There is a new threat to Latin America's democracies -- one that has drawn too little attention: the growing political partisanship of the region's armed forces.
It's happening in several countries, and it could produce a chain reaction throughout the region.
Earlier this month, at the urging of Bolivian president Evo Morales, the Bolivian army declared itself ``socialist,'' ``anti-imperialist'' and ``anti-capitalist.''
At a Nov. 14 ceremony attended by the army commanders of Chile and Ecuador, and military delegations from Argentina, Brazil and Peru, Bolivian army commander Gen. Antonio Cueto said that his country's 2009 constitution allows ``the army to emerge as a socialist institution.'' Opposition leaders say that's ludicrous.
Days earlier, Venezuela's head of the armed forces Operational Strategic Command Maj. Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who has since been promoted to commander in chief, was quoted by the Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias as suggesting the Venezuelan armed forces would not accept an opposition victory in the 2012 presidential elections.
Saying that the Venezuelan armed forces are ``married'' to President Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, Rangel Silva stated that a hypothetical opposition government in 2012 that changed current programs ``would amount to selling away the country, and that's something that's not going to be accepted by the National Armed Force.''
Chávez immediately promoted Rangel Silva -- who, incidentally, is on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of foreign officials with ties to drug cartels. Venezuela's armed forces have already adopted as their military salute the Cuban-inspired slogan, ``Socialist Fatherland or Death!''
In Central America, Nicaragua's army -- while more prudent in its public statements than its Bolivian and Venezuelan counterparts -- is known to have an increasingly cozy relationship with President Daniel Ortega.
The Honduran generals who ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya last year justified their action by asserting that the former president had violated the constitution and also said they could not have accepted a socialist government in Honduras.
``Unless there is a prompt and collective reaction against these armed forces statements, we may soon see a domino effect,'' says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas section of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group.
``History shows that if we allow these things to go unchallenged, we will set the stage for a gradual loss of democratic freedoms, and for the eventual return of military regimes.''
Among the dangers on the horizon:
First, if armed forces vow not to accept electoral results they don't like, as Venezuelan army commander Rangel Silva suggests, it may lead to a new wave of military coups after two decades of democratic gains in most of the region.
Second, if the armed forces' partisanship becomes the ``new normal,'' it will lead political, union and business leaders to solve their disputes by counting how many generals they have on their side.
In the past, military alliances with politicians, business tycoons or labor leaders have often led to military coups.
Third, the ``anti-capitalist'' statements by Bolivian and Venezuelan military commanders are likely to create nervousness among right-of-center officers in Chile, Colombia and other neighboring countries, and drive them to proclaim their armed forces ``anti-communist.'' That, too, would create a climate prone to military coups.
What should be done? There are several regional commitments for the collective defense of democracy that specifically require each country's military to respect the rule of law. Among others, the 2001 Summit of the Americas' Declaration of Quebec City, signed by 34 heads of state, states that ``the subordination of the armed forces'' to democratically-elected civilian authorities ``as well as their respect for the rule of law'' are ``fundamental'' elements of democracy.
When I asked Organization of American States Secretary General Insulza in an interview last week whether the OAS will do anything about the new trend, he said there is little he can do -- other than expressing his personal concern -- unless OAS member countries take up the issue at the institution's General Council. So far, no country has done that.
My opinion: I agree with Vivanco and other human rights leaders that the recent statements by the Bolivian and Venezuelan military commanders set a terrible precedent for the region. Unless they are denounced by the rest of the region, it will trigger a chain reaction that sooner or later will return the region to the dark days of military regimes. Unfortunately, everybody is looking the other way.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.