History of Modern Latin America
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The history of modern Latin America is marked by chronic political and economic instability. This resulted in the emergence of caudillos, military men who held power by dispensing patronage. The Old Guard conservatives remained certain that the best way to preserve the status quo was to ensure political stability and prosperity. To that end, they did everything to maintain Latin America’s lucrative position as a global supplier of commodities such as copper, beef, and sugar. On the other hand, liberals wanted to reward initiative that brought progress and more self-reliance, and political strife often led to insurrection.
Throughout the 19th century, the United States continued to intervene in support of its interests in Latin America. This was known as Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick Doctrine, which went further than the Monroe Doctrine had gone to deter European intervention in the Western hemisphere. After the Spanish–American War, the United States promulgated the Platt Amendment in 1902, which authorized it to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it wished.
The United States wanted the concession from the government of Colombia to build its long-anticipated canal across the province of Panama, but the Colombian government would not agree to the terms offered. Declaring that he “would not allow the government of the United States to be held up by a bunch of dagoes,” Roosevelt fomented an insurrection that would enable Panama to break free away from Colombia and make its own deal. With American PT boats just offshore, the new nation of Panama granted the concession.
The greatest political turmoil of Latin America’s tumultuous 19th century happened in Mexico. In 1908, the long-entrenched president Porfirio Díaz announced that he would finally step down in 1910. Francisco Madero campaigned with a progressive agenda to replace Diaz as a president, but Díaz changed his mind. On election day, he had Madero arrested, declared himself the winner, and sparked a political firestorm that became the Mexican Revolution.
The Great Depression and collapse of the world economy decimated demand for Latin American raw materials. Teddy Roosevelt implemented a Good Neighbor policy, even as Mexican President Cárdenas nationalized American oil companies. Cárdenas also redistributed lands to peasants, fulfilling the hopes of the Mexican Revolution. The repeal of the Platt Amendment freed Cuba from further political interference of the United States. Finally, the common ordeal of the Second World War brought the United States and Latin American closer together.
The Cold War forced governments to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union. Several socialist and communist insurgencies broke out, the most successful being in Cuba. Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution against the corrupt regime of former sergeant Fulgencio Batista, overthrowing him on New Year’s Day 1959. Castro initiated a program of agrarian reform and nationalization of American assets. This resulted in the United States breaking diplomatic relations, impounding Cuban assets in the United States, and in 1960, slapping an embargo on trade with Cuba that remains in force to this day. The Kennedy administration authorized an invasion of Cuba by Cuban emigres, which led to the entire force being taken captive by the Cuban army. Cuba thereafter became an ally of the Soviet Union, and the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Authoritarianism returned to Latin American politics as the military junta of Argentina continued its repression of its political enemies, as did the regimes of other South American countries supported by the United States.
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Modern Latin America Index | Society: Population • Women | Power: Foreign Affairs • Governance | Economy: Growth • Policy • Trade | Argentina: Society • Power • Economy | Belize | Bolivia | Brazil: Power • Economy | Caribbean | Central America | Chile | Colombia | Cuba: Power | Dominican Republic | El Salvador | Guatemala | Haiti | Jamaica | Mexico: Power • Economy | Nicaragua | Paraguay | Peru | Uruguay
Modern Latin America: Index
Power: Foreign Affairs