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Growing Role of Armed Forces in Disaster Relief a Dangerous Trend for Latin America

From earthquakes to floods, when natural disasters strike, the military is often called on to bolster civilian responses. Policymakers throughout Latin America in particular are increasingly relying on the armed forces for emergency assistance.

An upward trend in extreme weather events and earthquakes in Latin America is stressing civilian capabilities. The military’s mobility and extended geographical reach are invaluable assets in these circumstances. And since the prospect of interstate war is considered a remote possibility, governments assume there are no liabilities in summoning these “idle” soldiers.

Government responses to these tragedies have also historically been heavily scrutinized. Entire political careers have been cut short when the response was gauged insufficient. Nevertheless, Latin American policymakers should think twice about elevating disaster relief to a permanent military mission.

The Politics of Relief

Many of Latin America’s key political moments have been tied to disaster response. Opposition to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza grew into a momentous force after his inept handling of the reconstruction of Managua in the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake. Widespread dissent eventually led to the Sandinista Revolution shortly after.

In January 1944, seismic activity levelled the Argentine city of San Juan. The successful humanitarian assistance campaign chaired by Colonel Juan Perón elevated his rising star to new heights. Chance struck twice when he met his future wife and political partner Evita Duarte during a relief fundraiser. He was elected president in 1946 and redrew the course of Argentine politics.

Contemporary leaders are aware of this history. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet experienced the blowback of poorly executed relief operations firsthand during her first term. When an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Chile in February 2010, leaving 500 people dead and 1.5 million displaced, civil defense and the police were overwhelmed. The government’s response was visibly inadequate.

For the complete article, please see New Security Beat.