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20th century Latin America

So remember the tension between military governments and the peasants that I mentioned popped up during and after their revolutions? Yeah, it never went away. Remember that a lot of countries gained independence under the direction of military juntas that formed to rule on behalf of the true king while Napoleon was Napoleoning all over Europe. The revolutions became a strange mix between white Creoles in the military who wanted power and indigenous peasants who wanted freedom.

In the 20th century, the same forces that led to the rise of extreme governments in Europe had a similar impact on Latin America. The Great Depression and the rise of leftist socialist groups prompted a lot of militaries around Latin America to take direct control of the government. A lot of these military dictatorships were attracted to fascism, or at least elements of fascism, as witnessed in Italy and Germany during World War II.

This is why so many Nazis fled to South America after the war. They knew they would find semi-sympathetic governments who were also anxious to gain technology and scientific knowledge to help advance their economies and get out of the U.S.’s shadow. Over 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators fled to South America. Many went to Brazil and Chile but over half went to Argentina. Why?

First, there were tons of German immigrants already in Argentina before the war so they kept close ties with the Nazi government. Plus, these governments were all fascist leaning, especially with the rising socialist and communist movements across the region. Juan Peron was a military general who took power in Argentina from 1945 to 1955. During this first presidency he established escape routes to help get Nazis out of Europe and into Argentina. As far as we know, his wife Eva Peron had nothing to do with this but it still puts the musical Evita into a slightly different light. “Don’t cry for me Argentina” – yeah, we won’t.

Side note: the South Americans and the Russians (remember the aliens?) weren’t the only countries to recruit Nazis after the war. In the U.S. we had an innocuously named Operation Paperclip. After WWII, US Army Special agents recruited over 1,600 German scientists and technicians, many of whom were Nazi members and even Nazi leadership. The world’s first long-range ballistic missile was developed in the U.S. by a German aerospace engineer.

So military dictatorships rose across Latin America. Why? There was a lot of social unrest in the postwar world. Especially as communist ideology was spreading around the globe, peasants and workers who had long been at the bottom of the social hierarchy saw an opportunity to complete their ancestors’ original vision of revolution. Enhanced by growing worker mobilization and socialist movements, the upper classes and their money flocked to the military governments to protect their power and privilege.

Unfortunately, this process also had a racial element thanks to the caste system we discussed from the Spanish colonial era. Most of the people in the top social classes were whites or mestizos while most of the groups at the bottom were of indigenous or African descent. Similar to the U.S., even though on paper all citizens were equal, race and socioeconomic hierarchy were – and still are – strongly correlated.

These military dictatorships were brutal. For example, in Argentina their military conducted a Dirty War in the 1970s. The government hunted down political dissidents and anyone associated with leftist causes. Around 30,000 people disappeared – they are known as los desaparecidos. It’s still not known what happened to a lot of these victims, often young students, journalists, and activists, although its generally assumed that they were tortured for information and killed. Some declassified documents talk of people being flown out on military planes far into the Atlantic Ocean and dropped into the water still alive.

A group of women known as Los Madres de Plaza de Mayo protested and marched on the government in the late 70s demanding to know what had happened to their children. Facing intense backlash from the government – the founder of the movement was kidnapped, tortured, and killed – these women continued protesting far beyond the fall of the dictatorship. Although most of the men involved in the Dirty War are serving life in prison for their crimes, the organization of Los Madres continues to be active in promoting human rights around the world. Don’t mess with moms, man.

Oh and, by the way, the U.S. secretly backed this military dictatorship. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the government the “green light” that it would have the U.S.’s support in its fight against socialism. It’s important to note that 1) most Americans knew nothing about this. We only learned about it from an expose written in the late 80s. And 2) there were American diplomats who tried to stop this. US Ambassador to Argentina, Republican Robert Hill, worked behind the scenes to prevent the human rights abuses by the military government, under threat of being fired by Kissinger.

So, why did the U.S. support brutal dictatorships (not just in Latin America, by the way, but we’ll get there)? Well, all you need to know is who was on the other side. In most of these countries, military dictatorships arose in opposition to the rise of populist and socialist leaders. I haven’t mentioned it up until now, but a large part of communist ideology is anti-imperialism. This is somewhat ironic considering the Russians themselves build up their own sort of empire, but oh well.

Communism – or really, far-left socialism – was appealing to a lot of Latin Americans for some very legitimate reasons. First, they have felt like they were under the thumb of some western empire since 1492 – first Spain and Portugal directly, and then indirectly by the United States (remember our nickname, “The Bully of the North”?) Second, the Latin America economy was set up very unfairly for most of the population. The modern agricultural economy, for example, was still based on the colonial encomienda system. So a few men owned most of the land while peasants worked that land for very little. And, even worse, as the U.S.’s influence grew, a lot of this land was bought up by American companies.

Similarly, in the urban economy, governments were attempting to industrialize so that they wouldn’t have to rely on the other countries to import manufactured goods. They were doing OK during the Depression and the War – those 15 years sort of paused the expansion of the western economy and started to allow smaller countries to catch up. But once the war was over, the U.S. began pushing neoliberal economic policies that tried to integrate the global economy more than ever. This was good for the U.S., but really bad for all of the Third World who was still behind and, thus, was forced to provide raw materials and cheap labor for the industrialized world. It was kind of like European imperialism all over again.

So, when socialists rose up across Latin America calling for revolution, people listened. But so did the U.S. Uh oh. Quick tip: if you are the leader of a Latin American government, there are two words you should never say if you want to avoid getting overthrown. Nationalization and redistribution. Oh shoot. I shouldn’t have said it out loud. If my podcast ends suddenly, you know that the CIA got me. Tell my story.

Nationalization means taking land or other assets that were privately owned and nationalizing them – or taking them for the government. This is definitely a socialist idea and was not popular if you were the owner of said land or other assets that were being taken. On the flip side, this was a very popular idea if you belonged to a nation that had most of its land or other assets controlled by foreign companies for the last few hundred years. Just saying.

Anyway, so throughout the 20th century, a lot of politicians gained popularity by calling for nationalization of things like oil and other large-scale industries like mining, banking, or even agriculture. Uh oh. Studying history is a lot like watching a scary movie and constantly yelling at the characters to not go into the basement. “No Allende! Don’t call for nationalization of industry! Stay with the group and get out of that house!”

But the real sticking point across Latin America wasn’t mining; it wasn’t health care; it wasn’t even oil. It was bananas. No, not like, “things were crazy! It was bananas!” Actual bananas. Major agricultural corporations like the United Fruit Company had gained an insane foothold into most of Central America. So much so, that these countries became known as “banana republics.” Yeah, the store was founded in 1978. Their first products were repurposed military apparel, in the midst of a bunch of U.S.-backed coups and military dictatorships across Central America in these so-called “banana republics.” I’ve always had a big issue with this, but based on a quick Internet search, most other people don’t agree with me.

Anyway, these foreign companies, especially the United Fruit Company really were like the Mr. Burns-type evil corporations as far as Latin America is concerned. “Excellent…” They lobbied the government to orchestrate coups of democratically-elected governments because leaders would push for nationalization of industry and redistribution of land. This meant the government would take land from foreign companies and either control the land itself or redistribute it to peasants as smaller farms. Either way, this was not OK for those foreign corporations and so they pushed the government to take action. The United Fruit Company is Chiquita Banana today. Not to ruin your grocery store experience or anything…

Now I’ll say it again. I understand why a government taking privately owned land is unpopular, especially in the capitalist mecca of the United States. But again, historical context is important. From the view of a lot of Latin Americans, that land was obtained illegally in the first place. The conservative governments that rose up after the revolutions sold off that land for personal profit to the highest bidder – often American companies. While this was seen as fair game by the foreigners, a lot of people in Latin America viewed nationalization and redistribution as just taking back what was stolen from them.

Either way, nationalization and redistribution sound pretty socialist-y. And socialism is just a stepping stone to communism. And the U.S. cannot have that in its hemisphere. Time to call up the CIA…