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20th: Latin America
Chapter 32 - pg. 762-781
In Latin America, much of the 20th century witnessed a struggle between the forces of
revolution and reaction. In the second half of the 20th century, Latin America took an
intermediate position between the nations of the North Atlantic and those of Africa and Asia.
Investments often came from the West, and Latin America was vulnerable to the world financial
system. Throughout the 20th century, it grappled with issues of social justice, cultural
autonomy, and economic security. Workers’ organizations emerged as a political force.
Explosive urban growth and emigration were often key concerns. Overall, the economy and
politics were subject to broad shifts. Although much of Latin America was subject to the
rhetoric of social and political change, remarkable little change actually occurred. At the same
time, significant transformations took place in education, social services, women’s rights, and
the role of industry.
The end of World War II was not a critical event since the region was only modestly involved.
In Brazil, Vargas returned to power in 1950 until his death in 1954. In Argentina, Peron’s
populism threatened the military and was victim of a military coup in 1955 as a result. More
broadly, the Cold War stimulated a new round of political agitation that was increasingly
communist-leaning in nature.
Mexico and the PRI. Between 1940 and 2000, Mexican politics was dominated by the PRI,
where rule became increasingly conservative and focused on economic growth rather than social
justice. But corruption gradually led to mounting calls for change as the principles of the 1917
revolution seemed distant. These pressures for change are evidenced by a guerilla movement in
the 1990s and the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. Collectively the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) and Fox worked to improve Mexico’s trade and relations with the United
Although democratic and populist authoritarian reformers gained some traction, a more radical
and frantic call for development led many nations toward socialism as the Cold War intensified.
In some situations, ninety percent of land was owned by six percent of the population. Thus
nationalizing mines and redistributing land became options for countries like Cuba and
The Cuban Revolution: Socialism in the Caribbean. Long in the shadow of the United States,
Cuba’s economy was highly reliant on sugar exports and imports from the United States. This
tenuous situation yielded a growing disparity between the urban middle classes and rural poor.
Cuba was ripe for a radical revolution when coupling these economic problems with a leader in
Fulgencio Batista, who promised reform and a democratic constitution in 1940 but was little
more than a corrupt dictator. In the 1950s, reform-minded opposition mounted, most notably
among leftist, university-educated Fidel Castro. Ultimately successful in 1958, Castro pledged
real democracy, justice, and prosperity for all by establishing collective farms, confiscating and
redistributing property, and enlisting the support of the USSR. As result Cuba isolated itself
from the U.S. and much of the international community. This in turn led to failed economic
policies as the Soviet Union tried to subsidize a Cuban economy that remained dependant on
20th: Latin America Reading Outline
exports. However, much of the revolution’s social reforms were successful as public health,
education, literacy, and housing rapidly improved in rural areas to rates that exceeded most of
Latin America. Since the fall of Communism in Europe, Cuba has become one of the last
bastions of that system (along with North Korea) – now with Soviet aid. Yet the model of
revolution and successful resistance to U.S. pressure was attractive to rebels in other Latin
American nations. In particular, Che Guevara, a famous Argentinean militant, used his
experience in helping the Cuban Revolution to spread anti-American and communist rhetoric to
other Latin American countries.
Guatemala: Reform and United States Intervention. Guatemala faced some of the region’s
worst problems, including illiteracy, poor health, and high mortality. Its economy depended
almost exclusively on banana and coffee plantations, which were frequently controlled by
American firms like the United Fruit Company. To counteract these conditions, Guatemalan
president Arbenz utilized socialist principles to nationalize many aspects of the economy. His
central program was to redistribute large tracts of cultivated land held by the privileged elite
and foreign firms. These actions won Arbenz the support of the Soviet bloc, but put Guatemala
in direct conflict with American interests - particularly United Fruit, who stood to lose half a
million acres of land. As a result of this conflict of interests, the U.S. CIA organized a Guatemala
opposition group to overthrow Arbenz and set up a pro-American military dictatorship.
By the mid-1960s and 1970s, political winds shifted again. This time many believed political
stability rather than radical changes was instrumental to overcoming Latin America’s patterns of
inequality and international dependency. As a result, many turned to military governments for
stability and the Catholic Church, long influential in Latin politics, for social justice.
Out of the Barracks: Soldiers Take Power. The move toward military government was
precipitated by at least three developments: a long history of caudillo and military intervention,
the professionalization of the militaries, and the success of the Cuban Revolution. Worried
about revolutionary change, professional military officers often saw themselves as above politics
and best equipped to solve their nation’s ills. Essentially a presidency controlled by the military,
these dictatorships repressed opposition, regulated inflation, and promoted industrialization all
in the name of stability. Standing in stark contrast to communist regimes of the 1950s, many
brutal authoritarians in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Peru were supported by the U.S.
because of the Cold War. Still, longstanding problems in many countries such as income
distribution, land distribution and social conditions remained unequal.
With the exception of Cuba, many Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru,
Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama witnessed an increase in democratization in the 1980s.
Again, economies continued to struggle however as inflation, national debt, and export
economies intensified. Despite difficulties, by the 1990s it appeared democratic trends were
well-established in Latin America.
Slow Change in Women’s Roles. Feminist movements successfully pushed for greater political
and economic equality. By the 1950s, most of the region allowed females to vote. Shifts in
20th: Latin America Reading Outline
attitudes about women’s social roles developed more slowly. Overall, as in many other areas, by
the beginning of the 21st century, Latin America was in the intermediate position between
industrialized and developing nations where the status of women was concerned.
The Movement of People. During the 20th century, Latin America’s population soared in
comparison to North America. At the beginning of the period, the major population trend was
immigration into Latin America. After WWII, migration to the region’s massive urban areas and
the United States dominated Latin America’s population trends. As a result, in 1999 the region
was the most urbanized of the developing world. Problems related to this rapid growth remain,
including persistent ethnic tensions.
Cultural Reflections of Despair and Hope. As despair was common, the vast majority of Latin
Americans turned to Catholicism, although Protestantism has been making inroads. Latin
America’s internationally famed music, dance, and literature were also important parts of a
popular culture that provided hope for the people of this massive region.
The United States and Latin America. One factor slowing change in Latin America was the
continued presence of the United States. U.S. military intervention became a common means of
protecting American interests in Latin America—more than 30 occurred before 1933—and
contributed to a strong anti-imperialist reaction. The grounds for these interventions were
economic, political, strategic, and ideological.
In Depth: Human Rights in the 20th Century. Human rights violations occurred in Latin
America in the 1950s and 1960s under communist and military-led regimes. The use of terrorism
against political opponents by the state and by groups opposed to the state became all too
common. This affront to human rights was no worse than in other areas of the world
unfortunately. Although the concepts of morally-grounded human rights go back to the ancient
Greeks and 19th century European beliefs in natural law, the United Nations issued history’s
most sweeping pronouncement with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Yet,
issues of U.N. enforcement power, differing cultural priorities, and the political strategies used
to protect human rights continue to fuel debate.
As Latin America entered the 21st century, it continued to seek economic, social, and political
growth and stability. New forms of politics were tried, but many long-standing problems
remained. Nevertheless, Latin America was the most advanced region of the “developing” world
and in the 1990s its economies grew considerably. Cultural issues remained unresolved and
Latin America’s global position became increasingly complex.
Chapter 29 - pg. 679-681, 694-697