Latin America


LATIN AMERICA is involved in a series of stormy post-war adjustments. The fifteen-year-old dictatorship of Getulio Vargas has toppled in Brazil. A “left-nationalist” revolutionary regime took over oil-rich Venezuela in three days of swift, violent struggle. Argentina is rocking in crosswinds of political turbulence blowing out of the intrigues of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, “strong man” of its military dictatorship since 1943.

Smaller countries — Guatemala, relatively enfranchised by a liberal revolution a year ago, and the gun-ruled Dominican Republic — have felt themselves threatened by conspiring groups and tightened controls on political action. Strategically placed Panama is jittery over the nationalist political upsurge caused by the return of Arnulfo Arias, Axis-compromised former president, driven out of office for anti-American activities two months before Pearl Harbor.

In most of Latin America, confusion has been rising and United States influence on the inter-American front has necessarily suffered. During the war years, an informal understanding was developed by our State Department that governments coming into power by violence would be recognized only after consultations between the foreign offices of the republics, and that recognition would be extended by them jointly. A full dozen of the Latin republics went back on this method and recognized Venezuela’s new Acción Democratica government unilaterally.

Within eight days of the revolution, the United States itself recognized the new regime. But the warning to the State Department was plain. Reversion to lonehand diplomacy in so many Latin American capitals means that a dozen or more republics are fed up with being maneuvered into blowing hot and cold on critical Latin political situations as often as personalities and hunches in our State Department change.

In Brazil, President Getulio Vargas, nominally an elected ruler, had held power since the revolution of 1930. He had established himself as South America’s outstanding contemporary, if not all-time, expert in the political game of playing both ends against the middle. Finally he exasperated everybody. Vargas felt the winds of public complaint blowing as long ago as last winter. Consequently, late in the spring, he promised the country free presidential elections for December 2, and a constitutional convention.

Vargas nominates

On the surface all seemed regular. Two candidacies were launched — one for General Eurico Gaspar Dutra, War Minister and ostensible palace favorite, and one for General Eduardo Gomes, former commander of the national air forces and a “liberal,” but by no means a violent Vargas opponent. All Brazil enjoyed the campaign wisecrack that the republic was about to exchange a civilian dictatorship for two military democracies.

But under the surface Vargas was working to keep the presidential elections from coming off. By late summer, propaganda campaigns were under way clamoring that only the Constitutent Assembly should be elected in December, and that Vargas should be allowed to continue his rule during the delicate period of the adoption of a new constitution. To add another note of confusion, Vargas proclaimed that elections for state governors and officials also would take place December 2.

The intent was obvious. If enough political confusion could be created in Brazil by holding three kinds of elections at once, Vargas might step in again as a paternal stabilizing force and perhaps get by without even going through with the Constituent Assembly elections. The old coup which worked so well in 1937 might work again.

The only difficulty was that everybody saw through the scheme, even the Army. The last week in October, quiet Army pressure against making a farce of the elections had Vargas backed into a corner.

He tried to break out by firing the War Minister, General Aurelio Góes Monteiro, and by installing his brother, Benjamin Vargas, as head of the national police. The High Command moved in on the presidential residence at Guanabara Palace on October 29. Before dawn Getulio had resigned in favor of Chief Justice José Linhares and was the Army’s prize prisoner. The coupists announced that the elections without the state contests would come off on schedule.

Anything can happen in Brazilian politics, but the indications are that within the Army political ring, the Gomesistas made a deal with the more conservative Dutra supporters that the elections will be genuinely free. If they are free, General Gomes will certainly benefit. The Gomesistas are no political angels. But they will be under a mandate to launch at least some of the overdue economic reforms before settling down into just another palace clique.

Venezuela’s young men

Venezuela’s revolutionary outbreak against equal or even greater abuses was bloodier and more politically conscious than Brazil’s. A group of young Army officers, fed up with watching the generals revel in graft opportunities of a secret military budget even in peacetime, had planned to take over the government by a quick, bloodless stroke late in November. But investigators from the High Command caught one of their number, and they had to act instantly.

On the night of October 18 they seized practically all the Army’s mechanized equipment — planes, tanks, automotive artillery — at Maracay, the republic’s arsenal. Next day they bombed Caracas chiefly with leaflets and hand grenades, frightened or fought the capital’s pro-government garrisons into joining them, captured and imprisoned most of the “loyalist” national police force. By the evening of the third day, October 20, the revolution was virtually over.

As a demonstration of how easily a small elite group in a Latin American army trained in elementary mechanized warfare can overthrow a government, the coup had an almost classical efficiency. But it was no Argentine colonels’ lodge that took over Venezuela. Most of the young officers had contacts from university days with the leaders of Venezuela’s liveliest and most progressive political faction, the Acción Democratica.

At once the military victors turned over the government to leaders of Acción Democratica except for two Cabinet posts. Rómulo Betancourt, known throughout Latin America as a forthright journalist and economist, formerly a communist but now only a mild leftist, is the provisional president.

The old grievances

Venezuela suffers from three outstanding evils, all intensified by her war experience: (1) a shockingly unbalanced economy due to her immense oil wealth, the enormous financial hoardings of the government, and the international value of a currency curiously unrelated to domestic buying power; (2) habitual graft and profiteering among officials and big businessmen in cahoots with governing circles; (3) a totally controlled presidential succession keeping the same ring of grafting, currency-manipulating, economic cormorants in office decade after decade.

The Acción Democratica government made a frontal attack on all three evils at once. Provisional President Betancourt called for a program of spending a hundred million dollars on agricultural machinery, soil improvements, roads, and trucking services which will bring the products of the ruined rural peasantry into the cities for reasonable prices and will starve out of business the rings of scarcity-promoting local commission merchants. Several former officials of high rank were jailed on plain graft charges. Statesmen of many a Latin American republic have suffered or died in revolutions for more romantic offenses, but mere graft accusations are almost unprecedented.

Venezuela in earnest

The new government sought to make friends for itself both in domestic management and in foreign policy. The national police were temporarily liquidated — officially, not physically — by the revolt. But hordes of civilians with Acción Democratica arm bands, sometimes with rifles and machetes, but often unarmed, patrolled the streets — stopping looting, directing traffic with good humor and efficiency, and taking guns away from other civilians who had got them from police and military barracks.

Betancourt held immediate conferences with foreign oil interests and announced that while some contracts might be examined with a view to the government’s royalty rights, no early drastic changes were contemplated. With Near Eastern oil alert for greater sales openings, the government was not courting an expropriations fight. On the other hand, unexpectedly pleased with the atmosphere, oil spokesmen pledged themselves to carry out various hitherto questioned wage contracts to the letter.

Acción Democratica’s new deal for Venezuela calls for universal suffrage, election of a Constitutional Assembly in April, and the establishment of a Constitution guaranteeing free and direct elections. If the Army-civilian coalition does not crack and the deposed generals do not stage a comeback, Venezuela stands a chance of getting democratic government.