Chapter 28 Postwar Latin America

Section 4 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 generations.

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 Guatemala.[18] 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.[19] 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."[20]  

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: 

“The Cuban 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.”[21]  

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:  

“My country

is Death,

a gigantic assassin, omnipotent with power, . . a death with dead

but lacking corpses”[22]  

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.”[23] 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 address

in our new society

we want to see progress

living in fraternity[24]            

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.[25]

            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[26]


Literature Feature

Magic Realism

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."[27] 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 Márquez explains


"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."[28]


            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.

[1]Frank D. McCann, Jr.  The Brazilian-American Alliance 1937-1945 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 441.

[2]Blanca Torres Ramirez, ed. Historia de la Revolución Mexicana, Periodo 1940-1952 (México:  El Colegio de México, 1979) p. 150.

[3]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.

[4]Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, I Rigoberta Menchú:  An Indian Woman in Guatemala London:  Verso, 1984, p. 34.

[5]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. 

[6]Ibid., p. 18.

[7]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.

[8]ANNO: The Amazon rain forest occupies two million square miles and is home to half of the world's biological diversity.

[9]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.

[10]Lewis, Four Women, p. 49.

[11]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.

[12]Alves, p. 27,

[13]Alves, p. 4.

[14]Johnson, Modern Times, p.737.

[15]Quoted in Johnson, Modern Times, p. 739.

[16]Quoted in P & N, p.857.

[17]Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia, “Mexico Since 1940.”

[18]Alan Riding, "Guatemala:  State of Siege," The New York Times Magazine, August 24, 1980, p. 26.

[19]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.

[20] 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.

[21]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.

[22]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.

[23]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.

[24]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.

[25]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.


[26]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.

[27]Interview with Gabriel García Márquez by Claudia Dreifus, 1982.