Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Latin America, Communist Parties in

The development of communism and communist party structures in Latin America began well before the Cold War. European immigrants familiar with the writings of Karl Marx and events such as the 1871 Paris Commune began importing communist ideology to Latin America in the late nineteenth century. After the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the Comintern (Communist International) in the 1920s, many communist organizations in Latin America became aligned with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Throughout the Cold War, communism in Latin America was shaped by several varieties of communist thought, emanating from both international and domestic sources. Most prominent Latin American communist parties took instructions directly from the Soviets. Beginning in the late 1950s, however, many Latin American nations had competing communist factions influenced by Chinese communism. In 1963 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) called for the growth of Marxist-Leninist parties independent of Soviet direction. By 1965, there were CCP-style organizations in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. These parties pledged allegiance to the People's Republic of China (PRC). The pro-Chinese organizations remained relatively small, however, often operating in the shadows of the pro-Soviet parties. Only in Peru and the Dominican Republic did pro-Chinese organizations come to outnumber pro-Soviet parties in membership.

Latin America also witnessed a number of indigenous communist movements. One of the most persistent of these was Venezuela's Movement to Socialism (MAS), founded in December 1970. Although some MAS party leaders were defectors from the older pro-Soviet Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), many espoused an ambiguous ideology that viewed international communist parties with indifference. MAS candidates enjoyed modest success in the 1970s, and by the 1980s the party had become a significant force in Venezuelan politics.

Some Latin American communist factions took guidance from the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Since Castro's successful 1959 revolution and the installation of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as the nation's only legal party, Cuba attempted to export its revolution throughout the region, encouraging revolutionaries to pursue change through armed insurrection. In the 1960s Cuba sent small numbers of troops to Central America, South America, and elsewhere in the Caribbean to foment rebellion. It was during one such engagement in Bolivia that Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was killed in 1967.

While the Castro model for seizing power by fighting guerrilla wars in the countryside was strong throughout the 1960s, it was mostly in conflict with the advice coming from the CPSU. The Soviets publicly encouraged working within the apparatus of labor organizations and striving for influence through peaceful means. The most successful effort following the advice of the Soviets occurred in Chile. The Communist Party of Chile rose to power in the elections of 1970 as the dominant faction in the broader Popular Unity coalition. In a congressional vote, the Popular Unity coalition built support for and elected as president a Socialist Party leader, Salvador Allende. Pro-Soviet communists in Latin America hailed this victory as a model for furthering the spread of communism in the hemisphere.

To the United States, however, the strength of the Chilean communists within the Popular Unity coalition appeared as a threat to hemispheric security. In 1973 a coup backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) succeeded in deposing and killing Allende and installing the strongly anticommunist dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Nicaragua's communist regime under the Sandinistas, in power since July 1979, was a major supporter of communist insurrection in neighboring El Salvador throughout the 1980s. Although the Sandinistas continued exporting arms to communist rebels in El Salvador as late as 1990, the party was voted out of office that same year, leaving Castro the only communist leader in control of a Latin American nation.

By the end of the Cold War the communist parties of Latin America were diminishing in size and influence and had begun to identify ways to continue shaping Latin American politics by working within existing political frameworks. A convention of ten South American communist parties met in Quito, Ecuador, in February 1990. There they pledged support for multiparty systems and agreed to cooperate with social and Christian democratic parties as well as with other reform factions.

Creston S. Long

Further Reading
Leonard, Thomas M. Central America and the United States: The Search for Stability. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.; Ratliff, William E., ed. Yearbook on Latin American Communist Affairs. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1971.; Starr, Richard F., ed. Yearbook on International Communist Affairs. 26 vols. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1966–1991.

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