In Latin America, as elsewhere, leftists wanted to build socialist societies, which they believed would end inequalities. Some leftists joined guerrilla movements to battle repressive governments. After building a communist state in Cuba, Fidel Castro supported leftist guerrillas in many other parts of Latin America.
Cold War fears about the spread of Marxism complicated efforts for reform. Many conservatives in Latin America saw any call for reform as a communist threat. The United States often supported military governments and conservative groups that were strongly anti-communist.
Several Central American nations were torn by civil wars as revolutionaries battled authoritarian governments. In 1954, the United States helped the Guatemalan military overthrow an elected, leftist government. Leftists and others fought the military regime, which responded savagely.
The military targeted Guatemala's indigenous, or native, people, slaughtering tens of thousands of Mayans and members of other Indian groups. Fighting ended in 1996, after the government signed a peace accord and held elections.
In El Salvador, too, reformers and leftist revolutionaries challenged the landowning and military elite. During a vicious 12-year civil war, right-wing death squads slaughtered student and labor leaders, church workers, and anyone else thought to sympathize with leftists. One reformer, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass. In 1992, both sides finally agreed to a UN-brokered peace.
In 1979, the Sandinistas, socialist rebels in Nicaragua, toppled the Somoza family, which had ruled since 1936. The Sandinistas introduced land reform and other socialist measures. Fearing that Nicaragua could become “another Cuba,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan financed the contras, guerrillas who fought the Sandinistas. Fighting raged until 1990, when a peace settlement brought multiparty elections.
By the 1990s, international pressure and activists within each country pushed military governments to restore civilian rule. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other countries held elections. In some countries, such as Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia, leftist leaders won office. Since then, many Latin American countries have experienced the peaceful transition of power from one elected government to the another.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador became widely known for defending the poor and oppressed. His sharp criticism of the government gained him a large following, but also many enemies.
Mexico had escaped military rule, but still experienced growing demands for political reform. Between 1930 and 2000, a single political party–the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)–won every election and controlled the government. It claimed to represent all groups in Mexican society from workers and peasants to business and industrial interests as well as the military. Although a few small political parties did exist, PRI bosses moved forcefully against any serious opposition.
Under pressure, the PRI made some reforms in the 1990s. In 2000, Vicente Fox became the first candidate from an opposition party to be elected president.
Fox and later presidents faced tough challenges, ranging from rural poverty to crime, corruption, and violent drug gangs. Despite government pledges for reform, Mexico has remained a disturbing mix of prosperity and poverty. In recent years, some regions of Mexico have suffered from violent crime related to drug trafficking.
What social and political conditions led to civil wars in many Latin American countries?