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Latin America: the decline of militarism

JUST as the nomadic Somalis have 45 words for the camel because of the camel's importance to their lives, militaristic terms suffuse Latin Americans' vocabulary because of the traditional role of armies in the hemisphere. Golpe de estado (overthrow), levantamiento (uprising), cuartelazo (barracks revolt), rebeli'on (rebellion), and revoluci'on (revolution) -- are among the words in the region's extensive thesaurus of violence.

Yet, such concepts enjoy less currency as generals increasingly yield power to civilians -- a transition most recently set in motion in Brazil, thanks to the Electoral College's selection of Tancredo Neves as President. The renewal of democracy after 21 years in South America's largest country follows elections in Uruguay (November 1984), Nicaragua (November 1984), Panama (May 1984), Ecuador (January 1984), Argentina (December 1983), and Honduras (November 1981). The result: more than 9 out of 10 Latin Americans either enjoy -- or will soon enjoy -- representative government. Elections are even scheduled next month in Guatemala.

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What explains the shift to civilian rule in a region where the 16th-century arrival of the conquistadores fused the Arab-Iberian tradition of soldierly 'elan onto longstanding indigenous militarism?

Above all, soldiers-turned-politicians have lost legitimacy because of their maladroit application of nostrums to tough economic problems, nostrums ranging from authoritarian socialism to laissez faire capitalism. Incompetent management has nourished a collective $350 billion debt ballooned by oil-related loans.

Encouraging this salida pol'itica, or political exit, has been the decline -- outside of Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala -- of power grabs by guerrillas or extreme left-wing parties, thus diminishing the perceived need of the armed forces to rescue their fatherlands.

Not all military men have stepped aside. Fidel Castro monopolizes power in Cuba. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the continent's longest-ruling head of state, runs Paraguay. Chile's Augusto Pinochet persists in postponing elections.

Although relinquishing the presidential palace in most nations, the armies have not changed -- in terms of recruitment, training, and suspicion of being self-serving pol'iticos. They know that memories of military excesses often fade amid stern stabilization plans, do-nothing congresses, venal bureaucracies, and vertiginous inflation of the kind now besetting Argentina (700 percent) and Brazil (225 percent).

Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, and Costa Rica are among the few countries that have diminished military influence. This accomplishment derives from forging institutions -- unions, peasant leagues, political parties, and bureaucracies, for example -- that counterbalance military clout.

Just as French soldiers carried marshals' batons in their knapsacks during the Napoleonic wars, Latin American generals still have presidential sashes tucked in their briefcases.

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Failure to spur economic recovery and craft effective political structures will impel the reappearance of both these sashes and the rhetoric of militarism.

George W. Grayson, John Marshall professor of government at the College of William & Mary, is the author of ``The United States and Mexico: Patterns of Influence.''

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