Chapter 28 Postwar Latin America
Reaction, and Reform
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!]”.
. . . 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
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
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." 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:
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
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. 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:
extra-ordinarily unfavorable circumstances, the Chilean authorities have
engineered an economic turnaround without precedent in the history of
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
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.