At the end of the ’70s Latin America was living the darkest years of its history. While South America was almost entirely under the heel of ruthless military dictatorships, Central America was going to sink in the civil wars that in the following decade covered Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras with blood. The Cold War was also fought in Latin America, with the United States (together with their vassal regimes) confronting different lefts, both independent and linked to Moscow or Havana. Those years were marked by the desaparecidos, a new “technique” of the regimes to annihilate political opponents, by the Plan Condor, that coordinated terror throughout the continent, by exile.

Photo: Kena Lorenzini

Democracy shyly reappeared with different timetables, but with a common trait: virtually every country freed from dictatorship elected presidents who endorsed, at least verbally,  the neoliberalist theories promoted by Ronald Reagan. Verbally, as the Fujimoris, the Menems, the Bucarams, the Lacalles actually got inspiration from the creed “more market and less state”, but in their own way, that is with levels of corruption and authoritarianism  unprecedented at least in a democracy. In the meantime the lefts, knocked out after the gigantic defeat of the ‘70s, didn’t show any life signs.

The big political turn came in the 2000s, when the end of the Cold War allowed democracy, freed at last from the constraint to obey Washington’s anti-communist precepts, to become a tool for change. The disreputable and often despised “bourgeois democracy” enabled a true peaceful revolution, opening way to a new ruling class that three decades before would just have been slaughtered by the military.

The big luck of the presidents in the 2000s was being in charge on the eve of a favorable cycle for food and mineral staples, fostered by the insatiable demand by China, which developed in few years as the major trading partner of South American countries. In this phase, virtually the entire continent was ruled by progressive political forces, or considering themselves as such. However, national contexts and political backgrounds were very different.

Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

In Venezuela and in Argentina (partly also in Ecuador), the State had collapsed. In Brazil the situation was completely different: after decades of center-right governments, for the first time a president from a historical left party took over in 2003, Luiz Inácio da Silva known simply as Lula. A similar pattern happened in Uruguay where Tabaré Vázquez, spokesperson of the Frente Amplio of left-wing parties, became president in 2005. Yet another development took place in Bolivia, where the rise of the former organizer of the cocalero union Evo Morales in 2006 resulted from a new wave of activism by social and indigenous movements.

Chile, definitely the most stable country in the region, was the exception. Since the transition of the ‘90s to date, with the only exception of the 4 years ruling by the center-right president Sebastián Piñera, the country was governed by the Concertación between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Last but not least, the progressive wave reached the South American country more marked by dictatorship, Paraguay, where the election of the “bishop of the poor” Fernando Lugo, a member of the Liberation Theology, came as a surprise in 2008.

A similar pattern showed up in Central America: in Nicaragua the Sandinistas came back to power, though they were not really the same as in the ’80s, in Salvador the election were won by the former guerrilleros of the Frente Farabundo Martí, while in Cuba the transition from Fidel to Raúl Castro was carried out painlessly.

The salient features of this period were the surge of activism by social groups so far marginalized by history, the reconversion of some armed movements of the ’60s and ’70s, the general rejection of pseudo-neoliberal predator recipes, the seek for national sovereignty. The protagonists of this political season are different political movements, not always unambiguously rooted in the left-wing tradition, but, on the whole, capable of interpreting the aspirations of a continent, as shown by their refuse to sign the ALCA agreement, proposed by the United States to establish a single market for the Americas.

Photo: Chuck Kennedy, Wikipedia

This chapter of Latin American contemporary history is now closing. Following Macri’s victory in Argentina, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and the chaos of post-Chavist Venezuela, the Right is gradually regaining strength, though the legacy of previous governments in terms of social equity is very hard to be shaken. Just like the old problems that punctually showed up in recent times: corruption, attempts to force democratic rules to maintain one’s own power, cronyism and populism. And the threatening diffusion and ramification of criminal drug cartels.

If one should choose two images as the icons of the latest years, they could only be the embrace between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama to mark the end of the Cold War in America, and the signing of peace agreements in Colombia, the longest-running conflict in the Western hemisphere that finally found a peaceful  solution.


Alfredo Somoza
Presidente ICEI


Saturday 10th June, 11 AM, at Radio Popolare,
third conference from the series “From the Cold War to Globalization:
40 years of foreign policy told by ICEI and Radio Popolare”.