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  • Old Paradigms & New Openings in Latin America
  • Enrique Krauze (bio)

Latin American history has long been dominated by four grand and enduring paradigms: militarism, Marxism (both revolutionary and academic), demagogic populism, and the closed economy. For different reasons, all four have entered into a common and definitive crisis. Let us consider each in turn.

Scarcely 40 years ago, all of Latin America seemed hopelessly trapped in a tyrannical backwater of the nineteenth century. In 1950, the distinguished Mexican historian and man of letters Daniel Cosío Villegas estimated that of the 20 countries commonly regarded as forming Latin America, seven (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic) "lived under regimes of unquestionable tyranny," while nine (El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti) had political systems so fragile that the slightest push could tumble them into despotism. Only four nations (Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and Uruguay) had viable civic orders, said Cosfo Villegas, and even these were far from immune to the traditional Latin American political maladies. Latin America continued to be the domain par excellence of dictators and dictatorships. A succession of "gorillas" (the local parlance for military rulers), often supported by the United States, tended to look on their countries as a form of personal property. The phenomenon persisted [End Page 15] until just a short while ago, ending with the fall of two of the most sinister dictators in the history of Latin America: General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay (a throwback to a nineteenth-century brand of caudillismo) and General Augusto Pinochet of Chile (an apt student of the methods used by totalitarians in our own century).

Soon after Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba in early 1959, a wave of intense revolutionary messianism swept over the entire region. At the outset, both liberal and conservative Latin Americans saw the Cuban Revolution as a fresh departure that promised to combine the continent-spanning destiny projected by Simón Bolívar and José Martí with the prophecies of Karl Marx in a surprising new way. Over time, the prestige of Castro's revolution would wane sharply, but not before making a deep impression on two generations of Latin university students, who then sought incessantly to replicate it elsewhere in the region. Few were mindful of the harsh truths that lay behind the ideological wall (higher and thicker than the one in Berlin) that divided the West from the "socialist countries": police states, labor camps, millions of peasants sacrificed to agricultural collectivization, and economic catastrophe beyond measure. All the Latin American students and much of the younger political class "knew"—and all they thought they needed to know—was that this socialist world was the polar opposite of North American capitalism. Nothing else mattered.

Even the Soviet Union's brutal extinguishment of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 was not enough to stir serious doubt. When Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago appeared in 1973, it was dismissed as a long-winded reactionary pamphlet. Instead, the 1970s were a time of revolutionary action in Latin America, as young admirers of Ché Guevara, Trotsky, and Mao threw themselves into urban and rural guerrilla warfare. In Argentina and Uruguay, this upsurge of leftist violence helped to revive military dictatorships, as generals in both countries used the threat of revolutionary violence to justify the overthrow of civilian governments. Something similar happened in Chile, the only place in the area where a left-wing government won power through elections. The generation of the 1970s—peaceful radicals and violent revolutionaries alike—ended up being sacrificed in a holocaust of assassination, torture, and exile. The revolution triumphed only in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista comandantes consciously modeled themselves on Castro and boldly proclaimed their plans to make their country "the second liberated territory of Latin America."

A third historical paradigm—populism—came back stronger than ever in the 1970s. One rubbed unbelieving eyes at the spectacle of Juan Perón, now nearly 80 years old, returning to an Argentina completely entranced by myths left over from the 1940s. In Venezuela, meanwhile, President Carlos Andrés Pérez outdid himself in paroxysms of "Third World" bombast. In Mexico...


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