Latin America: Reform Or Revolt

Early Latin America
Author: Stearns, Peter
Date: 1999 

After World War Two, Latin America shared many of the problems experienced by

the developing countries of the non-European world. Formerly competitive

economies such as those of Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil have fallen far

behind rapidly advancing areas such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Whether in countries of primarily European stock (Argentina, Uruguay, and

Chile); dualistic Indian-Spanish societies (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and

Mexico); melting pot societies such as Brazil and Venezuela; or single crop

economies such as those of Central America, Latin America faced serious

problems at the end of the century.

 

The Perils Of The Postwar Era

 

The period since 1945 witnessed much political instability and social

unrest in the region. For example, the only countries with continuously

elected governments after 1950 have been those dominated by a single major

party. Between 1950 and 1966 fourteen governments were forcefully overthrown

and dictatorial rule was imposed on more than half of the Latin American

population. The political instability and the seeds of social upheaval spring

from appalling socioeconomic disparities. Despite the region's great natural

resources, the average citizen of Latin America is young and poor. Shanty

towns on the edges of large cities house thousands amid filth, disease,

hunger, and crime. Life expectancy for Latin American males is around 55 years

- fifteen years less than in North America. Agricultural productivity is

inefficient and low. The population increases by about 3 percent yearly. By

1990 the region's population topped 500 million, most in cities. Educational

and health services are insufficient and literacy rates remain low.

 

Since 1948 the countries south of the Rio Grande have been aligned with

the United States in the Organization of American States (OAS). Dominated by

the United States, the OAS has sought to prevent communists from acquiring

control in Latin American countries by well-meaning, if incomplete, social and

economic aid. After 1959, when Fidel Castro rapidly transformed Cuba into a

communist country, his attempts to export his revolution have been countered

by an OAS boycott.

 

In Castro's Cuba, educational and health standards rose appreciably, as

did living conditions among the peasants who comprised the great majority of

the population. The professional and middle classes, however, suffered losses

in both living standards and personal liberties and many hundreds of thousands

fled to the United States. Cuba exported sugar to other communist countries in

exchange for major economic subsidies from the Soviet Union. In 1975 sixteen

members of the OAS voted to end the embargo and the United States intimated a

desire for detente. This last possibility was made remote with the

intervention of thousands of Cuban troops and advisers in Angola and other

African countries.

 

By the end of the 1980s global political changes isolated Castro. Cuba's

role overseas ended with peace talks in Africa. The Soviet Union could no

longer afford the luxury of propping up Castro's failing economy. His version

of Marxism-Leninism was shared only in North Korea and Albania.

Castro's rule in Cuba sharpened the United States' interest in the area

south of its border. After the failure of the American invasion attempt at the

Bay of Pigs in 1961, President John F. Kennedy initiated, with Latin American

cooperation, the Alliance for Progress. The United States pledged $20 billion,

to be matched by the other members of the alliance. After twenty years, the

Alliance had done little to change basic conditions. Oligarchic rule,

paternalism, and incompetence hindered economic and political reform. By the

end of the 1980s, the major Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico

were deeply in debt, unable to pay even the interest on foreign loans. Rapidly

increasing inflation also hampered economic growth. In Brazil there was

substantial indication that a large percentage of the foreign loans were not

being invested in needed industrialization and regional integration, but were

instead being funneled to Swiss banks by top-ranking bureaucrats.

 

The Yankee Factor

 

A key element in Latin America is the relationship between the United

States and its neighbors. American economic involvement in Latin America has

remained massive. American companies continue to employ about 2 million

people, pay 25 percent of the region's taxes and produce one-third of its

exports. Softening the imperialist presence are the activities of humanitarian

efforts from the Rockefeller foundation and churches, and federal programs of

educational, agricultural, and social improvements.

 

At the same time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used large

sums to support the opponents of President Salvador Allende of Chile. An

avowed pro-Soviet Marxist, Allende had been elected to power. In his hasty

efforts to nationalize industry, both domestic and foreign-owned, and to

redistribute land holdings, he had antagonized many of his own people.

Allende's regime came to a bloody end in a 1973 coup. Military leaders ousted

the president, who died - perhaps by his own hand - during the fighting. The

new repressive regime, under General Auguste Pinochet, imposed a harsh rule

and acted aggressively to curb all opposition, which had been growing since

the early 1980s. Pinochet stepped down in 1990 and was replaced by the

moderate Patricio Aylwin.

 

One long-standing source of discord between the United States and Latin

America was removed in 1978 when the United Senate approved the treaty that

returned the Panama Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama, while safeguarding

American interests in the area. This agreement, negotiated over a period of

fourteen years under four American presidents, was a sign to some that the

United States was eager to improve its relations with its neighbors. The

American military invasion of Panama in December 1989, however, indicated that

there were some excesses the United States would not tolerate. Allegations

that Panamanian President Manuel Noriega cooperated in drug running and

overturned democratic elections moved U.S. President Bush to order the

preemptive strike to oust Noriega.

 

In the last decade the countries of Latin America dealt differently with

the economic, social, and political challenges they faced. Many remained under

military rule. Others, such as Nicaragua, carried out successful socialist

revolutions, but faced the powerful overt and covert opposition of the United

States, the economic effects of which drastically lowered the country's

standard of living. Democratic elections in the spring of 1990 led to the

defeat of the Sandinista party in Nicaragua, but economic and social problems

remained to plague the new government. Tiny El Salvador struggled through a

bloody civil war, in which death squads from both right and left brought

terror to the countryside. Brazil made tentative economic progress before a

series of poor policy decisions darkened that country's future. Out-of-control

inflation destroyed Argentina's economy but Presidents Alfonsin and Salinas

were able to restore normal democratic politics in the country. Mexico was

stable under a single-party domination but faced a population rate that

outstripped its economic progress. Colombia found its basic sovereignty

undermined by drug lords, both foreign and domestic.

 

In the Caribbean, the British successfully ushered in independence in the

West Indies - Jamaica, Tobago, Trinidad, and Barbados - but unrest continued

in Haiti. President for Life Jean Claude Duvalier, "Baby Doc," was forced out

of office and fled the country in February 1986. The Caribbean island of

Grenada fell to a leftist government, before President Reagan sent the Marines

to the island to overthrow the regime in 1983.

 

With the end of the Cold War, the United States began to take a

longer-term, more economically focussed view of Latin America. Enhanced

perceptions of stability moved Washington to policies that may well prove to

be mutually beneficial to North and South.

 

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