Confronting Coup Risk in the Latin American Left

Eric R. Rittinger, Matthew R. Cleary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Military coups d'état have become dramatically less frequent in Latin America over the past 20 years, leading many analysts to conclude that the risk of coups in the region today is negligible. Yet we observe that a particular subset of presidents in the region-namely, those commonly associated with the radical left-pursue a wide range of "coup-proofing" behaviors, primarily in the way that they manage relations with their militaries, but also in their political rhetoric. Our goal in this article is to explain why some Latin American presidents spend precious resources on coup-proofing. First, even as we demonstrate that coup activity is significantly diminished across the region as a whole, we offer evidence to suggest that coup risk is quite real in countries with radical left presidents. Second, we identify several specific strategies that these presidents have pursued to minimize coup risk. We explain the coup-proofing rationale behind each of these strategies and document their use in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Third, we show that no similar set of strategies or policies has been pursued by moderate leftist or more conservative presidents in the region. We infer from these empirical patterns that radical left presidents have undertaken substantial efforts to maintain military allegiance and to mitigate coup risk precisely because they recognize the possibility of military intervention. In our conclusion, we suggest that these strategies may confer a short-term benefit for the presidents who implement them, but they are likely to have negative consequences for the long-term stability of democratic institutions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)403-431
Number of pages29
JournalStudies in Comparative International Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • Civil-military relations
  • Coup-proofing
  • Coups d'etat
  • Latin America
  • Radical left
  • Regime type

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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