Chapter 28 Postwar Latin America

Section 2 Revolution, Reaction, and Reform

Latin America’s postwar struggle for economic development and independence also often led to on-going changes and instability in many countries’ politics. Three major trends emerged, as liberal reformers, radical Marxist revolutionaries, and authoritarian conservatives struggled for power.

Mexico and Brazil

In the decade following World War II, the two strongest and most prosperous Latin American countries were also the largest—Mexico and Brazil. With combined populations that accounted for approximately half the total population of Latin America, Mexico and Brazil led the way in post-war development, particularly in industrialization. At the same time, both countries also did their best to effect needed social reforms and to maintain at least a limited form of democracy.

Brazil. Like other Latin American countries, during the great depression Brazil had turned to a conservative dictatorship to provide stable government in troubled times. In 1930, as the economic crisis became acute, Getulio Vargas, governor of one of Brazil’s largest southern states led a military coup and took control of Brazil’s federal government. Appealing to Brazilians’ nationalist sentiments, Vargas managed to prevent any serious opposition from developing until 1945. In the meantime, he became a remarkably popular dictator.

            Pursuing a policy of economic nationalism, Vargas implemented an ambitious program of industrialization and modernization. Although many of his plans were pro-big business, he also did his best to appeal to labor leaders and workers in Brazil. Protecting manufacturers with high tariffs, for example, Vargas also enacted new social legislation to guarantee workers health benefits, pensions, and even paid vacations.

            Vargas’s successors, especially President Juscelino Kubitschek, continued these policies of modernization and industrial development. In the late 1950s, Kubitschek borrowed heavily from foreign banks to fund even further economic growth and to build a splendid new capital called Brazilia. Under Vargas, the center of power in Brazil had finally shifted from the various state governments to the central federal government. Kubitschek continued the trend toward centralization of power in the country.  

Mexico. Meanwhile, further north, Mexico too emerged from World War II determined to establish its economic independence. Unlike Brazil, however, Mexico had already undergone a complete political and social revolution even before the war. In 1910, a variety of reformers and revolutionaries had banded together against the elitist rule of the authoritarian dictator Porfirio Diaz. In 1917, the revolution had culminated in a new constitution, but fighting continued among the various factions that had deposed Diaz. Nevertheless, the constitution was a remarkable embodiment of the nationalist aspirations of the Mexican people. In addition to providing for universal suffrage, it also mandated major land reforms, guaranteed benefits for workers, and established rules that strictly controlled and limited foreign capital investment in Mexico.

            Under Lazaro Cardenas, a remarkable leader who had sprung from a poor Indian family to become a revolutionary general, during the later 1930s the provisions of the constitution were finally implemented and the revolution firmly established as an institution in Mexico’s political life. Elected president in 1934, Cardenas launched a program of massive land redistribution, industrial development, and road building. He also limited the power of the Catholic Church even further, in an effort to prevent conservative bishops and priests from interfering in politics. Not least, he reorganized the ruling party, known as the Party of the Mexican Revolution—later renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. 

            As in Brazil, the government subsidized many private businessmen and helped them build factories to produce the manufactured goods Mexico needed to become economically self-sufficient. Also like Brazil, in Mexico this pro-business policy went hand in hand with efforts to support labor. In 1938, for example, when Mexican unions were engaged in a bitter labor dispute with foreign oil companies, Cardenas promptly nationalized the oil industry in Mexico.

            Beginning in 1940, Cardenas’s successors as president pursued similar policies of economic and industrial development, though with less emphasis on his social programs. They too threw the weight of the government behind national development schemes, even to the point of massive government investment in state-run enterprises, as well as subsidizing private business development. With such policies, the Mexican economy grew at a substantial rate of about 6 percent per year over the next 20 years. During the same period, roughly two thirds of the Mexican population came to live in the cities. Mexico’s growing wealth, however, remained largely in the hands of the top and middle echelons of society. Poverty remained widespread among the majority of people.

The Radicals and Cuba: 1959-Present

Although other countries like Argentina and Chile tried to follow the example of Mexico and Brazil, in the late 1950s the outbreak of revolution in Cuba transformed the Latin American scene. Cuba was the first country where radicals succeeded in gaining full control of the government.

            A beautiful Caribbean island, Cuba was a land of contrasts before 1959. In rural areas, enormous sugar plantations produced several million tons of sugar each year. Smaller tobacco farms grew the best tobacco in the world. Havana, the glittering capital, looked out over the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. By 1959, Cuba was also one of the most developed countries of Latin America. Literacy rates, life expectancy, and the ratio of doctors per thousand individuals, for example, were higher in Cuba than in nearly any other Latin American country.

            Yet Cuba before 1959 was also home to millions of poor people. In the countryside they were the cane cutters, who had reliable work only three months of the year when they cut the sugar crop with machetes. In the cities they lived in the miserable slums that were the dirty underbelly of elegant Havana. Such contrasts inspired radicals to revolution.

            BIO Today, the universal symbol of the radical left in Latin America is the bearded cigar smoking revolutionary Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Fidel Castro was an unlikely revolutionary. Born in 1926, he was the son of a wealthy landowner. His father, an immigrant from Spain, had risen up from his bootstraps and created a sugar estate with more than 500 workers. Educated by the Jesuits, Fidel Castro later studied law at the University of Havana. Like most lawyers, he planned to enter politics. In 1952, he presented himself as a candidate of the Orthodoxo party for the Cuban congress. In another time, Castro might not have become a revolutionary. But the Cuba in which he grew up was radically changed by the return of a dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

In 1934, Batista had led a coup within the Cuban military. He then became an important political figure and was elected president in 1940. In 1944, when Batista's candidate for president was defeated in the elections, Batista retired from politics and left Cuba. In 1948, however, he returned. Then, three months before the elections in 1952, a military coup (revolt) restored him to power. Needless to say, he promptly cancelled the scheduled elections.   Batista's 1952 coup dashed Castro's chances of getting elected to the Cuban congress. Instead, Castro committed himself to the resistance that soon sprang up against the dictator.

            In 1956 Castro initiated guerrilla warfare—carrying out terrorist raids, bombing attacks, and burning sugar fields. Batista responded with brutal repression, which only fuelled opposition to his regime. By 1959, opposition was so widespread that Batista's support completely evaporated. Unable to suppress the growing revolutionary insurgency, the dictator fled the country. Even as Batista went into exile, Castro was leading his revolutionary guerrillas into Havana. Mónica, a school girl in 1959, described the first days of the revolution:  

"Out in the street all the cars were flying pennants, people sang and whistled, strangers embraced each other, and everybody was shouting, “Viva Cuba libre!” [Long live free Cuba!]”[9]. . . . On the day of Fidel's triumphant entry into Havana, I finally saw the barbudos, the bearded, long-haired fighters of the Sierra Maestra I had so longed to see. To me . . . the revolutionaries seemed like legendary heroes”[10]  

            After Batista’s fall, Castro and his fellow guerrillas quickly took control of the country. In 1959 and early 1960, Castro addressed mass rallies in order to gain popular support for his policies. Instead of calling for new elections as everyone expected, however, the new revolutionary elite became more radical. In August of 1960, Castro expropriated all properties in Cuba owned by U.S. companies or U.S. citizens. In October, he expropriated nearly 400 businesses owned by Cubans, and 3 million acres of land.

            Alarmed by these developments, many Cubans made plans to leave Cuba. Some had already fled—the first wave had gone with Batista, followed shortly by many wealthy Cubans. But when members of Cuba's upper middle class began to abandon the island, a mass exodus followed. Doctors, lawyers, small businessmen, farmers, teachers, even those who had originally supported the revolution, joined the exile community in Miami. By 1961 100,000 Cubans had settled in Miami. In December 1961, in a long speech that lasted five hours, Castro finally declared what many already knew: he was a communist. The future of Cuba would hereafter be linked to the Soviet Union.  Cuba joined the Soviet bloc and became part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Soon, Castro turned Cuba into an island of revolution from which to foment other Marxist revolutions throughout Latin America.

Reaction, Revolution, and Democracy

The fall of Cuba to communist revolutionaries sent shock waves throughout Latin America—as well as the United States. In an effort to isolate the new regime, the U.S. convinced members of the Organization of American States, a body founded in 1948 to allow cooperation among the countries of the hemisphere, to refuse recognition. Only Mexico, in a deliberate gesture to prove its independence from U.S. influence, established ties with the new dictatorship.

            Meanwhile, Castro quickly came to rely on the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. He also adopted all the basic elements of Soviet style economy, including collectivized farms, state-owned factories and industry, and indoctrination designed to create a new “socialist personality” among Cubans. Not least, the new rulers of Cuba began to spread their message of violent revolution throughout the Caribbean basin, as well as into South America.

            Alarmed by the threat of communist revolution, throughout Latin America conservative elites, both civilians and those in the military, reacted by cracking down on anything even remotely revolutionary. After nearly 20 years of economic progress and steady movement toward greater democracy, after the Cuban revolution a new period of authoritarian rule descended over most of Latin America.


The Conservatives and Brazil. In 1964, for example, the Brazilian military deposed the elected President of Brazil, João Goulart. The military distrusted Goulart because of his apparently growing inclination to the left. Other groups in Brazil also mistrusted him[11] and were not entirely sorry to see him go. Most Brazilians, however, expected the military to act as they had on previous occasions when they had intervened in politics—to serve as caretakers during the remainder of Goulart’s term, and then to hold new presidential elections. Instead, the generals created a military dictatorship, suspending all democratic institutions of Brazilian society and ruling by decree.

            Márcio Moreira Alves later described his reaction to the first of the new decrees, known as the first Institutional Act: "My liberal sympathies and legal training were shocked," he wrote, "by what I then considered the most arbitrary law ever enacted in the history of Brazil."[12]  A second Institutional Act abolished all existing political parties and the direct election of the Brazilian president. But it was Institutional Act five, signed in 1968, which clearly revealed the transformation of Brazil from a democratic state into a dictatorship. Once again Márcio Moreira Alves was shocked at the news:


"Crowded around the radio in the kitchen of a suburban home in São Paulo, we listened to the Minister of Justice. It was close to midnight, December 13, 1968, a Friday. His high-pitched voice, heralded by the trumpet blasts that the propagandists of the Brazilian military dictatorship so favor, was putting an end to an awkward political period. . . . One by one the rules were spelled out. On our silent faces, among the half-eaten sandwiches and warm beer, fell the juridical jargon, killing what guarantees of political and human rights still existed in Brazil. Congress was shut down. Habeas corpus for political prisoners was rescinded. The military could rule by decree, arrest whom they pleased, abolish political rights and electoral posts. Their acts could not be examined by the courts."[13]


With criticism silenced, and democratic institutions disbanded, the military believed it had protected Brazil from communism.

Argentina. Other countries soon followed the Brazilian pattern. In Argentina the military had already ousted the populist leader General Juan Peron. Always suspicious of his appeal to the labor unions and urban workers, in 1955 a military coup forced Peron into exile. Although they soon restored civilian government and regular elections, eleven years later, fearful of a Peronista revival, the army intervened once again. This time military rule lasted much longer. After a brief restoration of civilian rule in the 1970s, in 1976 the army once more took control of the country. With each round of restoration and intervention, the level of repression increased until Argentina finally emerged in the early 1980s as a full-scale military dictatorship.

Chile. Perhaps the best example of how far conservatives would go to fight the threat of communism occurred in Chile. Like other countries, Chile too pursued economic nationalist policies after World War II. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the country remained relatively democratic and pursued not only economic development and modernization but also moderate social reforms. The primary problem was inflation due to government overspending and excessive printing of money to pay its bills.

            In 1970, however, Salvador Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist, leading a coalition of left-wing parties, was elected president of Chile in open elections. Although he had gained only about 36 percent of the vote, while the various anti-socialist candidates received over 60 percent of the votes combined, with a plurality of votes Allende was the winner.

            Despite the fact that his victory clearly did not reflect the desires of the majority, under pressure from some of his more revolutionary followers Allende lost little time in implementing his Marxist platform. He nationalized industries and forced the breakup of many large landed estates. Meanwhile, his more radical supporters went even further and began to set up workers committees to take control of factories and peasant councils to seize land in the countryside. One of the groups in Allende’s coalition, the Socialist Party, proclaimed its intentions openly: “The task of the moment is to destroy parliament.” Such sentiments angered and frightened many Chileans.

            Allende was soon unable to control the more extreme radicals that had come to power with him. They began to arm themselves, raising the specter of a full scale Leninist-style revolution. At the same time, Allende’s socialist economic policies plunged the economy into a crisis. Within a year of his taking office, he had to stop making payments on the national debt. Inflation soared from about 23 percent when he took office in January 1971 to about 190 percent by the summer of 1973—the highest in the world.[14]  As violence and economic disaster loomed, one of Allende’s own military appointments, General Augusto Pinochet, finally led the entire unified armed forces in a bloody coup against the government. Several thousand people died, including Allende himself.

            Having taken control of the government, Pinochet proceeded to establish a full military dictatorship. The army brutally crushed all opposition. At the same time, however, Pinochet took decisive steps to repair the economy and restore Chile’s economic prosperity by reinstituting a free market, capitalist economy. So effective was his program that by 1980 a report from the World Bank noted:  

“Under extra-ordinarily unfavorable circumstances, the Chilean authorities have engineered an economic turnaround without precedent in the history of Chile.”[15] 

Although for a time Pinochet’s regime was almost popular, as prosperity continued to grow in the 1980s people became more and more anxious for a restoration of democracy.  

Movements toward Democracy. The Chileans were not alone. By the 1980s, throughout Latin America people had begun to chafe under the restraints of both Marxist revolution and conservative authoritarianism. In South America, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador re-established democratic regimes after years of military rule. In Brazil, the military government restored civilian rule in 1985, while in Chile General Pinochet too finally accepted demands for free elections. When these were held at the end of 1989, the opposition candidate Patricio Aylwin was elected president and Pinochet stepped down as promised—though he remained in command of the army.

            In Argentina, military rule led to radical resistance in the late 1960s as a Marxist guerrilla movement emerged. Juan Peron returned briefly to power in the early 1970s, but died before he could implement his intended economic and social reforms, or deal effectively with the rebels. The army once again assumed power, this time determined to put an end to the guerrilla war once and for all. In what the military regime called a “holy war,” but others called the “dirty war,” thousands of citizens were arrested and imprisoned for expressing anti-government sentiments. As many as 20,000—known as the deseparacidos, or “disappeared,” simply vanished, never to be seen again alive.

            Although the revolutionaries were indeed suppressed, the brutality led to increasing unrest throughout Argentine society. Consequently, in a bid for popularity, in 1982 the junta launched an invasion of the British-held Falkland islands in the South Atlantic, which Argentina had claimed under the name the Malvinas since the 1800s. Much to the generals’ surprise, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher determined to defend and retake the Falklands, all of whose inhabitants were British. After a short campaign, a small but well-trained British fleet and expeditionary force soundly defeated the Argentines and recaptured the islands. Finally discredited by this crushing failure, in 1983 the military regime finally allowed free elections once more.

            Although the memory of the dirty war still haunted Argentine society, only a few of those responsible for the torture and murder of civilians during the military junta were ever brought to trial. Plagued by continuing economic problems, the new civilian governments that followed the junta preferred not to risk yet another military coup. In 1989, the Peronist Party candidate for the presidency, Carlos Menem, won election. Eventually he pardoned all but a few of those found guilty of crimes during the dirty war. Although Argentina remained democratic into the mid-1990s, it was a fragile democracy.