From the election of former Chilean president Allende, socialist-leaning leaders have remoulded the continent to a very different shape from that envisaged by the CIA a generation ago.
Death of Allende
Salvador Allende, former president of Chile, died in the presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973, during a coup led by army chief Augusto Pinochet. Allende won the presidency in 1970 and became Latin America’s first democratically elected left-wing leader. The CIA, which played an active part in Chilean politics in the 70s, sought Allende’s overthrow before he took office in 1970, but the US disputes that it was involved in the military coup.
A campaign of political repression carried out by US-backed Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s that was designed to eliminate tens of thousands of left-wing activists. It was the idea of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who enlisted Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil in a continent-wide campaign. Last week, in Buenos Aires, 25 people with links to Operation Condor went on trial.
The Sandinista Revolution
The Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship in July 1979 and established a socialist coalition government. The Somoza family had ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979. Somoza allegedly embezzled funds sent to help rebuild the capital, Managua, after an earthquake in 1972. Shortly thereafter the Catholic Church became a vocal critic of Somoza.
Right-wing rebel groups formed in opposition to the Sandinistas, the Contras received aid from the US government — for arms and training — until aid was outlawed by Congress. The administration of former US president Ronald Reagan — which had come to power in 1981 — committed to supporting right-wing regimes in Latin America — attempted to fund the groups covertly. The Contras-Sandinista conflict was seen by many as a proxy for the Cold War that reached renewed heights during the Reagan administration.
The killing of Archbishop Romero/El Salvador civil war
The archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, had been an outspoken critic of the junta attempting to quell a popular insurrection whose leaders were advocating social and economic reforms. Romero alleged that the junta was guilty of massacres and torture. The archbishop was assassinated on March 24, 1980. Rallies in support of Romero turned bloody when police opened fire on the crowds. This was the spark for the 12-year civil war in El Salvador. The military, supported by the US, targeted union officials, clergy, academics and others; thousands died. A peace agreement was reached between the two groups in 1992.
Guatemalan civil war
The Central American state endured a long and bloody conflict between government and left-wing rebels. Its roots date back to the mid-1940s when the US helped overthrow the October Revolutionaries — left-wing students and professionals advancing radical social and economic reforms. The CIA-backed coup in 1954 put an end to this reforming zeal. In the 1980s, the junta aimed to eliminate left-wing activists throughout civil society. More than 200,000 died and many more disappeared. In December 1996, ex-rebel leader Rolando Moran and former Guatemalan president Alvaro Arzu signed peace accords.
(Cuban leader, 1959-2008)
From 1976 until 2008, Castro was an inspiration for a generation of Latin Americans who warmed to his anti-imperialist, socialist agenda. By the mid-2000s, the continent had seen the rise of what became known as the “pink tide” (ie, something less than red-blooded socialism). Castro formed alliances and friendships with many leaders — including late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. A BBC report in 2005 estimated that, of 350 million Latin Americans, three out of four lived under left-wing administrations — a dramatic break with the era when the continent was governed by leaders sympathetic to, and supported by, the US.
Hugo Chavez was among the first of the late 20th-century Latin American leaders who came to power with a left-wing agenda.
Chavez looked to Simon Bolivar — godfather of South American independence — for inspiration for his Latin socialism. He was elected president of Venezuela in 1999 and served until his death last week.
Elected president of Brazil in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, the former union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised major social reforms and oversaw the emergence of Brazil as an economic powerhouse, which did much to raise millions of people in the country out of poverty.
Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist, was elected president of Uruguay in October 2004 and left office in 2010. A member of the Socialist party, he became the country’s first president from a left-wing party. One of his first actions was to announce a US$100-million-a-year project to alleviate extreme poverty.
Michelle Bachelet’s election as president of Chile in 2006 was significant for a number of reasons. She was the first female president, she was a social democrat, and her father, General Alberto Bachelet, who served under Allende, had been tortured by, and died during, the Pinochet dictatorship.
Evo Morales, was elected president of Bolivia in 2006, is a champion of indigenous rights and a vocal critic of US foreign policy.
Morales has committed himself to implementing widespread land reforms that would help the poorest peasant farmers, and to ensuring that the wealth from the country’s gas reserves is distributed more equally.
Rafael Correa, who as elected as president of Ecuador in 2006 and then re-elected last month for a second term.
Correa is an economist who came to power on the back of his opposition to the IMF’s plans for remedying his country’s economic ills. Instead, he rolled back the IMF’s plans and put an end to privatization of national resources such as water, oil and gas.