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Latin America's Soldiers: Still a Political Force

A 500-year-old habit of domination lives on

A MASSACRE of Indians in Guatemala; growing unrest in Colombia and Venezuela; and the resistance of Chile's military to the jailing of one of its peers ordered by a civilian court. These are some recent examples of the persistent - and pervasive - influence of the armed forces in Latin American politics.

Perhaps the most telling episode was the confrontation between the administration of President Eduardo Frei and the Chilean Army, still under the command of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron fist between 1973 and 1985.

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Despite a Supreme Court ruling upholding the convictions of Gens. Pedro Espinoza and Manuel Contreras for their roles in the 1976 assassination of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington, the Army resisted the judicial decision, which General Pinochet criticized as "unfair." Using all imaginable tricks, the Army managed for more than five months to postpone implementing the judge's order to jail General Contreras.

Under the powers he gave himself in 1980, when he reformed the Constitution with a plebiscite, Pinochet has remained as commander in chief of the Army. Neither President Frei nor his predecessor Patricio Aylwin could rein in the irrepressible Pinochet, who has constantly defied civilian governments by making political statements. Moreover, Pinochet has put pressure on the Frei administration by hinting that he would not hesitate to lead a similar revolt against that civilian government "if need be."

Attitude adjustment

Strongly supported by his fellow officers in the armed forces, the octogenarian dictator epitomizes the stubborn attitude with which many Latin American armies still deal with the new civilian democracies. Long accustomed to being the rulers, military officers all over the region have found it increasingly difficult to cope with the new restrictions resulting from budget cuts and with the new political pluralism.

In Guatemala, for example, the military has reluctantly accepted United Nations-mediated peace negotiations with the Unidad Nacional Revolucionaria Guatemalteca, an umbrella group of guerrilla organizations. The talks, which are being held in Mexico, are stagnating over human rights issues and an amnesty for rebels.

Guatemalan soldiers recently fired upon a group of Indians who were being resettled from neighboring Mexico into the northern province of Quiche. The killings caused the suspension of the relocation plan, which is a key point in the guerrillas' peace program.

In Columbia and Venezuela, unrest in the armed forces has been fueled by those countries' political and economic instability, accusations of corruption against civilian officials, and a growing displeasure with what the military perceives as the politicians' widespread inability to rule through law and order. The governments of Peru and Ecuador, whose armed forces clashed earlier this year over a long-standing border dispute, are under renewed pressure to increase defense budgets and the military's presence in boundary negotiations.

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The situation in Argentina - another country where the military has been chronically influential in political life - is slightly different. Because of their defeat in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), the armed forces had lost a lot of prestige by the time democracy was reinstated. Yet military factions managed to stage two large rebellions, one against the administration of President Raul Alfonsin in the 1980s and one during President Carlos Menem's first term in 1990. Albeit discreetly, officers are now pressing for increases in salaries and in the drastically reduced defense budget.

Although many analysts still minimize the armed forces' role in the region, the military's power over Latin America's political life should not be quickly disregarded. In an area of the world where military dominance harks back almost 500 years, democracy still has a long way to go to make the men in uniform obey the rule of law.

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