The Decline of Communism in Latin America

Ernst 11 alper in. a research associate at the Center for International Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent two years in Latin America studying Communism and has arrived at some surprising conclusions about its prospects below the border. Currently living in Bio de Janeiro, he has written for newspapers and many major periodicals and is the author of TIM: TRIUMPHANT HERETIC, a book about Tito.

by Ernst Halperin

THE contrast of opulence and poverty in Latin America is so striking that visitors frequently assume the region to be on the verge of a social cataclysm. In the big cities, the elegant residential districts and the downtown business sections with their skyscrapers are ringed with shantytown areas — vast agglomerations of shacks that would make any European slum dwelling look palatial.

The streets in the shantytowns are unpaved. There are no water pipes or drains. The shacks of wood and cardboard are infested by vermin. One would think that their miserable, underfed inhabitants would be kept in a constant paroxysm of envy and class hatred by the sight of the villas, the automobiles, the office buildings gleaming with chromium and plate glass, the luxury goods displayed in the windows of air-conditioned shops. Yet although there have been occasional outbursts ol violence in Bogota, Santiago, and other cities, the shantytowns are not the hotheds of revolution which the foreign observer assumes them to be.

Truth is, there are many factors working against the possibility of a dominant Commjmist influence in the affairs ol Latin America. One is the emergence ol a highly nationalistic middle class more disposed to exploiting Communist assistance than to adherence to Communist discipline. Another is the absence of revolutionary zeal among the urban working classes. Though the prospects in store for United States interests in Latin America may well be harsh, the chances of a Communistdominated regime are slim indeed. There are many trends and incidents to substantiate this conclusion.

In the Peruvian presidential election of 1963, for example, the shantytown districts of Lima, which are among the worst in Latin America, favored General Manuel Odria, the most conservative of the four presidential candidates. In the Venezuelan presidential election later that year, Arturo Uslar Pietri, a conservative intellectual and representative of business interests, polled a majority of the shantytown vote in Caracas. In the Chilean presidential election of 1964. the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei prevailed over the Marxist candidate, Salvador Allcnde, in the shantytowns of Santiago and Valparaiso.

Latin-American Marxists attribute the failure of their propaganda in the shantytowns to '’lack of political consciousness,” but the real reason would appear to be a different one. Most shantytown dwellers come from depressed rural areas, and city life offers them certain advantages not easily perceived by the foreign visitor who is appalled by the squalor of the shantytown. There are health centers and other social services, and occupational and educational opportunities are far better than in the stagnant rural areas. There is also the prospect of one day moving out to an inexpensive apartment in a government housing project. Many Latin-American countries are building government housing on a vast scale, although unfortunately even the most ambitious housing programs barely manage to keep pace with the movement of people from the rural areas to the cities.

Only the most energetic of the shantytown dwellers manage to take full advantage of these opportunities, but these are exactly the people who form the opinions and determine the spirit of the whole community. They are realists on the lookout for material improvement, and in politics they tend to support the man who is in a position to provide such improvement, even if he is a dictator or a politician with an unsavory record.

Shantytown dwellers may occasionally vote for a Marxist politician, but they are not attracted by Marxist ideology. Marxism holds that the capitalist system inevitably produces the pauperization of the toiling masses; that at best it may permit a temporary alleviation of their suffering but never a substantial, permanent improvement of their condition; that this system is doomed to disappear in a catastrophe; that it is the historic mission of the working class to overthrow capitalism by a revolution; and that this task must be carried out through the collective action of the working class organized as a revolutionary political party.

This doctrine does not tally either with the aspirations or with the experience of the leaders of shantytown opinion. Their condition is already better than it was when they arrived from the countryside, and they cannot be made to believe that revolution is necessary to achieve the further material improvements they desire.


Besides the shantytown population of unskilled laborers who have drifted in from the rural areas, the urban working class ol Latin America contains a second element: a highly organized and exclusive labor aristocracy composed of groups such as dockers, railroad men and other transportation workers, and the skilled labor employed by industry and the trades. Through political influence and the militancy of their unions, these groups have attained a wage level that in many cases compares favorably with that of European, if not of North American, workers.

In some Latin-American countries, the Communists appear to have established a measure of control over the labor aristocracy, whose trade unions they have infiltrated. However, this does not mean that they have truly won the allegiance of the workers, let alone converted them to Marxism. In times of crisis, when the government moves to suppress and persecute the Party, the workers invariably fail to come out in defense of the Communists. The Latin-American urban working class is clearly not a revolutionary element. Furthermore, it lacks the pre-Marxist tradition of militant socialism and anarchism that causes French and Italian workers to remain faithful to the Party in spite of material improvement.

As early as the nineteen twenties, a brilliant Peruvian intellectual, J. C. Mariatcgui, advised the Communist parties to shift their efforts from the urban workers to the Indio peasants of the Andean highlands, and to base their propaganda on a nationalism emphasizing the native Indian element of Latin-American culture. Mariategui’s proposal was not accepted by the Communist International, and to this day, Latin-American Communist parties, in the face of constant disappointments, stubbornly cling to the Leninist formula of the decisive revolutionary role of the urban proletariat.

In accordance with the precepts of Leninism, Communist Party pronouncements invariably stress the importance of “a firm alliance of the workers with the peasants.” This is usually empty talk, since most Latin-American Communist parties lack the cadres which the arduous and dangerous work of proselytizing in the villages would require. The Communists of some Central American republics at one time exerted considerable influence over the workers of the big industrialized plantations, but they lost it after a series of unsuccessful strikes. There are one or two pockets of Communist Party influence in the mountain valleys of Colombia. The Chilean Communists—the only Latin-American Communist Party with a substantial corps of trained propagandists — has recently made headway among agricultural workers and tenants on the big estates. With these and a few other minor exceptions, the Communist parties of Latin America are an urban phenomenon.

Nearly all these parties are very small, consisting of a number of intellectuals of the type known as drawing-room Communists, some trade union leaders with their personal retinue, and a sizable but undisciplined student and youth group. Apart from Cuba, where recruitment to the Party ranks is promoted by the government, the only notable exception to this pattern is Chile. There the industrial workers, particularly those in the copper, nitrate, and coal mines, have a tradition of militant unionism and political activity dating back to the first years of the century, and this has worked to the advantage of the Communists. The Chilean Communist Party is the only one in Latin America which has a sound working-class base.

The doctrine of the decisive revolutionary role of the urban proletariat has had a surprising effect on the policies of the Latin-American Communist parties: it has rendered them highly opportunistic.

The difficult task of proselytizing among a social group antipathetic to Communist ideology can only be carried on where Party members enjoy some freedom to operate. Latin-American Communists therefore, reluctant to undergo the risk of total suppression, have frequently come to terms with a dictator, agreeing to coniine themselves to a purely verbal opposition and to decline cooperation with the democratic opposition groups.


In Latin America, public opinion does not regard subversion with the same abhorrence as it docs in Europe or the United States. The most respectable Latin-American democratic parties of the center and right have more conspiracies, uprisings, coups, and pronunciamentos on record than the Communists have. The current Communist guerrilla campaign in Venezuela is a departure from the usual pattern of Communist Party activities in Latin America. There has been only one earlier attempt to seize power by force in the entire history of the Communist movement in Latin America: the Brazilian uprising ol 1935. This was an army coup in the classical Latin-American manner; it failed because the expected civilian support did not materialize. The leader of the coup, Luis Carlos Prestes, had been an army officer and a celebrated guerrilla leader before he had joined the Communists. He has since become one of the most consistent and determined advocates of peaceful methods among the leaders of LatinAmerican Communism.

The Communists’ very lack of success has made it possible for non-Communist political groups to accept them as allies. Most Latin-American politicians do not regard their local Communist Party as a serious threat, while the Communists’ small but tightly knit Party organization, their ability to mobilize students for demonstrations, and their influence in the trade unions can make their collaboration useful to dictators and democrats alike.

The easygoing attitude of non-Communist and even strongly anti-Communist Latin-American politicians toward the Party is the despair of European and North American observers, but their warnings are usually disregarded because they are not borne out by practical experience. In Latin America it is simply not true that anyone who has dealings with the Communists becomes their prisoner. Democratic politicians such as Gonzalez Videla of Chile and caudillos such as Velasco Ibarra of Ecuador welcomed Communist support in their struggle for power; and later, when the Communists ceased to be useful, these politicians had no difficulty in casting them off. The latest case in point is that of Fidel Castro.

When Castro began to favor the Cuban Communists, and even entrusted them with the task of organizing his own ruling party, most foreign observers assumed he would soon be reduced to the condition of a mere puppet in the hands of the Old Guard Communist leaders. Yet today, Castro is in undisputed command of the party which the Old Guard Communists had helped him to build, and the old Party leaders are either pushed aside or relegated to positions of secondary importance. This rank outsider, who has no Communist Party training and has never been subjected to Party discipline, has even forced the Russians to accept the situation and to admit him into the councils of world Communism — a telling symptom of the state of confusion and disintegration into which the Communist movement has been plunged since the outbreak of the Sino-Soviet conflict.


One of the most widespread of the many misconceptions about Latin America is that its political troubles are due to the absence of a strong middle class. Democracy is said to be the way of life of the middle class; therefore, it is argued, there would be a functioning, healthy democracy in Latin America if it had a middle class capable of asserting itself.

But this concept of Latin-American society as a rigid structure composed of the very rich and the very poor is taken from the descriptions of nineteenth-century travelers. Today it applies only to the backward rural areas. For the last half century, the cities of Latin America have been the scene of great social change and economic development. Photographs of the downtown areas of cities such as Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santiago dc Chile that were taken fifteen years ago are hardly recognizable today.

Social mobility in Latin America is greater, not less, than in Europe. The amazing economic success of immigrants from European countries, as well as from the Near and Far East, testifies to this. At the same time, the cities of Latin America have witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of an ambitious, politically conscious, and highly assertive native middle class. The political weight and influence of this urban middle class is all the greater because the bulk of Latin America’s rural population is politically passive and inarticulate.

In the more important Latin-American countries, political power long ago passed from the hands of the aristocracy into those of middle-class politicians, or of army officers, who are also usually of middle-class origin. These politicians and military men may not represent the “collective will’' or the “interests” of their class, as the Marxists would have it, but their policies certainly reflect the attitudes prevalent among people of their middle-class background: specifically, a vigorous nationalism.

Inevitably, this middle-class nationalism expresses itself in resentment against whatever foreign power occupies a dominant position in the economy of the hemisphere. Before World War I r, when British capital still held important positions in the economy of some Latin-American countries, their nationalism was anti-British as much as or even more than anti-American. Through the war, the United States came into a position of undisputed economic and political hegemony over the entire hemisphere, and in consequence, Latin-American nationalism is now directed almost entirely against the United States.


There are, however, varying degrees of nationalism. The leaders of the middle-class parties now in power in a number of Latin-American states are fervent nationalists, some of them with an anti-American record, but they are also responsible statesmen and realists. They recognize that in view of its overwhelming economic and military strength, the United States must inevitably play a leading role in the hemisphere. They also realize that their countries can reap substantial benefit from association with a power of such magnitude. They are willing to accept partnership — but not blind subservience in their foreign policy, or subordination of their domestic policies to the requirements of American business interests. Such is the attitude, for example, of the Mexican and Venezuelan governments, and of President Fernando Belaiinde Terry of Peru and President Frei of Chile.

But there are also more extreme nationalists, who regard any arrangement with the United States as treason. Extreme nationalism is not a mass movement in any Latin-American country, with the possible exception of Cuba, where it is fanned by extensive government propaganda. It is rarely to be found among workers, least of all among those employed by American-owned companies, which usually pay higher wages and provide more social services than any local capitalist does. In most Latin-American countries, extreme nationalism and virulent anti-Americanism are prevalent in certain restricted sectors of the political and intellectual elite: among university and high school students and teachers, lawyers, journalists, writers, and artists. Since the ruling political parties often recruit their leading cadres precisely from these groups, the absence of a mass following does not render extreme nationalism either impotent or innocuous.

Roberto Campos, the Brazilian Alinister of Planning and former ambassador to the United States, recently wrote of the extreme nationalists of his own country that in many respects their “false Brazilian nationalism boils down to hatred of the United States, as if Brazil’s true interest were in direct mathematical proportion to the harm we could cause to the great country in the North.” This blind hatred, as Campos rightly calls it, is aroused by the mere fact of United States political and economic hegemony in Latin America, and not by any particular aspect of United States policy. The extreme nationalists object to any and every policy implemented by the United States. Even when the United States government gave financial support to the Bolivian revolutionary government, which had nationalized the tin mines and carried out the most drastic agrarian reform in the history of the continent, the extreme nationalists only complained that the Bolivians had sold out to the United States.

The aim of the extreme nationalists is nothing less than the destruction of United States power in Latin America. Since no combination of LatinAmerican countries is strong enough to achieve this, the extreme nationalists seek an outside ally — a world power capable of inflicting a military defeat on the United States.

Before and during World War II, Latin-American extreme nationalism sought alliance with Germany and Italy. After the war, its interest was aroused by the new great power which had emerged to challenge the United States in Europe and Asia, the Soviet Union. Extreme nationalism now swung left: it established contact with the Soviet Union’s unofficial Latin-American agents, the Communist parties. The first fruit of their cooperation was the establishment of a coalition government of nationalists and Communists in the Central American republic of Guatemala.

When the Guatemalan government was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored uprising in 1954, indignation swept Latin America. Moderate nationalists like Eduardo Frei of Chile joined the extremists in condemning United States interference in the internal affairs of a Latin-American country.

The Guatemalan affair demonstrated that the time was not yet ripe for the establishment of a Soviet base in the Western Hemisphere. Three years later, a revolutionary innovation in military technology completely changed the situation: the development of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile freed Soviet military power from its restriction to the Eurasian land mass. This at last put Latin America within the range of Soviet aspirations. As early as the spring of 1959, the Soviet Union established contact with Fidel Castro, offering him material support against the United States.

Soviet aid began pouring in, and in 1960 die Soviet government uttered its first, rather cautiously worded threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of an attack on Cuba.


There is some evidence of Russian hesitation and doubt about the wisdom of the Cuban venture. Nevertheless, Russia’s appearance on the Latin-American scene had an electrifying effect on the extreme nationalists; Cuba seemed to them to be the test case which demonstrated the Soviet Union’s ability and readiness to support them in an out-and-out struggle against the United States. They had hitherto been skeptical of the Soviet Union, and in 1956 many of them had condemned Soviet intervention in Hungary. This critical attitude was now supplanted by one of adulation.

There was something utterly artificial about this enthusiasm; it was not accompanied by any genuine desire to observe current events in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. Such fascinating developments as destalinization, the rewriting of Party history, the rehabilitation of many of Stalin’s victims, the new trends in Soviet art and literature, the strains in Soviet relations with the satellites did not arouse the interest of these new admirers of the Soviet Union. Although they could not help taking note of the Sino-Soviet conflict, they failed to recognize its significance, its relevance to Soviet foreign policy, and its effect on the power and cohesion of the bloc. Their lack of discernment was unwise but understandable. To them, the Soviet Union was a military ally, and the real subject of their interest was Soviet nuclear and conventional military capacity.

In the years 1960-1962, numerous extreme nationalists announced their loyalty to the doctrines of Marx and Lenin. Theirs was a very superficial Marxism-Leninism; it amounted to little more than acceptance of Marx’s definition of capitalism as exploitation of man by man, and of Lenin’s formula that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism. There was no serious study of the subject, no interest in current developments.

The unsophisticated observer nevertheless found it impossible to distinguish the extreme nationalists from Party-line Communists. And they were indeed Communists in the sense that they professed belief in Marxism-Leninism, supported Soviet foreign policy, admired the Soviet economic system, and strove to impose a similar system in their own country. But they were not Communists if that term is understood to imply subjection to Communist Party discipline and readiness to implement the policies of the international Communist movement.

The distinction may appear to be mere hairsplitting, yet it is of vital importance to an understanding of the politics of the Latin-American extreme left. Party-line Communists are trained to follow Soviet instructions to the letter, to retreat on order as well as to attack. The extreme nationalists, who call themselves Marxist-Leninists, cannot be relied upon to do so. To them, the Soviet Union is not a leader to whom they owe unconditional allegiance but merely an ally, and even this only so long as Soviet policy is to their liking — that is, one of unrelenting and unceasing hostility to the United States. Fidel Castro is an example of this independence of mind; although completely dependent on Soviet economic and military aid, he has often openly — and sometimes dramatically, as in his refusal to sign the test-ban treaty — registered disagreement with any softening of the Soviet attitude toward the United States.


Castro’s revolutionary strategy for Latin America is diametrically opposed to the strategy of the Communist parties. As expounded in Che Guevara’s book on guerrilla warfare, its three basic principles are that guerrilla bands can defeat a regular army; that by its activities, a guerrilla nucleus can create a revolutionary situation where it is not already in existence; and that the peasants and not the urban workers are the main revolutionary force in underdeveloped Latin America.

A major effort to implement this strategy was made in Venezuela, where nationalist groups were joined by a Communist Party which had seceded from the Soviet fold. In December, 1963, alter a year of guerrilla fighting, sabotage, and terrorism, the Venezuelan people expressed rejection of Castroism and Communism by widespread participation in a presidential election which the leftists had first attempted to prevent and then to boycott. Minor attempts to launch guerrilla campaigns in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina were either nipped in the bud or crushed at an early stage, leaving only scattered guerrilla bands in the mountains.

The Cuban strategy of revolution through guerrilla warfare has thus proved ineffective in countries where conditions are less favorable than they were in Batista’s Cuba. Most Latin-American governments have greater popular support than that of Batista. The armies of such countries as Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru are efficient and have a long fighting tradition; they cannot be as easily demoralized by guerrillas as Batista’s inglorious army. And finally, Castroite doctrine probably overestimates the revolutionary potential of the Latin-American peasantry, for the elements of this group most likely to rebel are constantly being drawn olf to the cities.

The Cuban strategy of guerrilla warfare is attractive to nationalistic youth. The older generation of extreme nationalists know that there are more effective ways of winning political power. They are members of the political elite; among them are influential politicians and even top-ranking army officers. There is, therefore, always the possibility of extreme nationalism coming to power in some Latin-American country through a coup or even by constitutional means. Such was the case in Brazil, where an extreme nationalist, Vice President Joao Goulart, acceded to the presidency in a perfectly constitutional manner alter the voluntary resignation of his predecessor, President Janio Quadros. Goulart was a man of vacillating character, incapable of steering a definite course, but his extremist friends were pushing him toward a revolution of the Cuban type when in March, 1964, he was deposed by an army coup.

At that time the wave of extreme nat ionalism and Communism that had swept Latin America was ebbing. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had been the turning point. The withdrawal of the Soviet missiles and aircraft showed the LatinAmerican extreme nationalists that their entire policy had been based on a miscalculation — an overoptimistic assessment of Soviet possibilities and Soviet intentions. The Soviet Union was not, after all, willing to risk war in order to back a Latin-American revolution. It had only pushed onward as long as the United States permitted it to do so, and had beaten a hasty retreat as soon as the United States showed its strength.


One of the effects of the missile crisis has been to awaken the Latin-American extreme nationalists’ interest in the Sino-Soviet conflict and to swing their sympathies to the Chinese side. Before the missile crisis, they had regarded the SinoSoviet conflict as irrelevant to the Latin-American situation, and Chinese criticism of Soviet foreign policy as unjustified. The Chinese accuse the Soviets of planning to betray the cause of revolution by coming to terms with the United States. This certainly did not seem to apply to the Western Hemisphere, where the Soviet Union was challenging the United States by its support of Cuba. But after the missile crisis fiasco, these accusations appeared to gain in substance.

At the time of the missile crisis, the Communist Party of Venezuela changed over to the strategy of guerrilla warfare. At the same time, it ceased to support the Russians against the Chinese.

In Brazil, a sizable faction broke away from the pro-Soviet Brazilian Communist Party to form a rival Communist Party of Brazil apparently subsidized by the Chinese. A similar split took place in Peru, while minor secessions occurred in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. Poo much importance should not, however, be attached to these events. The Latin-American Communist parties are small and ineffectual; internal dissensions will hardly lead to anything but a further decline.

As for the nationalists, their sympathies for China are likely to remain platonic; they are primarily interested in military strength, not in ideology, and China is not yet nearly strong enough to assert its interests in Latin America through the force of arms.

After the Venezuelan presidential election of December, 1963, and the Brazilian coup of March, 1964, the extreme left suffered a third blow in tlxe spectacular defeat of the Marxist Salvador Allende by the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei in the Chilean presidential election of September, 1964, and Frei’s subsequent victory in the parliamentary elections this March. On all these occasions, the weakness displayed by the leftists was undoubtedly an effect of the missile crisis, which had robbed them of their hope of defeating the United States through alliance with the Soviet Union. The following lesson may be drawn from this.

Economic aid alone is not enough; it must be supplemented by an effective American foreign policy. The Alliance for Progress is the proper way to win the friendship of the moderate nationalists, who today constitute the most important political force in the area, but it cannot disarm the extreme nationalists, who will only continue to denounce it as one more maneuver to perpetuate United States domination.

In themselves, these extreme nationalists may be troublesome to American business interests, but they do not represent a threat to the security of the United States. They become dangerous only through their alliance with the Soviet Union. The aim of American foreign policy in the area must therefore be to persuade the Soviet leaders that Latin America is not within their reach. This cannot be done by inflicting punishment on Central American army colonels, Caribbean adventurers, and other exponents of extreme nationalism while avoiding direct confrontation with the real adversary.

The American policy of harassing the recipients of Soviet arms has not been effective in Latin America or anywhere else. The only effective policy is that of standing up to the donor, to the Soviet Union itself. That was done in the Cuban missile crisis, and the result has been a very marked decline of anti-American extreme nationalism and Communism in the area.