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Post-War Latin America & Challenges to Democracy

Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

While many in the world celebrated the end of World War II, the lands of Latin America found themselves in chaos. This lesson explores this struggle as it discusses the events of the Cold War and how they affected countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

Cold War

Growing up in the United States, my history lessons on the post-World War II era usually consisted of descriptions of our booming economy and population. In short, America thrived after World War II. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Latin America. Rather than enjoying ticker tape parades and prosperity, our neighbors to the south spent the post-World War II era in turmoil. In today's lesson we'll take a look at this struggle as we discuss post-World War II Latin America and its struggle both for and against democracy. Since this is such a wide topic, we'll limit our discussion to some of the most infamous struggles, specifically highlighting Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

Map of Latin America
Latin America

To say the very least, post-World War II Latin America found itself in the crosshairs of the Cold War, a time of political antagonism between the United States and the Communist Party. Lasting from about 1945 to 1990, the Cold War saw the United States doing everything in its power to keep communism from spreading to the Western Hemisphere, while communism tried to get or stay in. Of course, this meant both sides did some serious meddling in the affairs of Latin America, despite the harm it caused to its inhabitants. To see what I mean, we'll begin with Guatemala.

Guatemala

In the post-war years, Guatemala found itself under the rule of Jacobo Arbenz. Being a communist, Arbenz was definitely no friend of democracy. Seeing him as a real threat, the United States funneled money into the country, encouraging Guatemalan military officials to stage a coup. Fortunately for American politics, the coup was a success. Unfortunately for the people of Guatemala, most of their new military leaders were ruthless and power hungry. Keeping any American money funneling into the country for themselves, and stripping many of their property rights, the military men ruled Guatemala with stingy and iron fists. In time, this brutal treatment and poverty led the people to rebel, with many calling for the return of communism. This bloody rebellion lasted into the 1990s and not only further crippled the economy of the country, it led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and instead of gaining democracy the people of Guatemala endured the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Jacobo Arbenz
Arbenz

Nicaragua

Tragically, the same America-versus-communism tug of war played out in Nicaragua. Here the United States supported the rule of Anastasio Samoza, a brutal dictator who held absolute power. Although Samoza was notorious for mistreating his people, and hoarding the country's already limited economic resources for himself, the United States preferred him over a communist. Using this rationale, the United States supported Samoza against the Sandanistas, rebels with communist ties, who threatened his reign. What commenced was a bloody conflict that spanned decades and killed many. Despite the efforts of the United States, the late 1970s saw Samoza finally ousted, and the Sandanistas--definitely not democracy--ruling Nicaragua.

Anastasio Somoza
Somoza

Cuba

Of course, any conversation about Latin America, democracy, and the Cold War would not be complete without mentioning Cuba and Fidel Castro.

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