Author – Fidelis M.L Magalhães


Authoritarianism is not new to Latin America. After all, almost every country in the region had been under the rule of a number of authoritarian regimes since their independence. Previous authoritarian regimes included liberal and conservative from the mid 1800s and populist from 1930s. Yet, the strand of a new authoritarianism or otherwise referred to as Bureaucratic Authoritarianism (henceforth BA) seemed to capture the interest of many observers of Latin American politics.

Various military generals that came to power under BA claimed that their intervention was needed in order to save the nation from civilian corruption and irresponsible economic policies that plagued the region. They argue that thanks to BA regimes that the region was spared from a total economic and social collapse. For instance, the current success of the Chilean economy is claimed to be a result of General Augusto Pinochet’s good economic policies. This is despite the sentencing of General Jorge Rafael Videla, the ex-Argentinean dictator, to life imprisonment on 22 December, 2010 for his role in waging the “the dirty war” (BBC, 2010). The debate about the legacy of military regimes in Latin America is still ongoing.

It is against this light that this paper seeks to analyze the military’s claims that they fought against endemic civilian corruption and their acts were driven mainly by ethical and moral demands. This paper would like to put to test their claims by assessing corruption within military itself and its impacts on the larger society in the periods preceding and during BA. In so doing, it touches upon the impacts of military cooperation and subsequent professionalization. Hence this paper covers three key issues; a general characterization and political economy of BA regimes, internal corruption within the military in Latin America and lastly the impact of military cooperation in contributing to the establishment of BA.

This paper is organized as follows; first, it defines BA and outlines its general features and point at their differences from the previous populist regimes. Second, it revisits the military’s claim of moral and ethical superiority over civilian politicians. It seeks to analyze corruption within the military itself. Third, it analyzes the contribution of military cooperation in laying the foundations for the creation of BA; and finally, it concludes.


The term bureaucratic authoritarianism was first coined by Guillermo O’Donnel, an Argentinean political scientist, in mid 1970s in explaining the nature of the authoritarian regimes that ruled the region from 1960s to the 1980s.[1] Unlike other forms of authoritarianisms, in his view, BA is a type of authoritarianism generally ruled by a military junta rather than a caudillo and marked by the increasing capacity of the state institutionalization of suppression of political dissidents and civil society groups by the military with the aim to transform the country into a modern capitalist society. Whereas its predecessors were practically incapable of controlling various political forces, BA seemed to achieve greatest success not only in containing the dissident elements in the society but also in de-politicizing and excluding them from political participation in the state as a whole. De-politicization here referred to the deactivation through killing, suppression and kidnapping of any suspected members of political movements within the society. This was made possible only by the institutionalization of coercion. As Farcau (1996:16) put it: the killings no longer involved just open combat with violent demonstrators in the streets but included an apparent effort toward the systematic elimination or at least the exclusion through terror of an entire political class and extending even to those simply suspected of harboring resentment of the regime, including members of the middle class and upper classes and even the military itself.

This, the military hoped, would lead to a new engineered society in which the state was to be apolitical and to be based on technocratic capacity to achieve development.

BA states also relied heavily on three core social classes; the military for order and domination of other social classes, the business elites for the achieving a modern-transnational open economy and the technocrats for the formulation of pro-market economic policy and managerial capabilities for achieving better structural transformation (O’Donnel, 1979). In this sense what differentiated BA from the previous populist authoritarianism was the fact that while the former garnered popular sectors as its support base, BA on the contrary, depended primarily on the coalition of the above mentioned groups, normally with the military at the helm.

In terms of its main features, BA, despite its solidly authoritarian appearance, had to continuously deal with its inherent fragility. The first source of this fragility was in its very nature. The fact that it was founded upon suppression and economic domination of a small minority over the popular sector exposed the regimes to challenges and contestations from the majority. This was worsened by the military’s common practice of granting preferential treatment to small business elite. The intertwining of business with the military/state interests turned the state into anything but Evans’ embedded autonomy. The state succumbed to business interests, and vice-versa. This contributed to crafting of a state which did not stand beyond any interest group but rather perceived to be the representative of the business elite (Cardoso, 1979; Schneider, 2004).

In order to maintain control the military resorted to the use of coercion. The action, however, not only resulted in their subsequent collapse but also in the fracturing of the state as a whole. The combination between a minority rule and an excessive coercion undermined the very legitimacy of the state. To better understand the impact of BA regimes, we should revisit the definition of the state. The state is:

“Fundamentally a social relationship of domination, or more precisely, one aspect—as such, comprehensible only analytically—of the social relations of domination. The state supports and organizes these relations of domination through institutions that usually enjoys a monopoly of the means of coercion within a defined territory and that are generally viewed as having alegitimate right to guarantee the system of social domination. As such the state should be understood from and within civil society, though in its objective, institutional form it appears to be, and proclaims itself to stand, above society” (O’Donnell, 1979:286-87)

This is now obvious that BA were by nature predestined to collapse in the long run due to emphasis on coercion and not legitimacy, and by suppressing all popular sectors. Ideally while the state uses coercion in order to ensure the monopoly of violence, it nevertheless, should advocate consensus, which can be gained through either hot or banal nationalism, allowing mechanisms for participations and access to substantive justice via the judiciary. These would strengthen state legitimacy from the citizens, since only via such means that the state may stand within, and at the same time beyond, the civil society. The state should also maintain (perceived) autonomy from any interest group and encompass all sectors of society. In the case of BA, the state, in contrast, was seen to be the advocate of an elite group which privileged and contributed to the strengthening of economic domination by a small upper bourgeois class. Cardoso (1979) claims that BA states focused primarily on strengthening of the executive and its technical capabilities, privileging the business elite, increasing centralization, elimination of the roles of the legislatures, control of judiciary by the executive. Resultant from this, despite the military’s invocation of nationalist symbols, the BA regime lacked unifying factor. It was thus opposed by the majority of the national civil society.

Furthermore, in order to understand the key policy divergence between BA and the previous populist regimes one should return to the period in the preceding to BA regimes. BA came into being partially due to the dissatisfaction of the military and the bourgeois elites with the way their countries were run under populism. They perceived its rule responsible for the destruction of the economy and politics. Chiefly among what they saw as economically destructive outcomes were the notably high inflation rates, corruption and political intensification driven primarily by pressure groups, such as unionized labor workers “activated” under the populist regimes. Precisely, the military’s key discontentment concerned ‘the preferential treatment” through initiatives such as wage increase and the general populist attempt to distribute income responsible for the high rate of inflation and the retardation of the economy (Cardoso 1979 and O’Donnel, 1979). Its primary motivation was to put an end to the populist period and impose neo-liberal economic policies.

The military and the business elites were not in favor of the ISI (Import Substitution Industrialization) strategy adopted by previous regimes arguing that state subsidies afforded massive wage increase and manufacturing subsidies burdened government’s spending, and thus led to debilitation of domestic savings, budget deficit and a high inflation. The ISI also created unattractive value for country’s exports in the international market since the strategy required appreciation of the exchange rate in order to facilitate cheaper imports of technologies which inversely reduced the country’s savings, depleted foreign exchange reserves and unbalanced Terms of Trade (Hartlyn and Morley, 1986).

Beyond disagreements over the economic and social policies, the military also saw clear financial advantages by being in power. Hence, in the next section this paper attempts to point out that the reasons for military intervention had roots in populist era. Also the reasons were far from altruistic and moralistic. Contrary to what is claimed, corruption did not exist in the civilian sphere alone and rampant corruptions were often home-grown inside the military institution itself. In fact rather than civilian corruption, military corruption had more profound impacts on national politics and development.


Military often used instability and civilian corruption during the populist period as the pretext for intervention to establish BA. It claimed that it had the moral duty to intervene as the savior of the nation and guardian of sovereignty. The military also claimed that it was the only institution capable of ending the cycle of rampant civilian corruption. For example in the case of Brazil, the view that civilian corruption resulted in the collapse of the nation could be traced to the “war of triple alliance (1865-1870), in which Brazil defeated its smaller neighbor Paraguay only after years of bloody fighting” (Smallman 1997:41). The army used the event to claim that the prolongation of what should have been an easy war was due to the corruption by the civilian politicians who stole state fund rather than investing in the armed forces. This led some military leaders to believe that, as Floriano Vieira Peixoto (a former vice-president) put it, “it is he (the soldier) who knows how to purify the blood of the social body that is corrupted like ours” (ibid: 42). However, in contrary to the claim the reality pointed otherwise. Military institution was far from clean. In fact corruption and mismanagement was also chronic inside the military institution. There were cases such as the misuse of funds by army generals for personal gains since the time of the Old Republic in the early 1900. Army generals used “public fund to pay for numerous concubines…And stealing coal intended for navy ships and embezzled public fund to pay gambling debts” (ibid: 43). Corruption in the army even led to various internal fights. A group of lieutenants in the Brazilian army rebelled in 1922 but were crashed by senior officers under the command of the Minister of War General Setembrino, perceived to be the most corrupt. The rebellion would resurface two years later and would also be crashed by the same general (ibid). It was only a few years later that the military managed to quell internal rebellion against its leadership. Despite this the rebelling younger officers, interestingly, also blamed civilian politicians for “corrupting the leaders for their political ends”. The generals were seen to be victims of civilian political gains. The argument was, nevertheless, simply to safeguard the reputation of the military institution. As a matter of fact, military generals were not simply passive agents who were victims. Their increased participation in corruption was partially driven by the ascension of military leaders, such as Vargas and later Peron in Argentina, to power and their direction participation in development. The newly risen military leaders were obliged to allow corruption in the military to flourish as a way to buy off loyalty (ibid). This was the case with the Estado Novo in Brazil where Vargas himself was only a colonel and hence relied heavily on more senior generals, many of whom were corrupt, to maintain control over the military.

Furthermore, the change of military tactic from classical military training to anti-communist insurgency in the 1950s with emphasis on the “popular defense” allowed the military to have control not only of its own affairs but also of national development. Throughout the military gained more skills in development programs and began to perceive it-self as a development agency. This coincided with the increase role of the US as a key military partner to Latin America out spacing European countries. The US also shifted its military aid to the region from hemispheric security from external threats to a more inward looking security in which domestic communism was the key threat (Baines, 1972:474). Latin American armies were advised by their American advisers to swift from focusing on heavy armaments to light arms and training of small mobile units specialized in counter insurgency (Francis, 1964). From the 1950s to the 1960s Latin American militaries began to focus on “civic action”. It was “basically the use of military forces on projects useful to the local population in such areas as education, public works, public health and agriculture” (ibid). By being in charge of key development programs, the military also became they key institution which held 52 percent of the internal security aid from the US of which 15 percent was spent on civic action programs (Op.cit: 475). This heightened corruption inside the military. The military established close links with the business communities, and often engaged in bribery and open corruptions. The corruption led to another round of internal war within the armed forces.

The issuance of the “Colonel Manifesto” in 1954, similar to the one of the 1920s by the lieutenants, openly criticized the corruption within the country and in the army itself. The colonels and junior officers called for renewal inside their institution which led to Vargas’ suicide and the overthrow of his successor regime (Smallman, 1997). The problem, nevertheless, was obviously driven by an intertwining of military and business interests. Military commanders developed closed ties with the business elites and they began to challenge the authority of the government. This shows that the argument used by the military that the BA intervention was needed in order to save the country from civilian corruption was partial and unfounded. The military itself was part of the overall problem and was not by means insulated from it.

Rather than saving the nation from all ills, it is more plausible that the military[2] intervened to guarantee its own survival. The military saw the populist regimes as being too sympathetic towards the leftist groups. This intensified their suspicion of, and enhanced their animosity towards, the civilian government. These fears were intensified by two pivotal events, even though they took place eleven years apart–the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, a Marxist candidate, into Chile’s presidency. The Cuban revolution brought a fear of the communist domino effect in Latin America. A fear that was not only ideological but also pragmatic considering one of the first policies taken by the Castro regime after coming into power was to dismantle the Batista military (Fitch, 1998:17). So in that sense, the military’s position was for institutional survival. The latter, however, confirmed the military’s fear that, if unhindered, electoral democracy would only lead to the rise of anti-military communist regimes. Intervention was needed for the sake of saving the nation from communism even if that meant democracy would have to be suspended. The fear of communism was heightened by the left’s increasing optimism of the possibility of creating Cuban like revolutions throughout the region. An example of such optimism is evident in Allende’s statement of the Cuban revolution:

Cuba’s fate resembles that of all Latin American countries. They are all underdeveloped—producers of raw materials and importers of industrial products…..The Cuban revolution is a national revolution, but it is also a revolution of the whole Latin America. It has shown the way for the Liberations of our people (Loveman and Davies Jr, 1997:130).

Adding to the effects of the abovementioned events, it is possible to suggest that while the Cuban revolution may have directly driven military actions in Brazil and in Argentina in the 1960s, the latter, on the other hand, may have influenced military’s decision to return to full control in 1976 in Argentina.


To conclude, the first feature of Bureaucratic Authoritarianism is the presence and type of participation of the military. Under BA the military is the key institution in charge of the regime and normally ruled by a junta rather than by a caudillo. In addition, military ruled by favoring the technocratic executives, prioritizing business elites, suppressing all democratic oppositions and curtailed the power of the legislature and judiciary. Despite its omnipotence and the omnipresence of its security apparatus, BA remained fragile and never managed to gain legitimacy due to its reliance on minority control and orthodox economic policies. In general BA regimes implemented orthodox policies such as fiscal discipline, reduction of budget deficit, devaluation of currency to make exports more competitive and form capital. Its policies aimed to reduce wage level and depress the living standards which did not benefit workers, wage earners and people living on fixed incomes (Cardoso 1979).

In terms of the military’s claim that their intervention aimed to stop civilian corruptions, the reality was more nuanced. In fact, as much as civilian corruption was an issue for Latin America military corruption was a more decisive factor for political changes in the region. Many of the military coups since the Old Republic sprang out from internal military conflicts due to corruption. Hence it was rather unfounded to assume that BA regime was somewhat different and represented a force against civilian corruption when the military institution itself was heavily corrupt.

Changes introduced by, and incentives acquired from, military cooperation with the US. Cooperation with the US, the fact that it emphasized on civic action, allowed the military to be in charge of a significant economic portfolio. It began to directly intervene in the local development and awarding contract to businesses. This increased exponentially corrupt practices within the military. Nevertheless, the cooperation with the US did not serve as the main source of military corruption. Rather Latin American military was already corrupt and the cooperation with the US only intensified the existing corruption and ruthlessness.

Hence, BA in Latin America was nothing but another manifestation of the military’s self interest. Civilian politicians might have been corrupt, but it would be erroneous to think that the military was clean.

[1] To be exact, it was first established in Brazil in 1964 led by General Castello Branco (1867-1967) in the toppling of the constitutional government of João Goulart (1918-1976), seen as a successor of the Vargas regime after Getulio Vargas committed suicide in 1954. In the Argentinian case, however, BA came to power twice. The first was when the army took control in 1966 until 1973, and then ended with the return of Peron in 1973. The full military rule would only resume in 1976 and lasted until 1983. The Chilean case, in contrast, presented itself to be somewhat more linear. There the BA period can be safely identified as the period when the military, under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet, seized power from the democratically elected Marxist president Allende in 1973 and lasted in late 1980s.

[2] Prior to the 1940s Latin American militaries were mostly trained by the Germans, French and other European countries. For instance, the shift in Brazil only took place with the modernization of the armed forces under President Vargas who took office in 1930 and began to intensify links with the US


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