On a December day in 1956 a small band of armed men pushed off from the shores of eastern Mexico with their eyes on Cuba. Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara were among this group of revolutionaries, and they dreamt of a new Cuba free from social classes, capitalism, and American imperialism. After two years of guerrilla warfare, Castro and his band succeeded in overthrowing the Cuban government and seized power. Almost immediately their new vision of a socially just society unfolded as the new regime expropriated foreign holdings, transferred industries to state ownership, and “volunteered” Cuban citizens to work on state-run farms. This new vision of Cuba stemmed from the growing tide of Latin American nationalists turning toward Marxist theories in the decades after World War II. This brand of Marxism centered on erasing centuries of inequity and poverty with far-reaching change aimed at dismantling capitalism and promoting social justice for all. The struggle between rich and poor dominated the rhetoric of Latin American Marxism, but with a unique spin that included U.S. multinational corporations among the rich. The Cuban revolution presented a new political paradigm to Latin America, one driven by Marxis ideology and armed revolution. It would influence Latin American politics for the rest of the 20th century.
As the economic boom of World War II faded in the 1950s, international demand for Latin American exports—chiefly agricultural—waned. High machinery costs driven by postwar rebuilding in Europe held back industrialization and economic growth in Latin America. Economic hard times fused with the legacy of conquest and colonialism incited demands for sweeping, fundamental change. Some Latin Americans, including Fidel Castro, explored and then embraced Marxist ideology as a viable solution to ending the region’s poverty and economic dependency on industrialized nations.
The cold war wore heavily on U.S.–Latin American relations, and the Cuban Revolution signaled an alarming turn to an American government in the throes of the “red scare.” Even more distressing to American policymakers was Castro’s involvement in the launching of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) in 1967 to encourage Marxist revolutions throughout the region. Leftist revolutionaries such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, the Montoneros and People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) in Argentina, and the Nicaraguan Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) are some of the armed Marxist guerrilla movements supported by Castro and OLAS. The United States sponsored a military alliance with anticommunist governments throughout Latin America.
This national security doctrine increased the power of the military in Latin American societies as the United States encouraged military involvement in cracking down on Marxist guerrillas and their supporters. Soon some military leaders viewed civilian democratic governments as corrupt and a hindrance to social and economic change. These generals believed that the solution to Latin American problems lie in rapid social and economic development. During the 1970s almost every Latin American country succumbed to military rule. Many of these authoritarian governments looked to a free market economy as the means to change and seized upon low interest rates to borrow heavily to finance development. Any protests or cries for change, which increasingly came from urban residents-turned-guerrillas, were vehemently suppressed. In Argentina, scholars estimate that as many as 20,000 people “disappeared” at the hands of the military. The El Salvadoran military massacred peasants thought to be aiding leftist guerrillas, and in Guatemala, tens of thousands of indigenous people suspected of similar actions were killed by the military.
By the 1980s government deficit spending coupled with a wavering global economy resulted in skyrocketing inflation and foreign debts. This economic crisis provoked criticism of the status quo from citizens and accusations that military leadership represented incompetent government. One by one, Latin America’s military regimes retreated to the barracks and handed leadership back to civilians. The 1990s saw many democratic, civilian leaders embracing neoliberalism, a philosophy centered on making Latin America competitive on the global market. State-owned industry was privatized, protective tariffs reduced, military budgets cut, foreign investment encouraged, and social programs and bureaucratic structure streamlined. More benefits of modernity came to Latin America, especially technology, yet most Latin Americans remained too poor to participate in free market capitalism as consumers. A few guerrilla movements continued to flourish, like Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, violently working toward their goal of revolution.
Latin American politics from the 1950s represents tumultuous decades, marred by the violence of “dirty wars” perpetuated by U.S.-backed military regimes. Marxist guerrillas throughout this time period sought revolutionary change of Latin American society.
By the 2000s the move to the left in Latin American politics saw Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva winning the presidential elections in Brazil in December 2002, Evo Morales being elected as president of Bolivia in December 2005, an, in the following month, Michelle Bachelet won the second round of the presidential elections in Chile, becoming the first woman president of Chile and the first left-wing president since the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Moreover, the move by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a socialist, toward a national referendum in 2007 to reelect him to the presidency despite constitutional limits, foretold a continuing leftwing power center in Latin America.
See also El Salvador, revolution and civil war in (1970s–1990s); Guatemala, civil war in (1960– 1996); Nicaraguan revolution (1979–1990).