Generals remain ultimate power brokers in Latin America
Good morning! We’re covering the aftermath of Lula being released from prison. Evo Morales’s resignation shows how much civilian leaders can’t survive without the backing of generals in Latin America. (This newsletter is for platinum and gold subscribers only. Become one now!)
A dangerous game
Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia after almost 14 years in power. The move caps three weeks of tension, following a contested presidential election. Mr. Morales had won a fourth consecutive term at the polls, but accusations of fraud piled up—confirmed by the Organization of American States on Sunday.
Cornered, the president offered to call a new election, but this wasn’t enough for the country’s military elite. Hours later, the head of the Bolivian Armed Forces issued an address to the nation “suggesting” that Mr. Morales resign.
Why it matters. Mr. Morales was pushed out after losing support from the military. That underlines a dangerous phenomenon in many South American countries: they are democracies in name, but leaders are only truly legitimized by the backing of generals. It reopens many scars, in a region where military dictatorships were once the norm.
Examples. Here are some examples of leaders using the Armed Forces as a legitimizing force:
- Chile. As violent protests erupt, President Sebástian Piñera addressed the nation flanked by officers in military fatigues;
- Ecuador. President Lenin Moreno declared a national state of exception due to protests against the elimination of fuel subsidies—with generals standing next to him;
- Venezuela. Despite full-on social and economic collapse, Venezuela’s dictatorial leader Nicolás Maduro is only able to cling onto power thanks to the backing of the Armed Forces;
- Peru. Congress recently tried to oust President Martín Vizcarra—who appeared on national television alongside military officers, saying he wouldn’t give in to the pressure. He won the tug of war;
- Bolivia. Before losing support from the Armed Forces, Mr. Morales gave a speech urging the military to maintain order.
And in Brazil? Throughout Brazilian history, the Armed Forces have been highly political. They participated in every single rupture with the established order—from the Proclamation of the Republic, the Vargas dictatorship in 1930, to the military coup in 1964. Since leaving power in 1985, the Armed Forces have retreated to the barracks. But the conservative wave that elected President Jair Bolsonaro (himself a former Army captain) brought many high-ranked officers into government positions.
No soul searching. After resigning on the request of the military, Mr. Morales used a line that has become common among cornered left-wing leaders in South America. He said: “My sin is to be a labor leader, it is to be indigenous.” He did not, however, reflect on matters of electoral fraud. In Brazil, Lula pulled a similar move when he was convicted, saying his only crime was caring for Brazil’s poor.
Lula is back in the political game
On Friday, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released from his prison cell in Curitiba, after 580 days of incarceration.