Public Opinion and the Armed Forces in the Southern Cone (ARI)

Public Opinion and the Armed Forces in the Southern Cone (ARI)

Theme: The new international challenges and the current Southern Cone governments’ plans for reform have re-ignited the interest of public opinion in issues linked to the armed forces, bringing them to centre-stage in all the main media.

Summary: In this period of transition for the South American armed forces, the citizens of countries in the Southern Cone have renewed their interest in matters of security, defence and the military. Now that these matters are firmly back on the public agenda, new debates have arisen and issues that had been placed on a back burner have been reactivated. While the matters being discussed are not directly comparable from one country to the next, it is possible to pinpoint at least four common themes among South American societies: (1) consolidation of civilian defence control; (2) military dictatorships’ debt to society; (3) the scope of alliances with other countries; and (4) the role which should be assigned to the armed forces.


The Context of South American Security
Security in the sub-region has a special characteristic: a peaceful political environment prevails because of the low likelihood of armed conflict. Despite this comparative advantage, military structures in the Southern Cone have encountered serious difficulties in adapting to the global political context.

In particular, in Argentina and Uruguay, in the last decade (and beyond), the military has faced, among other difficulties, the persistence of a doctrine that was not linked to current national interests, the absence of a suitable conflict hypothesis, outdated training plans at military academies and a significant erosion of operating capacity due to budget concerns. Accordingly, the underlying question for some sectors of public opinion was: what are the armed forces for and what is the point of having them?

Virgilio Beltrán, a specialist in military sociology, responds to this by suggesting that their relevance resides in the fact that a State’s overall security requires armed forces with the capacity to face actual or possible threats, to protect the entire population and, ultimately, to ensure that peace and stability are conquered and maintained. Notwithstanding the conceptual explanation regarding the necessary existence of a military, the question was evidence of the extent to which the people’s image of the armed forces has been eroded.

As Beltrán also points out, one of the peculiarities of the South American context is the superposition of a unique strategic situation, amid the US’s suggested Hemispheric security policies, the weight of the history of local forces and the increasing demand for operations other than war. Secondly, the armed forces in the sub-region have not yet moved beyond dissuasion and the doctrine in place since the Cold War has changed little. Consequently, a priority is to implement modernisation criteria to enable the military to adapt to the new challenges and for their strategic planning to focus on maintaining and boosting capabilities.

Main Public Opinion Trends
The actions of Southern Cone governments seem to show a strong desire for reform, which is embodied, among other things, in measures such as: the regulation of the National Defence Law in Argentina, created in 1988 but only signed into a decree by President Kirchner as recently as 2006; the modernisation of the defence structure and strengthening of civilian control as State policy in Chile; the specialisation of the armed forces in non-war operations in Uruguay and, in Brazil, the Soldier Citizen project (which seeks to provide professional training to an increasing number of recruits); and the definitive installation of the Amazonian Surveillance System (Sistema de Vigilância da Amazônia – SIVAM)/Amazonian Protection System (Sistema de Proteção da Amazônia – SIPAM).

The changes introduced by the current administrations have triggered a kind of renewed interest among citizens in matters of defence, security and the armed forces. However, not all governmental actions have had the same effect on the population. Hence, three common factors can be identified in the Southern Cone countries: (1) the scope of strategic alliances with other nations; (2) the consolidation of the civilian defence command based on the transfer of working areas currently under the control of the armed forces to other State agencies; and (3) the questioning of the purpose of the military. Furthermore, a fourth matter is particularly relevant in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay: (4) the debt to society left by the former military regimes.

Strategic Alliances
First, a survey by the Argentine Council for International Relations (Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales – CARI) shows that only 9% of Argentines are in favour of maintaining close ties with the US (unlike the situation in the previous decade), while 27% were inclined towards Europe, 18% pointed to Brazil, 9% to Chile and just 2% to Latin American countries in general. This clearly contrasts with the firm intention of Latin American integration proposed as a model by the Argentine President. In this connection, it is highly revealing that a fundamental ally for the current Argentine President, Venezuela, received 0% of the votes.

In Chile, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad – CERC) revealed (in a press release dated August 2006) that the most popular Latin American country was Brazil, with 38% of those surveyed, while 9% preferred Argentina, 4% Uruguay and 3% Bolivia. With regard to the image of the Presidents themselves, Lula Da Silva, with 14% of the vote, was seen as the ‘most friendly’ and Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales, with 1%, were seen as the ‘least friendly’.

A survey conducted in Brazil by the Brazilian Centre for International Relations (Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais – CEBRI) indicated that 99% of those surveyed considered that the relationship with the US was vital for their country’s interests, 96% said the same about Argentina and 56% about Bolivia. Although the survey is not recent, since it was conducted in 2001, it does reveal a general trend in Brazilian public opinion, which rates bilateral relations with Argentina very highly.

Consolidation of Civilian Control
As regards the role of the military, the current period is marked by a new definition of the specificity of the military’s role and even the limits imposed by current administrations in favour of civilian control. A clear example is the controversy in Brazil in the wake of the air crisis, when air traffic controllers denounced failures in the control system as well as demands for better working conditions. The talks ended with flights getting back to normal and with negotiations with the Defence Minister, Waldir Pires, to reduce the participation of the Air Force in air traffic control.

A similar case occurred in Argentina, when a radar at the Ezeiza international airport, the country’s largest, broke down. Air controllers’ complaints, and the intervention of leaders of opinion and the authorities, triggered considerable concern among the population, which had to bear flight delays and cancellations due to air traffic control being operated manually. In response, a National Civil Aviation Administration was officially created, which will depend on the Transport Secretariat, and the Air Force will be taken off the task.

These two controversies, among others, show the strong political trend towards transferring responsibilities and powers which historically have belonged to the armed forces to other State agencies. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two countries mentioned: society’s degree of trust in the military. In Argentina, some sectors of society (mainly in the cities) hold the military in relatively low esteem. At the same time, among all the countries in the sub-region, Brazil’s population is noted for having a very high level of trust in the armed forces. According to an IBOPE survey of trust in institutions conducted in Brazil in 2005, 69% of those surveyed cited the armed forces (which ranked no less than third overall), just 2% lower than the Roman Catholic Church. Notably, the lowest percentage was obtained by political parties and their representatives, with 10% and 8%, respectively.

Another example of the urgency for boosting civilian command, and transferring power away from the armed forces, was the Argentine government’s initiative of closing military lycées. However, unlike other measures which were backed by the population, certain forums and surveys appeared in the leading national newspapers and strong media protests were organised, showing a considerable support for free choice of the kind of institutions during that cycle of education, and the measure was overturned.

The Purpose of the Armed Forces
As regards the priorities which should be assigned to the military, over the next 10 years, those surveyed in the CARI study in Argentina pinpointed as a high priority the organisation’s traditional mission, with transnational threats relegated to second place, that are considered a higher priority in other countries in the Hemisphere. The findings were as follows: the priority for 31% was ‘to defend sovereignty’, followed equally by ‘combating drug trafficking’ and ‘maintaining operating capacity’ at 20%, ‘fighting against terrorism’ at 17% and, finally, ‘participating in peace-keeping operations’ at 12%, ranking lowest on the list of priorities for the military according to those surveyed in Argentina.

It is interesting that despite the current orientation of the armed forces in the Southern Cone towards active involvement in subsidiary peace operations (non-war operations), the surveys afforded this category less importance  compared with other purposes, such as combating drug trafficking. It also increasingly highlights the ambiguity which persists in identifying the role of the armed forces, since matters linked to drug trafficking are not the responsibility of the military (by law) but are the main competency of interior security (although interagency cooperation is designed to enable work to be carried out in an integrated fashion).

Similarly, the consideration of terrorism as a priority for the armed forces dilutes the conceptual separation between interior security and defence, in the eyes of the public. The cause of this can be partly traced back to the impact of 9/11. Nevertheless, it is notable that Argentines began thinking about terrorism from 2001 onwards and not when the attacks were perpetrated against the Israeli insurance company AMIA and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which happened more than 10 years ago.

Comparatively, the CEBRI survey in Brazil shows that 88% of those surveyed support multilateral military action under the UN umbrella. Strengthening the armed forces is considered to be necessary for the State (47%), although not a priority with respect to other matters such as promoting development. This contrasts with public opinion in Argentina where, despite the political leanings towards peace missions, a classic view of the role of the armed forces is still upheld.

As new challenges for national security were pinpointed, those surveyed were asked about the most significant matters concerning the preparation of the armed forces for the new scenarios, which were labelled ‘priorities with respect to the restructuring of the armed forces’. The findings show that 93% of people considered professional training to be fundamental, 88% cited greater integration and subordination of the Army, Navy and Air Force to the Defence Ministry and, in third place, 82% mentioned investment in technological modernisation.

Finally, a matter for debate in the Southern Cone, and indeed in Latin America as a whole, are the bounds of the military’s role in relation to interior security. It is clear that crime is the security issue which most concerns the public. In the Corporación Latinobarómetro Report in 2006, there is a table showing the two most significant problems identified by the people surveyed throughout the entire region: the first is unemployment, and the second is crime, except in Argentina, where crime comes first (23%) and unemployment second (10%), and in Chile (22% each).

Despite the heightened concern among the public regarding the question of crime, there are significant differences in how the problem is tackled by the governments and in the people’s opinions regarding the role of the armed forces in this connection, as shown by the parallels in the surveys conducted in Argentina and Brazil.

The Military Dictatorships’ Debt to Society
The societies’ ideological differences in regard to the most recent military dictatorships have been highlighted in the last few years. Demonstrations and varied political comments have appeared often in the media, especially in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, when the investigations on human rights breaches during the dictatorships were reopened.

The CERC survey shows that 81% of Chileans agree that the marks left by the military regime remain. As for the image of Pinochet, 82% of those surveyed believe that he will go down in history ‘as a dictator’, compared with 12% who believe he was ‘one of the best leaders Chile had in the twentieth century’.

In Argentina, an opinion poll on the military coup in 1976 conducted in 2001 by the consultants Graciela Röemer y Asociados surveyed not only public opinion, but also opinion leaders and Army personnel. Eighty percent of public opinion agreed that human rights violations were committed, 99% among opinion leaders and 58% of those surveyed from the Army. They were also asked whether they agreed that it was the only way to put an end to the guerrillas: 23% of public opinion said it was, 9% of opinion leaders and 65% of Army personnel.

In Uruguay, MORI survey teams conducted a poll in 2005, in which people were asked whether they believed that the government should press on with investigating human rights issues: 45% responded that it was an extremely important issue, while 51% said there were other more important issues which the President should tackle. Furthermore, 62% supported the government’s decisions regarding these investigations, while 18% did not.

In this connection, 60% agreed that military personnel involved in human rights breaches not listed under the country’s amnesty law (Ley de Caducidad) should be tried. As to whether the issue of human rights violations would definitively be closed during this period of government, 71% maintained that the matter of the disappeared will remain for Uruguayans in the future, while 22% responded that the issue might finally be laid to rest soon.

In short, the findings from the surveys in these three countries show the awareness and importance of this matter for all three societies: there is a favourable climate for government actions in regard to the disappeared and, in particular, the populations of all three countries largely agree that human rights breaches are the major unresolved issue.

Conclusion: Although in the Southern Cone the prevailing strategic context is one of peace and the emergence of new phenomena which pose a threat to the security of the states in the sub-region, such as organised crime and drug trafficking, there is no single joint vision in regard to how to build mutual trust, defining the threats, disarming and defining the armed forces’ new role, despite the general agreements reached at ministerial summits. The reformist ideas of all the governments in the sub-region do not appear to be directly shared by the people themselves. This trend was compounded when Venezuela entered MERCOSUR, with the appearance of two divergent and different visions of foreign and defence policy (Venezuela and Brazil).

These political characteristics are being transferred directly to the countries’ citizens, who are once again becoming interested in matters relating to the armed forces, against a backdrop of some confusion in regard to their transformation. As political criteria regarding defence and the military begin to diverge in the Southern Cone, the people are showing similar differences in their responses and opinions. However, the most important aspect of this period is that public opinion has renewed its interest in the armed forces, re-igniting hopes for a new commitment among citizens which will contribute to enhancing this social organisation’s status as a democratic institution.

Marina Malamud
Professor of Military Sociology and independent researcher at the Argentine Defence Ministry’s National Defence School (Escuela de Defensa Nacional)