Why civilians replaced military regimes in Latin America

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin American countries were governed by military dictators. Although they had come to stay indefinitely as managers of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction, by the 1980s and 1990s they had handed over power to civilian governments. What caused this fundamental change?

Under a combination of external and domestic pressure caused by economic failures and human rights violations, military governments couldn’t cope with the management of national economies and civilian populations they were not equipped to handle. The information below has been extracted in part from the fifth edition of a 1995 publication by Europa Publications Limited titled “South America, Central America and the Caribbean”. Economic, social, political and human rights failures led to internal and external pressures that forced military governments to retire from politics. The church played a significant role in the transition from military to civilian rule.

The main purpose of armed forces is to defend the nation against external aggression and not run affairs of state. But in Latin America there were few foreign wars to explain the rise of military dictatorship that began in 1930. However, in the 1960s, Castro and Che Guevara revolutions necessitated military intervention with external assistance in training and funding. Some countries developed the so-called “National Security Doctrine” that enabled military officers to implement drastic measures to prevent or defeat subversion in their territories.

Military-led regimes believed that by improving economic development they could stay in power indefinitely. Ipso facto, armed forces captured power in Brazil in 1964; Panama and Peru in 1968; Chile and Uruguay in 1973 and Argentina in 1966. In each case, the military removed civilian regimes. By the 1970s military dictatorship was the dominant form of rule in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and the Central American countries except Costa Rica.

In the 1980s there was an opening towards democracy. By 1990, all countries in mainland America were under constitutional governments – some military and others civilian. In some countries like Peru under civilian rule the presence of the military was still considerable. Why did military officers withdraw from governing?

1. There was a loss of self-confidence by the military themselves. The loss of the Falklands war by the military in Argentina forced it to step down. In Brazil, Uruguay and Central America, the failure in the economic area humiliated them and had to go to avoid further embarrassment. It is important to note that the military was always aware that it had no competence in management of economic and related matters. Consequently, “It is no coincidence that even in military cabinets the economy portfolio was almost invariably entrusted to a civilian [economist]”.

2. They came to the conclusion that civilian rule and democracy presented a viable alternative and recognized that they had overvalued their own abilities to govern countries.

3. Their departure was premised on the understanding through negotiations with civilians that the military would not be held accountable for the atrocities it carried out while in office.


The military government became unpopular largely because of human rights violations and incompetence to improve the economy. It invaded the Falklands Islands to regain domestic popularity like Amin who invaded Tanzania. However, it lost to British troops as Amin lost to Tanzania troops and Uganda rebels. The security forces surrendered power to the civilian only after one year of negotiation for assurances that they wouldn’t be held accountable for breaches of human rights. During the elections the candidate who had courageously opposed the Falklands war and defended human rights won the election in a landslide.


The military captured power in Brazil in 1964 because of the economic crisis, political instability and influence of the Cuban Revolution. Initially, as in Uganda during the 1990s, the economy did well which enabled the government to suppress opposition so that the good work is not undermined. As in Uganda the ‘economic miracle’ didn’t last. The oil crisis, world recession and high interest rates on external debt undermined continued economic growth. Demonstrations by workers with Church support under the leadership of Cardinal Arns forced the government to hold elections. In the 1982 elections, opposition made considerable gains and in the 1985 elections the military backed candidate was defeated.


General Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda captured power and in 1954 was elected. He forced his main rival into exile and was able to stay in power for a long time. When he felt confident after he had crushed opponents, he imposed austerity structural adjustment program, as in Uganda under the NRM, in which wages were frozen, subsidies reduced and real incomes plummeted. These economic hard times resulted in unrest and demonstrations. In response the government instituted repressive measures and hundreds were arrested while others fled into exile.

A non-violent peasant movement emerged largely in reaction to unequal land tenure system. The reform movement within the church encouraged peasant revolt. As a consequence, church-state relations deteriorated and the church property was invaded by police. In protest Archbishop Anibal Mena Porta refused to participate in the Council of State activities. President Carter’s crusade against human rights violation together with continued economic distress and political instability and demonstrations and Stroessner’s advanced age created conditions for his removal from office by military officers. In May 1993 a civilian was chosen by the military as president to run the affairs of state.


General Pinochet came to power in 1973 in a military coup. In 1982-83 the economy went into decline through a recession. The dictator imposed a state of siege to crush the opposition against his dictatorial rule in spite of external advice not to do so. The church put up resistance and checked the security brutality but didn’t end it. It drew attention to the worsening poor conditions in the country. In anticipation of the Pope’s visit (Pope John Paul II) in 1987, Pinochet ended the siege and allowed the return of exiles.

In March 1987, political space was provided by promulgation of a law that allowed non-Marxist political parties to resume political activities. In a plebiscite that followed whether or not Pinochet should stay in power, he lost by 55 percent to 43 percent. Elections were scheduled for December 1989. Seventeen opposition parties came together under the leadership of Patricio Aylwin Azocar and won with 55.2 percent and his main opponent got only 29.4 percent.

Summing up

Military governments handed over power to civilian rule because they realized that they had overstated their ability to manage the economy and end the crisis. Military regimes that captured power beginning in 1930 came in for the sole purpose of resolving problems and then return to the barracks when the job was done. Those who came in beginning in the 1960s wanted to solve problems and use their success as pretext for staying in power indefinitely. They introduced repressive measures to silence opposition. In Argentina they embarked on ‘dirty war’ against the opposition and even invaded the Falklands Islands to buy domestic popularity.

The failure to tame the economy and the social hardship that accompanied that failure led to strikes and demonstrations with support of the church in some countries and outside pressure against human rights abuses.

Similarities with Uganda

There are similarities with Uganda’s NRM. It came to power in 1986 condemning UPC for failure to improve economic performance and end poverty and overall suffering of the population. UPC was accused of accepting austerity program of the IMF and the World Bank. NRM vowed to transform colonial economic structure and industrialize Uganda within fifteen years and end suffering of all Ugandans by implementing the ten point program which was expanded to fifteen. In international conferences and summits Uganda stressed that its aim was not to reduce but eradicate poverty.

Initially like in some Latin American countries Uganda economy did very well in large part by restoration of peace and security in some parts that released dormant human energies and utilized excess capacity in agriculture, industry and service sectors as well as generous donations and remittances. By mid-1990s, Uganda’s economy was growing at 10 percent but it turned out to be unsustainable as in Latin America under military regimes.

The engine of rapid economic growth was excess capacity not macroeconomic policies and when the excess capacity got finished, NRM didn’t know what to do next. As 2011 elections approached, it put together in a hurry a Five Year Development Plan (NDP) which has not been implemented as reported by the prime minister a few months ago. We sent the government UDU National Recovery Plan as a better alternative but it didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the Plan. So Uganda has no government policy guidance. Market forces and private sector which are being relied upon have serious imperfections that need state intervention when they occur.

Since 1987, the NRM military government simply handed over the economy to foreigners who designed and implemented economic recovery program (P. Langseth et al, 1995). While well meaning, foreign experts and advisers didn’t quite understand the inter-linkages of Uganda’s economy, politics and history to be able to design appropriate policies. They embarked on standard one-size-fits-all economic growth through market forces and private sector and left the distribution of growth benefits to trickle down mechanism which didn’t work.

After 26 years of NRM economic failure to grow the economy at an average annual rate of 9 percent, the minimum for meeting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), poverty still hovers over fifty percent, youth unemployment over 80 percent and 33 percent of Ugandans go to bed hungry daily. NRM has no hope of reversing this sad trajectory.

UDU has provided a solid alternative National Recovery Plan (NRP) which has been drawn up by Ugandans and reviewed by a wide range of stakeholders at home and abroad before it was launched in October 2011. It is accessible at www.udugandans.org.

For the good of the country and its own legacy, NRM should hand over to a civilian government with expertise to resuscitate the economy back to normal life to avoid demonstrations and other costly adventures to buy popular support in Uganda and abroad.