This commentary was published in Spanish by the Fundación Carolina on November 16, 2021 as Análisis Carolina no. 28: “Estados Unidos y su influencia en el nuevo militarismo latinoamericano” (https://doi.org/10.33960/AC_28.2021).
Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.
The United States is by far the largest international donor, equipper, and trainer to Latin America’s armed forces. Over the past several decades, U.S. military assistance programs have been guided by five overarching missions. These are the Cold War fight against communism (until about 1990); the “war on drugs” (the late 1980s to early 2000s); the “war on terror” (the 2000s); a broader focus on “transnational criminal organizations” (TCOs, the 2010s); and today, a return to great-power competition, particularly with China.
Throughout this period, U.S. assistance often encouraged armed forces to carry out internal missions, like policing, surveillance, crowd control, or development projects. (Withers et al., 2010) These resources and messages frequently helped tip the civil-military balance toward those in uniform, at times when civilian leaders were endeavoring to assert control during transitions to democracy.
During the second through fourth phases, though (war on drugs, war on terror, focus on TCOs), U.S. assistance for internal military missions declined steadily, if unevenly. Military aid to interdict drugs or fight organized crime concentrated on a few countries, and on a few vetted military units, while aid declined elsewhere. The “war on terror” turned out to be a poor fit for a region with almost no terrorist groups with global reach. New human rights protections, like the Leahy Law limiting aid to abusive units, curbed some important excesses.[*] Military assistance declined, as did the budget of U.S. Southern Command, during the 2010s as Latin America became a lower-priority region for the Defense Department. And starting during the Obama administration, security planners started to take more into account the potential harm to civil-military relations that encouragement of internal military roles might cause.
However, the fifth phase—great-power competition—threatens to reverse this trend. Security planners in Washington voice a greater desire to engage with, and assist, the region’s armed forces in order to deny access to China, and to a lesser extent to Russia, Iran, and other competitors.
This is happening at a time when many of the region’s elected civilian leaders have been assigning non-military roles to their armed forces, and ceding political influence to generals, to an extent not seen since transitions to democracy began in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also happening at a time when many of those leaders are exhibiting populist and authoritarian tendencies, dismantling checks and balances and seeking to involve military commanders in their political projects. Moreover, it is happening at a time when populations—many of them impoverished by the pandemic economic depression—are more boldly challenging political and economic systems that preserve inequality and fail to deliver.
As civil society movements channel this discontent, they may find their countries’ armed forces confronting and surveilling them. Increasingly, those armed forces may be influenced by new internal-enemy doctrines viewing organized reformers and protesters as a form of “hybrid” national security threat. Meanwhile the United States, fearful of losing access and space to great-power competitors in the region, may—as it did during the Cold War—maintain large assistance programs while downplaying or ignoring human rights abuses and authoritarian advances.
This outcome is not guaranteed to pass, but it is probable enough that scholars, advocates, and civil society leaders in Latin America and the United States need to recognize it and begin working to prevent it.
After the Cold War, some pullback
During the Cold War era of military dictatorships, U.S. assistance and “national security doctrine” messaging strongly encouraged the region’s armed forces to take on internal roles. After the Cold War’s end, as the perceived communist threat receded and most states underwent democratic transitions, “drug war” programs then created new internal military missions. U.S. assistance built up several armed forces’ capabilities to fight organized crime, eradicate crops, raid laboratories, interdict flows, arrest “kingpins,” and spy on citizens suspected of criminality.
Drug-war military aid reached a zenith during the 2000-2010 period with major multi-billion-dollar packages to two countries: “Plan Colombia” and the “Mérida Initiative” in Mexico. These big “brand name” aid packages were outliers, though. Outside the Andes and key transit countries, military aid declined, and security aid—particularly in Central America—came to support police forces more than before. When Plan Colombia and Mérida ran their course by the early 2010s, military aid to Colombia and Mexico declined as well.
According to the Security Assistance Monitor database (adjusted with estimates of 2019 Defense budget assistance), U.S. military and police aid to Latin America totaled about $13.5 billion between 2000 and 2009, and about $9.3 billion between 2010 and 2019—even without adjusting for inflation. (Security Assistance Monitor, 2020) Southern Command, the Defense Department body carrying out U.S. military programs in most of Latin America, shrank as well. “Over the last five years, we absorbed 25% cuts to our personnel, a 10% reduction to our Exercise program, and a steady decline in available assets and forces needed to support our mission,” Southcom’s commander told senators in January 2020. (Faller, 2020)
This pullback has several causes. First, the United States—especially its Defense Department—did not find the “war on drugs” to be as all-encompassing a mission as the fight against global communism. Second, outside of Colombia and a few pockets where communities were suspected of links to Hezbollah or ISIS, the “war on terror” did not lead to a U.S. military buildup in the region. Third, the fight against TCOs became a more important mission for U.S. security assistance in Latin America, especially as organized crime networks facilitated increasing migrant arrivals, but it was not a top-tier worldwide issue for the Defense Department, which focused on wars and terrorists elsewhere. Fourth, leaders in many countries, from Venezuela to Argentina to Mexico after the Calderón government’s 2012 exit, sought less U.S. military assistance or cut ties entirely. Fifth, a big wave of child and family migration to the United States placed a larger focus on “root causes” of citizens’ decisions to flee, such as citizen security, weak justice systems, climate change, and lack of economic opportunity—issues that call for less of a military response.
Sixth, and importantly, U.S. defense and security planners became more cognizant of civil-military relations in Latin America’s consolidating democracies, and adjusted programs to do less harm. During Barack Obama’s first term the Defense Department published a Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement that discouraged U.S. assistance to military units carrying out internal public security missions, noting that “the use of the military to perform civil law enforcement cannot be a long-term solution.” (U.S. Department of Defense, 2012) Such aid was not banned—military units fighting gangs in Central America or criminal groups in the Andes still get a lot of aid, for instance—but as commanders have put it in interviews since the 2010s, the focus of military assistance has moved more to “coasts, rivers, and borders” instead of population centers.
This tendency to pull back continued under the Trump administration (2017-2020). On the rare occasions when the archconservative U.S. president expressed views about Latin America, he did so to reflect domestic concerns important to his political base: a desire to renegotiate trade with Mexico, to harden the U.S. stance toward Cuba and Venezuela, or to block the arrival of migrants. An ardent nationalist, his budget requests sought deep cuts to both military and economic aid to the region, which the U.S. Congress mostly reversed, on a bipartisan basis. Southern Command’s budget did not revive, and assistance that might upset civil-military relations did not increase. The main exception was Trump’s April 2020 announcement of a big naval drug-interdiction deployment to the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, which had little effect on internal military roles because it happened entirely in maritime space, far from populations.
This pullback did not mean, of course, an end to engagement with the region’s armed forces. Southern Command and Northern Command maintain robust schedules of exercises, trainings, and military-to-military contact. In neither the Bush, Obama, nor Trump administrations did officials send public messages of concern about, or seek to discourage militaries’ assumption of, new internal roles or involvement in politics.
These roles and political involvement increased on their own. By late 2015, a Southern Command publication found that 23 of 31 countries in the command’s area of responsibility, which does not include Mexico, “have ordered their armed forces to support law enforcement agencies, including in the fight against transnational organized crime.” (Bresnahan, 2015) That trend continues to advance throughout the region, most notably in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Mexico, where by March 2021, the daily El Universal had counted 27 formerly civilian duties that the armed forces had taken over since 2018. (Espino, 2021)
By the late 2010s and early 2020s, alarms about civil-military relations began to sound more loudly in the region. Usually at the behest of civilian leaders, officers came to head non-defense ministries in some countries, COVID-19 response led soldiers to deploy to the streets, and populist-authoritarian presidents sought to enlist commanders for their political projects.
Today, U.S. security and defense planners are closely watching the rise of populist authoritarianism in Latin America alongside the rise of China’s influence. It is not clear, though, whether “closely watching” means “understanding.” Some of the current discourse, much of it developed during the Trump years, points to both trends being viewed through a distorted Cold War lens. The danger is that the militarism of the first may be tolerated or even encouraged in order to stave off the second.
China worries and the imperative for “access” and engagement
Approximately every three years, a new four-star general or admiral is nominated to head Southern Command. The U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee sends that officer a questionnaire about pending issues within the Command and around the region. In December 2015, when Adm. Kurt Tidd submitted this questionnaire, it mentioned the word “China” or “Chinese” three times. (Tidd, 2015) In August 2021, Gen. Laura Richardson’s questionnaire mentioned “China” or “Chinese” 33 times. (Richardson, 2021)
The U.S. defense establishment has pivoted rather suddenly to great power competition. This has come to mean, principally, “competition with China.” Russia is also part of the security conversation—it offers significant security assistance to Cuba, Nicaragua, and especially Venezuela—but it is also a nation with a declining population and an economy the size of South Korea’s. For U.S. security planners today, the true “near peer” competitor is China. The Xi Jinping government’s more authoritarian turn, cyberespionage episodes, crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, expansion in the South China Sea, aggression toward Taiwan, and especially Beijing’s poor handling of the COVID-19 outbreak have all greatly increased tensions between China and both the Trump and Biden administrations.
The new “great power” orientation also owes to the increased influence of the U.S. military, whose planning places a strong premium on worst-case scenarios, within the U.S. foreign policymaking process. U.S. military influence in this process grew notably during the Trump administration. (Lee, 2020) The 2018 National Defense Strategy published by then-defense secretary James Mattis made clear that the principal U.S. threat priority had shifted from counter-terrorism to countering other states, especially China. “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security,” it reads, “is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” (Mattis, 2018)
Though Latin America is a minor theater for this inter-state competition, the messaging from U.S. officials with regional defense responsibilities is dire. “I feel an incredible sense of urgency,” reads the March 2021 Posture Statement from Southern Command’s commander, Adm. Craig Faller. “This Hemisphere in which we live is under assault. The very democratic principles and values that bind us together are being actively undermined by violent transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and Russia. We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend.” (Faller, 2021a)
Adm. Faller places highest priority on China:
The PRC continues to increase its self-serving activities to gain global influence and leverage across all domains in the USSOUTHCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility]: cyber, space, extractive and energy industries, transportation hubs, roads, infrastructure, telecommunications, legal and illegal fishing, agriculture, and military training – Spanish and Portuguese-language military education modeled after U.S. professional military education. The PRC is also “gifting” security supplies and equipment as a way to gain access and win favor with regional security forces.
In a 2020 National Defense University monograph, Craig Deare—who served briefly as the Trump administration’s first National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere—raises alarm about China seeking geopolitical gain via relationships with Venezuela and other “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) nations. “Given ALBA’s declared intent to establish an alternative to U.S. leadership in the region and to distance itself from Western companies and conventional multilateral institutions, China has stepped in as its partner of choice, with both markets and financing,” Deare writes. (Deare, 2020)
This redefinition of threats as “denying access to competing outside powers” opens a door through which the Monroe Doctrine can come rushing back in. “Denying access” means engaging with governments, particularly their security forces, in order to remain countries’ military “partner of choice,” a term used by Deare and in many Southern Command publications[†], or “trusted partner,” as Adm. Faller explained in June 2021.
So how do we win this strategic competition going forward, and what does winning look like here in the Western Hemisphere from a SOUTHCOM perspective? One, we’ve got to remain the trusted partner hands down. So that means staying on the field. We’ve got to be on the field to compete, and that means being relevant and operating with some relevant speed and making sure that our own programs and policies don’t get in the way of that speed. Working together, we can enhance democracies and prevent the PRC from imposing its world order and creating dependencies. (Faller, 2021b)
What is unclear, though, is what happens when those two goals come into contradiction. What happens when a “trusted partner” in the effort to deny space to the PRC is not a democracy, or is a democracy sliding toward dictatorship?
In December 2020, the U.S. Congress cut some military assistance to increasingly corrupt and authoritarian-trending governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Evan Ellis, a U.S. Army War College professor and Trump-era State Department official who is one of the United States’ most-cited experts on Chinese influence in Latin America, warned that this cutback risked creating an opportunity for China.
[I]f the recent cutoff of security assistance is followed by a disrespectfully hard line on corruption and human rights and a lack of prioritization for the needed assistance promised by then-candidate Biden, the result could be the worst of all worlds.
…Broke and economically devastated Northern Triangle governments, beset by the threat of U.S. sanctions, and seeing little prospect for U.S. aid, they will be tempted to turn to PRC loans and projects, providing easy money for elites to pay off their supporters and line their own pockets. It is vital for U.S. Republicans and Democrats to work together on a new engagement that holds Northern Triangle governments to account, but that is both generous and respectful of their conduct of security and internal affairs until they clearly betray that trust. (Ellis, 2020)
“Good” and “bad” authoritarian militarists?
Taking a softer line against authoritarian or hyper-corrupt regimes, so as not to lose ground to China, would mean a reversal of the “phase two through four” progress discussed above, in which U.S. security planners pulled back assistance that might encourage increased internal military roles in Latin America.
The China concern is rising at a time when “populist” or “authoritarian” leaders are accumulating power in several countries around the region, usually while assigning larger budgets, greater prerogatives, and new internal roles to their armed forces. Fear of pushing them into Beijing’s embrace may mean less U.S. pressure on, or distancing from, authoritarian populists who are willing to work with Washington. And it may mean increased military engagement and assistance.
A key hallmark of Latin America’s “illiberal” authoritarian populists is their ideological diversity. Some identify with the left (Venezuela, Nicaragua, perhaps Mexico, former leaders like Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Cristina Fernández in Argentina). Some come from the right (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras, former president Álvaro Uribe in Colombia). Some are centrist, like Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.
The United States does not have a deep history of pulling back from relationships with abusive or dictatorial regimes considered to have pro-U.S. postures. In its early months, though, the Biden administration did take some notable steps in that direction, such as sanctioning corrupt officials in Central America’s “northern triangle” or pressing the Bolsonaro government to curb deforestation. The Democratic-majority U.S. Congress has sought to place new human rights conditions on aid to Colombia’s police.
Even these small efforts have hit a wall of concern within the Republican Party, among moderate Democrats, and in the defense community. For these actors, the nightmare scenario involves U.S. leaders criticizing or disengaging a bit with a corrupt or dictatorial leader, only to see that leader running to Beijing for loans, investment deals, help building the country’s 5G backbone, and a smiling presidential photo with Xi Jinping.
Authoritarian-trending leaders know this. They can alleviate U.S. pressure on democracy and accountability by flirting with Beijing, and even more effectively by opening their doors to U.S. engagement with their armed forces. Even as the U.S. Justice Department names him as a cocaine trafficking “co-conspirator,” Juan Orlando Hernández permits Southern Command to maintain a large presence at the Soto Cano airbase in Comayagua, Honduras. The Colombian and Brazilian militaries maintain a robust schedule of joint trainings, exercises, and engagements with U.S. counterparts. Both countries have sent generals to Southern Command headquarters in Miami, where they have headed the command’s J7/9 (exercises and coalition affairs) directorate.
Writing for CSIS in December 2020, Ellis warns against alienating the right-wing populists.
[R]ight-wing governments confronting shifting political dynamics in their own countries or increasing isolation abroad… may seek to force U.S. displays of support. If they sense a loss of support or an increase in pressure due to the change in tone in Washington, such regimes, including those of Colombia and Brazil, could retaliate by restricting their engagement as regional actors. (Ellis, 2020)
The greater the Biden administration’s concern about Chinese influence, then, the more likely it is to divide the region’s dictatorships and failing democracies between “good” and “bad” authoritarians.
The “bad” authoritarians, for instance the ALBA nations who in Adm. Faller’s words are “opening the door to ESAs [external state actors] and TCOs at the expense of their own people,” would receive little or no military assistance, and U.S. criticism of their undemocratic, abusive, and corrupt behavior will be as full-throated as that leveled by non-governmental organizations. (Faller, 2021a) The “good” authoritarians, though, may see increased military aid and only timid expressions of U.S. concern about their behavior.
Hybrid and “molecular” threats, protests, and crowd control
U.S. support for what it views as “good,” China-avoiding authoritarians and their militaries could come to pose a danger to human rights as the region struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic’s severe economic blow and hard-hit populations become more restive. In particular, militaries around the region are already finding themselves playing a greater crowd control role amid a wave of social protest that began in 2019, in the months before the pandemic hit.
Crowd control is a complex set of skills and tasks requiring the ability to make rapid discernments, ignore deliberate provocations, and avoid unnecessary escalations. Even when weapons used are “non-lethal,” crowd control done improperly can result in large numbers of protest participants killed, maimed, tortured, or disappeared, severely curtailing the right to dissent and free expression. In this age of ubiquitous mobile phone video cameras, a brutal response can generate fresh outrage that prolongs protests for days or weeks longer than they would otherwise last.
As they are called upon increasingly to assume this new role, Latin America’s U.S.-supported militaries have little or no background in crowd control or de-escalation techniques. They have little or no training in distinguishing peaceful protesters from a fringe of vandals or violent troublemakers mixed in among them.
Militaries are, however, trained to defeat an enemy with overwhelming force. And now we are seeing the spread of new, often conspiratorial-sounding doctrines that can be interpreted to justify treating organized, disobedient citizens as an “enemy” to be confronted.
Authoritarian-leaning security planners are recurring to the notion of “hybrid warfare”—also known as “gray zone” warfare—to portray protesters and other organized opposition movements as potential national security threats. An old concept, hybrid warfare has been revived to describe some of the Russian regime’s machinations in Europe and elsewhere, particularly its accumulated use of disinformation, social media, cyberattacks, and paid agitators to inflame populations and destabilize regimes. (Schadlow, 2015) It refers to attacks that are not directly violent, but which the U.S. Defense Department and NATO still consider a modern form of warfare. (Garamone, 2019)
Though it somewhat recognizes the validity of popular anger, Adm. Faller’s March 2021 Posture Statement sees Latin America’s recent wave of protest offering an opportunity for great-power competitors.
Coming on the heels of widespread public protests against governments throughout the region at the end of 2019, these COVID-19 losses coupled with longstanding socioeconomic grievances and corruption have created the conditions for even greater instability and unrest among our partner nations. These conditions create a more fragile region that serves as fertile ground for our competitors to advance their own interests, both malign and legitimate, making this challenge even more complex. Even some of our strongest partners are at risk of instability due to this confluence of factors. (Faller, 2021a)
The risk is that some of the subtlety and nuance in this statement may be lost in practice. In Latin America, “hybrid warfare” may give security planners and political leaders a pretext to deny that protesters and opposition movements are homegrown phenomena, with agency and legitimate grievances. Instead, this doctrine can be distorted to portray them as adversaries orchestrated by foreign actors, often as unwitting dupes, usually of a Russia or China-supported Cuba-Venezuela axis that the right often calls “Castro-Chavismo.”
Clearly, as we saw with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, foreign actors do employ disinformation and abuse social media to destabilize adversaries. As happened during the Cold War, though, the “hybrid warfare” concept risks lumping legitimate, democratic dissent in with existential threats. Abused, it could become a new “national security doctrine,” including in countries that lack armed insurgencies or credible insurgent scenarios.
An important recent example was the response to Colombia’s April-June 2021 national strike protests. Top defense, police, and prosecutorial officials, and President Iván Duque himself, repeated claims—unsupported by significant evidence—that Cuba, Venezuela, or armed groups aligned with those countries were orchestrating the protests, particularly the episodes in which protesters committed acts of vandalism or attacked police. (El Espectador, 2021)Defense Minister Diego Molano called it “low intensity terrorism” financed by the ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents. (Moron, 2021)
Duque, a more technocratic conservative, does not fit the description of an institution-defying populist. Some personalities in his ruling Centro Democrático (CD) party, though, do fit within that authoritarian-leaning category. The CD’s de facto leader, former president Álvaro Uribe, drew much attention when he responded to the protests with a curious tweet warning of a “dispersed molecular revolution.” (Uribe, 2021)
The term is borrowed from Alexis López Tapia, a Chilean entomologist whose far-right political theories have earned him a large social media following. López sees a leftist enemy seeking to subvert the state not through insurgency as in the past, but through loosely coordinated, internationally backed networks of violent, nonviolent, and online actions. “This doctrine’s main thesis is that popular demonstrations have as their main objective to lead a state into what they call ‘permanent civil war,'” Richard Tamayo Nieto of Bogota’s Universidad del Rosario explained to CNN Español. “Therefore, it should be handled by states as a matter of national security and protesters should be considered military targets.” (Blanco, 2021)
Like the Cold-War national security doctrine, “hybrid warfare,” or its “dispersed molecular” variant, risks enabling a reversion of U.S. policy to one that again encourages militarization in Latin America. If it comes at a time when Washington feels compelled to assist authoritarian-trending regimes’ militaries as a perceived counterweight to Chinese influence, U.S. assistance may once again be misused to suppress civil society, whether through recklessly applied crowd control or through surveillance, spurious prosecutions, or more “kinetic” approaches.
Civil society’s role is crucial, and the U.S. government needs to understand it better
The panorama laid out here is dispiriting. Democracy is in retreat while military roles increase. Authoritarians are taking advantage of new definitions of warfare as they prepare to confront populations made restive by worsening inequality and the COVID economic depression. And the United States, after a period of relaxing its encouragement of new military roles, appears to be slipping back into a Cold War groove as it grows ever more wary of China and other competitors.
Though it is Latin America’s largest supplier of assistance, the U.S. government has neither the resources nor the credibility necessary to restore Latin America to the path of democratization and demilitarization that it had begun to follow in the 1990s and the 2000s. Nor should it have to do so. Years into the region’s democratic transition, most countries have vibrant civil societies that are better organized, more sophisticated, and more networked than ever before.
Social movements, including the ones being confronted by security forces during Latin America’s recent protests, offer the best counterbalance to states trending toward authoritarianism and militarism. So, under some circumstances, do elements of the private sector. The U.S. government, like most states, prefers to work with governments and large institutions, especially militaries—hierarchical institutions made up of permanent career officials. Today’s complexities make clear, though, that these relationships are not enough. Washington’s representatives in Latin America must get to know and understand civil society better. That is crucial if Washington is to avoid doing harm to fragile civil-military relations in the name of great-power competition, which would be a sad echo of a not-too-distant past.
Conclusions and Recommendations
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[*] The Leahy Law, named after its principal sponsor, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, 22 U.S.C. 2378d), prohibits the provision of assistance to foreign military and police units and their members, if those units or their members have engaged in gross violations of human rights, and if there are no credible efforts to bring those violations to justice.
[†] A September 2021 Google search for < site:southcom.mil “partner of choice” > yielded 125 results.