This week, Dawson discussed the tumultuous period between the 1960s and the 1990s experienced by the majority of Latin American countries, due to the violent conflicts between the state and revolutionary forces.
The author calls attention to the fact that before the start of the period, democratic institutions such as free press and political opposition parties were relatively strong across the continent. However, after the Cuban Revolution, the governments started to deteriorate.
Dawson talks about some of the contributing factors, such as the the distributive distortions created by the Import Substitution Industry: as debt grew and growth slowed down, the governments couldn’t keep up their spending of social welfare programs, creating dissatisfaction among lower and middle-class sectors of the population. In addition, Latin America was ground for proxy battles for the Cold War, with both Soviets and Americans financing and training forces that opposed one another. By the 1960s, Dawson points out how the youth was joining the leftist that had long criticized the corrupt governments, forming a strong opposition. Around that time, governments across the continent suffered coups that led right-leaning and a lot of the times military to power. What followed was violent conflict between these governments and the organized left-leaning opposition, a lot of the time in the form of guerrillas.
The book calls attention to the fact that the violence was heavily used by both sides – he cites Peru as an example of how the guerrillas used indiscriminate violence, justified mainly by the fact that it was the only means to truly revolutionize the state.
Coming from Brazil, I have heard a lot about the military dictatorship the country experienced starting in 1964 with a coup. The horror stories are aplenty, especially of the torture experienced by members of left-leaning groups, including rape and castration. Many of our most important and celebrated artists were first arrested and then lived in exile in Europe, and many prominent figures told stories of what they suffered at the hands of the military government – one of our most well-known journalists recently talked about how she was locked in a dark room with a snake after being arrested, even after she told the officers who arrested her she was pregnant, and was left without food for long periods of time. Our former president, Dilma Rousseff, was repeatedly punched in the face, which left her jaw permanently damaged, and suffered electric shocks, and in the 2000s received a symbolic money restitution for what she suffered.
The regime lasted until the mid-1980s, and in the 1970’s experienced what is called the “Brazillian Miracle”: GDP was growing at a rate of nearly 10% every year, the inflation was decreasing and the urban centres such as São Paulo and Rio were booming. However, the government incurred an extremely high external debt to pay for all the growth, and when the US increased the interest rates on the dollar during the early 1980’s, the economy went into a recession, the popularity of the military government plummeted and Brazil was able to have a democratic elected president again.
Interestingly enough, there have been calls for military intervention recently, following a troubled period of corruption scandals that eventually led to the impeachment of the president in 2015 and economic difficulties for the country as a whole. The people calling for it seem to have a selective memory, praising the (short lasting) economic accomplishments of the dictatorship and forgoing the complete disregard for basic human rights experienced by those opposed to the government. For the discussion, it’d be interesting to consider if that has happened in other Latin American countries, and why. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder of the importance of knowing the history of the continent and informing ourselves about what happened all those years ago.