On Increasing the Military’s Authority in Haiti and Guatemala

Rob has some interesting comments/insights on efforts to increase military institutions and expand their authority in both Haiti and Guatemala. As I note in the comments there, I think Martelly’s decision to revive the military makes sense in three ways. On the one hand, it will provide a national force that can respond quickly in the event of national emergencies like the 2010 earthquake. Second, providing steady and paid employment to thousands of Haitians certainly seems like a good idea. Thirdly, Martelly’s not just seeking to bring a military institution back, but to provide the funding both for it and for past members of the military (which Jean-Bertrand Aristide dissolved in 1995). These soldiers have complained that they have not received the pensions they deserve, so Martelly’s plan will address that issue as well. Given the potential of ex-military to become involved in civilian politics in a country that is still working towards achieving some level of stability in civilian rule, I think setting aside funds for pensions is an important step towards ensuring future stability. It’s not guarantee, but the move’s theoretical benefits certainly seem to outweigh any of the potential negatives that spring to mind.

Regarding Guatemala, I definitely think it’s more complicated. Guatemalans are going to the polls to elect a new president next Sunday, and whoever wins this run-off (the first round was held in September) has pledged a stronger military presence in order to restore “order” in a country that’s seeing the drug trade (and its accompanying violence) expanding. I see two different types of problems regarding this issue. On the one hand, yes, Guatemalans themselves are calling for greater military authority, even while many were alive for and directly affected by the civil war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, including entire villages of civilians who were not directly involved in the war itself. The question does arise as to why they may want the military to return in spite of the horrors of the recent past. I think what’s at play here is the “softening” of a historical perspective, where the horrors and problems of the past seem less severe over time while more recent problems are elevated in the public mind. This wouldn’t be the first time I heard people from some country that once went through a brutal dictatorship and who spoke of its horrors still pine for a stronger military to “restore order” in the present (and seemingly ignoring or forgetting what they’d just said about brutal dictatorships immediately beforehand). No doubt many Guatemalans genuinely believe a greater military presence could help, but I’m more ambivalent in this case, and not just because of the past.

The other reason this approach seems problematic is that the authorities are saying a greater military presence is needed in Guatemala because that’s the approach in Mexico (and has also been the approach in Colombia and in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro). But in the cases of Mexico, Colombia, and Rio de Janeiro, it’s becoming increasingly common to see national police and military forces increase their presence ostensibly to root out drug lords and remove drug gangs, only to then engage in the drug trade itself, setting up a parallel paramilitary militia structure that is just as violent towards civilians as drug gangs had been, if not moreso. Thus, even while the drug lords may be losing, paramilitary officials enter the trade and only further fuel a cycle of violence and human rights violations that regularly affects everyday citizens involved neither with the police nor with the drug trade. Certainly, Guatemala is smaller than Mexico (and it’s barely bigger than Rio de Janeiro city), but at first glance, I don’t see any reason to think that increasing the military’s strength against the drug trade is going to turn out any better in Guatemala than it has in Mexico, Colombia, or Brazil.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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