By Jacob Lubbers Estrada-
Latin America is known for the large number of coups d’états its people have had to endure, both in the past and currently. These regimes – that rise to power in an undemocratic, and therefore also illegitimate fashion – tend to centralize power, persecute political opponents, and create new elites in order to ensure future loyalty from important economic sectors in their countries. Often, everyday people suffer the consequences of this type of governance.
The region’s tradition of coups is so strong that Latin America even knows different “types” of coups. During the 20th century, the most common coups were those in which military and police forces were used, such as the coups against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Salvador Allende in Chile (1973). Furthermore, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a second kind of coup emerged: the soft coup (golpe blando). They have extensively been denounced by many academics, who point to examples such as Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 and currently López Obrador in Mexico. This theory was developed by Massachusetts University-scholar Gene Sharp and he explains that these (non-violent) coups go through different stages, such as the distribution of fake news, inciting popular unrest and eventually judicial processes against governments.
Yet, a new type of coupe seems to be surging: coups orchestrated by and/or with Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs).
What are they?
PMSCs are private corporations that can be hired in order to execute professional tasks of a military nature. They first emerged publically after U.S. President Bush Jr. decided to outsource key tasks of the military in Iraq to these non-state entities. The members of these companies are often highly-trained former elite-militaries who join as they are remunerated higher amounts than in the state-army they were trained in.
PMSCs have often been accused of committing human rights violations during their operations. Yet, holding them accountable is hard as their corporate structures make this challenging. Courts in their countries of origin might lack jurisdiction, and local courts are also often unable to hold them accountable. Jan Schakowsky (U.S. Representative) was one of the first to denounce these companies’ activities and warns that they “get away with murder” and some of them even “have more capacity to wage war than nations”. These are dangerous companies that are increasing their activities in Latin America.
The two countries where private mercenaries have been identified in coup attempts are Bolivia (2009 and 2020), Venezuela (2020), and Haiti (July 2021).
In April 2009, foreign mercenaries who were planning to murder President Evo Morales and other key members of his government were detained in Bolivia. The UN Group that focuses on the use of these groups reacted by stating that using mercenaries represents “an offence of grave concern”.
Furthermore, as many may remember, there was much social unrest after the 2019 elections in Bolivia following claims by the Organisation of American States that electoral fraud had been committed, leading to the narrow victory of Morales. Evo Morales and his MAS party denied the accusations of fraud and offered to repeat the elections. The military and police forces, instead, “suggested” Morales step down in order to restore peace. In the end, he did, but MIT statistical analysis showed that, in reality, no actual fraud was committed.
A year later, in 2020, Morales was prohibited from running for the Presidency by Bolivia’s electoral tribunal. Consequently, the MAS chose Luis Arce, Evo Morales’ former Minister of Economics, to run in the 2020 general elections. The results of these elections were clear: Luis Arce won the Presidency in the first round by obtaining more than 55% of the votes.
Rather than recognizing the democratic mandate of its people, the former Minister of Defence, Luis Fernando López, and a sector of the military decided to take military action in order to prevent Arce from being sworn in as they feared that he would dissolve the military and replace them with “Venezuelan and Cuban militias”. Fernando López, and the involved American contractor, Joe Pereira, agreed that up to 10,000 individuals would be sent to Bolivia in order to prevent Acre from being sworn in.
In the end, the coup-plotters failed and the 10,000 never arrived on Bolivian soil allowing Luis Arce to take office as President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. However, even though according to many the 2019 events were not a coup as Evo resigned himself after the military’s and police’s “suggestion”, it would not have been possible to label the almost-coup of 2020 as a “suggestion”. This would have been, to the fullest extent of the word’s definition, an overt coup d’état.
Something similar happened in Venezuela when in May 2020 foreign mercenaries arrived to the country’s coast by boat in order to start an armed rebellion in the country. The coup was allegedly planned by Silvercorp (a U.S. PMSC), Juan Guaidó’s team (Juan Guaidó declared himself the legitimate president and more than 50 nations worldwide recognize him as such), and a group of U.S.-based Venezuelan ex-pats. This plan failed due to miscommunications, poor planning, and highly likely because agents of the Venezuelan state had been able to infiltrate the operation.
Lastly, the horrific event in July 2021 that made Haiti once again appear in global headlines: a group of 28 private, foreign mercenaries entered the presidential residence and assassinated president Jovenel Moïse. This only confirms that there is an increasing tendency towards a "privatisation" of coups in Latin America, despite the negative impact they have.
The “marketisation” of coups offer a window of opportunity to debunk any “anti-imperialist” reasoning against coups. In a region like Latin America where coups are often considered as “planned” by other external states, Private Military and Security Companies offer a perfect escape for the orchestrators of these coups in order to debunk this argument. In Bolivia’s 2020 case, the coup-plotting former Minister of Defense was relieved and even said “excellent” when he was told that the use of private mercenaries would imply no involvement or responsibility for the U.S. State.
Coups d’état should be left in Latin America’s past, including “cover coups” which are performed by military companies. Yet, this worrying trend is not being debated at all in contemporary Latin America, or at least, not to the extent it should be, even though there are several governments that have claimed they are victims of coup attempts. Therefore, it is urgent to start a public debate in our respective countries on this issue.
Sriram, C.L., Martin-Ortega, O. & Herman, J. (2014). War, Conflict and Human Rights: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Routledge.