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New Left Review I/113-114, January-April 1979

Göran Therborn

The Travail of Latin American Democracy

The shifting complexity of Latin American politics baffles the observer, frustrates the theoretician and challenges both the committed endurance and the tactical subtlety of the revolutionary. Continent of military coups and dictators—but also of (male) bourgeois democracies as old or even older than some West European or North American ones. Countries ruled by unified oligarchies, yet often rent by long inter-bourgeois civil wars (Colombia, for example, as little as twenty-five or thirty years ago). Highly inegalitarian, status-conscious societies—one of which could nevertheless be presided over for decades by an illiterate mestizo caudillo, who had made his career as a twenty-two-year-old leader of armed peasant bands (Rafael Carrera in Guatemala, 1838–65); and where one of the most exclusive symbols of status was destroyed by the masses at the incitement of a president devoted to the development of capitalism (the sacking of the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires by Peronists in 1954). Continent of permanent violence against—and recurrent massacres—of workers and peasants, which has also seen the first Communist government ministers (Cuba in 1942) and the first elected Marxist government (Chile in 1970) in capitalist national history. Ruling classes of an extreme narrow-mindedness and cruelty, yet presenting probably the only case where a distinguished sector of a bourgeoisie openly cooperated with Communists at the height of the Cold War (the prominent entrepreneurs in the final cabinet of Arbenz in Guatemala [1] Arbenz’s Minister of Agriculture was a landowner, his Minister of the Economy was an industrialist, his Foreign Minister belonged to one of the economically dominant families of the country. True, in the last period of external pressure and internal radicalization these people represented a shrinking minority of their class. E. Torres-Rivas, ‘La caída de Arbenz y los contratiempos de la revolución burguesa’, Historia y Sociedad No. 15 (México 1977), p. 50n.). Dependent countries with, in most cases, much more local control over the means of production than Canada. Régimes of massive anti-popular repression confronting mainly non-revolutionary popular classes. The two socio-economically most developed countries (Argentina and Uruguay) suffering two of the most ferocious and backward dictatorships.

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