Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 403–431 | Cite as

Confronting Coup Risk in the Latin American Left



Military coups d'état have become dramatically less frequent in Latin America over the past 20 years, leading many analysts to conclude that the risk of coups in the region today is negligible. Yet we observe that a particular subset of presidents in the region—namely, those commonly associated with the radical left—pursue a wide range of “coup-proofing” behaviors, primarily in the way that they manage relations with their militaries, but also in their political rhetoric. Our goal in this article is to explain why some Latin American presidents spend precious resources on coup-proofing. First, even as we demonstrate that coup activity is significantly diminished across the region as a whole, we offer evidence to suggest that coup risk is quite real in countries with radical left presidents. Second, we identify several specific strategies that these presidents have pursued to minimize coup risk. We explain the coup-proofing rationale behind each of these strategies and document their use in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Third, we show that no similar set of strategies or policies has been pursued by moderate leftist or more conservative presidents in the region. We infer from these empirical patterns that radical left presidents have undertaken substantial efforts to maintain military allegiance and to mitigate coup risk precisely because they recognize the possibility of military intervention. In our conclusion, we suggest that these strategies may confer a short-term benefit for the presidents who implement them, but they are likely to have negative consequences for the long-term stability of democratic institutions.


Latin America Coups d'etat Civil–military relations Radical left Coup-proofing Regime type 



A partial draft of this paper was presented at the XXIX Congress of the Latin American Studies Association in Toronto, Canada, October 6-9, 2010. We thank Will Barndt, Ryan Carlin, Michelle Dion, Gustavo Flores-Macías, Kathryn Hochstetler, Raul Madrid, Pierre Ostiguy, Brian Palmer-Rubin, David Rivera, Brian Taylor, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments and criticisms.


  1. Agence France Presse. Uribe fires four top Colombian generals. April 27, 2005.Google Scholar
  2. Agence France Presse. Bolivian opposition organizing ‘civil coup’: president. September 5, 2008.Google Scholar
  3. Arceneaux CL, Pion-Berlin D. Issues, threats, and institutions: explaining OAS responses to democratic dilemmas in Latin America. Latin American Politics Society. 2007;49(2):1–31. Summer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arias, Oscar. Fuel for a coup: the perils of Latin America’s oversized militaries. Washington Post. July 9, 2009.Google Scholar
  5. Arostegui, Martin. Evo Morales: a new security command in Bolivia. Washington Times. January 31, 2006a.Google Scholar
  6. Arostegui, Martin. Bolivia plans border bases; Venezuela aids effort to oppose a ‘scheming’ U.S. Washington Times. September 19, 2006b.Google Scholar
  7. Arostegui, Martin. Cuban advisers bolster Venezuelan regime. Washington Times. April 6, 2010.Google Scholar
  8. Avilés W. Global capitalism, democracy, and civil–military relations in Colombia. Albany: State University of New York Press; 2006.Google Scholar
  9. Avilés W. Despite insurgency: reducing military prerogatives in Colombia and Peru. Latin American Politics Society. 2009;51(1):57–85. Spring.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bajak, Frank. Venezuelan military: election arbiter and wild card. Associated Press. October 5, 2012.Google Scholar
  11. BBC News. Bolivian army adopts Cuban slogan, March 24, 2010.Google Scholar
  12. Belkin A, Schofer E. Toward a structural understanding of coup risk. J Confl Resolut. 2003;47(5):594–620. October.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bello, Walden. Commentary. Business World, February 28, 2006.Google Scholar
  14. Brewer-Carias AR. Dismantling democracy in Venezuela. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2010. p. 130–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bronstein, Hugh and Alexandra Valencia. Unrest rocks Ecuador, Correa blames coup attempt. Reuters. September 30, 2010.Google Scholar
  16. Castañeda J. Latin America’s left turn. Foreign Affairs. 2006;85:28–43. May–June.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Centeno MA. Blood and debt: war and the nation-state in Latin America. University Park: Pennsylvania Press University; 2002.Google Scholar
  18. Chuquimia, Marco. Morales to make early replacements in armed forces to avoid internal conflicts. El Deber. January 6, 2009.Google Scholar
  19. Cleary M. A “Left Turn” in Latin America? Explaining the Left’s Resurgence. J Democr. 2006; 17(4):35–49. October.Google Scholar
  20. Desch MC. Civilian control of the military. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1999.Google Scholar
  21. Diamint R. La historia sin fin: el control civil de los militares en Argentina. Nueva Sociedad. 2008;213:95–111. January-February.Google Scholar
  22. Domínguez J, Purcell SK. Political evolution in the hemisphere. In: Fishlow A, Jones J, editors. The United States and the Americas: a twenty-first century view. New York: Norton; 1999. p. 137–73.Google Scholar
  23. Downie, Andrew. Is Latin America heading for an arms race? Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 2008.Google Scholar
  24. Economist. Don’t Look Back; Lula and the Generals. January 9, 2010a.Google Scholar
  25. Economist. A strike against democracy: the president survives an uprising by security forces. October 7, 2010b.Google Scholar
  26. Economist. A Caribbean Tripoli? Hugo Chávez grooms a militia. April 7, 2011a.Google Scholar
  27. Economist. Doing the Conga: the president takes on the protesters, December 10, 2011b.Google Scholar
  28. El Espectador. Colombian government must learn lessons from FARC attack in Huila (editorial). February 29, 2004.Google Scholar
  29. El Universal. High-ranking officer's remarks cast doubt on the true role of the army. November 9, 2010.Google Scholar
  30. El Universo. Correa trusts in two former Lucio Gutiérrez classmates. April 17, 2010.Google Scholar
  31. Feaver P. Armed servants: agency, oversight, and civil–military relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2003.Google Scholar
  32. Finer S. The man on horseback: the role of the military in politics. London: Pall Mall Press; 1962.Google Scholar
  33. Fitch SJ. The armed forces and democracy in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1998.Google Scholar
  34. Flores-Macías G. Statist vs pro-market: explaining leftist governments’ economic policies in Latin America. Comparative Politics. 2010;42(4):413–33. July.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Fossum E. Factors influencing the occurrence of military coups d'etat in Latin America. J Peace Res. 1967;4(3):228–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Francisco Alonso Juan. ‘No coupsters or tyrants anymore’ in the Venezuelan army. El Universal. August 8, 2011.Google Scholar
  37. Gardner Simon. Bolivia army patrols town under martial law. Reuters. September 14, 2008.Google Scholar
  38. Guardian. Ecuador’s president promises to punish his enemies after day of chaos, October 1, 2010.Google Scholar
  39. Hakim P. Dispirited politics. J Democr. 2003;14(2):108–22. April.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Housego Kim. New military commanders named in Colombia. Associated Press. November 18, 2003.Google Scholar
  41. Huntington SP. The soldier and the state: the theory and politics of civil–military relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1957.Google Scholar
  42. Huntington SP. Political order and changing societies. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1968.Google Scholar
  43. James, Ian. Venezuela’s Chávez: new coup plot discovered. Associated Press. September 12, 2008.Google Scholar
  44. James, Ian. Housewives, bankers battle in Chávez militia. Associated Press. May 3, 2010a.Google Scholar
  45. James, Ian. Venezuelan ex-general accused of revealing secrets. Associated Press. August 11, 2010bGoogle Scholar
  46. Jeter, Jon. Commanders purged in Argentina. Washington Post. May 29, 2003.Google Scholar
  47. Kurczy, Stephen. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa extends alert, raises police pay days after ‘coup attempt’. Christian Science Monitor. October 5, 2010.Google Scholar
  48. La Razón. Bolivia military to gain new role, ‘vision’ under Morales. September 10, 2006.Google Scholar
  49. La Razón. Bolivian president accuses US agency of assassination attempt. April 13, 2009.Google Scholar
  50. La Tercera (Chile). Presidente Piñera firma proyecto que financia a FFAA y pone fin a Ley Reservada del Cobre. May 16, 2011.Google Scholar
  51. Lehman, Stan. Brazilian president appoints new military commanders. Associated Press. February 21, 2007.Google Scholar
  52. Levitsky S, Way LA. Linkage versus leverage: rethinking the international dimension of regime change. Comparative Politics. 2006;38(4):379–400. July.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Levitsky S, Murillo M. Argentina weathers the storm. J Democr. 2003;14(4):152–66. October.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Linz JJ, Valenzuela A, editors. The failure of presidential democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1994.Google Scholar
  55. Londregan JB, Poole KT. Poverty, the coup trap, and the seizure of executive power. World Politics. 1990;42(2):151–83. January.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Luttwak, Edward. Coup D’état: a practical handbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1968.Google Scholar
  57. Madrid R. The origins of two lefts in Latin America. Political Sci Quarterly. 2010;125(4):587–609. Winter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Mainwaring S. The surprising resilience of elected governments. J Democr. 1999;10(3):101–14. July.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Mapstone, Naomi. Ecuador purges police after revolt. Financial Times. October 1, 2010.Google Scholar
  60. Marshall MG, Marshall DR, editors. Coup d’État Events, 1946–2010 codebook. Typescript. Vienna: Center for Systemic Peace; 2011.Google Scholar
  61. McCoy JL. International response to democratic crisis in the Americas, 1990–2005. Democratization. 2006;13(5):756–75. December.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. MercoPress South Atlantic News Agency. Bolivia’s Morales accuses Washington of encouraging ‘failed coup in Ecuador’. October 4, 2010.Google Scholar
  63. The Military Balance. Caribbean and Latin America. 107, no. 1: 51–92. 2007.Google Scholar
  64. The Military Balance. Caribbean and Latin America, 109, no. 1: 53–98. 2009.Google Scholar
  65. Moya Ocampos Diego. President hikes Venezuelan armed forces salary, denies presence of Iranian special forces. World Markets Research Centre. April 27, 2010.Google Scholar
  66. Navia Roberto. Bolivia makes largest investment in armed forces of last 20 years. El Diario. August 23, 2009.Google Scholar
  67. Neuman William. Appointments unsettle state of Venezuelan politics. The New York Times. January 7, 2012.Google Scholar
  68. Norden D. Civilian authority without civilian dominance: assessing Venezuelan political–military relations under Chávez. Nueva Sociedad. 2008;213:170–87. January-February.Google Scholar
  69. Nordlinger E. Soldiers in politics: military coups and governments. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall; 1977.Google Scholar
  70. O’Donnell G. Delegative democracy. J Democr. 1994;5(1):55–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Oppenheimer, Andres. Latin American militaries playing with fire. Miami Herald, November 22, 2010.Google Scholar
  72. Pion-Berlin D, Trinkunas H. Civilian Praetorianism and military shirking during constitutional crises in Latin America. Comparative Politics. 2010;42(4):395–411. July.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Pion-Berlin D. Militares y democracia en el nuevo siglo. Cuatro descubrimientos inesperados y una conclusión sorprendente. Nueva Sociedad. 2008;213:50–63.Google Scholar
  74. Quinlivan JT. Coup-proofing: its practice and consequences in the Middle East. Int Secur. 1999; 24(2):131–65. Fall.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Remmer K. The process of democratization in Latin America. Stud Comp Int Dev. 1992;27(4):3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Romero, Simon. Bolivia leader lets Venezuela send soldiers, angering foes. New York Times, January 9, 2007a.Google Scholar
  77. Romero, Simon. Venezuela spending on arms soars to world’s top ranks. New York Times. February 25, 2007b.Google Scholar
  78. Romero, Simon. Ecuador’s leader purges military and moves to expel American Base. New York Times. April 21, 2008a.Google Scholar
  79. Romero, Simon. Alleging coup plot, Chávez Ousts U.S. envoy. New York Times. September 12, 2008b.Google Scholar
  80. Romero, Simon. Chávez seeks tighter grip on military. New York Times. May 29, 2009.Google Scholar
  81. Romero, Simon. Purging loyalists, Chávez tightens his inner circle. New York Times. February 17, 2010a.Google Scholar
  82. Romero, Simon. Concern rises in Venezuela about Cuba’s military influence; critics of Chávez fear he’s building a tool to snuff out challenges. International Herald Tribune. June 15, 2010b.Google Scholar
  83. Romero, Simon. Standoff in Ecuador ends with leader’s rescue. New York Times. October 1, 2010c.Google Scholar
  84. Romero, Simon. Debate over meaning of standoff in Ecuador. New York Times. October 3, 2010d.Google Scholar
  85. Romero, Simon. Ecuador leader confounds supporters and detractors. New York Times. October 9, 2010e.Google Scholar
  86. Romero, Simon. A candidate in Peru tacks toward Brazil’s course. New York Times. April 30, 2011.Google Scholar
  87. Sanchez, Fabiola. Chávez decree strengthens pro-government militias. Associated Press, March 23, 2011.Google Scholar
  88. Schimmelfennig F. The community trap: liberal norms, rhetorical action, and the eastern enlargement of the European Union. Int Organ. 2001;55(1):47–80. March.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. States News Service. Bolivia’s military: it’s a difficult life, but certainly there is no sign of a pending military coup. November 5, 2008.Google Scholar
  90. Stepan A. The military in politics: changing patterns in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1971.Google Scholar
  91. Stepan A. The new professionalism of internal warfare and military role expansion. In: Stepan A, editor. Authoritarian Brazil: origins, policies, and future. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1973. p. 47–68.Google Scholar
  92. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 2011. Accessed 24 May 2011.
  93. Stokes Susan C. Globalization and the rise of the left in Latin America. Unpublished manuscript, Yale University. 2008.Google Scholar
  94. Taylor, Brian. Politics and the Russian Army: civil–military relations, 1689–2000. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003.Google Scholar
  95. Toothaker, Christopher. Venezuela’s Chávez accuses Washington of trying to turn military against him. Associated Press. August 20, 2007.Google Scholar
  96. Toothaker, Christopher. Chávez slams critics for downplaying alleged plot. Associated Press. September 15, 2008.Google Scholar
  97. Toothaker, Christopher. Chávez: foes seek Libya-like uprising in Venezuela. Associated Press, March 13, 2011.Google Scholar
  98. Toro, Francisco. How Hugo Chávez became irrelevant. New York Times. October 5, 2012.Google Scholar
  99. UPI. Prison term for Venezuelan general. May 9, 2010a.Google Scholar
  100. UPI. Bolivia builds defenses against ‘poachers’. August 9, 2010b.Google Scholar
  101. Valdez, Carlos. Bolivia begins military training for civilians. Associated Press. August 5, 2010.Google Scholar
  102. Valenzuela A. Latin American presidencies interrupted. J Democr. 2004;15(4):5–19. October.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Vargas Velasquez A. Una convivencia inesperada: Fuerzas Armadas y gobiernos de izquierda en América Latina. Nueva Sociedad. 2008;213:80–94. January-February.Google Scholar
  104. Weyland K. The performance of leftist governments in Latin America: conceptual and theoretical issues. In: Weyland K, Madrid RL, Hunter W, editors. Leftist governments in Latin America: successes and shortcomings. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. WIKILEAKS. 06CARACAS219, Cuba/Venezuela Axis of Mischief: The View From. 2006. and Accessed: March 1 2011.
  106. WIKILEAKS. 07LAPAZ3262, Military stand down more likely than heavy hand. 2007a. Accessed: March 1, 2011.
  107. WIKILEAKS. 07LAPAZ3153, Venezuela-Bolivia: how much fire behind the smoke? 2007b. Accessed: March 1, 2011.
  108. Xinhua News Agency. Bolivian president says Chinese army donation contributes to peace, development. March 31, 2010.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

Personalised recommendations