Civil-Military Lessons from Latin America

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On June 1, President Donald Trump asked the National Guard to protect him from peaceful protesters while he walked from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Accompanying him, in full battle fatigues, was Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The sight of the president and his top general walking through Lafayette Park as police fired tear gas nearby led to considerable criticism, and even gave some observers the impression of a nation at war. However, 10 days after the protests outside the White House, Milley apologized for what he admitted to be an inappropriate appearance that suggested the politicized use of the military. Succinctly, the general admitted, “I should not have been there.”

Last year in Chile, something similar happened. In October 2019, in the midst of unprecedented nationwide protests against inequality and austerity measures, President Sebastián Piñera described his nation as one at war, as his army chief, Gen. Raúl Iturriaga, stood behind him. But the next day, Iturriaga told reporters, “I am not at war with anyone.” Iturriaga’s statement clarified the military’s position that protesters were not enemy combatants, immediately undercutting Piñera’s rhetoric and forcing the development of plans that would minimize contact between troops and protesters.



Milley and Iturriaga show that military commanders can be bold and public in dissenting from orders that endanger military professionalism and human rights. Across contemporary Latin America, a region with a history of military coups, dirty wars, and civil-military unrest, militaries can publicly dissent while protecting professional standards and preventing democratic backsliding. Indeed, in recent cases from that region, militaries prevented lethal encounters between troops and citizens, saving lives in the process.

The history of civil-military relations in the United States and Latin America are very different. Nevertheless, Latin America offers lessons in how the armed forces should respond when pulled into domestic operations that could damage the military’s nonpartisan character and endanger civil liberties. Even within the last few years, the militaries of Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil have demonstrated that militaries may clarify their own legal constraints to correct dangerous civilian rhetoric; modify orders to minimize repression; blow the whistle on hidden malfeasance; and publicly rebuke efforts to drag their institution into partisan politics. The U.S. armed forces should remain careful to exercise public dissent judiciously, using it only in cases where complying with dangerous orders is a greater threat to human rights and democracy than dissenting publicly. If possible, they would be wise to alert Congress, thereby preserving or even strengthening civilian supremacy.

If officers across Latin America may publicly dissent from civilian leaders in extreme cases, and do so without harming civilian supremacy, officers in the United States and elsewhere may certainly do the same when facing a similar challenge.

Chile: Clarification of Orders

When presidents describe citizens as enemy combatants, militaries may quickly clarify their legal constraints and positions to object to dangerous, misleading mischaracterizations. Recent evidence from Chile shows that when a leader’s words potentially set the stage for military repression, military commanders can justifiably dissent. They may quickly clarify that those in the streets are citizens exercising their human rights, as enshrined in the constitution the military is sworn to uphold. If they may do so without undermining civilian authority in a country where the memory of a military dictatorship is still vivid, they may certainly do so in the United States.

In October 2019, enormous nationwide demonstrations erupted across Chile. Piñera at first declared his country to be “at war with a powerful enemy” and ordered tens of thousands of police and soldiers to the streets against “delinquents.” This kind of rhetoric, reminiscent of the public posturing of Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet, could have been a green light for the armed forces to violently end demonstrations. But Iturriaga soon clarified that Chile was not at war with its own citizens. This clarification prompted Chile’s civilian minister of defense, Alberto Espina, to instruct his commanders to remain calm and not fire on protesters. With few exceptions, soldiers complied with those orders. Numerous human rights abuses occurred, but most were at the hands of police, not soldiers. Notably, the general’s clarification did not accrue any political power for the armed forces. If anything, military participation only damaged the institution’s reputation.

When presented with a situation where violence against protesters was more likely, should U.S. military leaders have reacted similarly? Like Piñera, Trump used bellicose language when describing demonstrators as “thugs” and “terrorists,” rhetoric that could have emboldened soldiers to justify and use violence. The president warned the governor of Minnesota that if he could not restore order the military would, adding, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Active-duty officers should have pushed back against Trump’s rhetoric but did not. Instead, Milley remained silent. It took him 10 days to apologize for appearing in uniform next to the president in Lafayette Park. Furthermore, Milley declined to testify in front of Congress, the only other civilian institution that could have checked executive abuse. His apology was welcome, but came too late and, more importantly, his initial silence suggested complicity.

Ecuador: Modification of Orders

Military commanders can modify presidential orders once deployed in order to avert dangerous confrontations with peaceful protesters and without undermining civilian control. Ecuador provides an excellent example of this tactic. In the past, that country has been a victim of military interventions. On occasion, soldiers have been known to join  indigenous protesters to unseat presidents. However, today’s Ecuadorian military has undertaken a form of dissent that has not undermined civilian control or democracy, and that has prevented civilian casualties.

Facing protests from indigenous groups across Ecuador in October 2019, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno commanded the armed forces to reestablish order. The defense minister, retired Gen. Oswaldo Jarrín, took the president to mean that troops had license to use all measures necessary to suppress demonstrations. The military deployed to city streets, but rather than blindly following orders they revised tactics, taking up rear guard positions to avoid head-on collisions with protesters. Army commander Gen. Javier Pérez, who led the operation, declared that if the army had resorted to force, soldiers “would be recovering body bags, and that is not their mission.” These actions have not earned the military any political leverage, nor did they undermine civilian supremacy. In fact, the president relieved Pérez of his duties and transferred his command to another general, although it occurred smoothly and without military retaliation, affirming civilian control remained intact.

Roughly 5,000 members of the National Guard were deployed across Washington, D.C., when the president walked to St. John’s Church. Guardsmen cleared the president’s passage as park police beat back nonviolent demonstrators with batons and tear gas. Army commanders pressured guardsmen to act aggressively while Milley made a personal appeal to them — both intended to dissuade the president from deploying the 82nd Airborne Division. The general and his fellow commanders could have followed the Ecuadorian lead, revising National Guard tactics to place them out of direct contact with protesters while ordering greater restraint. This would have been in compliance with the National Guard and Army’s own rules of engagement which advise troops to respond in proportion to the “threat” encountered, using any kind of force only as a last resort or in self-defense.

U.S. military leaders traditionally avoid situations that could even give the appearance of political partisanship. Ironically, Milley’s compliance undercut that tradition by aiding the president’s efforts to impress his political base as a tough “law and order” executive. While he later regretted his actions, the general would have been better served to heed his own words spoken in May 2017, when he said that “disciplined disobedience” could be justified under the right conditions to achieve a goal, so long as one is “morally and ethically correct” and uses sound judgment.

The Ecuadorian military’s own “disciplined disobedience” provides a lesson, showing that U.S. military commanders can creatively modify orders to protect citizens, even when commanded to repress them.

Colombia: Military Whistleblowing

Militaries can also blow the whistle about dangerous or potentially criminal conduct and have an obligation to do so. Consider the case of Colombia, where whistleblowing ended an alarming practice. Like the United States, Colombia is a democracy. Unlike the United States, Colombia’s wars have been fought inside its borders, mainly against leftist insurgents. Innocent civilians get trapped in the conflict, resulting in human rights abuses and destruction of evidence. In the “false positives” scandal, which erupted in 2008, the Ministry of Defense awarded bonuses based on the number of enemy combatants killed. Under pressure to produce more combat kills, and unable to inflict enough casualties on actual insurgents, soldiers lured noncombatants with the promise of work, executed them, and dressed them as enemy combatants. At least 8,000 noncombatants were killed as a result.

In 2019, a group of officers saw orders that mirrored those of the previous false positives scandal and alerted the media about these secret activities. Their testimony produced quick results. It forced President Iván Duque Márquez and his army commander to admit the orders were wrong and then reverse them entirely. Brave officers came forward, and were threatened and harassed for doing so. However, they undoubtedly saved the lives of citizens and the dignity of soldiers.

The Colombian case has parallels with that of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. As director for European affairs at the National Security Council, Vindman had clearance to listen to a phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodomyr Zelenksy. He was disturbed by what he heard: Trump exerted inappropriate pressure on a foreign government to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. As in Colombia, Vindman had direct knowledge of a troubling event hidden from public view and felt an obligation to report it. In testifying before the House of Representatives, Vindman justifiably passed along information to the one institution that could check presidential malfeasance.

Vindman faced reprisals from Trump partisans who questioned his loyalty because he was a Soviet immigrant. Under duress, he eventually retired from the service. But like his Colombian counterparts, he also produced results by strengthening the case for impeachment. As the Colombian case shows, officers may blow the whistle on dangerous malfeasance without increasing the political power of the military. Though whistleblower revelations may come with risks, remaining silent carries the greater risk of eroding military professionalism and democracy itself.

Brazil: Public Rebukes

If civilian leaders use the military for their own partisan agendas, retired officers can publicly rebuke these efforts and advocate the preservation of their institution’s nonpartisan professionalism. In discussing civilians who politicize the armed forces and abuse their right to be wrong, consider the case of the Latin American executive most compared to Trump: President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Besides stacking his government with many active and retired officers, Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s past military dictatorship, even claiming it did not kill enough people. He likewise praised the “self-coup” of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, where the military was used by Fujimori to dissolve Congress, citing it as an example of how the military could be used to reenter governance.

On multiple occasions, Bolsonaro has joined protesters calling for military intervention into politics, first to overturn COVID-19 restrictions set by governors and mayors, and then to thwart corruption investigations of Bolsonaro and his sons. Bolsonaro supporters have identified a potential self-coup as being beneficial to their president. By standing with them, Bolsonaro has implicitly endorsed the idea.

Retired officers pushed back. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, a member of Bolsonaro’s cabinet prior to a falling out with the president’s sons, argued: “The idea of putting the armed forces in the middle of a dispute between branches of the state, authorities and political interests is completely out of place. It is a lack of respect for the armed forces.” Congressman Roberto Pertenelli, a former general and member of Bolsonaro’s party, said any order to intervene in politics would be illegal and unconstitutional. Defense Minister Gen. Fernando Azevedo e Silva went so far as to issue a public statement affirming the army’s dedication to the constitution and human rights. Though the armed forces have considerable political clout in Brazil, they did not accrue additional influence by issuing those public rebukes.

Retired Gen. James Mattis — much like Brazilian Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz in that he was a high-level cabinet appointee prior to leaving the Trump administration — heavily criticized both his successor, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and the president after witnessing the deployment of the National Guard to Washington. Retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and former White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly vocalized similar objections. While there are risks to public dissent of this sort, Kelly himself said using soldiers to repress protesters would be far riskier and would do lasting damage to the morale, confidence, and internal cohesion of the armed forces. These risks in mind, retired officers can use their rank to be powerful advocates for a nonpartisan military, even as a president seeks to bring the institution into a partisan agenda. While the public would hope for rebukes to come from Congress or a president’s own political party, retired security personnel may need to violate comfortable norms to thwart inappropriate politicization.

Lessons for an Uncertain Future

To be sure, under normal circumstances, military reproaches of its commander in chief are ill-advised because they could undercut presidential authority over defense and foreign policy. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s criticism of President Harry Truman’s leadership during the Korean War posed such a threat, and MacArthur was justifiably dismissed. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s criticisms of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy were likewise inappropriate, and he was likewise dismissed. However, in exceptional circumstances, where orders endanger military professionalism and civil rights, officers have a right and obligation to speak out.

Trump’s efforts to politicize the U.S. military have set a dangerous precedent. His work to corrupt the military’s nonpartisan nature by delivering campaign-style speeches to troops, threatening to deploy the military to repress perceived political opponents using the Insurrection Act, and using Twitter to publicly criticize military leaders has opened the door for future presidents to behave similarly. It is little wonder, then, that scholars are increasingly asking what future behavior can be expected from the U.S. military as Trump, or for that matter future presidents, attempt to erode its professionalism.

It would be irresponsible to give militaries carte blanche to resist their commander in chief. But as four recent cases in Latin America show, military officers should be prepared for dangerously unprofessional civilian leaders. Officers can dissent in extreme cases, where military professionalism and the lives of fellow citizens are threatened, without undermining civilian supremacy or accruing new political power. When democracy itself is at stake, they cannot keep quiet. Indeed, their silence risks complicity. Undoubtedly, this is a difficult and unenviable path that should be taken with extreme caution and restraint.



David Pion-Berlin is a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. He is a Latin Americanist widely known for his research and writings on civil-military relations. Among his recent books is Soldiers, Politicians, and Civilians: Reforming Civil-Military Relations in Democratic Latin America (co-authored with Rafael Martínez) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). 

Andrew Ivey is a Ph.D. candidate with the department of political science at the University of California, Riverside. His research concerns civil-military relations, insurgency, police-military relations, and democratization. His previous research has appeared in Democratization.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)