SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're going to take a wide-lens look now at Latin America after a painful history of military dictatorships. The region is now ruled by civilian presidents. But many of these leaders are deeply unpopular. And some are facing mass protests. And as John Otis reports, the door may be open again for the armed forces in the region to re-enter politics.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In an election last October that was marred by fraud, Evo Morales claimed to have won a fourth term as Bolivia's president. Amid demands that he step down, Morales clung to power. But then Bolivia's armed forces commander weighed in.
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WILLIAMS KALIMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a TV address, General Williams Kaliman said, we suggest that the president resign for the good of Bolivia. A few hours later, Morales did just that. But not long afterwards, street protests broke out against Bolivia's new government. Military jets buzzed the capital city of La Paz to break up the crowds.
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OTIS: It's not just Bolivia. Across Latin America, militaries are throwing their weight around. In El Salvador this month, soldiers briefly occupied the congress building to intimidate legislators into passing an anti-crime bill. In Mexico and Chile, troops have been sent into the streets to hunt down criminals and disperse protesters. When going on TV to announce gas-price hikes and other controversial measures, the presidents of Peru, Ecuador and Honduras have surrounded themselves with stern-looking generals. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America says that such appearances serve as stark warnings to would-be protesters that the armed forces stand firmly in the president's corner.
ADAM ISACSON: The high command is certainly lending itself to political messaging at key moments. And so that is a political role that is pretty crucial.
OTIS: In Venezuela, military officers manage everything from state food distribution to oil production. In Brazil, nine of the 22 ministers in President Jair Bolsonaro's government come from the armed forces. Bolsonaro is himself a former army captain.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Portuguese).
OTIS: He recently held this military parade to commemorate the 1964 coup that ushered in Brazil's 21-year dictatorship. That period was one of Latin America's darkest, a time when abusive military strongmen held sway across much of the region. Thousands of dissidents were tortured and killed. Adam Isacson says that when these dictatorships finally collapsed, a new generation of civilian presidents worked hard to rid their governments of military influence.
ISACSON: Everything from getting the military out of policing, getting civilians in charge of defense ministries, just this brick-by-brick building this new edifice of civilian control of the military.
OTIS: So why is this edifice now revealing so many cracks? For starters, polls show growing frustration with Latin America's civilian governments, mainly due to corruption, economic stagnation and rising crime. Presidents often react by adding decorated officers to their inner circles and deploying troops for everything from crowd control to collecting garbage during strikes by sanitation workers.
FRANK MORA: The military becomes sort of the go-to institution at a time when there's a demand from the public to do something.
ISACSON: That's Frank Mora, who heads the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. He says that, for younger Latin Americans who never lived under martial law, the armed forces can seem like a benevolent institution that follows orders and gets things done. Still, Mora says it's unlikely that the region will return to full fledged military rule. For one thing, officers are actually quite wary about taking on some on their new duties, especially policing. It can tarnish their reputations, as in Bolivia, where recent clashes between soldiers and protesters left 36 people dead.
MORA: The military is not trained to do this, and they know that.
ISACSON: What's more, analysts say that the way things stand now - Latin American militaries have the best of both worlds. They enjoy growing clout in government. Yet civilian presidents take the rap when things go wrong. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.