Chapter 28 Postwar Latin America
Problems of Culture and Society
Problems of Culture and Society
The Cold War
not only cast a long shadow over relations between the United States and
Latin America, but also polarized the political spectrum in Latin America
and left little room for compromise. Violations of basic human rights
increased in many Latin American countries after World War II. Reflecting
these trends, Latin American writers and artists have increasingly used
their art to address the basic problems their countries face, often
criticizing both their own governments and the failures of past
The Struggle for Human Rights
Perhaps the most
immediate social challenge faced by Latin Americans since World War II has
been the lack of basic human rights in many of their countries. Such basic
rights include freedom of expression, freedom of association, due process,
and equality before the law. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
accepted by the United Nations in 1948, member nations committed
themselves to respect such human rights of their citizens. Similar
documents have also been adopted by regional associations.
In Latin America, for example, the Organization of American States
adopted the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969, guaranteeing 22
basic political and civil rights, including the right to humane treatment,
a fair trial, participation in government, freedom of conscience, freedom
of thought, and freedom of association. The Convention created the
Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to monitor violations of human
rights in the countries that signed the treaty. Despite all these
commitments, however, violations of human rights have remained widespread
in many Latin American nations into the 1990s.
Guatemala. One of the worst human rights records in Latin
America belongs to Guatemala. Amnesty International, an international
agency that monitors human rights violations, has estimated that between
1966 and 1974, there were 20,000 victims of political violence in
In the 1980s, when radical guerrilla groups took refuge among the Indians
in remote mountains, the military sent garrisons to occupy Indian
villages. Indian men, women, and children began to disappear and later
turned up dead in mass graves. Tens of thousands of Indians fled from
their homes in Guatemala and took refuge in Mexico.
The situation had improved somewhat by the late 1980s, but the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that "In order
for human rights to be adequately protected in Guatemala the military and
police must be subordinated to the judicial authorities."
Cuba. Despite their rhetoric of equality and concern for
the plight of the downtrodden, Marxist regimes too have suffered human
rights problems. In Cuba, for example, the new Castro government censored
the press, punished critics, outlawed entrepreneurship, and prevented
Cubans from traveling freely abroad. The revolution took from those who
opposed it and gave to those who supported it. New schools taught Marxist
theory and stressed the creation of a "new" revolutionary
people. None dared complain, however, for fear of persecution.
In its annual report on 1993, the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights of the Organization of American States observed:
government has continued to demonstrate its inflexibility and control over
the population by the imposition of harsh sentences placed on people it
considers "dangerous" under the current penal code. Such people
include those opposed to the regime, who are accused of attempting to
destroy the political system, spreading propaganda against the state and
favoring foreign interests.”
The number of
political prisoners in Cuba is given by the report as 602.
Argentina. Civil rights have been particularly vulnerable in
times of civil war and revolution. In Argentina, for example, the “dirty
war” carried onj by the military junta against Marxist guerrillas became
an excuse for mass repression, roture, and murder. According to some
estimates, the dirty war's casualties ran between 10,000 and 30,000
Argentines. The terror these events created in Argentina is reflected in
the poem "In My Country" by Etelvina Astrada:
assassin, omnipotent with power, . . a death with dead
El Salvador. Other countries, such as El Salvador, have also
experienced widespread denial of human rights. In the civil war between
the military and the FMLN, violence reached every corner of the country.
Teachers, priests, church workers, union officials, and students who
criticized the military faced grave danger from secret death squads. The
archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, a vocal critic of the military,
was shot to death while saying mass in 1980. Later that year, four
American churchwomen were murdered in rural El Salvador.
The year 1982 began with the grisly news that the entire town of El
Mozote had been massacred. U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton told an audience
in October 1982: “Since 1979 perhaps as many as 30,000 Salvadorans have
been MURDERED, not killed in battle, MURDERED.”
Most observers believed that secret death squads of the military were
responsible for the majority of these killings.
Human Rights Organizations.
Despite the human costs of such massive violations of human rights in
Latin America, not all people have given up hopes of correcting the abuses
of the past. In Argentina, for example, as the casualties mounted, 14
middle-aged women, all of whom had lost a husband, son, or daughter, found
themselves meeting at hospitals, prisons, and government offices, all
trying to find out what had happened to their loved ones. Eventually they
formed the "Mothers of the
Plaza de Mayo," a group demanding that their loved ones be
restored to them alive. The “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” initiated
the campaign for human rights in Argentina.
Some countries have also played important roles in trying to
enforce human rights issues in Latin America. President Jimmy Carter, for
example, sought to limit aid to governments that did not respect human
rights. The escalation of violence in El Salvador in the late 1970s and
early 1980s also led members of Congress and President Reagan to make
improvements in the area of human rights in El Salvador a condition for
future aid. Within Latin America, human rights groups became important
voices calling for the return of democratic rule. With the support of
international human rights organizations, national groups made respect for
human rights an issue in their countries. Greater respect for human
rights, not surprisingly, has accompanied the restoration of democratic
governments in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador.
Literature and Art
The difficult and
uncertain path of Latin American history since World War II has been
reflected to a considerable degree in the work of Latin American writers
and artists. Some of the most devastating criticisms of human rights
abuses in Latin America, for example, are found not in the reports of
human rights agencies, but in the novels and poems of writers from
Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. Many writers have themselves been
victims of political repression, and even exiled from their own homelands.
Women authors in particular, who in the past have focused on themes of
love and family, have begun to express instead the turmoil and violence
they experience living in societies where human rights have little place.
Yet despite these negative feelings and emotions, Latin American
writers, whose voices often serve as strident voices of criticism, also
offer voices of hope. The words of a young refugee from El Salvador
perhaps best sum up the hopes of many in Latin America:
So many things to
in our new
we want to see
Folk art. In addition to the turmoil of the present, however,
Latin American artists have also continued to draw heavily on the
traditions of the past for inspiration. Internationally known writers,
such as Gabriel García Márquez, acknowledge that the rich folk-art
traditions of the ordinary people of Latin America inspire their work.
Folk art, in contrast to traditional art, is art created by local artists
for ordinary use in daily life. Toys made from wood, clay, cloth, or tin
are examples of folk art, just as are the songs handed down from one
generation to the next which tell the stories of the loves, tragedies, and
events of the past. Much folk art proclaims the religious beliefs and
convictions, such as altars made for the home, statues of saints, or
offerings painted to express the faith of one who has been delivered from
a near death experience.
Regardless of the kind of art they create, Latin American artists
have a central place in Latin American life. In literature, song, and art,
they express the emotional bonds that tie them to their land and their
families. As one Brazilian folk writer put it:
I still like to
sing for those farmers who will walk five miles in the rain to hear you.
They don't have the money to buy bread, and somehow they still find a few
coins for the poet because poetry is almost the most important thing in
the world for them
Since World War
II Latin American literature has enchanted readers with magic realism. Magic
realism, as García Márquez defines it means that "every single line
in my book, in all of my books, has a starting place in reality. I provide
a magnifying glass so that readers can understand reality better."
Magical, sometimes preposterous, scenes appear in García Márquez's
writing, such as a boy changing the color of glass by simply touching it.
These scenes aren't magic, but another way of describing reality. García
"I have the character Ulises make glass change color every time he
touches it. Now, that can't be true. But so much has already been said
about love that I had to find a new way of saying that this boy is in
love. So I have the colors of the glass change, and I have his mother say,
'those things happen only because of love. . . . Who is it?' Mine is just
another way to saying the same thing that has always been said about love;
how it upsets life, how it upsets everything."
Latin American writers achieve new images with magic realism, but
the themes they explore are firmly rooted in Latin American life. In One
Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez uses magic realism
to tell how monoculture destroys the ecology of the forest, how political
power is abused by powerful military colonels, how foreign companies take
over towns, and how a massacre can be covered up and forgotten.
Isabel Allende in The House
of the Spirits, likewise depicts through magic realism the history of
a family over many generations. Allende explores another contemporary
reality in Latin America: political conflict among the members of the same
family. Allende's characters struggle to determine which tie is stronger:
blood or political allegiance? Against the backdrop of the events leading
up to the coup by the Chilean military's against socialist president
Salvador Allende (Isabel Allende's uncle) in 1973, members of the family
move in and out of each others' lives and confront the competing loyalties
of politics and family.
Frank D. McCann, Jr. The Brazilian-American Alliance 1937-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 441.
Blanca Torres Ramirez, ed. Historia de la Revolución Mexicana, Periodo 1940-1952 (México: El Colegio de México, 1979) p. 150.
The Quiché are one of the twenty two Indian groups in modern Guatemala; they are the modern descendants of the ancient Maya. They speak their own language and preserve their own customs. They live in the highlands of Guatemala in the north-western province of El Quiché.
Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, I Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala London: Verso, 1984, p. 34.
Carolina Maria de Jesus, Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, trans. David St. Clair (New York: Mentor Books, 1963), p. 34.
Ibid., p. 18.
ANNO: For the ordinary Latin American, this meant that the prices of every day things like bread, meat, and bus fare always went up faster than did their salaries. It was impossible to plan ahead—every day money bought less than it had just the week before.
ANNO: The Amazon rain forest occupies two million square miles and is home to half of the world's biological diversity.
Lewis, Oscar, Ruth M. Lewis, and Susan M. Rigdon, Four Women: Living the Revolution, an Oral History of Contemporary Cuba (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 48.
Lewis, Four Women, p. 49.
ANNO: The middle classes thought him corrupt and landowners disliked his seemingly radical plans for agrarian reform. Industrialists criticized his passionate speeches to factory workers. Even reformers had their doubts.
Alves, p. 27,
Alves, p. 4.
Johnson, Modern Times, p.737.
Quoted in Johnson, Modern Times, p. 739.
Quoted in P & N, p.857.
Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia, “Mexico Since 1940.”
Alan Riding, "Guatemala: State of Siege," The New York Times Magazine, August 24, 1980, p. 26.
In 1993 there were 45,000 registered and an unknown number of unregistered Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, Organization of American States, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1993(Washington, D.C.: General Secretariat, Organization of American States, 1994), p. 425.
 Organization of American States, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1988-1989(Washington, D.C.: General Secretariat, Organization of American States, 1989), p. 181.
Organization of American States, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Washington, D.C.: General Secretariat, Organization of American States, 1994), p. 380.
Etelvina Astrada, "In My Country," trans. Zoë Anglesey, in Alicia Partnoy, ed., You Can't Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile (Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1988), p. 234.
Ambassador Hinton to American Chamber of Commerce, San Salvador, October 29, 1982, as quoted in Cynthia J. Arnson, Cross-Roads: Congress, The Reagan Administration, and Central America (New York: Pantheon, 1989), p. 99.
Pastora, Construction, trans. Andrea Vincent, in You Can't Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile, edited by Alicia Partnoy (Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1988), p. 182.
ANNO: Art and nationalism. Art has also been a major component of on-going efforts in many Latin American countries to express feelings of national identity and patriotism. In Mexico, for example, first under President Cardenas and later under his successors, the work of uniquely Mexican painters, muralists, and mosaic specialists was used to decorate poublic buildings and monuments, celebrating the entire heritage of the nation’s past—including that of its Indian populations.
Words of Aniceto Pereira de Lima, 1978, as quoted in Candace Slater, Stories on a String: The Brazilian Literatura de Cordel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 182.
Interview with Gabriel García Márquez by Claudia Dreifus, 1982.