During the Mexican Revolution and the long period of reconstruction that followed, successive Mexican presidents navigated the stormy seas of international relations. Though forced to manage repeated cases of foreign intervention in its internal affairs, the government actually enjoyed considerable freedom of action during and after the Revolution because of the world historical context. From the First World War to the Second, heightened tensions and mounting international conflicts worldwide diverted the attention of foreign governments and enabled skillful Mexican diplomats to take advantage of world conditions to advance their own agendas for international relations and domestic reform on the international stage as they sought to establish Mexico’s place within the international states system, and world history, as the first social revolution of the 20th century.
Max Paul Friedman
In the first three decades of the 20th century, the United States regularly intervened militarily in the circum-Caribbean, sending the Marines to govern directly or rule by proxy in Nicaragua (1912–1933), Haiti (1915–1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916–1924). The end of this era of U.S. occupations, and the relatively harmonious period that followed, is typically credited to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, although his predecessor Herbert Hoover began the process and both drew upon Latin American traditions and yielded to Latin American pressures to change traditional U.S. policy. The new approach to relations with Latin America included not only abjuring the use of military force but respecting the full sovereignty of Latin American states by not interfering or even commenting upon their processes of political succession. The Roosevelt administration signed agreements formalizing this new respect and sought to negotiate mutually beneficial trade agreements with Latin American countries. The benefits of the Good Neighbor Policy became evident when nearly every country in the region aligned itself with the United States in World War II. Measures taken against Axis nationals strained the policy during the war. By 1945, and during the Cold War, the policy unraveled, as the United States resumed both interference (in Argentine politics) and intervention (with a CIA-organized coup in Guatemala in 1954).
Throughout the 1980s, Central America was wracked by conflict. El Salvador faced a guerrilla insurgency, Guatemala’s long conflict festered, and Nicaragua faced a continually escalating U.S.-led proxy war that used fighters, loosely referred to as the Contras, to wage war on the Nicaraguan government through cross-border raids that implicated Costa Rica and Honduras in persistent violations of sovereignty. The Treaty of Esquipulas, spearheaded by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, ended these conflicts and brought stability to the region.
The Treaty of Esquipulas stands as one of the most significant and understudied peace agreements of the late Cold War. These accords ran counter to the will of the more powerful United States, which throughout the 1980s had sought to use military force as the key to achieving regime change in Nicaragua. The United States policy of supporting guerrillas that waged a war of regime change in Nicaragua fanned the flames of conflict and destabilized the region. Esquipulas undermined this destructive policy. For the first time, the small nations of Central America, so long considered the imperial servants of the United States, thwarted an aggressive U.S. military policy. Through intense diplomatic meetings, and in the wake of the controversy that developed from the Iran–Contra scandal, President Arias of Costa Rica succeeded in creating a peace agreement for Central Americans and authored by Central Americans. The Esquipulas accords were a blanket repudiation of the near decade-long Contra war policy of the United States. Central America created diplomatic unity and facilitated a successful opposition to the military policy of its more powerful neighbor. This agreement was a great triumph of peace and diplomacy created in the face of what seemed like overwhelming odds.
Fabián Herrera León
Historical research on the phenomena of the multilateral interaction and transnationalization of institutional structures and norms centered on the international organisms of the interwar period, with the League of Nations as the central axis, have benefited enormously from the creation and development of several digital resources in first decades of the 21st century. One challenge for this period involves efforts to reconstruct the trajectories, collaboration, and interaction of Latin American members in relation to those international organizations, but these have been increasingly favored by these resources because of the information they concentrate or make available, and because they combat the omissions and imperceptibility to which this region has often been subjected. International histories centered on Geneva that radiate out toward Latin America could represent a new area of development for websites that specialize in consolidating such digital resources as the United Nations Office at Geneva (library and archives), the League of Nations Photo Archive, the League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA), and the History of the League of Nations.
Friedrich E. Schuler
The English-speaking world awaits its first detailed study examining Latin America during World War I. Many historical events of the era remain little-known, as does much of the region’s military history during this period. While key chronologies, personalities, groups, and historical avenues remain unidentified, researchers must draw knowledge from existing texts. The authors cited in this article for further study cover only a small fraction of the myriad topics presented by the war.
World War I set in motion a unique power readjustment in Latin America, the likes of which had not been experienced in the region since the 1820s. Most significantly, the temporary suspension of economic ties with Europe disrupted everyday processes that elites and commoners had previously taken for granted. Changes in economy and finance triggered a struggle between indigenous Americans, peasants, workers, elites, and immigrants, setting the stage for the social and political changes of the 1920s. Amidst the upheaval of World War I, non-elite Latin American groups successfully focused national politics on regional and ethnic issues, while elite Latin Americans weighed the potential advantages of ties with Spanish and Italian authoritarianism. World War I ended European financial dominance over the region, and the destruction of Europe reduced export markets to a point where Latin America’s economic relations with the United States gained new significance. U.S. military advisors took their places alongside European trainers, and many different “U.S.” actors emerged on Latin American soil, acting out rivaling understandings of appropriate U.S. activity in Latin America. The war heralded the end of Belgian influence and of significant French power in the region, British acceptance of U.S. financial preeminence, and questions as to how Prussian military expertise could be leveraged to Latin America’s benefit in the future. The creation of the League of Nations, a development alien to Latin American political culture, caught the region off guard. And yet it laid the foundation for global Latin American diplomacy in the 1930s and after World War II. In the end, the search for a new understanding of a Latin American nation’s place on the changing world stage led to the elevation of the institution of the national army as a social and political arbiter. The myth of the army as embodiment of national essence would last until the 1980s.
On March 12, 1956, Basque National and Columbia University lecturer Jesús María de Galíndez Suarez disappeared from New York City never to be seen again. While no conclusive evidence was ever uncovered, it has been widely accepted that he was taken by functionaries of the regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, flown to the island, tortured, and killed. Galíndez, who had worked for the Trujillo regime after fleeing Spain in 1939 and subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1946, had just completed a dissertation on the Trujillato at Columbia. The regime did not look kindly on his chosen perspective and set in motion a plan to have him disappeared. Following his abduction, many U.S. solidarity activists joined forces with Dominican exile groups to push for greater attention to the atrocities of the Trujillo regime as well as for a closer investigation into Galíndez’s disappearance. While Trujillo had similarly disappeared a number of individuals in the United States and other Latin American countries, the Galíndez case is unique for several reasons. First, Galíndez’s life offers a prime example of a transnational identity, of someone who juggled multiple identities and causes, crossed physical and ideological borders, and operated daily with conflicting alliances and allegiances. Second, the murder of the Basque national mobilized a significant collective of solidarity activists in the United States, garnered considerable national press, and built a foundation for future activism. Moreover, as Galíndez had been working as a U.S. intelligence operative since before his arrival in the United States, his story complicates the traditional nexus of solidarity work. Finally, the case offers a unique window onto the geopolitics of the early Cold War (prior to the Cuban Revolution) and the intricacies of the second half of the Trujillo regime.
First utilized in Latin America in response to the mid-20th-century decline of populist economic policymaking in the region, modern neoclassical theory, or neoliberalism, can be generally defined as a market-oriented form of economy policymaking that seeks to decentralize state authority and redefine state administrative responsibilities through deregulation, privatization, and the creation of common markets. Based on principles of classical 19th-century economic liberalism, the economic and political framework of neoliberalism advocates for a dramatically limited role for the state, which should only act to maintain the integrity of contract law and private property as a means of supporting the market. In the absence of state intervention, neoliberalism in Latin America alternatively emphasized the role of multilateral organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in bringing financial stability and growth to the region through the manipulation of interest rates, the devaluation of exchange rates, and the establishment of free-market pricing of goods. Ultimately, the widespread implementation of neoliberal reforms through the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of transnational economic policymaking that had long-term, mixed results for the environmental, political, and social landscape of Latin America.
From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
Fabián Herrera León
At the moment of its founding in 1920, the League of Nations enjoyed the solid support of Latin American countries, whose early and extensive participation helped legitimize the new international system and facilitate the functioning of its institutional representation. While this support was tremendously valuable for the Geneva-based League, it continuously suffered temporary, though significant, lapses on the part of nations that were particularly representative of the region, such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Despite the characteristically pacifist rhetoric enunciated by this group of states, Latin American support cannot be called disinterested or sincere. Indeed, their collaboration with the multilateral and universalistic pretensions of the League was notoriously reserved, to such an extent that in the 1920s the organization’s General Secretariat granted them special treatment and prerogatives, while simultaneously ensuring that the League would continue to exert its influence in the Western Hemisphere. This reality was confirmed, sadly, in the context of two conflicts, the Chaco and Leticia wars, during which Latin American loyalty to the League became seriously questioned. With few exceptions in the decade that followed—one characterized by complicated crises that would lead to a new worldwide conflagration—the general tendency with respect to the system of collective security described in the Society’s Charter was scarred by dissatisfaction, incompliance, and increasing disillusionment that undoubtedly contributed to the weakening and eventual collapse of this organization so emblematic of the interwar period.
The drug trade in Mexico and efforts by the Mexican government—often with United States assistance—to control the cultivation, sale, and use of narcotics are largely 20th-century phenomena. Over time, U.S. drug control policies have played a large role in the scope and longevity of Mexico’s drug trade. Many argue that these policies—guided by the U.S.-led global war on drugs—have been fruitless in Mexico, and are at least partially responsible for the violence and instability seen there in the early twentieth century.
A producer of Cannabis sativa and the opium poppy, Mexico emerged as a critical place of drug supply following World War II, even though domestic drug use in Mexico has remained low. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the drug trade in Mexico has reached epic proportions due to drug demand emanating from the United States. Mexico’s cultivation of psychoactive raw materials and its prime location—connecting North America with Central America and the Caribbean and sharing a 2,000-mile-long border with the United States—have made it an ideal transit point for narcotics originating from other parts of the Western Hemisphere and the world. Although Mexico implemented a smaller, less organized antidrug campaign in the late 1940s, the inauguration of the global war on drugs in 1971 represents a distinctive shift in its drug control and enforcement policies. The government began utilizing U.S. supply-control models, advice, and aid to decrease the cultivation of drugs inside the country. America’s fight against drug trafficking in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s shifted the geographic locus of the drug trade to Mexico by the early 2000s. Mexico’s powerful drug cartels proved more than capable of eluding (sometimes colluding with) the Mexican government’s efforts against them in the first decade of the 21st century during the administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006–2012). Calderón’s fight against the cartels brought about a drug war in Mexico, characterized by widespread violence, instability, and an estimated death toll of more than 70,000 people.