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Breadth and depth of research and perspectives exemplify Latin America in Cold War conference

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Latin Americans found themselves caught in the emerging struggle between the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Posted: November 13, 2009
Visiting Mellon Professor Rafael Hernández of LLILAS.

Visiting Mellon Professor Rafael Hernández of LLILAS.

For over four decades, Latin Americans of all social classes and political persuasions were compelled to take sides in this global conflict, either as the supporters of communism or, in the words of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, as the champions of the “free peoples of the world.”

The consequences of this polarization brought political repression, military dictatorship, foreign intervention, and, more broadly, immeasurable human and material destruction to Latin America.  This is more or less the traditional account that historians have put forward about the trajectory and repercussions of the Cold War in Latin America.   

During two days, on Oct. 29-30, 2009, the participants of the "Latin American in the Cold War" conference gathered to ponder the merits of this long-established interpretation. Convened by Department of History Professors Jonathan C. Brown, Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Mark A. Lawrence of The University of Texas, this meeting brought together both graduate students and faculty in an effort to revisit old historiographical assumptions about the course of the Cold War south of the Rio Grande.

Nadine Ross

Doctoral student Nadine Ross fields questions on her paper.

Participants included graduate students and faculty from the university, as well as visiting faculty at the Institute for Historical Studies (IHS) and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies (LLILAS). Open to the public, the conference drew attendees from inside and outside the university.

The focus of the conference was to provide a more nuanced analysis of Latin America’s relation to the world and to shed light on the many ways that Latin Americans understood and reinterpreted the Cold War. From Cuba’s position vis-à-vis the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 1960s, to the participation of Cuban health care workers in the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution, and to the effect of the Brazilian military coup d'etat on the regulation of female food vendors in Salvador, Bahia this gathering covered a range of geographical areas and time periods. 

The conference served as an important forum for faculty, graduate students and the public to rethink the way that historians have conceptualized Latin America’s place in the Cold War. For Nadine Ross, graduate student in the Department of History, the conference served as a reminder “that Latin America was more than a setting…for the Cold War and that Latin Americans were not passive” in this global conflict.

This was precisely the idea that entertained Professor Rafael M. Hernández, Mellon Visiting Professor at LLILAS, in his keynote address. Hernández opened the conference proceedings with an invitation to revisit our previous understandings of the role played by the different players in the Cold War. He challenged the series of zoo metaphors that policymakers and scholars alike have used to study the U.S.-Soviet conflict. “He added his own animal metaphor to the mix: the ideologically radical but small pitirre, or kingbird,” history graduate student James F. Jenkins said. “The pitirre stood in for such third world leaders as Fidel Castro or Muammar al-Gaddafi.” These leaders, Hernández explained, did not always behave according to the policies of either of the two superpowers.

As Professor Brown reminded the audience, Cuba’s leaders sought to create their “own independent path” both in relation to the United States and to the communist camp as represented by the Soviet Union and communist China. Cuban revolutionary leaders did attempt to “export revolution” in Latin America and Africa, but they also proved cognizant about the need to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy that would permit them to exploit and benefit from the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 1960s.

Prof. Jonathan Brown

History Dept. Professor Jonathan Brown presents his latest research findings and displays his "prized" plaque of Mao from recent trip to China.

Cuba’s search for an independent foreign policy was also true for other Latin American countries. Despite the U.S. policy of isolation vis-à-vis Cuba’s revolutionary regime, countries such as Mexico continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In her presentation, history graduate student Renata Keller indicated that Mexico’s position in relation to Cuba in the 1960s reflected not only contradicting policies within the U.S. government but also the influence of Mexico’s domestic politics on its foreign policy toward Cuba.

Doctoral student Storm Miller’s paper studied the initial efforts of the United States to move beyond the support of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America and foster socioeconomic development in the region. He concluded, however, that the United States had trouble staying ahead of the efforts of Latin Americans themselves to define new centrist and left-wing political models that borrowed freely from capitalist and communist ideology.

The conference also highlighted the different ways in which Latin Americans understood and reworked Cold War politics. One cannot deny the weight of anticommunism in Latin America’s political landscape in the second half of the twentieth century. Numerous sectors of Latin American society saw in the advance of communism a threat to the very moral foundations of society. But it was often the case that Latin Americans’ anticommunism proved more than a simple reaction against communism, according to Ph.D. student Bonar Hernández. Guatemalan Catholic youth, for instance, understood perfectly well the need to move beyond an anticommunism program without any positive social agenda.

Youth in other countries also sought to move beyond the ideology of anticommunism. Cyrus Cousins, another presentor and doctoral candidate in the department, pointed out that there were limits to the impact of anticommunism on Latin American society. In the 1960s and 1970s, Argentine youth resisted a conservative Catholic campaign against immorality and the turn towards the left of the political spectrum. By the early 1970s, many of these youth, in Cousins’ words, “had become politically radical and militant.”  

“The feedback I received from colleagues and senior scholars during the conference, including one who had met and conversed with the very officers I study, confirmed that contemporary reassessment of the motives for anticommunist campaigns in Latin America during the Cold War can shed new light on local action during this watershed period in Latin American history,” Cousins said.

Doctoral candidate Cheasty Miller

Cheasty Miller, doctoral candidate and presentor, answers questions on her paper from the audience that included 11th-graders from Harmony Science Academy; wife of responder Dr. Gaston Martínez from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico.

The contradictory aspects of the Cold War in Latin America highlight the importance of paying greater attention to local conditions and to the seemingly paradoxical responses that Latin Americans adopted during this period. Not everyone was a communist and not everyone supported the anticommunist regimes that arose in the region during these years.

Another important theme that participants explored was the participation of non-governmental actors in the Cold War. History graduate student James E. Jenkins brought to light the contradictory actions taken by North America Indian activists in Nicaragua during the Sandinista years. In positioning themselves on the side of the Miskitu Indian insurgency against the Sandinista regime, North American Indian activists ostensibly betrayed their progressive base of support in the United States. 

Professor Julio Moreno, visiting research fellow at the IHS, brought to a close the conference proceedings by urging participants and the audience alike to move beyond the left-right dichotomy so common in Cold War histories. Through his analysis of the Coca-Cola Company’s operations in Latin America, he contended that U.S. businesses interests, like some Latin American governments and a number of non-governmental institutions, did not always follow the official policy of the U.S. government.

Moreno also noted that the way university faculty and graduate students are thinking about the Cold War in Latin America is different from the way other scholars are interpreting it. He credits such difference to two things. One is the unusual level of energy and focus on this topic by faculty and students. "Such observation makes sense," Moreno says, "as UT Austin's History Department has three faculty members and about 12 graduate students with research projects dealing with the Cold War in Latin America."

The second factor: Moreno credits for making UT Austin's study of the Cold War in Latin America different deals with faculty and students beginning to think of the Cold War outside the left-right dichotomy that has historically polarized interpretations of this field. He goes as far as recommending an edited volume as a way of beginning to define a "UT school of thought on the study of the Cold War in Latin America."

Just as the conference challenged presenters and the audience to re-conceptualize Latin American history during the Cold War, it also served as an important medium for graduate students to share their ongoing research and to see their work as part of a broader emerging historiography. Conference participant Cheasty Miller spoke for herself and other graduate students when she noted, “in the years to come, some very innovative work will be coming out of historians from UT Austin, and I look forward to taking part in this developing academic conversation.”  

Prof. Julio Moreno

Professor Julio Moreno, IHS visiting fellow from Calif. and native of El Salvador, presents a paper on the Coca-Cola Company's business strategy during the Cold War in Latin America.

For non-experts, the conclusions that emerged during the course of the two-day meeting proved an excellent introduction to the history of the Cold War in Latin America. Besides faculty and graduate students, among the attendees were high school students from Austin’s Harmony Science Academy (HSA). 

When asked how he benefited from the conference, Jay Johnson, HSA student, indicated that it gave him the opportunity to learn more than what history textbooks traditionally teach about the Cold War: “It seems that textbooks present Latin America as irrelevant to the Cold War. From Cuban medical care in Nicaragua to the sending of missiles to Cuba by the USSR, it was all part of the Cold War.”

"The amount of history I learned in a small amount of time was significant. I would like to thank the History Department at UT for allowing us to visit and learn about an important part of world history," Kumail Hasan added.

HSA student, Sarah Anwar, shared a similarly positive attitude regarding the conference. In her own words, it allowed her “to learn about other cultures, their political views…can’t just know one side, good to know both sides.”

This was precisely the underlying theme of the conference—the need to reach a better understanding of Latin Americans’ own political views and perspectives, and to recognize that Latin America had its own history during the Cold War. Although it is important to keep in mind that Latin American history cannot be extricated completely from global Cold War politics, the findings presented by the conference’s participants also highlighted that in many instances this conflict served to accelerate social, economic and political developments that had been in motion for many decades.  

The symposium was sponsored by the Institute for Historical Studies, History Dept., Vice-Provost & Dean of Graduate Studies, and the Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies.

Conference website
with partial listing of papers presented.

CONTRIBUTORS: Bonar Hernández, Assistant Instructor and doctoral candidate in History Dept. (news story), M.G. Moore (photos)

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