Latin America In The Late Twentieth Century

Although most of the Latin American republics had by 1945 enjoyed political independence for more than a century, they had much in common economically and socially with the emerging nations of Asia and Africa. Like the Asians and Africans, the Latin Americans had been suppliers of foods and raw materials to the rest of the world.

Bananas, coffee, sugar, beef. oil, nitrates, and copper fluctuated widely in price on the world market; before the Latin Americans could raise their standards of living, they would have to build on a more stable and diversified economic base. Most of Latin America had a racially mixed population: some native-born whites or immigrants from Europe (like the Italians in Argentina), some descendants of the indigenous peoples, and some blacks (chiefly in Brazil and Haiti).

Nominally governed under a democratic system of elected officials and parliaments, they had all too often lived under military dictatorships that shifted whenever a new army officer felt strong enough to challenge the one in power.

Latin Americans traditionally felt a mixture of envy, dislike, and suspicion toward the United States. Upper class Latin Americans educated in Europe believed that North Americans lacked true culture; North Americans generally seemed to know little about Latin America. Whenever the United States ceased to be indifferent and devoted some attention to Latin America, it did so by intervening in their affairs.

Upper-class Latin Americans were well aware of the miserable poverty in which most of their people lived, but they hoped that social revolution would not disturb the system. Thus. when President Carter applied his test of “human rightsto the authoritarian regimes of South America, they were deeply resentful.

Some earlier attempts—the Pan-American Union in 1910 and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy after 1933—were primarily cultural in emphasis. After World War II the Pan-American Union became the Organization of American States (OAS). Somewhat looser than an alliance, the OAS provided a means for consultation among all the American nations on all important matters of mutual concern.

The Alliance for Progress—launched under President Kennedy and designed to enable the United States to help the Latin Americans to help themselves—proved a disappointment, in part because it was difficult to allay Latin American suspicions of American intentions, in part because of the deeply entrenched ruling families that dominated most Latin American countries.

Not every Latin American country was invariably a dictatorship. Uruguay, for example, a small country with a population largely European in origin, had created a welfare state so advanced that by 1970 the Uruguayan economy collapsed, largely because of the payment of state funds to individual citizens for the many types of benefits available. However, the eroding economy gave the terrorist Tupamaros an opportunity to win some support, and in 1974 the military succeeded in defeating the Tupamaros at the cost of imposing a virtual military dictatorship on Uruguay.

Venezuela, with rapidly developing oil resources, in 1959 ousted the last of a long line of military dictators and made the transition to moderate democratic rule. As a member of OPEC. Venezuela moved in the 1970s into an era of prosperity and stability. Meanwhile Colombia underwent a lengthy terrorist campaign in the countryside—virtually a civil war—in which many thousands were killed, and even when this ended was still experiencing extremes of wealth. poverty, and crime.

Brazil, the enormous Portuguese-speaking land larger than any other Latin American countm suffered from recurrent economic crises and military coups. Its poverty-stricken northeast, where many thousands lived in virtual serfdom on big plantations, contrasted sharply with the luxurious apartment-house and beach life of the big cities; but these, too, had their festering slums. Brazilian government was, until 1990, a military dictatorship that stood accused of torturing its political prisoners.

Chile, too, was plagued by military intervention. In 1970 Chileans elected a Marxist, Salvador Allende Gossens (1908-1973), as president. Though Allende was a minority president, having won less than 40 percent of the votes, he took office in relative calm and moved gradually to expropriate foreign properties. But some of his supporters felt he was not nationalizing rapidly enough, and the United States feared that he would not provide just compensation for the properties he expropriated.

In a still controversial series of events in which the American CIA and possibly the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation were involved, the Allende administration was toppled by a military coup in September 1973. By then the economy was in chaos. The military junta declared that it would exterminate Marxism, and it resorted to mass arrests and kidnappings. The economy did not improve, and in 1990 an elected civilian government succeeded the military.

Argentina—peopled almost entirely by European immigrants and their descendants—continued to have a social system that gave power to a small landlord class. The beginnings of industrialization deepened popular dissatisfaction with the regime. Brought to power in the national election of 1946, Colonel Juan PerOn (1895– 1974) became a dictator on the model of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. In 1955 he was removed by a military coup. He had begun to appeal to the poorer masses, the descamisados (shirtless ones), and thus lost much of his following among the conservative upper classes.

Moreover, he had quarreled with the Roman Catholic church and put through anticlerical measures that cost him further support. Nor could he solve the grave economic and financial problems arising out of his country’s essentially colonial position; indeed, his uncontrolled spending on public works and welfare projects, and the extravagant lifestyle of his wife, Eva Duarte (1919-1952), virtually bankrupted Argentina.

During the years that followed, many Argentines continued to support PerOn, who lived in exile in Spain. Twice a weak elected government was overthrown by a military coup. The army regime installed in 1966 promised to purge Argentina of corruption but aroused much opposition by its repression of academic freedom. The old problems remained unsolved, indeed almost untacIded.

Percin returned to Argentina in 1973 and was again elected president, but he died before he could initiate new policies. He was succeeded by his second wife, Isabel (1931– ). She, too, was removed by a military coup in 1976 and placed under house arrest. The military government turned to widespread repression, killing perhaps five thousand Argentines, suppressing civil liberties, using torture to extract confessions, and becoming increasingly anti-Semitic. Inflation ran out of control, unemployment reached the highest levels since the depression, and the peso was devalued.

To distract attention from the economy, the Argentine military attempted an invasion of the Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands and suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British in 1982. By 1987, however, Argentina seemed on the road to democracy. Political unrest continued, however, in the Caribbean states and in Central America.

The United States was deeply stung by the failure to anticipate Castro’s successful revolution in Cuba and was determined not to recognize his regime and to force Cuban submission by prohibiting American trade. The Cuban situation proved divisive at home, bringing as it did thousands of anti-Castro Cuban exiles and poverty-stricken refugees into Florida. While the United States boycotted Cuban goods, hoping to destroy the Cuban tobacco and sugar economy, other nations filled the trade gap. Castro, who had come to power in 1959, remained firmly in control.

In 1965 the United States concluded that a revolution in the Dominican Republic, a neighbor of Cuba, was inspired by Castro. Between 1930 and 1961 the Dominican Republic had been ruled by a ruthless and corrupt dictator. After his assassination, the first freely elected government in a generation took office, but increasing tension between the army and the new reformers led to military coups and finally to a civil war in 1965.

Fearing that communists might take over, President Johnson sent in American troops, and then tried to internationalize the intervention by appealing to the Organization of American States. By a narrow margin, the OAS responded, and five of its member states sent troops to join the Americans. The Dominican Republic was pacified sufficiently for constitutional elections to be held in 1966. A political moderate, Joaquin Balaguer (1907– ), became president and retained his office when elections were held in the 1970s and 1980s, and again in 1994.

It would have been political suicide in 1965 for any president of the United States to allow another Caribbean country to fall into pro-Soviet hands. But the Dominican episode aroused much opposition among Americans; and in Latin America the reappearance of an American occupation force served to heighten the suspicion that the United States was still determined to intervene when its interests appeared threatened.

Although the United States did not intervene directly in Trinidad, Jamaica, or Guyana, it did provide “advisers” to any mainland Central American nation that considered itself threatened by Cuban communists. In 1975 a guerrilla war in Guatemala was launched against the military government there; by 1981 the dictatorial Somoza family in Nicaragua had been overthrown by the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas, who established a five-member junta to shape a socialist state. In 1979 a military coup in El Salvador was followed by a protracted guerrilla war, political assassinations, and the prospect of deepening American involvement. By the 1980s Central America was in ferment.

Four small nations in particular were the focus of explosive events. Grenada, the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, appeared to the United States to have fallen under Soviet or Cuban influence. When, in 1983, the Grenadan prime minister was overthrown by a coup and executed, the United States invaded and until mid-1985 occupied the island state. The detested Duvalier regime ended twenty-six years of dictatorship in Haiti in 1986, and after a period of repression and instability, in 1990 the Haitians were permitted a free election in which a radical Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1953– ) emerged as president.

However, a coup led by the Duvalier family’s private militia, the Tonton Macoutes, tried to depose him, and the resulting rioting and rise of the power of the military led to Aristide’s arrest and exile in September 1991. Military suppression spurred thousands of Haitian refugees toward the United States, and in June 1993 the UN imposed a worldwide embargo on the Haitian regime. In September 1994 the military leaders agreed to step down; thousands of American troops were sent to Haiti, and in October Aristide resumed office.

In Nicaragua civil war broke out in 1979, with Marxist Sandinista guerrillas the victors. Thereafter the United States backed contra (anti-Marxist) rebels in the hope of bringing down the Sandinistas, and despite an adverse ruling by the International Court of Justice, the American government continued to supply aid to the rebel leaders.

Late in 1986 the discovery that money intended for the purchase of arms for Iranian use—in a complex attempt to secure the release of American hostages held by Islamic fundamentalists in Lebanon—had been diverted illegally by officials of the United States government to supply the contras, contrary to the express vote of the Congress, threatened the Reagan administration with its most severe political crisis. Reagan’s intense personal popularity helped him to weather the storm, however, and in 1990, in a peaceful election, the Sandinista government was defeated in Nicaragua.

In December 1989, United States forces invaded Panama, joining up with American forces already stationed there. The immediate cause was concern for the security of the Panama Canal, which by treaty in 1979 was in process of being nationalized into Panamanian hands. The deeper cause for American intervention was fear that a former client, Manuel Noriega (1938– ), head of the Panamanian armed forces and dictator of Panama from 1982, was engaged in the international drug trade, had maintained himself in power by nullifying an election, and was threatening both American civilian and military facilities in Panama.

In four days of fighting, American forces defeated the Panamanian army. Widespread destruction in the capital city left fourteen thousand Panamanians homeless. Though most Panamanians appeared to welcome the Americans as liberators, substantial resentment against the United States grew when it failed to supply the anticipated massive aid to rebuild the damaged area and to improve the foundering Panamanian economy.

Guerrilla warfare and widespread terrorism had by the mid-1980s become common tactics of both the political right and the political left. The United States had returned to its old practice of military intervention in the Caribbean area. Wars were no longer declared, they simply broke out when, usually without warning, the troops of one nation moved onto the territory of another.

Casualties ran high, for technology had provided vastly more destructive weaponry. The United States had suffered more casualties in World War II than in all its previous foreign wars combined, and yet American casualties in the localized Korean and Vietnam wars, combined with a variety of military actions elsewhere, were nearly 40 percent the World War II figure. Conventional strategic and tactical approaches to war would not work, and the high-technology nations were slow to adjust to the new methods of warfare.

The nature of diplomacy, and the ability of the most powerful nations to exert pressure on weaker states, changed drastically as terrorism became a disruptively fearsome weapon. The Olympic Games of 1972. held in Munich, were shattered by the murder of several members of the Israeli Olympic team by terrorists. The hijacking of aircraft and cruise ships intimidated thousands of potential travelers.

As powerful a nation as the United States had to admit that it could no longer protect its citizens abroad. The murder of ambassadors on their way to work or even in their offices, the unpredictable bombings of shopping malls and military outposts in dozens of countries, forced upon normally open democracies extraordinary security measures. Most nations, however, refused to give in to terrorism and resolutely sought to conduct their affairs with as much semblance of normalcy as possible.

If the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States was over, then its legacy continued, for in the Middle East. in Central America, and potentially in Africa prolonged instability and the prospect of involvement by one or more of the major powers remained a daily threat to the world.

Our times were, in standard of living, the best of times: our times were, in terms of stability, peace. and safety, not the worst of times but they nonetheless seemed so to millions. Western civilization had arrived at the present with little prospect that the immediate future would differ greatly from the immediate past.

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