-military relations in Latin America. Puts civil-military relations in Latin America into global comparative perspective and suggests an agenda for future research.

  • McAlister, Lyle N., Anthony P. Maingot, and Robert A. Potash. The Military in Latin American Sociopolitical Evolution: Four Case Studies. Washington, DC: Center for Research in Social Systems, 1970.

    A pioneering comparative work, with case studies on the armed forces and civil-military relations in Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Extensive notes provide a key source on the state of the literature on civil-military relations in the mid-1960s. Tables on numerous topics, including “successful military coups” 1940–1967, and duration of military governments.

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