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Coups d'état and Latin American populisms

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We will look at the general changes throughout Latin America between the First World War and the Great Depression of 1929 that led to the rise of populist ideologies and then we will talk about the devastating effects of the Great Depression in Latin America as a whole before looking at Colombia, Cuba and Brazil.

The great changes of the 1920s[edit | edit source]

During the war of 1914 - 1918, the economies of Latin America experienced an upturn that continued until the 1920s.

This period is called the "dance of the millions" because the gross national product of most countries grew rapidly and foreign investment, especially from the United States, was attracted to South American countries.

These investments are increasing rapidly and Latin American economies are still based on the development of exports of agricultural products and minerals in order to acquire the foreign exchange needed for imports of manufactured goods. As imports from Europe are falling sharply, we are seeing the beginning of industrialisation in most countries, namely in textiles, food, drinks, building materials and also instruments.

The war in Europe also means the beginning of US imperialism not only in Central America and the Caribbean, but also in South America, where they control the sectors hitherto held by the British.

These changes are reflected in society and continue the process begun in the 1850s. The small peasantry continues to decline in favour of the large haciendas, the labour force is concentrated in certain sectors, plantations, mines, factories, transport, administration, civil service and services; but due to the progressive mechanization and in the case of Argentina and Brazil the massive immigration of Europeans, many small farmers and sharecroppers are left behind and are forced to leave to try their luck in the cities, this is the rural exodus.

There is a shift from a 75 per cent rural society in Argentina 80 per cent to 90 per cent in Peru and Central America to increasingly urban societies because these rural migrants have virtually no other place to go than the increasingly populated cities and it is becoming difficult for the traditional elites to maintain social order.

This is all the more so because with the development of trade and communications, new ideologies are arriving from Mexico, but also from socialist or fascist Europe, but also from Bolshevik Russia, as well as by the arrival of Jewish immigrants.

These new ideologies undermine the control of the elites and the Catholic Church, it is the end of the regimes of order and progress.

The massive arrival of displaced peasants transforms cities and urban culture. In every country, people from different cultural regions find themselves mixed together in the capitals and large provincial cities.

Even if they are often rejected or despised, these rural migrants contribute to a certain national integration since they bring their regional particularities to the cities. Moreover, urban life often requires literacy and schools are often concentrated there; urban populations are increasingly literate and at the same time in these cities in the 1920s radio and cinema made their entrance.

Other social changes mark these years 1910 - 1920. The middle class, composed of intellectuals, small businessmen, entrepreneurs, teachers, and civil servants from either the capital or large provincial cities, began to form the middle class that wanted its place in a stable society, but no longer necessarily controlled by elites or foreign capital.

The category of university students is growing, even if they are young men from the upper middle class.

As early as 1918, students were a political force to be reckoned with; they demanded university autonomy, at the same time they were influenced by socialism, anarchism, the Mexican revolution and indigenism; they were now interested in the development of their country and the education of the working classes.

Workers in certain industrial sectors, especially those related to exports such as state mines, factories, oil, cigarette factory workers for example, are also beginning to unionize and become interested in socialism, anarchism and communism partly imported by European immigrants.

From 1910 and especially from 1918, strikes began to develop, while at the same time another sector became more important, the army.

The army developed in the towns and cities and freed itself from the tutelage of the traditional parties and the Catholic Church in order to present itself as a political alternative.

It is mainly middle-class officers, often from provincial towns, who are calling for a more active role for the army in the country's economic development.

At the same time in politics, left-wing parties are emerging as suffrage develops first for men and then for women.

At the same time, extreme right-wing ideologies are being emulated among Latin American politicians and army men. It is thanks to cinema and radio that these politicians will be able to reach more and more audiences, there is really a discourse that is beginning to spread throughout the nation.

Latin American populisms[edit | edit source]

It is in this context that Latin American populisms took shape in the 1920s. These populisms would dominate politics from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Populism is often associated with Perón, but it is later, as it surfs on a wave from the 1920s and 1930s.

Latin American populism of this period is a movement that attempts to integrate the working classes into national politics without changing the social order; it is aimed primarily at the urban masses, workers, the petty bourgeoisie, rentiers, rural migrants, students, intellectuals, and soldiers.

These are the urban classes whose radicalization threatens to bring about social revolution for fear of losing the social order. Populism rejects the class struggle for class solidarity, defending the idea of a corporatist state that would hierarchically rule the national family between vertical coalitions of patronages.

Rafael Molina Trujillo.

Populism is usually led by a charismatic leader who often responds to the macho type, i.e. a strong, authoritarian, but sympathetic man with whom the people can identify emotionally.

He is a benevolent, paternalistic, great leader of populism who is there because he understands and protects the people, but at the same time he is a leader who does not tolerate provocation and opposition. He uses the mass media to gain popular support, but at the same time he is a movement that does not really have a complex ideology, at the heart of his ideology is nationalism and a vague promise of development with social justice.

This means a strong state that intervenes in economic and social affairs, moreover in order to hide internal social conflicts populism often unites the masses against a common foreign enemy which can be US imperialism, the Chinese emigrant or the Afro-Caribbean immigrant or the Jewish immigrant in the case of Argentina.

The most terrible case of populism is that of Trujillo, who was trained in the National Guard by the Marines and who remained in power for a long time. In 1937 he had between 15,000 and 20,000 Haitian peasants massacred by the army on the border.

Impact of the Great Depression in Latin America[edit | edit source]

Economic[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression in the United States is producing enormous shock waves in Latin American nations and an economic slump from which they will only emerge after the Second World War; the more the country depends on exports of raw materials or agricultural products to the United States, the more shocking and terrible it is, but those who also export to European countries are also seriously affected by the crisis.

The fall in consumption in the United States leads to a sharp drop in demand and Latin American countries are therefore deprived of a large part of their income, in addition to the fall in the prices of these products on the world market and on average the total value of Latin American exports between 1930 and 1934 is half of what it was between 1925 and 1929.

Social[edit | edit source]

The mines and plantations are laying off many of their workers, who are going to swell the population of the cities in search of work; there is the rise in unemployment, the rise in underemployment, the dislocation of families which is increasing dramatically.

In countries where people live in poverty, misery and distress are terrible, but somewhere they are less spectacular and less publicized than in the United States. Misery was already there before, so the increase in misery is less dramatic than in the United States, but it is no less severe.

Politics[edit | edit source]

The Latin American economic slump is reflected in politics; from 1930 to 1935, almost all Latin American countries experienced more or less violent regime changes.

The United States, which was itself mired in the economic crisis, no longer intervened, and in fact its policy of good neighbouring was not going to succeed in preventing coups d'état and violent seizures of power.

The case of Colombia: crisis absorbed by coffee growers[edit | edit source]

Economic[edit | edit source]

Colombia does not see a sudden change in power, Colombia's economy in 1929 was largely dependent on its coffee exports, 75% of which went to the United States.

After 1929, the world price of coffee plummeted, income from coffee fell, Colombia's import volumes fell by 63%, but in all other economic indicators Colombia fared better than the rest of Latin America. The volume of exports falls by only 13%, GNP falls by only 2.4%, and there is no coup d'état or revolution, only a historic transfer of government from the Conservative party to the government for more than 50 years thanks to a system of politics that completely marginalized the Liberal party, which passed to the Liberals in 1930 after the division of the Conservatives and the election of a Liberal president.

The lesson from Colombia is helpful in understanding some of the reactions today.

Economically, the reason for this transition is the way coffee is produced. Since the 1920s, large landowners who are also major exporting merchants have sold most of their coffee-growing land to small farmers.

This allows the former large landowners to concentrate on buying the coffee crops and exporting the coffee. When the crisis hits, it is mainly the small coffee farmers who are bearing the brunt of the fall in prices; they sell coffee at very low prices without reducing production, in fact they exploit themselves, they force themselves, their women and children to work just as hard in order to earn almost nothing.

This is possible, because many of them live in semi-autarky and have their own vegetable garden, they can survive without buying almost anything until they get out of this very difficult time.

Politics[edit | edit source]

Alfonso López Pumarejo, President of the Republic of Colombia from 1934 to 1938, then from 1942 to 1946.

At the political level, the transfer of power was done because in 1930 the Conservatives had the bad idea of dividing themselves between two presidential candidates, which allowed the Liberals to win with a candidate from the elite with traditional views.

It is only in 1934 that there is a new election that sees Alfonso Lopez elected who launches a populist program called "revolución en marcha" inspired by the Mexican revolution with a small reform of the constitution, universal suffrage for men, he launches education programs, unionization, there is also a small recognition of the Indian communities in Colombia.

At the political level, the transfer of power was done because in 1930 the Conservatives had the bad idea of dividing themselves between two presidential candidates, which allowed the Liberals to win with a candidate from the elite with traditional views.

It is only in 1934 that there is a new election that sees Alfonso Lopez elected who launches a populist program called "revolución en marcha" inspired by the Mexican revolution with a small reform of the constitution, universal suffrage for men, he launches education programs, unionization, there is also a small recognition of the Indian communities in Colombia.

From 1937 onwards, Lopez was attacked by a fascinating extreme right inspired by the model of General Franco in Spain who had to give up part of his reform programme and in particular a timid land reform.

Lopez succeeded in integrating part of the urban and working classes behind liberalism, he also succeeded in limiting the damage of the Great Depression, but the countryside was not really affected by these reforms; the small coffee producers who had been self-exploiting for all these years were on the verge of an explosion that would occur in a civil war during the Second World War called the "violencia" that would cause the death of more than 250,000 peasants and a huge rural exodus.

The case of Cuba: Revolution and military coup d'état[edit | edit source]

Cuba is an economy that has depended on sugar since the end of the 18th century, first cultivated by slaves until its abolition in 1886, then by rural workers, often seasonal workers from Jamaica or Haiti, who were brought to work on the large, underpaid plantations in the United States.

In 1930, half of the cultivated land belonged to American citizens in Cuba, they also owned almost all the mines, transport, communications, a large part of the banks and trade.

Between 1929 and 1933, the price of sugar fell by more than 60% and Cuban sugar exports plunged by more than 80%. The large landowners responded by cutting production, lowering agricultural wages by 75%, massively laying off and deporting thousands of seasonal workers from Haiti and Jamaica. Hundreds of small factories and stores went bankrupt; by 1933 a quarter of the working population was unemployed and 60% of the population lived below the subsistence minimum.

In power since 1924 has been President Gerardo Machado, a nationalist liberal turned dictator.

During the crisis, the opposition radicalizes against him through strikes, attacks, sabotage, communist, socialist and anarchist movements very strong already in the 1920s in Cuba; repression becomes more and more bloody.

Washington tries to intervene by sending a negotiator, but without a solution; in August 1933 a general strike paralyses the country, the army releases the dictator who goes into exile and a very heterogeneous coalition takes power, but is unable to control the general anarchy.

Fulgencio Batista in Washington, D.C. in 1938.

It was a period of riots, strikes, and the taking of sugar plantations by workers who set themselves up as a kind of Bolshevik conglomerate; soon afterwards soldiers and officers of a barracks in Havana led by Sergeant Batista mutinied.

Unexpectedly, they received the support of civilians who transformed their mutiny into a military putsch, resulting in a 100-day revolutionary government governed by decree to "return Cuba to Cuba" and free it from US control.

It was then that women in Cuba gained universal suffrage, university autonomy, workers, including cane cutters, a minimum wage and other social benefits, and a start was made on agrarian reform.

These reforms are too radical for the right and far right, too timid for the Marxist left and unacceptable to Roosevelt's United States.

The United States does not intervene militarily, but convinces Batista to take the power he assumes through civilian presidents and then directly as dictator until the Castro revolution of 1959.

The Case of Brazil: Military Coup and Fascist Regime[edit | edit source]

There's a military coup and a fascist regime.

Economics[edit | edit source]

Brazil's economy is fairly diversified, but exports are mainly coffee; unlike Colombia, coffee is grown by seasonal workers, European immigrants, but above all Brazilian migrants, who are subject to large landowners who continue to dominate their strongholds without sharing.

In 1930, the government of the first Brazilian republic of order and progress, this government did not take coherent measures in the face of the crisis that provoked a conflict over the presidential election, because only a small section of society had the vote and could elect the president.

Three states out of seventeen refuse to accept the result of the election causing uprisings, the military will overthrow the civilian government giving power to Vargas, a cattle breeder and governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Politics[edit | edit source]

We can see that all the power in Brazil as history moves from the sugar northeast to Rio de Janeiro to the south where economic interests, power and cattle breeding like coffee production are concentrated.

Once in power, Vargas began by eliminating the socialist and communist left and then turned to the fascist right, then called "integralist" and secretly financed by Mussolini's Italy.

In 1837, Vargas banned all political parties launching a second coup directly supported by the army imposing the Estado Novo on the Brazilians; it was a corporatist state inspired by Mussolini's Italy and Salazar's Portugal.

This dictatorship is characterised by nationalism, the development of the army, state intervention in the economy, state control of trade unions, censorship and political repression.

This Estado Novo lasted until 1954, throughout the Second World War, when the army provoked another coup d'état and forced Vargas into exile.

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

The crisis of 1929 brought all American companies, not only from the United States but also from Latin America, to the brink of the abyss.

It shows the weaknesses of economic liberalism, a relative liberalism, since it is a liberalism in which the State basically helps the hacendados, industrialists, corporations, banks and at the same time represses the workers.

This crisis reveals the deep inequalities of all these societies and all of them need a charismatic leader who unites and reassures the population; all of them also resort to nationalism, including the United States under Roosevelt.

Populism allows the ruling classes to avoid or suppress revolutions, as in Cuba in 1933, but they often have to put in place social legislation to protect the workers and the poor.

Everywhere, the big losers are in the countryside the small peasants and in the cities the big losers are the socialist and communist parties and trade unions which are suppressed or integrated into a large national party with certain social benevolence.

Social tensions are suppressed, but they have not disappeared and will erupt again after the Second World War.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]