In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Military and Modern Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Colonial Latin America
  • Independence
  • Caudillos
  • War in Latin America
  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Central America
  • Chile
  • Cuba
  • Mexico
  • Authoritarianism and Military Rule
  • Memories of Military Rule
  • Naval History in Latin America
  • Race and the Military in Latin America

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Latin American Studies The Military and Modern Latin America
Zachary Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0062


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.

General Overviews

Given its broad historical time frame and sizable geography, modern Latin America had for a long time remained a challenge for scholars when it came to the single-volume overview of the military. Until the publication of Lieuwen 1960, which is the first systemic examination of the military throughout Latin America, the general focus had been on individual leaders—such as the liberators of the American colonies or the caudillos on horseback who rose to positions of regional or national leadership throughout Spanish America—or they focused on specific wars or campaigns within or among the young nations of Latin America. Since the start of the 1960s, there have been many attempts to analyze and contextualize the Latin American armed forces overall, generally focusing on the period since the Wars of Independence, but some start earlier with first contact at the point of the European “discovery” of the Americas. Finer 1962 presents an international critique of the military takeover of civilian government, though it does not focus exclusively on Latin America. Johnson 1964 identifies a new role for military officers disconnected from their violent history: instead, the author sees a new role for them as civil engineers rebuilding modern states. The trend to understand the broad impact of the military only escalates with the rise of the military dictatorships throughout the region during the 1960s and 1970s. Among the best of these broad works is Rouquié 1987, which masterfully analyzes the patterns of Latin America’s military from conquest to the fall of the dictatorships. Finally, O’Donnell 1973 takes on the liberal notions of modernization and expands the conversation about dependency in Latin America. Nunn 1983 seeks to link Latin American officers to specific movements and training in Europe. Holden 2004 is an important overview of the military’s role in Central America. Scheina 1987 is the only attempt to examine the navy’s role throughout Latin America, and Scheina 2003 is an epic two-volume study that covers every armed conflict in Latin America between 1791 and 2001.

  • Finer, Samuel E. The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. New York: Praeger, 1962.

    While not focused exclusively on Latin America, many of his examples draw on Latin America, and this text remains important for understanding the field. This is a study of the military coup as opposed to the modern dictatorship, and it is a strong critique of the soldier as politician that predates the rise of military government in Latin America.

  • Holden, Robert H. Armies without Nations: Public Violence and State Formation in Central America, 1821–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Important study of Central America, examining the fact that the institutional structure of the military predates the states of Central America. Also examines the impact of US intervention in the region and the causal relationship between that intervention and internal violence in the Central American states.

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

    Groundbreaking study that seeks to locate Latin American army officers as distanced from their violent historical past. Focuses on their emerging role as largely middle-class progressive civil engineers committed to social services. This remains an important work, though scholarship and events following its publication undermine his overall argument.

  • Lieuwen, Edwin. Arms and Politics in Latin America. New York: Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Praeger, 1960.

    This is the first systematic analysis of the Latin American military, including Central America and the Caribbean. It links the conservative Creole elite to the officer class in the first decades of independence, while identifying middle-class origins among contemporary officers who are both more liberal and radical and thus more committed to social change. It further examines US military policies in Latin America. This remains essential reading to understand the origins of the modern wave of Latin American military history.

  • Nunn, Frederick M. Yesterday’s Soldiers: European Military Professionalism in South America, 1980–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

    Important historiographical examination of foreign influences on Latin American military officers. This work challenges the widely accepted role of the United States as a major factor in the development of Latin American militarism, focusing instead on the influence of Germany on Argentina and Chile and France on Brazil and Peru.

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

    The first work to challenge widely accepted ideas about liberalism and modernization in modern Latin America. Many North American scholars associated Argentina’s early-20th-century growth with long-term democratic stability. O’Donnell argued that bureaucratic authoritarianism was the more likely outcome of the imported industrialization, which marked a break with the traditional history of the Latin American military. He touches off an important debate that is followed up in Collier 1979 (under Edited Collections).

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

    Originally published as L’Etat militare en Amérique latine (Paris, 1982)—in Spanish, El estado militar en América Latina (Buenos Aires, 1984)—this overview draws on Rouquié’s experience as French ambassador to El Salvador and masterfully contextualizes Latin America’s struggle between civilian and military leadership throughout both the colonial and modern periods. Highly readable and likely the most approachable narrative for readers of all levels.

  • Scheina, Robert L. Latin America: A Naval History, 1810–1987. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987.

    This work is one of a very few studies that examine the institution of the navy in Latin America, covering a period from the Wars of Independence to the date of publication. Noteworthy for its rarity, it is unfortunately long on narrative but somewhat short on analysis. At the same time a paucity of sources in certain regions leads to unbalanced coverage.

  • Scheina, Robert L. Latin America’s Wars. 2 vols. Washington, DC: Brasseys, 2003.

    Starting with the Haitian Revolution and ending with Colombia’s ongoing drug wars, this exhaustive two-volume examination of armed conflict in Latin America offers a clear narrative and analysis of events throughout the region. An excellent introduction for all readers, offering descriptions of obscure events alongside better-known and documented conflicts.

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