By 1900, some Latin American countries were beginning to settle down, not only to stability but to prosperity. Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world. To the original colonial implantations in the continent had been added the cultural influence of nineteenth-century Europe, especially of France, to which Latin American elites had been drawn in the post-colonial period. Their upper classes were highly Europeanized and the modernity of many of the continent’s great cities reflected this, as they also reflected recent European immigration, which was beginning to swamp the old colonial elites. As for the descendants of the aboriginal Americans, they were hardly to be taken into account. In one or two countries, their suppression had been so complete as to produce nearextinction.
Almost all Latin American states were primary producers of agricultural or mineral exports. Some were relatively highly urbanized, but their manufacturing sectors were inconsiderable, and for a long time they did not seem to be troubled by the social and political problems of nineteenth-century Europe. Capital had flowed into the continent, only briefly and occasionally checked by financial disasters and disillusionments. The only social revolution in a Latin American state before 1914 (as opposed to countless changes in governmental personnel) began with the overthrow of the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, in 1911. It opened the way to nearly ten years of fighting and a million deaths, but the primary role was played by a middle class that felt excluded from the benefits of the regime, not by an industrial or rural proletariat, and that class was the main gainer, along with the politicians of the party which emerged to monopolize power until the 1990s. Although most Latin American countries could display class conflict aplenty in their countrysides, they did not appear to suffer from the social bitterness of industrialized and urbanized Europe.
These promising-looking societies survived the First World War prosperously. It brought important changes in their relations with Europe and North America. Before 1914, although it was the predominant political influence in the Caribbean, the United States did not exercise much economic weight to the south. In 1914 it supplied only 17 per cent of all foreign investment south of the Rio Grande - and Great Britain much more. The liquidation of British holdings in the Great War changed that; by 1919 the United States was the largest single foreign source of investment in South America, providing about 40 per cent of the continent’s foreign capital. Then came the world economic crisis; 1929 was the doorway to a new and unpleasant era for the Latin American states, the true beginning of their twentieth century and the end of the nineteenth. Many defaulted on their payments to foreign investors. It became almost impossible to borrow further capital abroad. The collapse of prosperity led to growing nationalist assertiveness, sometimes against other Latin American states, sometimes against the North Americans and Europeans; foreign oil companies were expropriated in Mexico and Bolivia. The traditional Europeanized oligarchies were compromised by their failure to meet the problems posed by falling national incomes. From 1930 onwards there were more military coups, risings and abortive rebellions than at any time since the Wars of Independence.
The year 1939 again brought prosperity as commodity prices rose because of wartime demand (in 1950 the Korean War prolonged this trend). In spite of the notorious admiration of Argentina’s rulers for Nazi Germany and evidence of German interests in some other republics, most of them were either sympathetic to the Allies who courted them, or subservient to the United States. Most of them formally joined the United Nations’ side before the war ended and one, Brazil, sent a small expeditionary force to Europe, a striking gesture. The most important effects of the war on Latin America, however, were economic. One, of great significance, was that the old dependence on the United States and Europe for manufactured goods now became apparent in shortages. An intensive drive to industrialize gathered speed in several countries. On the urban workforces that industrialization had built up was founded a new form of political power that entered the lists as a competitor with the military and the traditional elites in the post-war era. Authoritarian, semi-fascist, but popular mass movements brought to power a new kind of strong man. Peron in Argentina was the most famous, but Colombia in 1953 and Venezuela in 1954 produced similar rulers. Communism had no such conspicuous success among the masses.
A significant change had also come about (though not as a result of war) in the way the United States used its preponderant power in the Caribbean. Twenty times in the first twenty years of the century American armed forces had intervened directly in neighbouring republics, twice going so far as to establish protectorates. Between 1920 and 1939 there were only two such interventions, in Honduras in 1924 and Nicaragua two years later. By 1936, there were no US forces anywhere in the territory of a Latin American state except by agreement (at the Guantanamo base, in Cuba). Indirect pressure also declined. In large measure this was a sensible recognition of changed circumstances. There was nothing to be got by direct intervention in the 1930s and President Roosevelt made a virtue of this by proclaiming a ‘Good Neighbour’ policy (he used the phrase for the first time, significantly, in his first inaugural address) that stressed non-intervention by all American states in one another’s affairs. (Roosevelt was also the first president of the United States ever to visit a Latin American country on official business.) With some encouragement from Washington, this opened a period of diplomatic and institutional cooperation across the continent (which was encouraged, too, by the worsening international situation and growing awareness of German interests at work there). It succeeded in bringing an end to the bloody ‘Chaco War’ between Bolivia and Paraguay, which raged from 1932 to 1935, and it culminated in a declaration of Latin American neutrality in 1939 which proclaimed a 300-mile neutrality zone in its waters. When, in the following year, a United States cruiser was sent to Montevideo to stiffen the resistance of the Uruguayan government to a feared Nazi coup, it was more evident than ever that the Monroe doctrine and its ‘Roosevelt corollary’ had evolved almost silently into something more like a mutual security system.
After 1945, Latin America was again to reflect a changing international situation. While United States policy was dominated by European concerns in the early phase of the Cold War, after Korea it began slowly to look southwards again. Washington was not unduly alarmed by occasional manifestations of Latin American nationalism, for all its anti-Yanqui flavour, but became increasingly concerned lest the hemisphere provide a lodgement for Russian influence. With the Cold War came greater selectivity in United States support to Latin American governments. It also led, at times, to covert operations: for example, to the overthrow in 1954 of a government in Guatemala that had communist support.
At the same time United States policy-makers were anxious that the footholds provided for communism by poverty and discontent should be removed. They provided more economic aid (Latin America had only a tiny fraction of what went to Europe and Asia in the 1950s, but much more in the next decade) and applauded governments that said they sought social reform. Unfortunately, whenever the programmes of such governments moved towards the eradication of American control of capital by nationalization, Washington tended to veer away again, demanding compensation on such a scale as to make reform very difficult. On the whole, therefore, while it might deplore the excesses of an individual authoritarian regime, such as that of Cuba before 1958, the American government tended to find itself, as in Asia, supporting conservative interests in Latin America. This was not invariably so; some governments acted effectively, notably Bolivia, which carried out land reform in 1952. But it remained true that, as for most of the previous century, the worst-off Latin Americans had virtually no hearing from either populist or conservative rulers, in that both listened only to the towns - the worst-off, of course, were the peasants, for the most part American Indians by origin.
Yet, for all the nervousness in Washington, there was little revolutionary activity in Latin America. This was in spite of the victorious revolution in Cuba, of which much was hoped and feared at the time. It was in a number of respects a very exceptional problem. Cuba’s location within a relatively short distance of the United States gave it special significance. The approaches to the Canal Zone had often been shown to have even more importance in American strategic thinking than Suez in the British. Secondly, Cuba had been especially badly hit in the Depression; it was virtually dependent on one crop, sugar, and that crop had only one outlet, the United States. This economic tie, moreover, was only one of several that gave Cuba a closer and more irksome ‘special relationship’ with the United States than had any other Latin American state. There were historic connections that went back before 1898 and the winning of independence from Spain. Until 1934 the Cuban constitution had included special provisions restricting Cuba’s diplomatic freedom. The Americans still kept their naval base on the island. There was heavy American investment in urban property and utilities, and Cuba’s poverty and low prices made it attractive to Americans looking for gambling and girls. All in all, it should not have been surprising that Cuba produced, as it did, a strongly anti-American movement with much popular support.
The United States was long blamed as the real power behind the conservative post-war Cuban regime, although after the dictator Batista came to power in 1952 this in fact ceased to be so; the State Department disapproved of him and cut off help to him in 1957. By then, a young nationalist lawyer, Fidel Castro, had already begun a guerrilla campaign against his government. In two years he was successful. In 1959, as prime minister of a new, revolutionary, Cuba, he described his regime as ‘humanistic’ and, specifically, not communist.
Castro’s original aims are still not known. Perhaps he was not clear himself what he thought. From the start he worked with a wide spectrum of people who wanted to overthrow Batista, from liberals to Marxists. This helped to reassure the United States, which briefly patronized him as a Caribbean Sukarno; American public opinion idolized him as a romantic figure and beards became fashionable among American radicals. The relationship quickly soured once Castro turned to interference with American business interests, starting with agrarian reform and the nationalization of sugar concerns. He also denounced publicly those Americanized elements in Cuban society that had supported the old regime. Anti-Americanism was a logical means - perhaps the only one - open to Castro for uniting Cubans behind the revolution. Soon the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba and began to impose other kinds of pressure as well. The American government became convinced that the island was likely to fall into the hands of the communists upon whom Castro increasingly relied. It did not help when the Soviet leader Khrushchev warned the United States of the danger of retaliation from Soviet rockets if it acted militarily against Cuba and declared the Monroe doctrine dead; the State Department quickly announced that reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. Finally, the American government decided to promote Dr Castro’s overthrow by force.
It was agreed that this should be done by Cuban exiles. When the presidency changed hands in 1961, John Kennedy inherited this decision. Exiles were already training with American support in Guatemala, and diplomatic relations with Cuba had been broken off. Kennedy had not initiated these activities, but he was neither cautious nor thoughtful enough to impede them. This was the more regrettable because there was much else that boded well in the new president’s attitude to Latin America, where it had been obvious for some time that the United States needed to cultivate goodwill. As it was, the possibilities of a more positive approach were almost at once blown to pieces by the fiasco known as the ‘Bay of Pigs’ operation, when an expedition of Cuban exiles, supported by American money and arms, came to a miserable end in April 1961. Castro now turned in earnest towards Russia, and at the end of the year declared himself a Marxist-Leninist.
A new and much more explicit phase of the Cold War then began in the western hemisphere, and began badly for the United States. The American initiative incurred disapproval everywhere because it was an attack on a popular, solidly based regime. Henceforth, Cuba was a magnet for Latin American revolutionaries. Castro’s torturers replaced Batista’s and his government pressed forward with policies that, together with American pressure, badly damaged the economy, but embodied egalitarianism and social reform (in the 1970s, Cuba claimed to have the lowest child mortality rates in Latin America).
Almost incidentally and as a by-product of the Cuban revolution there soon took place the most serious superpower confrontation of the whole Cold War and perhaps its turning point. It is not yet known exactly why or when the Soviet government decided to install in Cuba missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the United States, and thus roughly to double the number of American bases or cities that were potential targets. Nor is it known whether the initiative came from Havana or Moscow. Although Castro had asked the USSR for arms, it seems likeliest that it was the second. But whatever the circumstances, American photographic reconnaissance confirmed in October 1962 that the Russians were building missile sites in Cuba. President Kennedy waited until this could be shown to be incontrovertible and then announced that the United States Navy would stop any ship delivering further missiles to Cuba and that those already in Cuba would have to be withdrawn. One Lebanese ship was boarded and searched in the days that followed; Soviet ships were only observed. The American nuclear striking force was prepared for war. After a few days and some exchanges of personal letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the latter agreed that the missiles should be removed.
This crisis by far transcended the history of the hemisphere, and its repercussions outside it are best discussed elsewhere. So far as Latin American history is concerned, even though the United States promised not to invade Cuba, it went on trying to isolate it as much as possible from its neighbours. Unsurprisingly, the appeal of Cuba’s revolution nevertheless seemed for a while to gain ground among the young of other Latin American countries. This did not make their governments more sympathetic towards Castro, especially when he began to talk of Cuba as a revolutionary centre for the rest of the continent. In the event, as an unsuccessful attempt in Bolivia showed, revolution was not likely to prove easy. Cuban circumstances had been very atypical. The hopes entertained of mounting peasant rebellion elsewhere proved illusory. Local communists in other countries deplored Castro’s efforts. Potential recruits and materials for revolution turned out to be on the whole urban rather than rural, and middle-class rather than peasants; it was in the major cities that guerrilla movements were within a few years making the headlines. Despite being spectacular and dangerous, it is not clear that they enjoyed wide popular support, even if the brutalities practised in dealing with them alienated support from authoritarian governments in some countries. Anti-Americanism meanwhile continued to run high. Kennedy’s hopes for a new American initiative, based on social reform - an ‘Alliance for Progress’ as he termed it - made no headway against the animosity aroused by American treatment of Cuba. His successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, did no better, perhaps because he was less interested in Latin America than in domestic reform. The initiative was never recaptured after the initial flagging of the Alliance. Worse still, it was overtaken in 1965 by a fresh example of the old Adam of intervention, this time in the Dominican Republic, where, four years before, American help had assisted the overthrow and assassination of a corrupt and tyrannical dictator and his replacement by a reforming democratic government. When this was pushed aside by soldiers acting in defence of the privileged, who felt threatened by reform, the Americans cut off aid; it looked as if, after all, the Alliance for Progress might be used discriminately. But aid was soon restored - as it was to other right-wing regimes. A rebellion against the soldiers in 1965 resulted in the arrival of 20,000 American troops to put it down.
By the end of the decade the Alliance had virtually been forgotten, in part because of the persistent fears of communism, which led American policy to put its weight behind conservatives everywhere in Latin America, in part because the United States had plenty of other pressing problems. One ironic result was a new wave of attacks on United States property interests by governments that did not have to fear the loss of American support while the communist threat seemed to endure. Chile nationalized the largest American copper company; the Bolivians took over oil concerns and the Peruvians American-owned plantations. In 1969 there was a historic meeting of Latin American governments at which no United States representative was present and Yanqui behaviour was explicitly and implicitly condemned. A tour undertaken by a representative of the President of the United States that year led to protest, riots, the blowing up of American property and requests to stay away from some countries. It was rather like the end of the previous decade, when a ‘goodwill’ tour by Eisenhower’s vice-president ended in his being mobbed and spat upon. All in all, it looked by 1970 as if Latin American nationalism was entering a new and vigorous period. If Cuba-inspired guerrillas had ever presented a danger, they appeared to do so no longer. Once the spur of an internal fear was gone there was little reason for governments not to try to capitalize on anti-American feeling.
Yet the real problems of Latin America were not being met. The 1970s and, still more, the 1980s revealed chronic economic troubles and by 1985 observers would speak of an apparently insoluble crisis. There were several sources for this. For all its rapid industrialization, the continent was threatened by intimidating population growth, which began to be obvious just as the difficulties of the Latin American economies were again beginning to show their intractability. The aid programme of the Alliance for Progress patently failed to cope with them, and failure spawned quarrels over the use of American funds. Mismanagement produced huge foreign debts, which crippled attempts to sustain investment and achieve better trade balances. Social divisions remained menacing. Even the most advanced Latin American countries displayed vast discrepancies of wealth and education. Constitutional and democratic processes, where they existed, seemed increasingly impotent in the face of such problems. In the 1960s and 1970s, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay all underwent prolonged authoritarian rule by soldiers and there were plenty of people willing to believe that only authoritarianism could bring about changes of which nominally democratic and civilian government had proved incapable.
In the 1970s, the world began to hear more of torture and violent repression from countries like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, once regarded as civilized and constitutional states. Chile had enjoyed a longer and more continuous history of constitutional government than most of its neighbours, which lasted until, in the 1970 election, a divided Right let in a minority socialist coalition. When the new government embarked upon measures that brought economic chaos and seemed to be slipping further leftwards, and even into a breakdown into lawlessness, the outcome was, in 1973, a military coup that had United States approval and undercover support. Yet many Chileans, frightened by what looked like a worsening situation, went along with it too, in the belief that the overthrown government had been under communist control. Chile’s new and authoritarian military government soon showed it had no qualms in mounting a brutal and wide-ranging persecution of its opponents and critics, using the most savage methods to do so. In the end it rebuilt the economy and even, in the late 1980s, began to look as if it might be able to restrain itself. But it drove ideological division deeper into Chilean society than the country had ever hitherto known, and that country became the outstanding symbol of dangers undoubtedly latent in other Latin American countries. Nor were all of these of the same kind. By the 1970s Colombia was already engaged in a civil war (still raging as the next century began) fed by struggles to control the country’s huge production of cocaine, virtually partitioning the country.
On a troubled and distracted continent there had fallen, to cap its troubles, the oil crisis of the early 1970s. It sent the foreign debt problems of its oil-importing countries (that is, most of them other than Mexico and Venezuela) out of control. In the next two decades, many economic remedies were to be tried in one country or another, but all turned out to be unworkable or unenforceable. It seemed impossible to deal with runaway inflation, interest charges on external debt, the distortion in resource allocation arising from past bad government, and administrative and cultural shortcomings which nourished corruption. In 1979, the Argentinian government was overthrown by popular unrest, and in the next decade the Argentinians experienced an inflation of 20,000 per cent. Latin America still appeared to be, perhaps more than ever, an explosive, disturbed continent of nations growing less and less like one another, for all their shared roots, except in their distress. To the layers of differentiation laid down by Indian, slave, colonial and post-colonial experiences, all strongly reflected in differences of economic well-being, had now been added new divisions brought by the arrival in the 1950s and 1960s of the assumptions of developed, high-technology societies, whose benefits were available to the better-off, but not to the poor. Just as in Asia, though it has been less obvious, the strains of the impact of modern civilization on historically deep-rooted societies are now more visible than ever before, even if Latin America has been undergoing some of them since the sixteenth century. But in the 1980s they were expressed additionally through the terrorism displayed by radicals and authoritarians alike, and they continued to threaten civilized and constitutional standards achieved earlier.
In the 1990s, however, there took place what looked like a major restoration of constitutional and democratic government and economic recovery in the major Latin American states. In all of them, military government was formally set aside. Eventually only Cuba was left as an overtly non-democratic regime. This helped to produce better hemisphere relations. Argentina and Brazil both agreed to close their nuclear weapons programmes, while in 1991 they, together with Paraguay and Uruguay, agreed to set up a common market, Mercosur, which at once launched a major tariff-cutting exercise. In 1996, Chile adhered to it. This promising atmosphere was troubled only by a few attempted coups, while economic conditions held up. Unhappily those conditions began to falter continent-wide in the middle of the decade and by the end of it the IMF had to mount new operations to rescue both Argentina and Brazil from severe troubles. Ominously, although the former had tied its currency to the United States dollar (itself a source of some of its difficulties), Brazil was again beginning to show the effects of inflation, while Argentina’s debt to foreigners had risen out of control. The international community braced itself to face a repudiation of unprecedented size. As 2001 came to an end, the population of Buenos Aires again took to the streets, and after some bloodshed and casting out three presidents in ten days, appeared to face a renewal of deflation and hard times. Latin America’s long march to modernization was evidently still unfinished, even in its richest countries.