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Antimilitarist Trends in Latin America

Within the global antimilitarist movement, Latin America has had a tradition based on its own particular history. During a large part of the 20th century, the region was governed by military dictatorships. Some of those non-democratic regimes were encouraged or supported by the United States (the majority of cases) or by the Soviet Union during the period known as the Cold War. Other democratic governments were headed up by authoritarian leaders, known in the region as caudillos, who count on wide popular support and promote values extracted from the armed forces for the organisations that support them. Other governments develop a democracy that is restricted to the oligarchic elites. Many of the governments dedicate large portions of their budgets to military expenditure, in contrast with the meagre investment in social areas such as health and education. May Latin American countries were also involved in civil wars and temporary bi-national confrontations during these years. The development and growth of the so-called 'wars of national liberation' was also important, with guerilla organisations fighting against both dictatorships and democratic governments. From Patagonia to the south of the Rio Grande, violence was the catalysing instrument of political and social changes, amid one of the most unjust distributions of wealth on the planet. The model of development was almost exclusively based on the export of prime resources and food to the world market, while all of this occurred in the middle of a very late modernisation process compared to the so called 'developed countries'.

For all of the aforementioned reasons, the formation of movements of an antimilitarist profile was later and generally more hybrid than in order parts of the planet. While there are some local initiatives, antimilitarists in Latin America are unsure about writing our own history. The creation of a timeline would permit us to visualize our evolution as a social movement, recognising errors, limitations and contradictions but also successes in order to reflect on and face the future. The purpose of this text is much more modest. It attempts to categorise the principal tendencies within the Latin Americans antimilitarist movement. However, let's start with a warning. Like any rationalisation, this interpretation is partial and is a poor reflection of reality. The proposed categories only attempt to supply an initial picture of the phenomenon, packaging the available information for quick consumption. Some initiatives that exist or have existed don't easily fit within one single category. They communicate or interact with each other in more or less effective ways according to country. Not all have been present in all countries and some don't consider antimilitarism to be part of their identity, but rather to be a strategic response that emerges from particular circumstances. All have had in common a rejection of forced recruitment and the recognition, in practice or in law, of conscientious objection to military service. However, opinion on the legitimacy of the armed forces is split, as is also the case with regard to strategies for promoting social change and visions of what democracy – or revolution – should be. Despite all these prerogatives, it seems pertinent to try to identify the principal sources from whence our predecessors came.

1.- Religiously inspired antimilitarism
Christians, generally those aligned with liberation theology, evangelical groups, adventists and other creeds have promoted different specific initiatives that reject forced recruitment in various countries of the region. The main argument against participation in the armed forces has been the biblical commandment against killing others. To counter the laws which oblige military service the religious people invoke the only legitimate rule, the 'law of God'. Their strategies range from practical non-violence, as in the case of Mormons or evangelicals, to coexistence with, or tolerance of armed action against the 'bad government', as in some cases linked to the theology of liberation. Their vision for future society is the return to primitive Christian communalism, without defining the role that the armed forces would play in such a society. Their book of reference is the bible or holy scriptures.

2.- Antimilitarism of non-governmental origin
This tendency is represented by the non-governmental organisations. Its emphasis has been the respect of human rights and the so-called 'rule of law', which lays out the right to conscientious objection. One of its strategies has been to campaign in favour of outlawing forced recruitment and obligatory military service, as well as the promotion and normalisation of social service as an alternative. In addition, they have worked to publicise cases of human rights violation carried out by the armed forces against civilians or their own personnel. They have also monitored the budget destined to national defence and have compared its size with the budget allocated to social programmes and poverty reduction policies. Within these campaigns the concepts of non-violence and civil disobedience have been introduced. They envisage the role of the armed forces as the guardian of national sovereignty, a function that should be carried out in a professional manner, subordinate to the democratically elected civilian powers. Its foundational text is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

3.- Antimilitarism of anti-imperialist origin
This aspect has been developed by nationalist and leftist organisations. Its central themes have been the condemnation of imperialism, the subordination of Third World countries to North American policies, and the construction of a socially just society. Their strategies have included campaigns against the School of the Americas, denouncement of the presence of US military bases in Latin American territory, as well as highlighting cases of massacres and human rights violations carried out by the military. They consider the traditional army to be 'bourgeois' and opposed to everyday people's interests, preferring the revolutionary army or people's militia. According to this vision, antimilitarism is a momentary strategy in the process of transitioning to socialism or the utopia of the strong, autocratic state. Its reference text is Das Kapital or the works of leftist nationalist authors such as José Martí and Mariátegui.

4.- Antimilitarism of anarchist origin
This tendency is represented by organisations of anarchist inspiration. Quantitatively they have been the least numerous and their main themes have been the denouncement of the army as the armed wing of the State, the militarisation of society, the acceptance of military values as part of the process of voluntary servitude, and the participation of the military in massacres against the people. Anarchists reject the existence of all armies and aspire to a society without blind obedience of authority. Internally there is no consensus on the role of violence in social change, though they promote complete disobedience of the State. Their foundational texts are the classic works of anarchist authors such as Bakunin o Kropotkin.

Rafael Uzcategui

Translation by Ian Macdonald