From prolonged injustice comes revolution. And when that injustice involves agrarian societies and huge land inequities where the land-owning class controls the government, and where there is a history of imperialism and a collectivist peasant mass whose main problem is a lack of land, then the revolution is bound to be communist.
And so the inequities of colonial capitalism conditions Latin America’s marginalized to take up with the romanticism of communism; with the promise of equality and the idea of a more just distribution of work and resources, which they had an ancestral connection to before the Spanish arrived. The inevitable insurgency takes on a leftist bent, and draws a ferocious response from the giant to the north. Civil wars ensue; the moneyed against the landless, the powered against the poor. In the name of democracy, the revolution is crushed and the troublemakers are rounded up and made examples of. Where and when needed, more suitable government leaders are installed from afar, and the affected country languishes as a kept, dysfunctional, repressive republic, unable to move much beyond where a more mighty country left it. The story repeats itself throughout Latin America; in the Caribbean, in South America, Central America.
And so here we have the majority in these countries desperately seeking some agent for change, some vehicle that could serve as relief from the corrupt systems that cater to moneyed elites and foreign corporations—anything with the potential to free them from exploitation, the more organized the better, the more practical and the more militant, the more chance it has for overpowering the status quo. And so the peasantry in these nations cautiously align with these reformist revolutionaries, knowing full well they risk their lives in doing so, knowing they will labeled communists, that they will attract the hate of the free world, just to have a better chance at life, not for themselves but for generations to come.
Communism is a philosophy for how a nation should manage its resources and produce its goods. It is an economic argument involving a more equal allotment of work and wealth. But of course it is much more. It produces vastly different social and political environments. It generates uniformity and with it stagnation. It confines thought and movement—and these are all things that war against the human spirit which craves freedom and progress. And so any merit that it has theoretically is negated by ills brought by its implementation.
But to the oppressed it is a ready escape from the bondage of a perverted capitalist model, the only capitalism they’ve known. Capitalism is not free enterprise in these countries. It is the system through which they are exploited. And so when we observe that revolutionary socialism seems to fit Latin America, it is with reason—for the gap between the rich and poor in the majority of these countries is among the widest in the world. Economic development is nonexistent, political engagement is futile, and any attempt at popular reform is met with bloodshed and brutality.
It is human to strive toward freedom and justice, just as it is to suppress it. Men do not take up arms lightly. Even the backward do not go down the road of communism or guerilla insurgency without anguish over the likely result. They know it means death for themselves and their families. They know they will never again have peace, that they will be hunted down for torture and a sadistic murder. They’ve seen what happens to those who merely sympathize with revolutionaries.
In 1939 John Foster Dulles wrote about the behavior patterns that create conflict around the world. His travels as a young lawyer representing the interests of US corporations abroad had given him insight into the tendencies that give rise to international strife, which he formalized in a book, War, Peace and Change. His writing indicates a sensitivity to the injustices that arise from power imbalances between countries, and he seems even to understand the appeal that communism holds for the oppressed. But humanist theory is overcome where practical business interests and political ideologies are concerned. In 1953, Washington’s cold war ethos and ties with a former client threatened by Guatemala’s land reform combined to produce nearly four decades of savage infighting that Guatemala is still coming to terms with. Convinced that Guatemala’s land reform was a turn toward communism, Secretary of State Dulles and his brother Allan, then CIA Director, together with friends at United Fruit Company, intervened to remove Guatemala’s new president, setting off a vicious 36-year civil war where Guatemala’s people turned on each other with appalling barbarism. When all was said and done, 200,000 Guatemalans had been slaughtered or disappeared. A million more fled the country.
The conflict ended 16 years ago but Guatemala can’t seem to move past it. The country has gone on to become one of the most violent in the world, with a murder rate five times the global average—much of it a carry-over from the civil war, where citizens became accustomed to the pattern of brutal violence, and learned it to survive. Crime gangs have formed and operate with terror tactics similar to those used by death squads during the civil war. Rampant violence against women has produced a new term, “Femicide,” representing the sharp increase in rape, torture and murder of females since the war. Hunger and poverty have reached record levels, and Guatemala now has Latin America’s worst malnutrition rate for children five and under. Agrarian reform—the freeing up of unused land to allow the country’s peasant mass to sustain itself apart from serfdom to latifundias, and the spark for the US-sponsored overthrow—remains as the backbone of Guatemala’s problems. So fierce is the attachment to land and so unwilling are its owners to share it, that a quarter century of bloodletting and decades more of peaceful attempts have made little difference in its allocation.
But Guatemala’s troubles started long before 1953. When the Spanish Crown vacated Guatemala in 1821, eighty percent of its land was in the hands of conquistador families, who enslaved Guatemala’s natives to work their haciendas. With their wealth and power they controlled the government and all attempts at reform—setting up Guatemala’s racist, repressive two-class system.
With independence came the want to expand and develop, and this meant foreign money—and foreign money in backward Guatemala meant more exploitation. Guatemala’s inexperience with representative government allowed corrupt dictators into power, who assigned land rights and trade concessions to foreign operators, which saddled their country with onerous labor contracts. By the 1940s, United Fruit and its subsidiary operations owned almost all of Guatemala’s prime fruit-growing acreage and nearly all of its commercial infrastructure, including shipping ports, transport lines and communications systems, allowing it to regulate anything that might interfere with its dominance in Guatemala. Guatemala’s destiny was not in its own hands, but in the hands of an outsider, protected under the banner of free capitalism and anticommunism.
Guatemala’s story is remarkably similar to results in other Central American countries, where economic intervention led to political intervention, which, when resisted, brought military intervention. Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have each been intervened upon in this way, and are among the most backward in the hemisphere, despite having valuable natural resources. Each lists the highest rates of poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, early mortality, inflation, crime, and corruption.
A country cannot do much when it cannot provide a functioning society, when efforts at establishing itself or forging its own path are continually regressed by outsiders, when foreign entities, serving their own interests, control the government and military, and the means for economic progress.
In the case of Nicaragua, defiance and the want for independence led to a vicious dictatorship lasting four decades. In 1908 Marines were sent there as a show of power when the country’s president refused to bow to US interests. An anti-US sentiment began to fester, fueled over time by various clashes between Marines and Nicaraguan nationalists, and soon a guerilla army formed, resolving to drive the Marines out of Nicaragua. As skirmishes led to deaths, President Hoover ordered the Marines out of Nicaragua, but not before installing a Guardia Nacional to keep order. But rather than keep order, the Marine-trained Guardia exacerbated the unrest, owing to the brutality of its commander, Anastasio Somoza García, who within a few years became president and amassed personal wealth and power. The Somoza dynasty ruled Nicaragua for 43 years, supported by US policies, with each of Somoza’s sons serving as president. In 1979 the last Somoza was forced into exile by the leftist Sandinistas, who had gained the backing of Nicaragua’s majority, which then began President Reagan’s secret contras funding to remove the Sandinistas from power, and years of bloodletting.
While Reagan’s CIA closed in on a plan to bring down the Sandinistas, another leftist uprising was brewing in nearby El Salvador, where revolutionary movements had begun to spread rapidly. The issues were the same as in all such rebellions; unionization, agrarian reform, workplace justice, political representation, anticorruption. Here again the US intervened, and here again the result was a brutal, prolonged civil war, which has left El Salvador with a homicide rate three times that of Mexico.
Revolution comes not just from land and labor inequities but also from utopian thought, and even Latin America produces its share of intellectuals. Artists, academics and writers deal in ideas, ideas concerning mankind and his relation to himself, to others, to his surroundings. Intellectuals are conditioned to question things, to rethink norms and speculate on alternative arrangements for society, on what could be. They are more worldly, and this allows them to see more readily the deficiencies in their governments. And so revolutionary Latin America arises also out of a higher ideal for man, the want for a better condition for him to exist in, void of elements that pit men against men.
Indeed, South America’s history of prolonged violence and organized terror can be traced to reform ideology that filtered down through Europe and Soviet Russia in the 1920s. Colombia’s ten-year La Violencia period of mass murder and torture, for example, was triggered by the assassination of a leftist frontrunner in the country’s 1948 presidential election, and the outworking of seething tension that had built up between Conservatives and Liberals since the formation of Colombia’s Communist Party in 1930. In total, the conflict claimed 200,000 lives and laid the roots for Colombia’s propensity for savage violence that continues today.
Chile’s Operación Cóndor killing and disappearance of 80,000 students, intellectuals and labor leaders came soon after the 1973 overthrow of Salvatore Allende, the country’s communist president, as an attempt to wipe out any traces of socialist thought in South America. The program, put together by right-wing elements in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, with US support, called for sharing intelligence on socialist subversives to carry out kidnappings, tortures, and assassinations throughout South America extending into Italy and France.
During Argentina’s “Dirty War” period of state-sponsored violence lasting from 1976 to 1983, journalists, students, Marxists, Perónistas, unionists, guerrillas, activists, militants, and their sympathizers were systematically rounded up and killed. Here again, the brutal and protracted conflict was the effect of reform thinking that had penetrated the country.
Peru’s militant “Shining Path” element, fixed on bringing about Maoist communism, is responsible for a wave of terrorism in the 1980s and ’90s against citizens, elected leaders, union organizers, and other “class enemies”, and even other communist groups that did not share its extremism.
Latin America’s communist inclination is also an outworking of Mayan and Incan traditions, where an equal sharing of resources and responsibilities was the central characteristic of village life before the Spanish conquest. Individualism and power-seeking, and wealth and capital accumulation were rejected in favor of communal ownership and conforming to collective customs and goals.
One has to wonder what would have been for this region of the world had there not been interference. Would we have seen the patsy regimes, the civil wars, the pervasive poverty and illiteracy, the depravity, the culture of violence and revenge? Would there have been the appeal of communism, and the massive loss of life it produced, had these countries not been predestined for the conditions that make it attractive?
Where would Cuba be today were there not acts of domination and feelings of superiority over another people? Cuba is not the story of a communist suddenly seizing power, but of a country vandalized for centuries, which produced a string of revolutionaries who each tried to liberate Cuba from imperialist repression. Its history of tyranny and rebellion begins with Hatuey, a Native American chief who rose up against Spain’s conquest of Cuba in 1511 and was burned at the stake by the Spaniards. Spain enslaved Cubans in mining and sugarcane cutting, almost killing off the population through massacre, starvation and suicide, until Carlos de Céspedes, in 1868, launched a revolution, first seeking peaceful social reform, which the Spaniards refused, then complete independence by war. The conflict lasted 10 years, followed by another insurrection led by Antonio Maceo and Calixto García Iñiguez. Sixteen years later, in 1895, José Martí and Máximo Gómez gathered up another rebellion, also defeated. Cuba remained under despotic Spanish control until the US took the island by force in 1898, which began Cuba’s life as a protectorate under the US, and the installation of corrupt and oppressive tyrants until 1959, when another kind of tyrant took over.
A country’s propensity for revolution is a measure of its inner pain—and a people’s openness to communism is in proportion to how well capitalism serves them. Latin America is still tilted toward the left. Even after the fall of communism around them, 10 of the 18 nations that make up Central- and South-America proper are governed by left-leaning presidents, with the leaders of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador the most aggressive in adopting what they call Twenty-first Century Socialism, calling for a softer, less severe implementation of communism’s principles.
The difference is that this push toward communism comes from the enfranchised rather than from the grassroots marginalized. There is no establishment power to defeat this time, only the outside world and the resistance it chooses to bring.