The Cold War: Latin American Country Trends

Figure 1.--El Salvador swas one of several Latin American countries where the Cold War turned hot. This wire service photograph was taken in Usulatan, El Salvador. Parents, older brothers and sisters, and other family members became combatants in the country's bloody civil war. Here a guerilla fighter, appsrently a parent, is traing his boys in rifelry and tactics. The photograph was taken March 3, 1982.

The Latin America countries mostly joined the United States in World War II, although some like Argentina did so reluctantly. There was i n the region a generalized resistance to American influence. The domination of many countries by military governments or civilian regimes strongly influenced by the military mean, however, that there was at first general support for the United States in the Cold War. This gradually shifted as socialism gradually gained increasing popular support, especially after Fied Castro seized power in Cuba (1959). As a result, the Cold War turned hot in several countries. [Brands] And the nuclear stand-off between America and the Soviet Union almost ended with tne Cuban Missle Crisis (1962). Guerrilla wars broke out in several countries , mestaticizing into both rural and urban fighting. Military regimes brutally supressed the Communist insurgency (Argentia, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay). The Communists won (Nicaragua). Fighting also occured in several other countries (Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala). A strange variant occurred with the Shining Path in Peru. Liberation theology emerged from the once conservative Catholic Church. Despite abject economic failure, the Cuban Revolution continues to attract accolytes like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela who somehow failed to get the message that the Cold War is over and that socialism does not work. While the military leaders who supressed the Communists during the 1970s are today reviled in Latin America, the free market reforms they introduced and the democratic governments they turned over power to are among the most successful in Latin America, especially Brazil and Chile. In sharp contrast, the countries that hace pursued socialist revolutions (Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) are economic basket cases.


The Caribbean is a unique corner of Latin America. It was the first area of the New World to be colonized by the Europeans. And it was colonized in a cherboard pattern by several different countries in cotrast to South America (dominated by the Cathoilic monarchies of Portugal and Spain and North Amrrica (dominated by the British). And largely because of European diseases, virtually the entire indigenous population was wiped out and larfely replaced with Africans reduced to slavery to work on immensly popular sugar plantations. No other area of the world was there such a clear and unvarnished example of colonial exploitation. The Caribbean entered the 20th century as a relatively poor region dominated largely by sugar. This continued to be the case as many islands achieced independene from Briotain (1960s). At the same time, Fiedel Castro acjieved power through a democratic resistance movemnent and converted it into a radical Communist Revolution which came to be strongly financed by the Soviet Union. Thus like divided Germany and Kora, the Cariibean became a Cold War economic laboratory. Miost of the Cariibean islands pursing democratic politics and free market capitalism reported ecoinomic proigress, although this varied frim country to country. Castro seized control over the largest and richest Caribbean island with one of the highest per capita incomes in the region, albeit with some festering socialmproiblems. The Soviets provided massive assistnce to support socialist economic projects conceived anbd directed personally by Castro. The results shocked both the Soviets and Castro. Castro not only was unable to report economic progress, but in a few short years managed to change Cuba from one of the wealkthiest countries in Latin America to one of the poorest. Only Haiti in the Caribbean ranks behind Cuba in percapita income and economic progress. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Castro's Communist Cuba is that left-wing groups throughout Latin America continue to see it as an example to be emulated. This includes many popular politicans who see socialist solutios as preferable to feee market capitalism.

Central America

Central America was the scene of tragic conflict during the Cold War. A mixture o conservatives, military, and caudillos brutally supressed individual demanding social change. After the Cuban Rebolution,, left-wing groups received the support needed to challenge corupt leaders ;aunching another Cold war theater. Costa Rica was quite during first stage of the Cold War with the region dominated by leders in power as a result of generlly undemocratic elections and supported by right-wing militaries. There was, however, a restive landless campesino class living only slighltly aboce sibsistence levels and a small wealthy class that owned much of the land. The first shots of the Cold war was in Guatemala wnen the United States helped to overthrow the Arbenz Govrnment in Guatemala, various described as a Communist/social reformer. The American concern was the possibility of a Soviet-allied govnment close to the United states and the Panama Canal. At this stage of the Cold War, many throughout the Third World saw the Soviet Union and Communism as the way to rapidly develop their economies and achieve social justice (decent wages and living standards) for their people. This was the situation when the reformist 26 July Movement seized power in Cuba and Fidel Castro converted it into aotalitarian ommunist Revolution. As the Cold war progresed an as Cstrol demonstrated, Communism could gnrrate political and military power, but not economic success and decent lives for the people inder their control. Cuba did, however, support left-wing insurgencies against corrupt, represive governments in Central America and finally helped the Sabinistas seize power in Nicaragua. Although lft-wing groups complained about undemocratic, repressive right-policis, both Cuba and Nicaragua pursued exactly these policies in addition to reporting economic failure. As a result of the Saninista victory, civil wars and pro-communist revolutions erupted in Central America at the very time that not only the economic failire in Communist countries were bcominging increasingly apprent, but that the success of market economics was being demonstrated by the asian Tigers and evenully China. The Sandinistas once installed in Nicaragua provied a conduit for getting military supplies to insurgents throughout the region. An thus in the late-Cold war era, Central America became a Cold War hot spot. Th gighting on ElmSalvador was especially intense. It also marked the time that Ronald Reagan was elected president un the United States with a deteminination to oppose Soviet expbsion and Communism. While revolutionaries foughtbit out with local governments, many other Central americans voted with thir feet by bginning the trek to the Uninted States where tge prospect of jobs beckoned. In the end, only the Sanbdinista suceeded in Central America. But neither they or the other Central american countries in th post-Cold wr era have managed to achieve economic success and posperity.

South America

The Cold War began in Europe. Communist parties existed before Wirld war II, especially in the more developed countries of the Southern Cone. It ws not unul the CubaN Revolution (1959) that South America became an important fromt of the Cold War. Castro became a regional fplk hero. At the time, many in Latin America inluding Castro himself, believed that the Societ Union would inevitanly win the Cold War. And this is not as unlikely as it now seems. It it was not as clear as it is today how much of a failure socialist economics is. Many believed it more effucent than capitalim and the way of rapidly acieving a prosperous, modern economy. The result was a series of urban guerilla struggles in Bazil and the southern cone. Much of the discussion of this struggle deals with the brutal repression of the military govrnments, often targeting uyouthful idealisrs. Often ignored was wgat would hace ocuurd had the Montoneros and Topamaros sueeded. As brutal as the military was, each of those countries npw have functional democacies. This is not the case in Cuba and Nocaragua abd now Venezula. There was an atypical gurilla group in Peru, an raical rural insurgency. And a strange development in Venezuela. Castro admirer Hufo Chavez somehou missed the act that the Cold was over and socialism did not work. Even Communist China went capitalist. Chavez restarted the Cold War.He restarted the Cold War (2002). He managed the virtual impossible--turning an oil rich country into a povery stricken nation of starving people. Many Communists during the Cold War reported economic failure, boy none ,anaged to turn a ciuntry sitting on top of vast oil resources into abject poverty.


Argentina during World War II looked favorably on the Axis, in part because of the political proclivities of Col. Juan Peron who as an admirer of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Musolini. Finally Argentina in the final months of the War joined the Allies so they could participate in the United Nations. Peron was a populaist and his support came from the Unions which ws an anomally with Latin American military rulers. There were a series of problems beteen the United States and Argentina in the early post-War era. These were gradually resolved or covered over. The United States and Argentina signed a nuclear cooperation agreement (1953). The military overthrow President Perón resulted in a major shift in the Cold War relationship with the United States (1955). [Sheinin] The military led Argentina through many of the most important periods of the Cold War. The military dictatorships introduced anti-Communist rhetoric as a fundamental tenet of Argentine nationalism. The saw the protection of the Argentine elite as fundamental to Argentine national security. Argentine foreign policy meshed with U.S. Cold War policy. With the onset of the Cuban Revolution (1959), the Cold War turned violent in South America as the Cubans provided funds and arms to left-wing insurgents. The Argentine military would fight Communist and left-wing subversion. Both sides used violence and brutality. The Junta was not brought down by the Communist insurgency, but by the Falklands War (1982). An enraged public demanded a new government. A return to democracy and free market reforms resuklted in a new prosperity and a collapse of the Communist insurgents.



Brazil developed a special relationship with the United States during the early-20th century in part because Brazilians saw their Luso-African Portuguese ethnic origins as creating differences with the rest of Hispanic South America. [Hilton] The United States and Brazil were allies in World War II. The Brazilians played an important role in fighting the German U-boats in the South Atlantic. Brazilian-American relations were close in the early years of the Cold War. Brazil like other South American countries faced a left-wing insurgency supported by the Cubans (1960s-70s). This was eventually crushed by the military. The Brazilian military's overthrew the democratically-elected government of Joao Goulart (1964). He has been described as a 'nationalist reformer'. He favored good relations with Castro. He also wanted to limit U.S. corporate remittances. The result was that Brazil would be governed by the military until 1985. The Brazilians even with the military in power began developing a more independent foreign polivy (mid-1970s).



Colombian post-World War II history during the Cold War was dominated by 'la violencia'.



A strange and violent Marxist variant occurred in Peru--Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path).



Venezuela was a United States ally during the Cold War. The Cubans attempted to incite a leftist revolution with little success. Hugo Chavez who won the presidency (1999) apparently did not get the message that the Cold War was over. The virtuakly religious alure of socialism continues to attract people like Chavez. Most countries can not afford the cost and economic failures of socialism unless they are willing to live in poverty like Cuba and Nicragua. Venrzuela is a little different as it has substantial oil income to pay the bills.


Brands, Hal. Latin America's Cold War.

Hilton, Stanley E. "The United States, Brazil, and the Cold War, 1945-1960: End of the Special Relationship," The Journal of American History Vol. 68, No. 3 (December 1981), pp. 599-624. (article consists of 26 pages)

Hudson, G.F. The Hard and Bitter Peace: World Politics Since 1945 (Praeger: New York, 1967), 319p.

Sheinin, David M. K. Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained (University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 2006), 277p.

Wise, David. The Invisible Government.

CIH --Cold War

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Created: 6:53 AM 11/23/2011
Last updated: 5:33 PM 5/19/2017