World History 2 252 - 14.4.2 Tensions in Latin America

In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States had exercised a “Good Neighbor Policy” toward other nations of the Western Hemisphere, refraining from intervening in their affairs. The desire to contain communist expansion, however, led Washington to take a much more interventionist approach in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1944, an uprising in Guatemala ousted the military dictator Jorge Ubico, who had held power since 1931. Philosophy professor Juan José Arévalo became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1945. He was succeeded in office in 1951 by Jacobo Árbenz, who began a program of land reform in the desperately poor country. Árbenz also legalized the Guatemalan Party of Labor, a communist labor union. In the eyes of the United States, Guatemala seemed to be drifting toward communism (Figure 14.16).

This poster shows a person in long pants, and a flowy shirt carrying a hoe over a rounded portion of land with a bush in the bottom right. A bird flies above the person. The caption at the top of the poster states “Tierra Y Libertad” in white block letters and the caption at the bottom states “Con La Reforma Agraria.”
Figure 14.16 A 1952 poster promises Guatemalan peasants “land and freedom” along with the agrarian reforms promoted by Jacobo Árbenz. Árbenz’s plans led U.S. officials to fear he would align Guatemala with the Eastern Bloc. (credit: “Reforma Agraria de Guatemala” by Fotos antiguas de Guatemala/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

This view of the matter was encouraged by the United Fruit Company, a U.S. company that owned plantations throughout Central America, where it grew bananas for the American market. As the single largest landowner in Guatemala, United Fruit was resistant to any forces that might limit its access to land. Thus, Árbenz’s land redistribution plans threatened its interests, and his support for the Guatemalan Party of Labor also promised to undermine the company’s control over its employees.

United Fruit convinced first the Truman administration and then the Eisenhower administration to remove Árbenz from power. Eisenhower was a strong anti-communist, as were his secretary of state John Foster Dulles and the head of the CIA Allen Dulles, John’s brother. The Dulles brothers were also closely connected to the United Fruit Company. In 1954, forces led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas but armed and trained by the CIA removed Árbenz from power. Upon taking office, Armas instituted a military dictatorship, outlawed the political opposition, and began to attack the power of the unions.

It is unlikely that Árbenz sought to place Guatemala within the Eastern Bloc. Soviet influence was active elsewhere in Latin America, however. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized power in Cuba in a military coup. Batista, who was financially supported by the U.S. government, held tight control over the island nation and used secret police to silence his opponents, often by means of torture and murder. He wielded his political power to protect the interests of wealthy Cubans and large landowners, among whom were many U.S. executives who controlled Cuba’s sugar industry.

Opposition to Batista was led by a young lawyer and activist named Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. When Fidel Castro failed to remove Batista from power legally by challenging the constitutionality of Batista’s seizure of power, he and his brother began to organize members of Cuba’s disgruntled working class. The revolution against Batista began on July 26, 1953, with unsuccessful attacks on military bases in Santiago and Bayamo that culminated in the capture of the Castro brothers. Released from prison two years later, they retreated to Mexico where they joined other Cuban exiles and a young Argentine named Ernesto “Che” Guevara to train and plot their return to Cuba.

In 1956, Fidel Castro and his followers returned to Cuba and led the 26th of July Movement (named for their first failed attempt to topple Batista’s government) in attacks on the Cuban government. After two years of fighting, Castro’s rebels were successful, and on December 31, 1958, Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. On January 2, 1959, the military commander guarding Havana ordered his soldiers to lay down their weapons, and the revolutionaries entered the capital in triumph (Figure 14.17).

A photograph shows a man standing inside a building in a white short sleeved shirt and pants, holding a pistol in his right hand and smiling. Behind him stands a woman in pants holding a rifle while it rests on the floor. Surrounding them in several rows in a semi-circle is a large group of men, all holding rifles or other weapons. Above them on a platform with a glass railing are more men with weapons looking down at the group below.
Figure 14.17 Cuban revolutionaries occupy the foyer of the Hilton Hotel in Havana, Cuba, shortly after their victory in 1959. Fresh from the fight, they still carry their weapons. (credit: modification of work “Cuban rebel soldiers in the Habana Hilton foyer, January 1959” by The Guardian/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

At first the United States recognized Cuba’s new government. Fidel Castro was interviewed on the popular American television program The Ed Sullivan Show a few days after his forces proved victorious, and Castro himself visited the United States to request aid in developing his country. In an address before the United Nations, he placed Cuba in the non-aligned camp; when asked, he insisted he was not a communist.

Despite these protestations, Castro worried the U.S. government. He began a program of land reform and forbade foreign ownership of land. He appointed communists, including Che Guevara, to important government positions. In August 1960, he began to nationalize foreign companies in Cuba, including many owned by U.S. citizens. Many wealthy and middle-class Cubans left the country; a large number relocated to the United States, only about ninety miles away. The United States, now convinced of Castro’s communist leanings, imposed economic sanctions on Cuba. If the island were allowed to become communist, Washington feared, communism would spread elsewhere in Latin America. Denied U.S. assistance, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for help.

The United States was reluctant to take aggressive action against Cuba for fear of moving Castro closer to the Soviets. However, the CIA trained Cuban exiles in Florida who had formed the Democratic Revolutionary Front. Their goal was to launch an invasion of Cuba that, they believed, would spark a popular uprising and the overthrow of the Castro government. By assisting the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the United States hoped to achieve the goal of defeating Castro without committing American troops.

On the night of April 17, 1961, the long-awaited Bay of Pigs invasion began, named for the spot where the invaders were to come ashore. It ended in disaster. Although they quickly overcame a local militia force, the invaders could not hold out against the Cuban Army, anticipated air support from the United States failed to materialize, and the invaders surrendered three days later. The United States was humiliated, and far from weakening Castro, its aggressive actions may actually have increased support for the revolution and strengthened nationalistic fervor among the Cuban people. The failed invasion also led Castro to seek protection from the Soviet Union.

Cuba had been of little interest to the Soviets until now. But by protecting it from U.S. threats, the Soviet Union stood to gain increased status in the region while also thwarting its Cold War rival. Indeed, failure to protect Cuba, Khrushchev feared, would send a message to other revolutionaries in Latin America that the Soviets were unable to protect them from U.S. aggression too. Accordingly, in 1962, the Soviet Union armed Cuba with nuclear missiles, and the construction of missile launch facilities on the island began that summer.

Photographs taken by a U-2 surveillance plane alerted the U.S. government to the presence of the missiles, aimed at the United States. After convening the National Security Council in October 1962, President Kennedy weighed his options. Although the U.S. military suggested an invasion of Cuba, he feared that would lead the Soviets to attack Berlin in retaliation. He could not allow the Soviet action to go unchallenged, however; to do so would make the United States—and Kennedy personally—seem weak.

On October 22, Kennedy ordered the navy to form a blockade around Cuba to intercept Soviet ships delivering additional missiles. He informed the world of this “quarantine,” avoiding the word “blockade” because under international law a blockade could be considered an act of war. U.S. forces around the world were placed on high alert, and U.S. planes flew low over Cuba in preparation for a potential invasion, the only option for removing the missiles if the Soviets did not back down. On the island below, Soviet technicians continued the missiles’ installation (Figure 14.18).

An aerial terrain photograph is shown. Most of the left side of the picture shows trees from above, with areas within the trees labeled “Erector/Launcher Equipment” and “B Missile Trailers.” In the middle of the photograph there are four small shapes labeled “Equipment.” In the middle right of the photo there are two areas with small bundles shown in rows that are labeled “Tent Areas.” The bottom right of the photograph has a label with “Construction.” A label in the top right indicates: MRBM Field Launch Site, San Cristobal NO 1, October 14, 1962.
Figure 14.18 A photograph taken by a U.S. U-2 spy plane in 1962 clearly reveals evidence of the means to assemble Soviet missiles in Cuba. (credit: “Cuba Missiles Crisis U-2 photo” by The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum /Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The world held its breath. For ten days people pondered the possibility of nuclear war as the incident, which came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, dragged on. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev refused to retreat. A number of incidents occurred that might each have begun a nuclear conflict. A U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba to monitor the missile installation was shot down and its pilot killed, but Kennedy refrained from acting. Another U-2 mistakenly flew over the Soviet Union’s east coast, causing Soviet fighters to take off to intercept it, which in turn led U.S. fighters to take flight. The U.S. Navy dropped a depth charge on a Soviet submarine. The submarine had been maintaining radio silence and was unaware of the events taking place on the surface. Believing a war had started, two of the three officers on board wanted to launch a nuclear warhead, but the third officer, whose consent was needed, refused to allow them to do so.

Earlier that year, the United States had placed missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev was angered, but now he offered Kennedy a way out of the Cuban stalemate: if the missiles in Turkey were removed, those in Cuba would be too. Kennedy accepted the offer. The dismantling of the Cuban missiles began, and on November 2, 1962, Kennedy informed the world of Soviet compliance. On November 20, the blockade ended; in April 1963, the United States removed its missiles from Turkey, though over the protests of the Turkish government.

Following the standoff, a direct telephone hotline was established between Washington and Moscow to enable instant communications between the leaders of the two rival nations. The dangers of nuclear war did not necessarily diminish, however. Thwarted in their attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Soviets focused on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could strike the United States from Europe. The United States also continued to develop its weaponry.

In China, Mao Zedong had criticized the Soviets for being insufficiently supportive of socialist revolution around the world. So Khrushchev’s willingness to back down when confronted by the United States and to seemingly abandon Cuba gave credence to Mao’s claims. It also improved Mao’s position within the Chinese Communist Party. He had found himself locked in a struggle with other CCP members, who favored closer relations with the Soviet Union because of the economic and technological expertise it could provide. The humiliation of the Soviets now weakened the position of those members, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Conversely, Khrushchev’s power was seriously damaged by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and two years later he was forced from office.

Although the United States achieved its goal of removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, Castro’s government nevertheless remained in power. Communist parties were also strong in other parts of Latin America. In 1961, Rafael Trujillo, the anti-communist dictator of the Dominican Republic, was assassinated and replaced by the liberal reformer Juan Bosch, who was himself overthrown by the Dominican army in 1963. On April 24, 1965, liberal Dominican army officers rose up in revolt in an attempt to return Bosch to power. Four days later, twenty-two thousand U.S. troops invaded in order to prevent a communist takeover, as President Lyndon Johnson claimed. They placed a conservative government in power.

In Chile, Salvador Allende, the candidate of a socialist-communist coalition party called Popular Unity, was elected president in three consecutive presidential elections in 1958, 1964, and 1970. The CIA worked with the Chilean army to engineer a coup, and in September 1973, Allende and thousands of his supporters were killed. The leader of the coup General Agosto Pinochet became Chile’s president and ruled as a dictator until 1990. The CIA also trained and funded the right-wing Contras to fight against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which came to power in Nicaragua after overthrowing the dictatorial president Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Sandinistas received support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax