World History Project - Origins to the Present
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Latin American countries inherited a hierarchical structure from their colonial past, creating power shifts among the elites on the right and popular governments on the left.
Modern Latin America
By Alejandro Quintana
*Latin American countries inherited a hierarchical structure from their colonial past, creating power shifts among the elites on the right and popular governments on the left. *
Latin America is the region of the Western Hemisphere south of the United States. Its countries’ languages are either Spanish, Portuguese, or French, and are distinct from Anglo-America. Latin America is vastly diverse. It includes more than 50% of the biodiversity of the planet, some of the world’s largest cities, and countless smaller towns with ancient traditions. Some countries have large indigenous communities, others have majorities of African origin, while others are of European origin. However, the region’s predominant “ethnicity” is a mixture of all of them, called mestizo. Music ranges from Argentinean tango to Mexican mariachi to Puerto Rican salsa. Each country has distinct and rich cuisines, literature, and arts. People of the Americas identify themselves by nationality, such as Guatemalan, Paraguayan, and Dominican. The terms “Latina” and “Latino” apply to people from Latin America living in the United States, but not elsewhere.
Latin American diversity shares common trends from its colonial past. One of the most prevalent is the hierarchical structure of society. The colonial plan for the Spanish, Portuguese, and French was to be at the top of Latin American society, enjoying power, wealth, and influence. Indigenous and African peoples were at the bottom, with the mestizos in between. Independence promised the end of inequality, but that promise was not fulfilled. The people who achieved independence became the new elites. They have no incentive in destroying the system that guaranteed their newfound power, wealth, and influence. Thus, the history of modern Latin America is the story of constant struggles between elite groups fighting to retain privileges, and the rest of society fighting to gain power, wealth, and influence.
Obviously, each Latin American nation followed a different path, but the conflict between elites and popular groups is a common trend. Economic, demographic, and political events swing like the pendulum on an old clock. Over time, it swings to the right, in favor of elites; then to the left, in favor of popular groups; and then back again. Of course, there is evolution resulting from this swaying, and not all countries moved in the same direction at the same time. Also, we have to keep in mind that neither elites nor popular groups are solid, and have conflicts of interest within each. Occasionally, some elites find allies with some popular groups and vice-versa, and new elites have emerged from popular groups.
In this article, we study the swing of this pendulum to explain the history of modern Latin America since World War II. We use Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile as examples to illustrate the seventy years of history of more than twenty different countries.
Before World War II, the pendulum swings left
In the early twentieth century, the pendulum was secured on the right by dictators, as in Venezuela, or military-supported elites, as in Brazil and Chile. Their wealth and power depended on minerals and food exported to the industrialized world, such as coffee and sugar from Brazil, copper and saltpeter (for fertilizers and gunpowder) from Chile, and cocoa and crude oil from Venezuela. Workers and peasants who produced this wealth were generally overworked and underpaid. The middle class grew as modernization required more lawyers, doctors, merchants, journalists, and university students, among others. These classes united in their resentment against elites. They tried to replace the export economy with a progressive economy, advocating for land reform, workers’ rights, and national industries. Progressive presidents emphasized social justice and democracy, defeating elites with popular support, and women attained the right to vote. All this helped push the pendulum to the left.
After the war, the pendulum swings right
The end of World War II radicalized politics. On the left, radicals sought a classless society through violent revolutions. On the right, the United States supported elites and the military in order to secure Latin American exports and fight communism. The United States opened The School of the Americas to train Latin American military officers in anti-communist ideology and anti-guerrilla tactics. Progressive presidents were accused of communist sympathies and toppled by their armies, further radicalizing the left. Even some Catholic priests became radicalized by liberation theology, an ideology that mixed Marxism with the Catholic gospel, condemning the political and economic exploitation of the lower classes by elites. The military reacted more aggressively against this radicalization, swinging the pendulum further right.
Brazil’s progressive period ended with a military coup in 1964. The military ruled the next twenty years. Political parties were eliminated and war was declared on all leftist sympathizers, not just the radicals. The economy grew, but so did poverty. Social programs assisting with food, education, and housing declined even as the population swelled. In 1970, Chile elected the first Marxist president in Latin America. The United States questioned the election and boycotted the Chilean economy to force his fall, but it didn’t work. So, in 1973, the US government supported a bloody coup led by the head of Chile’s military, General Augusto Pinochet.
His dictatorship initiated a prolonged “Dirty War” against the left. Anyone from leftist leaders to passive sympathizers or their family members could be kidnapped in the night by security forces. Tens of thousands were never seen again, tortured and then “disappeared” by the regime. This so-called war had an international reach under Operation Condor, an intelligence sharing and military support network in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In contrast to Brazil and Chile, Venezuela managed to avoid a prolonged dictatorship and kept the pendulum on the left. Moderate reformists and leftist politicians successfully created a power-sharing coalition against the elite, called Fixed Point (Punto Fijo).
Neoliberalism and the pink tide
In addition to military repression and leftist guerrillas, the 1970s experienced a violent economic swing. Initially, exporters enjoyed a boom. Borrowing from easily available money, governments expanded social programs and reinforced infrastructures overwhelmed by the acceleration of population growth. However, in 1978 the price of exports collapsed and lenders began to demand payback with rising interest rates. Countries were unable to pay their debts and their economies collapsed, opening an opportunity for neoliberalism, an economic model that favors the export economy. This type of economy benefits the elites while reducing government spending on the social programs that assist the poor. Neoliberalism revived the economies of Latin America, empowering the elites—but standards of living fell. Neoliberalism kept the pendulum on the right, even as popular resistance strove to push it leftward for the new millennium. A new generation of leftist presidents advocated a democratic socialist revolution, known as the pink tide.
When Brazilian and Chilean economies collapsed, their military governments lost credibility and were forced to surrender power to civilians in the late 1980s. However, the military continued to control the elections. The new governments implemented neoliberalism to bring the economies under control. The declining standards of living throughout the 1990s revived mass mobilization of the left, resulting in the election of two of the most effective leaders of the pink tide era: Lula DaSilva, a former union leader who became president of Brazil, and Michelle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile.
Each improved their economies and the standards of living, dropping poverty levels, and improving social programs. Term limits ended their successful presidencies. However, years later accusations of corruption destroyed their legacy. In 2019, neoliberalism returned to Chile while Brazilians, fed up with the political class, both right and left, elected anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a populist longing for the military era who once said, “A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”
In Venezuela, the collapse of oil prices destroyed the economy during the 1980s. Again, neoliberal policies stabilized the economy, but the poor paid the price. In 1998, a former military officer, Hugo Chavez became president, promising to fight corruption, reduce the power of the elite, and empower the poor. His presidency benefited from rising oil prices, creating a clientelistic political system consisting of showering favors (patronage) on his supporters, while refusing to help non-party members. His aim was a socialist revolution, but he died of cancer in 2013. Nicolas Maduro became his political heir just as oil prices and the economy collapsed again. Despite fierce domestic unrest, as of 2020, Maduro has continued to hold onto power thanks to Chavez’s powerful clientelistic system.
Latin America has been haunted by the legacy of a hierarchical society. The past seventy years have been a constant fight in favor of and against the structures that support it. Liberals and nationalists, dictators and populists, conservatives and progressives, military regimes and reformers, neoliberals, and the pink tide are different names for similar forces. These forces have kept the pendulum of Latin American politics swinging left to right and back again for decades. Today, both neoliberalism and the pink tide are losing credibility. Where will the pendulum swing next?
Alejandro Quintana is an associate professor of History at St. John’s University in New York City. His research and teaching focus on state formation, nation-building, nationalism, revolutions, and social movements, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.