Latin America-Soviet Relations (I): General Overview

This is Part 1 of a new series on Latin America-Soviet relations. The first paragraph will serve as the introduction to each new piece and serves as my mission statement. Enjoy.

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In 1945, following World War II, the Soviet Union (USSR) began to create diplomatic ties across Latin America. This is not to say that the USSR, and moreover, what the USSR represented to many, was not popular or influential in Latin America. But following the war, diplomatic and formal relations were being fostered – before the churning of the Cold War. This is an individual review of the nations of Latin America during this time period. The main purpose is to illuminate to the relationships and draw in new scholarship to the readers of this blog. Its tertiary purpose is to use these conclusions in current Latin American relations that take place outside the internal and United States’ sphere (i.e. China).

Key to understanding Latin America-USSR relations at all is the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Treaty) that was signed by all of Latin America in 1947. (Suffice to say, but the role of United States is critical to the role of the USSR in Latin America). But it did not take long, especially after the Guatemalan coup and the Cuban Revolution and increased US manipulation in Latin American affairs, that Non-alignment – the Nonaligned Movement – began to grow steam. Being nonaligned during the Cold War was dangerous, but the risks sometimes out weighed the rewards. It reduced dependence on the United States (although, in Cuba’s case, shifted dependence to another power), allowed nations to bargain and trade on both sides of the East-West divide. Many did not take part in this movement, some were only observers.

To step back: the role of communism and the presence of the USSR must be differentiated. There is little doubt that, especially in the 1920s to the 1950s, Latin American communists were inspired by the Soviet Union – if, for nothing else, the mythology surrounding it. There is also no doubt that the Soviets had a large presence in Latin America. But it would be a mistake to say that international communism, the kind purported by the Comintern and other organs, was the sole cause of all communist threats in the Western Hemisphere. This is naive, and still assumed by cold warriors today. Communism in Latin America, while using the dialectical frameworks of Marxist-Leninism among others, was organic and – in the case of El Salvador in 1932, grew out of not only class resentments but also racial and ethnic issues that led to the deaths of 15,000 “communists,” as the government claimed. Both the right and left held the banner for communism – either for or against during the cold war – but in our examination of countries and crises, it would do us better to acknowledge that communism, and the set of interpretations it conjures, are diverse.

The two most famous examples of Cold War hysteria include the CIA-funded overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz and the Cuban alignment with the USSR and international communism following the island’s revolution in 1959. Their individual stories will be elaborated elsewhere, but the truth remains the same. Guatemala was not a communist dictatorship, not even close – it’s only sin was appropriating United Fruit land and having a more open democracy than even the US. Cuba began as an organic revolution. It turned socialist and espoused communism only after the Revolution. These two examples, as well as US response, is important to understanding the role of communism, and the Soviet Union, in Latin America.

Following World War II, and especially after Guatemala and Cuba, the role of the USSR became quite fixed. As hinted at with El Salvador in 1932 and Guatemala two decades later, the Soviet Union held Latin America at a low-priority. Cuba changed this in 1959.

The Soviet Union also became a someone benign character in Latin America. It is often easy to think of the USSR, the evil empire, as engaging all the struggles in Latin America from afar, supplying guns and aid. But this view is at best ignorant, and at worst, racist. The people of Latin America never needed a “great power” to change their fortunes. To be honest, there was not much of an academic presence in support of Latin America in the Soviet Union. There was no one espousing imperialism – in fact, Latin America was a low priority for the USSR from its beginning until its end. Like the US, the USSR went through an important period in which it thought Latin America would its for the molding but realized that Latin America is diverse and has opinions of its own – that it often voiced. This would be important as we continue. They learned that Latin Americans have opinions of their own, and as the policies of the USSR began to move, so to did Latin American perceptions. The Soviet Union main policy objective was to support destabilization of US influence on the region. They often encouraged countries to accept sweetheart deals with them or to, at least, become “non-aligned,” which drove the US wild. As a result of the social upheaval to be discussed below, the Soviet Union kept a low profile in the Western Hemisphere. Soviet trade never reached US levels, except for Cuba, but it did provide, like Russia and China do today, new outlets for Latin American goods.

Despite the public low-profile, the USSR was active behind the scenes peacefully and violently. After several attempts to help revolutions in Latin America that failed (Venezuela in 1965, Bolivia in 1967, etc.) began to espouse a “peaceful road to socialism.” In 1970, Salvador Allende would be elected president in Chile. It looked “bright” for communism in Latin America as leftist and social movements worked readily with communist movements. After Allende was taken out of power in 1973, Primer Brezhnev noted, “revolution must know how to defend themselves.” In 1976, the Soviets used Cuba a proxy for arming Latin American revolutionaries. It enhanced its military presence on the continent with advisors to guerrillas, to counter the increased US military involvement with entrenched government forces being fought by guerrillas. For example, the threats the US saw in Grenada in the early 1980s were real, leading to the US intervening in 1983; and in the most famous example of social revolution since Cuba, Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas took power on July 19, 1979, was directly aided by Cuban and the Soviet Union guns and aid. Now it looked as if violent revolution was the way to go, only a decade after “peace” was the supposed answer. Nicaragua openly gave Soviet arms to El Salvador and Guatemalan revolutionaries during the 1980s.

The Soviet Union dissolved in August 1991, but warning signs were apparent in 1989, if not earlier. Its impact on Latin America, however, would probably be bigger than their impact when it was a functioning state. Cuba, the only country with lasting ties to the USSR, suffered the worse as it traded sugar for oil and after 1991 found itself without oil and under the US embargo. It is still trying to find its way out of that hole. For revolutionary Latin America, the collapse of international communism, embodied by the USSR, led to the swift end of civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, as well as the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990. Without communism to fight, Latin America changed drastically. US relations with Latin America were the warmest ever following the fall of the USSR (1989-2001). South America began to align with the US more forcefully than before the fall of the Soviet Union. Ideologically, with the fall of “communism” and “socialism,” “free trade” and economic “liberalism” won the day. The proliferation of free trade deals and the birth of neoliberalism ushered in a new era of “progress” for Latin America.

So what became of the relationships with the former Soviet Union? Russia is still a force in Latin America, albeit diminished. It now associates with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez as well as its other allies from the cold war. It is more confrontational than the USSR as it is not the second world any longer but a rising nation that wishes to assert its will. The roads that the USSR used to traverse have been taken by China, still technically “communist,” which has become a major trading partner for Latin America in the past eight years as the US has taken a hands-off approach of the Americas.

In conclusion, it would not be too much to say that Marxist-Leninist thought was become discredited, but that has not stopped dissent (we will come to the dialectical issues of the new movement towards “socialism” by Venezuela and Bolivia in the Americas at another day). And in reality, as “communist” as the cold war social upheavals seemed to the US and the West, it was mostly coalitions of leftists and socially active Latin Americans have produced change in the face of great adversity. That is where relations with the Soviet Union must be interred at. It supported, when the US rejected, social change in the 1950s and beyond, communist or not. Some Latin Americans allied with the USSR, some did not. The Soviet’s kept their hands off the country for the most part, but played a theoretical role that, despite its excesses and mass murder, dialectically played a role in challenging US hegemony after WWII.

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~ by Daniel on April 24, 2009.

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