Years ago I published an article on the history of military corruption in Brazil. In many ways, this was a more challenging topic to investigate than my dissertation work on military terror. In Brazil the military has long defined its role as being the “nation’s savior,” which it has used to justify its intervention in civilian affairs. At the same time, officers have publicly denounced the corruption of civilian politicians. Nonetheless, the armed forces themselves suffered from corruption, which even became so severe as to undermine their capability during military operations, such as during the 1912 campaign against a millenarian movement in southern Brazil. At first such corruption was typically confined to procurement. During President Vargas’s Estado Novo in the 1930s, however, the military became deeply involved in economic development. And the more engaged in economic affairs it grew, the more corruption spread within it. This corruption took place not only to benefit particular generals, but also to create networks of patronage on behalf of military factions. By the 1950s, the shared economic interests of civilians and generals permitted military factions to evolve into true political parties that had allies outside the institution.
Of course, the Brazilian military was not unique in Latin America. Most recent scandals have involved the drug trade, particularly in Venezuela. That country is currently in the midst of a terrible social and economic disaster, so severe that the health system is collapsing. Perhaps no aspect of the crisis has impacted the Venezuelan people as much as the shortage of food. The crisis has become so severe that people are now hunting dogs and cats. Other people are unable to feed their pets, which are being abandoned to shelters. There are heartbreaking pictures on the internet of emaciated dogs from these shelters. Despite the severity of the crisis, the government continues to count upon the military’s support.
Part of the reason for that loyalty lies in the nature of military corruption, as was brilliantly detailed in a recent piece of long form journalism. Hannah Dreier and Joshua Goodman’s article in the Associated Press, “Venezuela military trafficking food as country goes hungry,” drew on more than sixty interviews, including five interviews with generals. Tellingly, each of these generals was retired. What the article revealed was that Hugo Chavez’s decision to place the military in charge of food distribution has led to widespread corruption. The generals take a cut with contracts, at the ports, and at road blocks. Immense sums of money have been siphoned into the military by this means. One retired general was quoted as saying that food was a better business than drugs.Tellingly, when one general went to Maduro to denounce companies that were involved in corruption, he was himself forced into exile. The former food minister is now the inspector general of the armed forces. In this way, the government has made the military complicit in the suffering of the Venezuelan people, while it has also ensured its survival. As the article describes sometimes food is left so long at the ports -while officers wait for kickbacks- that it spoils. The soldiers then dump the food in garbage dumps. As soon as the soldiers leave, the poor come to dig it back out.
If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University