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

  • Introduction
  • General Treatments and Comparative Studies
  • Edited Collections
  • National Security Doctrine

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Latin American Studies Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990
Brian E. Loveman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0015


Latin America’s armed forces have played a central role in the region’s political history. This selective annotated bibliography focuses on key sources, with varying theoretical, empirical, and normative treatments of the military governments in the region, from the Cuban Revolution (1959) until the end of the Cold War (1989–1990). The article is limited to those cases in which military governments or “civil-military” governments were in power. This excludes personalist dictatorships, party dictatorships, and civilian governments in which the armed forces exercised considerable influence but did not rule directly. No pretense is made of comprehensiveness or of treating the “causes” of military coups (a vast literature) and of civil-military relations under civilian governments. Likewise, the closely related topics of guerrilla movements during this period, human rights violations under the military governments, US policy and support for many of the military governments, and the transitions back to civilian government (including “transitional justice”) are not covered in depth, but some of the selections do treat these topics and direct the reader to a more extensive literature on these subjects. Long-term military governments, with changing leadership in most cases, controlled eleven Latin American nations for significant periods from 1964 to 1990: Ecuador, 1963–1966 and 1972–1978; Guatemala, 1963–1985 (with an interlude from 1966–1969); Brazil, 1964–1985; Bolivia, 1964–1970 and 1971–1982; Argentina, 1966–1973 and 1976–1983; Peru, 1968–1980; Panama, 1968–1989; Honduras, 1963–1966 and 1972–1982; Chile, 1973–1990; and Uruguay, 1973–1984. In El Salvador the military dominated the government from 1948 until 1984, but the last “episode” was from 1979 to 1984. Military governments, though inevitably authoritarian, implemented varying economic, social, and foreign policies. They had staunch supporters and intense opponents, and they were usually subject to internal factionalism and ideological as well as policy disagreements. The sources discussed in this article reflect that diversity.

General Treatments and Comparative Studies

The literature on military governments in Latin America from 1959 to 1990 sought to differentiate these regimes from the military governments that periodically and recurrently took power in the region before the Cuban Revolution. Varying theoretical and historical discussions of these differences focus on the structural and institutional conditions that gave rise to “bureaucratic-authoritarian” regimes, a term first explored in O’Donnell 1973. Stepan 1986 and Nunn 1992 question whether the concept “bureaucratic-authoritarian” was useful, and whether, and in what fashion, a new military ideology and “new professionalism” focused on internal security rather than national defense existed. Empirical studies like Rouquié 1987 and Loveman 1999 take into account both historical patterns and the effects of the Cold War in bringing these governments to power, and Remmer 1989 and Biglaiser 2002 provide comparative studies of the policies and practices of these military governments, including, among others, economic policy, internal security, human rights violations, and institutional reform. Stepan 1988 offers a comparative analysis of military autonomy and intelligence systems, with a special emphasis on Brazil. McSherry 2005 and Dinges 2005 consider the transnational collaboration of military regimes in state terrorism against opponents. Arceneaux 2001 focuses particularly on the nature and outcomes of transitions from military to civilian government. The National Security Archive at George Washington University, Washington, DC, available online, offers a collection of declassified government documents that includes material related to Latin American military governments from 1959 to 1990. Reference to some of these National Security Archive collections are included, by country, in this article.

  • Arceneaux, Craig L. Bounded Missions: Military Regimes and Democratization in the Southern Cone and Brazil. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

    Considers military rule in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay from the 1960s until the 1980s. Applying a “historical institutionalist” approach, the author argues that the particular institutional character of the military in the countries studied, more so than external factors or domestic politics, largely determined the nature and outcome of transition to civilian rule.

  • Biglaiser, Glen. Guardians of the Nation? Economists, Generals, and Economic Reform in Latin America. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

    Seeks to explain why the military rulers in Latin America adopted particular economic policies; discusses policy choices, appointments to government posts of economists favoring neoliberal policies, policy formulation, privatization, and the role of ideas and ideology under military governments in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Also includes some comparative material on Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico.

  • Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. New York: New Press, 2005.

    Based on hundreds of interviews and declassified documents, reveals the workings of an international state terrorist network and the role of the US government in the “secret warfare” of Latin American military governments (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay) against their “enemies.” A key source of evidence for ongoing prosecutions in several countries (in 2019) of human rights violations during the military dictatorships.

  • Loveman, Brian. For la Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.

    A political scientist and historian presents a history of the role of the armed forces in Latin American politics. Chapters 6–9 focus on the policies and ideology of military governments from 1960 to 1990, as well as the transition to civilian government and constraints on democratic consolidation. Treats national security doctrine and human rights violations by military regimes. Extensive bibliography.

  • McSherry, J. Patrice. Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

    Important investigation of Operation Condor by a political scientist who relates the transnational anti-subversive scheme carried out by Latin American military governments with the support of the United States. Differs in interpretation regarding the extent of US control over Operation Condor with Dinges 2005.

  • Nunn, Frederick. The Time of the Generals: Latin American Professional Militarism in World Perspective. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

    Comparative study of the role and consequences of professional militarism in Latin America from 1964 to 1989 by one of most prominent experts on Latin American military institutions. Special attention given to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Relies heavily on official military journals in Latin America, Canada, Asia, and Europe.

  • O’Donnell, Guillermo. Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1973.

    Presents an Argentine political scientist’s formulation of the concept of “bureaucratic-authoritarian” regimes, which became widely applied to Latin American military governments—as well as the subject of extensive theoretical debate—and then a reconsideration of the concept by O’Donnell himself. The Argentine case was important as an inspiration of the concept, but the concept was then applied by many authors to other military governments.

  • Remmer, Karen L. Military Rule in Latin America. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

    Remmer, a political scientist, analyzes the origins and political and economic consequences of military rule, and she compares and contrasts the policies of military governments and civilian regimes. Creates a typology of military regimes often cited in the literature. Part 2 of the book focuses on the Chilean case.

  • Rouquié, Alain. The Military and the State in Latin America. Translated by Paul Sigmund. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

    Historical treatment of the armed forces in Latin America by an outstanding French expert; chapters 8–11 focus on the 1959–1990 period. Also examines the role of US policy in the region. Widely cited in Latin America in translation (El estado militar en América Latina [Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1984]).

  • Stepan, Alfred. “The New Professionalism of Internal Warfare and Military Role Expansion.” In Armies and Politics in Latin America. Rev. ed. Edited by Abraham F. Lowenthal and J. Samuel Fitch, 134–150. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986.

    Often-cited article on the “new professionalism” of the Latin American military, focused on internal order and counterinsurgency. Stepan’s seminal work is sometimes compared to Nunn 1992, which emphasizes the continuity of professional values and long-term focus on internal security.

  • Stepan, Alfred. Rethinking Military Politics, Brazil and the Southern Cone. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

    Comparative analysis, by a leading theorist on civil-military relations and military government, of military prerogatives and transition toward civilian government in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, with special attention given to the Brazilian case. Keen focus on military autonomy and the system of military intelligence.

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