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Latin America’s Cold War by Hal Brands

The Cold War was marked by relative stability in the relationship between the superpowers and their European allies and dependencies, but scarred by bloody tumult in most of the rest of the world. Other than Vietnam, the blood ran thickest in Latin America.

In Latin America’s Cold War, Hal Brands, a security historian and assistant professor of public policy at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, offers a fresh perspective on the period. He acknowledges and often cites the many studies examining the conflict’s impact on Latin America and U.S. policies towards the region during the Cold War. But he proposes, not unpersuasively, that the opening of many archives over the past two decades has enabled a history “that is both multinational and multilayered: multinational in that it deals seriously with all sides of the diplomatic and transnational struggles; multilayered in that it integrates perspectives… from the highest echelons of superpower diplomacy to the everyday negotiation of social and political relationships.”

With the inevitable imperfections that mark history on a grand scale, he has in large measure succeeded, and in the process illuminated the complex causes and morally and politically ambiguous outcomes of Latin America’s convulsions within the loose frame of the global Cold War.

The book has two themes, or theses. The first is that “the intensity of Latin America’s Cold War was a product of its complexity.” The region became a fiery arena where “long-running clashes over social, political and economic arrangements [overlapped with] tension between U.S. power and Latin American nationalism[,]… the ideological ramifications of decolonization and the rise of the Third World and the… bipolar struggle [between the U.S. and the USSR] for preeminence in the developing world.”

The second theme is that “prevailing interpretations of this subject need revision.” This applies to conservatives who view the outcome of Latin America’s Cold War as demonstrating the efficacy and virtue of U.S. intervention and democracy promotion. But the book also challenges progressive scholars who believe that the U.S.—in alliance with local reactionaries—conducted, as Brands puts it, “a ‘savage crusade’ that broke popular movements, ravaged the Left and eviscerated Latin American democracy.” He argues, instead, that a historical assessment “cannot be reduced to a story dominated by Right repression and U.S. complicity. Foreign intervention, internal instability and ideological extremism on both Left and Right fed on and fueled one another.”

The book divides the region’s Cold War into a number of periods which, as the author appears to recognize, tend to bleed into each other rather than be clearly demarcated. In the 1950s, widespread nationalist resentment intensified in response to the United States’ unembarrassed assumption of hegemony in the hemisphere. Politicians took advantage of this sentiment to project onto the U.S. the widespread popular frustration with political instability, economic stagnation and extreme inequality.

The U.S.’s cynical amiability in relations with dictators like Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela and, in particular, with the semi-clandestine armed intervention in Guatemala to assist local reactionaries in overthrowing a nationalist-reformist government, fueled popular anti-Americanism. Its most notable manifestation was the riotous assault on then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s motorcade when he visited Caracas in 1958.

For Brands, the first phase concludes with Fidel Castro’s triumph in Cuba. The Cuban revolution then inaugurates phase two, characterized by a flowering of rural insurgencies and, in the early 1960s, a two-pronged U.S. response. On the one hand, there was an effort (the Alliance for Progress) to catalyze reform and transform societies in order to reduce extreme poverty and improve economic opportunities for the working and middle classes. Here, the goal was to preempt the appeal of Castroite revolutions. On the other hand, the U.S. focused on equipping, training and educating armies so that they could become relatively effective instruments of counter-insurgency. When local forces proved insufficient or unreliable, the U.S. directly intervened “to prevent another Cuba.”

The Alliance for Progress failed to achieve the rapid changes in economic and social structures that the Kennedy Administration hoped for; in fact, Brands argues, it aggravated social tensions by facilitating an increase in large-scale commercial agriculture at the expense of already poor tenant farmers. This added to the countryside’s combustiblility just as the military focus was helping to extinguish the Cuban-supported rural insurgencies launched by romantic and deluded urban middle-class revolutionaries.

Reform failed, according to Brands, for a number of reasons. These included: the simplistic theory of economic development (“modernization”) that guided it; the lack of talented, multilingual experts and administrators to execute it in the field, and the obduracy of the region’s ruling classes in response to demands that they yield some piece of social, political and economic power. Hostility within the U.S. political establishment, particularly in Congress, to social—or as some saw it, socialistic—engineering, particularly in the case of land reform, also burdened the Alliance. In evaluating the causes of failure, Brands appears to give preeminence to a supposed U.S. inability to overcome elite resistance to reform. But was this lack of leverage beyond U.S. control?

While Brands does speak of contradictions in U.S. policy, he insufficiently emphasizes the fundamental contradiction between pressing for major reform while simultaneously guaranteeing the status quo in each country against revolutionary change. One could argue, in other words, that the U.S. de-leveraged itself. After all, in Taiwan, after it became the last fortress of the U.S.-backed right-wing nationalists driven off the mainland by the communist armies of Mao Tse Tung, and in South Korea, following the Korean War, U.S. pressure helped persuade very conservative regimes to carry out major land reforms designed to coopt potential rural support for their Communist antagonists. All cases being unique when described in detail, Brands could no doubt have found important distinctions between the Latin American cases and these instances where, without total control (as it had in post-war Japan), the U.S. did achieve its reformist redistributive goals.

In any event, reform proved unnecessary. It turned out that the Latin American countryside, though riddled with injustice, was not ready to burst into revolutionary flame. Campesinos did not flock to the banners planted in their midst by starry-eyed, middle-class, urban revolutionaries. Lacking a popular base, they were quickly liquidated by national military forces assisted by the United States.

This second phase of the region’s Cold War was characterized by a new cohort of men and women who, despairing of nonviolent means for redistributing wealth and opportunity, turned to urban guerrilla warfare. Most notably in Argentina and Uruguay, they succeeded in triggering a devastating response from radicalized military establishments ready to wage pitiless war against not just the armed militants but against reformers of every stripe, even if they spoke in the idiom of human rights rather than Karl Marx.

Phase three of the conflict saw a geographic shift of emphasis from the Southern Cone to Central America. Beginning in the late 1970s, revolutionary movements of varying strength challenged the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The results are well known. An initially successful seizure of power in Nicaragua ultimately wilted in the face of a U.S.-armed and directed counterrevolutionary assault that culminated with the election victory in 1990 of a moderate anticommunist, Violeta Chamorro, over now-President Daniel Ortega, then a leading Sandinista commandante.

The Salvadoran regime, heavily backed by the U.S., and responsible for massacres on a scale exceeded only by its counterpart in Guatemala, managed to survive until the end of the Cold War. At that point, it was pressed by the U.S. into negotiations that allowed the guerrillas to reintegrate into society and turn to political competition for power. Their willingness to put down their arms for the ballot box was made possible by the radical reconstruction of the armed forces into a professional army charged with defending the state’s borders rather than serving as the ruthless guarantors of the business and landowning elite’s privileges.

Four years later, in 1996, Guatemala also achieved a negotiated settlement. Ideologically inspired murder is now rare, lethal restraints on freedom of opinion and association have been lifted, and civilians compete for power through respectable electoral means, apparently freed from the threat of intervention by the sharply downsized and seemingly depoliticized (although thoroughly unrepentant) army. And after 500 years of subjugation, indigenous peoples now enjoy the formal rights of citizenship while continuing to experience high rates of malnutrition and abject poverty. Alongside this misery, the middle class has expanded, but not to the point where it appears positioned to challenge the mastery of a small, traditional, land-holding and business elite.

The Cold War era, Brands concludes, left Latin America with more elements of continuity with prewar conditions than may be apparent to the casual observer. Income and wealth disparities are still hugely skewed (worse than any other region), and the very poor in many countries are even worse off. This explains in part the desperate effort to migrate to the U.S. and the explosion of both common and organized crime in many countries.

As for democracy, Brands argues that its breadth “is only slightly greater than during the late 1950s and its quality [is] probably less than it had been in the wake of World War II.” Even if one sees a somewhat brighter picture of contemporary Latin American societies than Brands sketches (most notably, perhaps, the much reduced violence in political conflict), counting the dead and maimed particularly in Central America, it would be hard even for the most stony utilitarian not to conclude that the price of Latin America’s Cold War has proven grossly disproportionate to even the most optimistic accounting of its gains.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Fresh Look, Hal Brands, Latin America's Cold War

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