Lecture on Latin American Politics

Excerpts I found relevant to the script are pasted below.  Link to the site here.


If Latin America today enjoys a degree of democratic rule it is in part because of the political left’s existence and its struggle against decades of dictatorship.

Likewise if many nations created ramshackle, corrupt and inefficient, but at least partly functioning welfare states to protect part of the population from poverty and inequality this was also a product of the left’s influence.

Despite twenty years of aggregate economic growth (1960-1980), Latin America today is not much better off than it was in the 1950’s.

During the 1980’s and through the beginning of the 1990’s, Latin America suffered its worst economic and social crisis since the great depression of the 1930’s.

In 1980 120 million Latin Americans or 39% of the region’s population lived in poverty. By 1985 the number had grown to 170 million, by 1990 the figure had grown to an estimated 240 million living in poverty.

Social injustices abounded. In the 1989 Brazilian elections 70% of the voters had not finished 6 years of schooling. In Mexico, inequality is so appalling that the life expectancy of the poorest 10% was 20 years less than for the richest 10%.

For the last 50 years Latin America as lived through a sustained period of economic and social deprivation. If it were not for drug exports, immigration, and the informal economy it would have been much worse for the nations of the hemisphere.

Yet despite all these problems Latin America was living through its most substantive and broadly based process of democratization. With the exception of the US sponsored military dictatorships in Central America, one-party dictatorship of Mexico, and Cuba, the rest of the nations of Latin America went through a a process of democratization where democracies replaced dictatorship.

In part the economic and social problems can be attributed to a Latin blend of Reaganomics of reliance on the free-market to solve all the problems of society and economy. The problem was that such fiscally conservative policies deepened inequality, the rich got richer and the poor, poorer,. It also bred resentment of the poor to the rich as was most recently revealed in the Mayan Indian uprising of the Zapatista Liberation Front in Southern Mexico at the start of this year.

In economic and social matters the left tends to emphasize social justice as being more important to economic integration: national control of natural resources: social spending over controlling inflation: policies of fair income distribution over the miracle of the free market: and reducing inequality is more important than competitiveness.

For the left today five key dates are milestones of 20th century Latin American political history. The first and most important in the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana on January 8, 1959. The second and third reflects a six year period that was pivotal in that two great leaders were killed. The first being Che Guevara killed while trying to start a revolution in Bolivia in 1967, and the death of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, a socialist, who was killed by his won troops in 1973. The next landmark is the victory of the Nicaraguan Revolution on July 19, 1979. And the final turning point comes with the Sandinistas defeat in the February 25, 1990 election in Nicaragua when for the first time a leftist regime was democratically removed from office.

Of the struggles for democracy in Latin America the first was led by the various populist leaders of the region, beginning in the 1930’s. There Juan Perón in Argentina, Lazaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getulio Vargas in Brazil were he will create the estado novo, there was Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, Haya de la Torre’s APRA party in Peru, and in Bolivia you had Victor Paz Estenssoro’s MNR party. All were populist parties.

Populism defines governments of Latin America that followed specifically similar economic policies regardless of the different histories of the countries. Populist parties also seek the inclusion of the masses into the political system. Populists also believe that industrialization, modernization and export development can be achieved with a minimal amount of social cutbacks and pain for the common men and women of their countries.

But despite inclusion populist regimes are almost always based on an authoritarian tradition and on authoritarian politics.

The Cuban Revolution impacted the left in Latin America as nothing had before. For the first time in the region’s history three processes occurred simultaneously. A radical revolutionary regime took power, consolidated its support and endured the wrath of the mightiest nation in history. The radical regime also carried out the most profound social and economic reforms in the history of the western hemisphere such as land reform, urban reform, mass education and health programs.

Second from 1961 on the new regime openly and defiantly embrace Marxist-Leninism as it ideology and allied itself with the Soviet Union, while identifying the US as its number one enemy in the world. The Castro regime represented a fundamental threat to US interests in the region.

Finally, and most important for the US was the demonstration effect of the Cuban Revolution. The revolution proudly proclaimed it intention of lighting fires of revolution throughout Latin America seeing that its very survival was dependent on creating or supporting revolution throughout the region.

One of the spin-offs from the mellowing of the Cuban Revolution was the emergence of new organization that sought to change the conservative status quo of Latin American politics.

A second wave of guerrilla movements developed. From South America this wave moved to Central America, the Caribbean, and in particular to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

The Guatemalan guerrilla movement got its start following the CIA -backed coup of president Arbenz who sought to nationalize banana properties owned by United Fruit and to create a 8 hour day and minimum wage law.

In his place the US installed a puppet regime that would be friendly to US corporate interests. Beginning in the 1960’s the guerrilla movement grew to where by the 1970’s the guerrillas were engaging the Guatemalan military in open armed conflict. But by the early 1980’s the revolutionaries were unable to withstand the scorched-earth policy of General Efraín Ríos Montt that drove entire peasant villages into exile in Mexico. The army killed tens of thousands and the US backed regime had one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The guerrillas did not expect the Army’s offensive in 1982 and were totally unequipped in terms of weapons and ammunition to deal with it. But despite the defeat the popular political-military organizations built up during the 1970’s survived and they continue today to be a fundamental political actor in Guatemalan politics.

In El Salvador, guerrilla movements sprung up after the failed 1932 peasant insurrection when the military killed up to 40,000 people in two weeks. By the late 1940’s Salvador Cayetano Carpio had formed the FPL (Popular Forces of Liberation) in order to take the oligarchy of El Salvador. The mass based opposition grew through the 1960’s and then in the late 1970’s matured into the FMLN.

In the 1970’s the FMLN was secretly arming itself, and by the late 1970’s had sufficient firepower to confront the military. In late 1979 and 1980 the military unleashed a severe offensive against all mass organizations in the cities.

At this point the FMLN faced a decision to either be decimated in the cities or to take to the mountains and prepare for armed resistance from the countryside. But that required a lot more guns. Between 1980 and 1982 over 10,000 weapons with ammunition were smuggled in ES. So many guns arrived that fighters had two weapons each. The FMLN was convinced that the only way they could win and make political demands on the systems was through armed struggle.

By far, the largest number of weapons came from Vietnam and were those abandoned by the US military in 1975. These were the best guns because the Salvadorean military also used M-16s and thus it was easier to obtain ammo and spare parts from your enemy.

What is most important for the FMLN movement and experience is that it had linkages with large sectors of the Church. The Jesuits in particular sympathized with and supported the FMLN. Many priests and nuns picked up M16s to join the boys and girls in the mountains to fight against the US backed military. As the Church increasingly swerved left to support the people a new term was coined: Liberation Theology.

With the Church supporting the poor and the guerrillas death squads appeared in ES and between 1982 and 1990 over 100,000 innocent people were killed by the mano blanco with the training and aid of US military advisors.

The war dragged on and on, the only thing propping up a completely bankrupt and corrupt Salvadorean government was US military aid. For 20 years the FMLN had fought a well-equipped army and air force that the US paid for to the tune of over $7 billion. Of all of the second wave movements the FMLN were by far the most successful.

The US had made an enormous investment in ES. The conflict there had been the most expensive American effort to save an ally from a guerrilla movement since the Vietnam War and it had failed. The war had become a stalemate and a stalemate was the same as a victory for the FMLN.

Finally, in 1992 an exhausted government and people of ES signed the peace accords which recognized the FMLN as a legitimate political party in ES. The FMLN for its part, agreed to disarm if FMLN candidates could serve in the government after fair and clear elections. The FMLN did disarm, but in reality gave up nothing. For throughout Central America there are dozens of warehouses filled with hundreds of thousands of FMLN weapons. Should the government not live up to its promises war could almost immediately break out again.

But the biggest success story of the armed struggle’s second wave in Latin America was the Sandinistas 1979 victory in Nicaragua. Like Cuba before it, the Sandinista revolution traveled both the armed and peaceful roads to power. The revolution was rooted in the cities and also the mountains of Nicaragua. The party was truly revolutionary.

In the beginning of the movement Sandinistas were very pluralistic as even the bourgeoisie or national middle class supported it due to the concession they were given. But when the concessions ended and with the election of Ronald Reagan, the alliance fell apart.

As US policy shifted during the Reagan administration Latin American attitudes towards Nicaragua also changed considerably. Consequently, the support, money and help from the outside dried up.

The idyllic postcard revolution was transformed along the way into a protracted bloody international conflict and civil war that ended in the virtual disintegration of an entire country. But at the start of the new regime it seemed to have solved all the outstanding problems.

The Sandinistas appeared to have assimilated all the lessons of the recent past and avoided the mistakes of their comrades in other revolutions.

But in fact things were more complicated. At the start the revolution was not military but rather was a popular revolution based on ousting the dictator Somoza who run the country for over 40 years.

Quickly the revolution became militarized as factions within the Sandinista leadership vie against each other. Power had been handed over to the FSLN almost by chance thanks to a remarkable series of circumstances such as the earthquake that destroyed Managua in 1978.

The Sandinistas were faced with the choice between sharing their political power or monopolizing a situation that they were politically not prepared for. Unfortunately they opted for the second alternative and in the process alienated key sectors of the bourgeoisie as well as policy makers in the US.

In the end the Sandinistas had little support or loyalty outside of the FSLN, and therefore the FSLN ran not only the government, but also the bureaucracy with disastrous results since they knew little of running a government, its economy and knew nothing about running a national bureaucracy.

The end result of all these shortcomings and the monumental role the FSLN stepped into was terrible food shortages, poor planning, corruption, lack of foreign exhchange and a collapsing economy. At the same time their excluding key sectors of the Nicaraguan middle class help lead to the international conflict against the contras, who were armed, supplied and directed by the US and Oliver North among others.

The last case we will examine of the left in Latin America is that of Sendero Luminoso. SL is the Communist Party of Peru and it is very different than the cases previously discussed.

SL has become the most effective and thriving, terrifying and mysterious armed organizations ever encountered in Latin America. Sendero is unique.

Sendero was founded in the 1960s as one of the many insignificant pro-Chinese spin-offs that fractured many Latin American communist parties.

Abimael Guzmán a young professor of philosophy at the University of Huamanga in Ayacucho would become presidente gonzalo the undisputed leader of the Shining Path. The movement was never pro-Cuban, or pro-Soviet.

SL initially flourished in Ayacucho one of the poorest sectors of the southern Peruvian sierra. Ayacucho was also an area where there existed a long legacy of peasant conflict and resistance to haciendas and the state. Here, SL would become one of the strongest guerrilla movements in the history of Latin America.

But what explains SLs emergence and growth is not just poverty but the conjunction of poverty with the spectacular growth of the University of Huamanga. Between 1959 and 1966 the number of registered students multiplied 500%. Between 1960 and 1970 the student body grew some 30% while the national average was 6%. By 1979 over 25% of the population of Ayacucho were in school.

Women played a great role in the organization and leadership of SL. Sendero then spread out to Lima and to other areas of the Peruvian hinterland, especially the Upper Huallaga Valley and Amazonia.

The agenda of SL was to create an Incan-state based on Maoist ideology. The Incan language would be the official language. The peasants would return back to the Incan ways of doing things. White people would thrown out of the country and a socialist state proclaimed that for its inspiration followed the pattern of the Incan empire.

SL moved into the jungle in order to generate money by charging drug runners protection money in order that the coca paste or cocaine could pass through SL territory. On one hand SL would make money to buy arms and influence and at the same time SL would aid in poisoning the US public and thereby weaken the fabric of US society.

By taxing coca production SL has achieved a degree of financial independence unseen in Latin American guerrilla movements. SL portrays itself as the defender of the peasants right to grow coca.

SL has tried to also portray itself as an Indian movement in a nation that discriminates against Indians, but in reality it is a mestizo organization and has its greatest support among mestizos. It did make some inroads into peasant communities in the Andes between 1980 and 1984, but the ferocious government repression scared away peasant support for Sendero in the Peruvian countryside.

SL therefore concentrated on the urban centers of Peru as a source of support and guerrilla recruitment.

SL was the first Latin American armed organization to massively incorporate the urban poor into its ranks. This has much to do with the demographics if Peru.

By 1989 65% of the country’s inhabitants were urban dwellers. Between 1956 and 1989 Lima had grown from 500,000 to 6.8 million people. In 1956 there were 56 registered shantytowns, by 1989 there over 800 with every other Limeno living in a shantytown.

In 1992 much of its leadership was arrested as well as Guzmán, but despite this event most observers argued that the movement was far from assuming national power. By 1990 SL had been unable to expand its mass base to include other sectors of Peruvian society, especially the working class.

The strategy of SL was not to gain power under the current political conditions in Peru, but rather to create such chaos that a military takeover would be inevitable. With the military in charge SL could then begin its peoples war strategy, gain popular support and overthrow the government.

SL, in the interim unhesitatingly rejected any notion of participating in the current electoral system or even having a dialogue with the existing authorities or institutions. In this sense SL is a lingering remnant of an age gone by. Of a time when revolution seemed possible, both to intellectuals and to the masses.

What happened ultimately to these revolutionary groups was that the momentum their movements created found reformist channels when democracy emerged in the 1980’s. The 1980’s would be the great period of Latin American democracy and social reforms that had been the objective of the revolutionary movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

One of the ways that spurred the movement towards democratization was the appearance of grass-roots organizations throughout Latin America by the 1970’s.

In urban areas they are based in a neighborhood; in rural areas they are regionally based or on a farm.

One of the first grass-roots movements in Latin America was created by the Church in the early 1970’s. Known as CEB’s Ecclesiastical Base Communities they grew out of Vatican II Council held in Medellín, Colombia in 1968.

At the council the church and its Bishops spoke out on many issues and it began to shed its centuries old defense of the conservative-quo. The church began to reach out to the poor in terms of not only charity, but in helping them to organize politically and make demands on the system. This movement, that the Church should address the needs of the here and now and oppose oppression, led to the formation of what is known as Liberation Theology.

The political and social context in Latin America also had much to do with the flowering of grass-roots church groups. The military dictatorship in Brazil and its brutality and the electoral fraud and severe repression in El Salvador in 1972 created an environment where the only channel for political and social discontent was the church.

The main instigator of Liberation Theology arose in Peru from the 1960’s. A Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez between 1968 and 1974 organized various social movements to help the poor and formed base communities to enhance their influence.

Most recently CEB’s spread to El Salvador and like CEBs in other regions sought linkages with workers groups. The work of Father Rutilio Grande and other Jesuits helping the peasants of Aguilares served as a catalyst for radicalization and drove them to greater militancy against the various military regimes of ES.

Eventually the archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero would also help the poor organize themselves and spoke out on radio against the violence and repression of the military regime.

By 1977, posters were openly displayed in the richer neighborhoods of San Salvador reading “Haga patria: mate a un cura”. Romero would be assassinated in 1982 while saying mass by a government hitman.

Women movements, human rights and environmental movements have all surfaced in Latin America as important grass-roots organizations that in a sense have pushed the political culture in the direction of democracy.

Democracy in Latin America can be defined as electoral competition for power, with free choice and fairness. Representative democracy involves the rule of lae and a relatively independent judiciary and legislature that has some respect for human rights. Freedom of the press, the right to demonstrate and strike and the right to belong to free labor unions.

But democracy until very recently has not been part of the Latin American experience.

One explanation for the series of military takeovers throughout the last 50 years is that democracy in the region has led to the political expression of the majority in society.

Democracy in Latin America allows for the open expression of the poor majority’s social and economic demands which almost always lobbies for a redistribution of wealth in society. This implies a shift to the left which in turn scares money away, creating economic chaos, and a virtual invitation for the military to stage a coup and seize national power and run the government in the interests of the elite.

Thus, when a popular party wins an election in Latin America and decides to live up to its campaign promises, its victory is rapidly neutralized by the military. Left wing governments brought to power through democracy were soon overthrown by the military, the US, the business elite of that country, or a combination of the three.

Some examples of this historical process are Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Haiti 1990.

Or in the case of the Dominican Republic in 1964, or Mexico as recently as 1988 the election was simply stolen or overturned and the nations ballots quickly burned by the state to prevent a fair counting.

It did take time for universal suffrage to be implanted in most Latin American nations, but by the 1950’s a rush was on to emulate the modern industrial democracies of the west whether or not Latin American society was ready for ti or not.

By the early 1960’s a mini-wave of democratization surged in Latin America. But the problem was the following.

Unlike the modern industrial nations, the extension of voting rights was not accompanied by a parallel process of incorporation.

Although voting was extended to the growing working class and middle class by the 1930’s the vote was then quickly extended to the dispossessed masses who lived in conditions of extreme poverty. In such a situation the democratic maxim of one man one vote simply does not work if 90% of the people are poor and are seeking a redistribution of what the other 10% own.

In Brazil, for instance, only 7.5 million people pay taxes, while 75 million are registered to vote.

The introduction of modern, first world political systems into Third World societies where the majority live below the poverty line sets the stage for an explosion.

Until a majority of the population is socially and economically incorporated into the modern, urban political culture and society something has to be done to diffuse the explosive impact that true mass democracy will have on these societies.

I am not suggesting that the poor are not ready for democracy, or that democracy cannot coexist with with poverty.

I only mean that by giving the poor the vote, and allowing their votes to be counted when they represent a majority, leads to demands, policies, and ruptures that in Latin America have tended to historically provoke military coups and the end of democracy.


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