Foreign Intervention in Latin America During the Cold War

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Since the early 1500s, foreign intervention has played a major role in the history of Latin America. While the region has seen some benefit from this involvement it has been mostly for the worse. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende touches on this with its depiction of an American backed coup in a fictional Latin American nation during the Cold War. While this incident in the novel reflects the real-world negative implications of American intervention in Central and South America, the book largely ignores the similarly detrimental effect of Soviet intercession in the region. This is especially relevant due to the origin of the book’s primary genre, magical realism in the Cold War era and its genesis resulting in part from the geopolitical struggles of the period. For years, Latin America had been subjected to the United State’s imperialist capitalism that drained the region of natural resources and prevented many nations from becoming economically independent and attaining full sovereignty. This continued during the Cold War, however, with the addition of the USSR and its imperialism into the mix. The Soviet Union had similar goals to the United States including the expansion of its economic system across the world, and to maintain the dependence of less developed countries like many of those in Latin America, on its technology and hefty financial resources. The resultant conflict between the two nations for power, influence and economic control of the region caused significant harm to Latin America.

This conclusion is evident when observing the consequences of the US-backed Coup in Guatemala, the systemic nature of Soviet imperialism, the long term impact of the Nicaraguan Revolution, the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the fictional but historically based work House of Spirits.

US-Backed Coup in Guatemala

Since its independence from Spain in 1821 Guatemala has had a long history of both democratic and authoritarian rule. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, the country experienced one of its more authoritarian periods, being ruled by a series of dictators and despots(Moye 44). These included statesman Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and generals, Jose Maria Orellana and Lazaro Chacon Gonzalez. Each of these strongmen allowed the American based and backed United Fruit Company to further its business in Guatemala and substantially assisted them in this endeavor. This started with Cabrera who granted the company land, tax breaks, and control of vital infrastructure. His immediate successor attempted to repeal these concessions but he was quickly removed from office in a coup led by Orellana. Orellana renewed the policies and was followed after 5 years by the similarly minded Chacon Gonzales. The last of these dictators Jorge Ubico was the most brutal in his rule and the most lenient in his treatment of UFCO(Moye 44). He allowed the company to become the most dominant in Guatemala, granting it control of rail lines, electric plants, and ports, in addition to its already established landholdings. After 13 years of constant suppression and militarization of almost every institution in the country including the post office, Ubico’s government was overthrown in the Revolution of 1944 and democratic elections were held(Shahan). Anti-Communist socialist Juan Jose Arevalo won and became Guatemala’s first democratic leader in decades. He brought voting rights to the nation’s Indians, significantly expanded the country’s education system, encouraged peasants to freely organize together, and instituted progressive labor reforms. However, he allowed the UFCO to continue its dominance of Guatemala and banned the local Communist Party, although he allowed those with Communist beliefs to express them without repression.

He was followed in 1951 by Jacobo Arbenz also a socialist, but one who was more sympathetic to Communism. Arbenz legalized the Communist Party and many of his advisors were members. Even his wife was affiliated with the party(Moye 45). However, he was not a Communist himself. Despite this, his connections with the party drew the suspicion of the United States who believed him to be one. These suspicions were only exasperated when Arbenz implemented the Agrarian Reform Law on July,12 1952. The bill called for the confiscation of large tracts of privately owned land to be compensated, with government bonds. In total, 1.5 million acres were seized from over one thousand plantations(Moye 45). This had a major impact on the agricultural business of the United Fruit Company who had around a third of their holdings in the country taken from them. In addition, Arbenz further angered UFCO and its American backers by building a new port as an alternative to the United Fruit Company’s ports and new power plants as an alternative to their power plants(Moye 45). Guatemala’s decreasing reliance on UFCO made the company and its allies weary. As a response to these policies, they lobbied the United States for the overthrow of Arbenz and his democratically elected government. John Foster Dulles affiliated with the company and Secretary of State at the time assisted them in this endeavor(Moye 47). A proposed coup further aligned with American interests due to suspicions that Arbenz was a Communist and President Eisenhower’s staunch anti-Communism.

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Thus in August 1953, the President authorized operation PBSUCCESS and preparation for the invasion began. The United States armed and funded Carlos Castillo Armas who has been exiled from Guatemala after a previous failed coup against Arevalo(Moye 48). However, waiting for the right time to strike was vital for the success of the operation and the US needed a justification for their actions. In the months leading up to the invasion, Arbenz heard word of the pending coup and purchased weapons from the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia. This was the excuse America needed: “The immediate justification for the authorization of the U.S. backed intervention in Guatemala was an arms shipment in May, 1954”(Moye 48). Subsequently on June 18 1954 Armas’s forces crossed into Guatemalan territory form the Honduran border initiating the invasion. His army consisted of around two hundred troops and three US provided bombers. Though small in number Armas faced little opposition due to Arbenz’s fears that retaliation would result in a direct American invasion(Moye 49). In addition, the consistent air support and an effective propaganda campaign led the government to believe the rebels were far more successfully than they actually were. Castillo Armas’ only military victory on June 25, 1954, in Chiquimula, was the final straw for the Arbenz government and rather than be executed, he resigned. Two weeks later after a failed attempt by Arbenz allies to maintain power, Castillo Armas seized the Presidency as the first of another series of brutal dictators who both imprisoned and killed thousands of their own people in Guatemala: “His regime and those following were marked by turmoil, corruption, and repression...an unknown number summarily executed”(Moye 49). Their authoritarian regimes were opposed by leftist rebels with whom they fought a bloody civil war that spanned three decades and resulted in a massive human toll.

Soviet Imperialism

While American intervention in Latin America including the Coup in Guatemala is extensively covered in academia, journalism, and media of all forms,Soviet interference in the region is a significantly less popular topic. Nevertheless it has still been covered by a range of scholars and other authors including Paul Saba. Saba was a lifelong communist activist, historian, and a prolific writer in his field(“Paul Saba”). He penned his academic piece “Soviet Penetration of Latin America.” in the early 1980s. In it he highlights Soviet Marxist imperialism in Latin America, especially in the preceding decade and how it worked in tandem with American capitalist imperialism to keep the nations in the region dependent on foreign powers. This prevented these countries from becoming self sufficient and exercising their full sovereignty.

The USSR first gained a foothold in Latin America with Fidel Castro’s 1959 Marxist Revolution in Cuba and the dictator’s subsequent alignment with the superpower. In the following years the Soviet Union strengthened their grip on the region, particularly on South America. This was made possible by the decline of US influence on much of the continent and widespread struggles for independence from the long stranglehold of American imperialism. The Soviets accomplished their objectives in a variety of ways including through the offering of “long-term low interest loans”(Saba). Such loans were preconditioned on wide ranging economic agreements that discouraged further industrialization and development. Most loan repayments from South American nations indebted to the Soviets came in two distinct forms. The first was in raw goods and materials. The second was in the purchase of Russian manufactured products. Often, both methods were utilized.

A salient example of this can be found in a 1976 Soviet loan of 19 million dollars to Brazil for the construction of a power plant. The following year, Brazil was instructed to sell them 75 thousand tons of coffee in repayment. Brazil agreed to this demand. In addition, they subsequently bought more Russian machinery for the power plant to complete payment of their debt(Saba). While portrayed by the Soviets as a simple trade deal, transactions such as these amount to something far more sinister. Repaying a loan in raw materials and the purchase of Soviet finished goods only cemented the dynamic between the two countries. Brazil’s position as a less developed producer nation with an agricultural focused economy was strengthened as was the USSR’s role as both its chief technological provider and distributor of manufactured goods.

Brazil was not the only nation exploited by the Soviets in this fashion. Rather similar lopsided relationships existed between them and a number of nations including Argentina and Uruguay. Starting in 1974 Argentina entered into several trade agreements with the USSR. These covered everything from commerce to finance to technology. Within just five years 12 percent of Argentinian trade was with the Soviet Union and its economic bloc(Saba) perpetuating the nation’s reliance on the superpower for a broad variety of technological advancements and goods. In 1976 Uruguay requested a 50 million loan from the Soviets for a dam. They obliged on the condition that the loan would be repaid solely in raw materials(Saba). In addition to these countries’ broad economic dependence on the Soviet Union many were military dependent on them as well. This included Cuba, the USSR’s first and primary Latin American ally as well as most of the region’s other nations. The Soviet Union had such a significant role in the Latin American weapons trade that by 1977 they had become the region’s chief supplier of firearms, armored vehicles, and tanks.

Lastly the Soviet Union specifically delegated both military and economic aid to conflict zones in order to exacerbate already existing tensions for their own benefit(Saba). One salient example of this was Soviet intervention in the bloody Nicaraguan Revolution through their funding of Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front.

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