Stephen G. Rabe
On March 13, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress, an economic assistance program to promote political democracy, economic growth, and social justice in Latin America. The United States and Latin American nations formally agreed to the alliance at a conference held in August 1961, at Punta del Este, Uruguay. U.S. delegates promised that Latin America would receive over twenty billion dollars in public and private capital from the United States and international lending authorities during the 1960s. The money would arrive in the form of grants, loans, and direct private investments. When combined with an expected eighty billion dollars in internal investment, this new money was projected to stimulate an economic growth rate of not less than 2.5 percent a year. This economic growth would facilitate significant improvements in employment, and in rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy rates. In agreeing to the alliance, Latin American leaders pledged to work for equality and social justice by promoting agrarian reform and progressive income taxes.
The Kennedy administration developed this so-called Marshall Plan for Latin America because it judged the region susceptible to social revolution and communism. Fidel Castro had transformed the Cuban Revolution into a strident anti-American movement and had allied his nation with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials feared that the lower classes of Latin America, mired in poverty and injustice, might follow similarly radical leaders.
Alliance programs delivered outside capital to the region, but the Alliance for Progress failed to transform Latin America. During the 1960s, Latin American economies performed poorly, usually falling below the 2.5 percent target. The region witnessed few improvements in health, education, or welfare. Latin American societies remained unfair and authoritarian. Sixteen extra-constitutional changes of government repeatedly unsettled the region.
The Alliance for Progress fell short of its goals for several reasons. Latin America had formidable obstacles to change: elites resisted land reform, equitable tax systems, and social programs; new credits often brought greater indebtedness rather than growth; and the Marshall Plan experience served as a poor guide to solving the problems of a region that was far different from Western Europe. The United States also acted ambiguously, calling for democratic progress and social justice, but worried that Communists would take advantage of the instability caused by progressive change. Further, Washington provided wholehearted support only to those Latin American governments and organizations that pursued fervent anticommunist policies.
Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz
On December 8, 1953, in the midst of increasing nuclear weapons testing and geopolitical polarization, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace initiative. More than a pacifist program, the initiative is nowadays seen as an essential piece in the U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War. As such, it pursued several ambitious goals, and Latin America was an ideal target for most of them: to create political allies, to ease fears of the deadly atomic energy while fostering receptive attitudes towards nuclear technologies, to control and avoid development of nuclear weapons outside the United States and its allies, and to open or redirect markets for the new nuclear industry. The U.S. Department of State, through the Foreign Operations Administration, acted in concert with several domestic and foreign middle-range actors, including people at national nuclear commissions, universities, and industrial funds, to implement programs of regional technical assistance, education and training, and technological transfer.
Latin American countries were classified according to their stage of nuclear development, with Brazil at the top and Argentina and Mexico belonging to the group of “countries worthy of attention.” Nuclear programs often intersected with development projects in other areas, such as agriculture and public health. Moreover, Eisenhower’s initiative required the recruitment of local actors, natural resources and infrastructures, governmental funding, and standardized (but localized techno-scientific) practices from Latin American countries. As Atoms for Peace took shape, it began to rely on newly created multilateral and regional agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations and the Inter-American Nuclear Energy Commission (IANEC) of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Nevertheless, as seen from Latin America, the implementation of atomic energy for peaceful purposes was reinterpreted in different ways in each country. This fact produced different outcomes, depending on the political, economic, and techno-scientific expectations and interventions of the actors involved. It provided, therefore, an opportunity to create local scientific elites and infrastructure. Finally, the peaceful uses of atomic energy allowed the countries in the region to develop national and international political discourses framing the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean signed in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, in 1967, which made Latin America the first atomic weapons–free populated zone in the world.
Juan R. García
The Bracero Program began in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure but was extended repeatedly until 1964. During that time, more than 4.5 million braceros received contracts to work in the United States, primarily as agricultural laborers. Before the program ended, braceros worked in thirty-eight states in the United States, with the majority contracted by eight states.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent sinking of two Mexican vessels by German submarines, Mexico and the United States entered into a bilateral agreement. In actuality, there were two bilateral agreements, the first extending from 1942 to 1949, and the second, enacted as Public Law 78, starting in 1951 and culminating in 1964. Throughout the program’s existence Mexico strove to ensure favorable conditions under which braceros were to be contracted, especially in light of the strong opposition to the program among a number of sectors in Mexico and the long history of discrimination against people of Mexican descent in the United States. Like Mexico, the United States faced opposition to the contract labor program from both employers and labor unions. Employers were wary of too much government interference in their ability to secure a plentiful and cheap labor supply, while labor unions viewed the program as a threat to organizing efforts and as an obstacle to achieving better working conditions and pay for agricultural workers in the United States. The Bracero Program also deeply affected the braceros themselves in both positive and negative ways. And it had a profound impact on the families of the braceros who left to work in the United States. The program was plagued by a number of issues and problems, primarily resulting from a lack of enforcement and widespread contract violations. Despite the problems associated with the program, both countries touted its benefits, not only to their economy, but to the braceros themselves. The braceros did not passively accept their fate and challenged their treatment in a variety of ways. Although the Bracero Program ended in 1964, its legacy continues to affect US–Mexican relations to this day. Furthermore, former braceros and their descendants have undertaken a movement to demand reimbursement for wages promised them under the requirements of the Bracero Program.
During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the Church as an ally against supposed Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism farther to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anticommunism and established ties to influential policymakers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anticommunist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.
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.
Aaron Coy Moulton
Between 1944 and 1959, conflicts with anti-dictatorial exiles and democratic leaders against dictatorial regimes and dissident exiles shaped inter-American relations in the Caribbean Basin. At the end of World War II, anti-dictatorial exiles networked with students, laborers, journalists, and politicians in denouncing the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, and Honduras’s Tiburcio Carías. Opponents of and dissident exiles from the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution and Venezuela’s Trienio Adeco (Adeco Triennium) under Rómulo Betancourt likewise turned to dictatorial regimes for aid. By 1947, a loose coalition of anti-dictatorial exiles with the help of Cuba, Guatemala, and Venezuela’s democratic leaders formed what would become known as the Caribbean Legion and organized the abortive Cayo Confites expedition against Trujillo. Seeking regional stability, U.S. officials intervened against this expedition and Caribbean Basin dictators and dissident exiles’ attempts to air-bomb Guatemala City and Caracas.
Caribbean Basin leaders and exiles focused upon these inter-American conflicts, rather than the international Cold War. José Figueres’s rise to power in Costa Rica provided a pivotal ally to democratic leaders and anti-dictatorial exiles, and Caribbean Basin dictators began working with the Venezuelan military regime after the 1948 military coup. In 1949, Trujillo’s regime coordinated a counter-intelligence operation that destroyed the Caribbean Legion’s expedition at Luperón and brought greater attention to the region.
By the early 1950s, dictatorial regimes operated as a counter-revolutionary network sharing intelligence, aiding dissident exiles, supporting Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup in Cuba, and lobbying U.S. officials against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Figueres in Costa Rica. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) utilized these dictators and exiles during Operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954, but U.S. officials intervened when the counter-revolutionary network invaded Costa Rica in 1955.
From 1955 onward, anti-dictatorial exiles from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela continued organizing expeditions against Caribbean Basin dictatorships, and multiple groups conspired against Batista’s regime. Among Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro rose to prominence and received important resources and alliances through anti-dictatorial exiles. Dictators shared intelligence and gave aid to Batista, yet Caribbean Legion veterans, Cuban exiles, Betancourt, Figueres, and others helped Castro undermine Batista. In 1959, Castro supported anti-dictatorial expeditions, most notably those against Trujillo and Luis Somoza. However, Castro disagreed with many former exiles and Betancourt and Figueres’s policies, so the resulting tension separated Castro from democratic leaders and divided the region among dictatorial regimes, democratic governments, and Castro.
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.
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.
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.
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).