US Imperialism Alone Can’t Explain the Triumph of the Right in Latin America

The United States has repeatedly intervened in Latin America to overthrow democratically elected governments and install right-wing dictatorships. But homegrown far-right forces in Latin America itself have often proved just as important as US meddling.

Supporters of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, son of dictator Anastasio Somoza, during his funeral in 1980. (Bettman / Getty Images)

Histories of the Cold War in Latin America often center the United States’ bloody footprint in the region. And with good reason: US crimes in the region committed in the name of anticommunism included propping up dictatorships, overthrowing democratic governments, and enabling genocide.

A new book by historian Vanni Pettinà takes a different approach. His recently translated A Compact History of Latin America’s Cold War shines a light on the role of Latin American nations on both sides of the region’s bitter conflicts. Rather than reducing these struggles to mere proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR), he advocates for recognizing “peripheries as active historical agents” in the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary struggles that rocked Latin America between 1947 and 1989.

Readers looking for a history of US imperialism can find them in works like Eduardo Galeano’s classic Open Veins of Latin America or anything by historian Greg Grandin. But Pettinà’s nuanced interpretation has something to offer even the most ardent anti-imperialists.

Just as the region’s revolutionaries were far from Soviet stooges, Latin America’s antidemocratic forces were not created wholesale by Cold Warriors in Washington. To fight the far right, it’s important to understand how historical conditions create organic social bases and material motives for homegrown reaction — then and today, in Latin America and around the world.

Framing the Conflict

The author calls for greater attention to the relations within and between Latin American nations, but he does not discount the weight of foreign interventions — most significantly, the innumerable military, economic, and diplomatic interventions of the United States. Rather, Pettinà identifies both an “external fracture” and an “internal fracture” provoked by the onset of the Cold War in Latin America.

The external fracture comes from the United States’ abdication of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1946, which had paused the parade of US military invasions and occupations that characterized US relations with Latin America prior to 1933. One result of the return to overt military interventions, Pettinà argues, was a conflation of US anti-communism with anti-nationalism, as Latin American nationalist reformers often sought Communist support in their coalitions. This led to US support for reactionary actors in the region, as in the emblematic case of US alignment against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. There, a CIA plot saw a democratically elected liberal reformer overthrown in favor of a genocidal military regime that plunged the country into decades of civil war.

The internal fracture refers to the strengthening of conservative elements at the national scale. The Great Depression and World War II created the conditions for Latin American governments to try and overcome their dependency on commodity exports and develop more autonomous, diversified, and industrialized economies. Renewed postwar international trade, however, favored a backlash from traditional agricultural-exporting elites, in alignment with US free-trade dogmas that demanded the unequal international division of labor according to market-based comparative advantages.

In the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Latin American militaries and the reactionary ruling class correctly saw that developmentalism, as the state-led programs to reshape the economy and expand social welfare were known, had created a material base for more radical and inclusive politics. With US support, they dismantled these nationalist policies in favor of outward-facing economic strategies that privileged foreign capital.

Rather than an “episodic” historical analysis that hinges on spectacular events like coups d’état, Pettinà advances a “structural” one. He divides the conflict in different stages, beginning with an early period of democratic reversals from 1946 to 1954, when Communist Parties were banned across Latin America and purged from governing coalitions and labor unions.

Three case studies show how this played out. In Costa Rica, democratization and social reforms advanced despite opposition from landowning elites and the US monopoly United Fruit Company. This was, in part, thanks to President José María Figueres’s “skill at using his anticommunist credentials to limit US intervention,” Pettinà writes.

Mexico’s success was more ambiguous, with authoritarian consolidation under the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) even as the party’s nationalist developmentalist agenda prevailed. The author credits the social welfare gains of this period to the fact that, unlike elsewhere in Latin America, the landowning oligarchy’s monopoly power had been weakened by land reform after the country’s 1910 revolution. He also notes the PRI’s internal legitimacy and stability, and the regime’s “discreetly anticommunist approach” even as it maintained an autonomous foreign policy that ran against the bipolar pro- or anti-communist paradigm insisted upon by the United States.

Guatemala sits at the losing end of this continuum. Pettinà describes how Árbenz survived an earlier CIA-backed plot driven by neighboring Central American dictators thanks to the State Department’s opposition to violating the Good Neighbor Policy under Harry S. Truman, only to fall in 1954 when the new Dwight D. Eisenhower administration took a harder line. Together, these examples show how internal factors interacted with exogenous ones to determine the fate of distinct Latin American projects for reform.

Cuba’s Breakthrough

If the coup in Guatemala brought the Cold War home to Latin America, the 1959 Cuban Revolution took it to another level. In power, the nationalist guerrillas allied with Cuba’s Communists, who brought much-needed “experience, qualifications, ability to mobilize, and foreign connections” to the young revolutionary government. An economic and political alliance with the Soviet Union soon followed, as the United States’ initial cautious tolerance gave way to open hostility.

The Cuban Revolution coincided with a renewal of the Latin American left. The new generation embraced counterculture and heterodox strategies that challenged the Communist Party’s insistence on working within electoral systems with allied nationalist reformers, a critique that was fueled in part by the Sino-Soviet split and confirmed by Cuba’s unorthodox success.

By then, the USSR was promoting “peaceful coexistence” with the West, trying to win over the newly decolonized peripheral nations by demonstrating the superiority of its economic and social organization through development aid. Cuba, in contrast, took an active role backing armed insurgencies in the continent. Havana became a haven and diplomatic headquarters for Latin America’s revolutionary movements. Pettinà describes Cuban support for armed groups in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia in the 1960s, including the provision of weapons, combat training, and logistical support.

This aid diminished in the 1970s as Latin America’s guerrilla movements suffered severe setbacks and the island’s economic situation worsened, making it more dependent on Soviet support. Instead, Cuba turned to Africa, winning important victories in Angola. It would resume its active role in the following decade, when renewed revolutionary gains put Central America in the Cold War crosshairs.

Pettinà also shows how regional elites responded to events in Cuba, mostly with repression. Governments in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina embraced modernization and redistribution programs to counter Cuba’s revolutionary appeal, but the reformist efforts failed to fundamentally restructure these unequal, export-dependent economies, descending instead into counterinsurgent violence.

This crackdown was bolstered by the United States. Washington’s vision for Latin America took shape under John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which provided technical advisors and aid for countries in the region that instituted market-friendly policies, accompanied by robust military support. US recipes for economic development came to little. The counterinsurgent violence unleashed on the region, however, left a devastating legacy that the region is still reckoning with to this day.

The Counterrevolution

Pettinà calls the 1970s the “decade of terror.” Tensions may have eased between the United States and the USSR in this period, but conflict raged across the Third World, with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, Cuban interventions in West Africa, and brutal authoritarian repression in Latin America.

“Under the aegis of the National Security Doctrine (NSD),” Pettinà writes, “the reaction of state and military institutions in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay turned citizens into enemies and targets of repressive acts, which included torture and forced disappearances” of victims numbering in the tens of thousands.

A series of military coups, starting with Brazil in 1964, brought the militarist NSD into power across the region. Pettinà traces the NSD’s roots to long-standing Latin American military traditions, the French counterinsurgency strategy deployed against the Algerian national liberation movement, and US counterinsurgency paradigms. The latter spread throughout the region via institutions like the US Army’s School of the Americas, then located in Panama, and the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, as well as the widespread deployment of US trainers and advisors.

US involvement ranged from relatively minor interference in Mexico to decisive intervention with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile. Even there, Pettinà highlights the role of multiple foreign actors. The Soviets declined to provide Allende the degree of support that his government had expected. Instead, Allende developed a close relationship with Fidel Castro, who advised him to defend his constitutional mandate with Cuban-backed armed revolutionary groups. Allende, however, was optimistically — perhaps naively — committed to legality. Accepting Cuba’s offer to support armed resistance, Pettinà writes, “might have saved his life.”

From the other side, the US spent millions on destabilization before backing the 1973 coup. The radically anti-communist Brazilian military dictatorship also had a part in undermining and defeating Allende, after playing an instrumental role in the 1971 coup in Bolivia and the defeat of progressives in Uruguay.

The author stresses that repression in this period found support among conservative sectors of the middle class in countries like Mexico and Argentina. Out of both fear and tacit approval, Pettinà argues that “the silence of broad sectors of Latin American societies enabled military juntas across the region to suppress public protests almost unchecked during the 1970s.”

The author insists that “the NSD and the juntas’ acts of repression in no way represented any external or planned imposition by Washington in the region.” Local fascists had their own momentum, and the military regimes had an “independent streak” that often clashed with the United States. While they received active US support, he argues that “the juntas and their plans to overhaul the country’s politics, economy, and society were genuinely homegrown projects” that were influenced, but not invented by Washington.

The Central American Finale

The Cold War–charged backlash would come to a “dramatic climax” in Central America in the 1980s, where US-backed counterrevolutionary violence cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Again, Pettinà cautions against reducing this bloodshed to “a story of binary, proxy confrontation.”

Pettinà’s account of the Sandinista Revolution is illustrative. US president Jimmy Carter directed the State Department to condition aid to countries like Nicaragua on their respect for human rights, but his resolve in this regard was far from steadfast. Washington’s pressure had little effect on the notorious Somoza dynasty, which continued to run the country like a personal plantation and suppress democratic movements with violence.

In the face of Somoza’s intransigence and the United States’ “wavering,” Costa Rica, Panama, and Venezuela threw their weight behind the Sandinista insurgency, which had developed a sophisticated diplomatic operation. Argentina, in turn, actively backed Somoza, and Israel supplied weapons to the regime after Carter began to cut off military aid.

Cuba was decisive, mediating the reunification of three opposing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) factions in March 1979 and providing reinforcements to the newly united guerrillas. Havana would play a similar role in El Salvador, helping to broker the unification of that country’s leftist coalition the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front the following year. Around this time, Mexico joined Nicaragua’s southern neighbors in cutting off diplomatic relations with Somoza. Internationalist fighters from across the continent joined the guerrillas, who overcame the regime in July 1979.

The Ronald Reagan administration reinvigorated relations with South American dictatorships and made Central America the center of its anti-communist crusade. Reagan’s infamous Contra scheme involved moving aid to anti-Sandinista paramilitaries through a dizzying network of agents and countries that ran from Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Taiwan to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama.

Mexico also played a key role, materially supporting the Sandinistas and seeking to broker a multilateral diplomatic resolution to the broader Central American crisis. Mexico was key in convening the “Grupo Contadora” with Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela, which sought negotiated solutions for Central America throughout 1980s. Against heavy opposition from Washington, these efforts finally led to Costa Rica’s peace plan, which helped draw down the Contra War at the end of the decade.

As this history shows, Central America’s national liberation struggles had diplomatic and even military allies across Latin America. So did their opponents. While US intervention is unmistakably responsible for prolonging these conflicts and dramatically inflating their scale, regional actors on both sides had interests in influencing their outcomes and took action to do so.

Giving the Bad Guys Their Due

In emphasizing Latin American agency, Pettinà sometimes downplays the extent of US meddling. For example, the author refers to Washington’s “tolerance” for left-wing governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the 2000s as evidence for how the Cold War “distorted” US policy in the region. He does not mention the failed US-backed coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002, to say nothing of the subsequent successful ones in Honduras (2009), Bolivia (2019), and the frustrated attempt in Venezuela again in 2020. Readers can certainly add to this list.

Nevertheless, the point that Latin America has its own homegrown fascism is well taken. As Luis Herrán Ávila writes in the NACLA Report, “Subordinating the Latin American Right to northern designs can result in underestimating these forces’ capacity to articulate, deploy, and implement their own intolerant and authoritarian visions.”

As the geopolitical landscape takes an increasingly multipolar form, anti-imperialists on the US left should remember that not all forces of reaction are Washington puppets. Recent events in El Salvador, where an authoritarian far-right president has occasionally butted heads with Joe Biden’s administration, are an example of these complexities.

Analysis of the far right in this context demands a sophisticated critique that takes Latin American societies’ internal contradictions seriously. Imperialism should never be underestimated, but it does not explain everything.