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Castro's reign changed the face of the region

February 23, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — When Fidel Castro and his band of bearded rebels entered Havana just after New Year's Day 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and few questioned American hegemony in Latin America.

Castro soon declared himself a communist, and nearly every government in the region joined the United States in condemning his regime. Two generations and nine U.S. presidents later, Castro is finally stepping down -- widely admired, even if his policies are not widely emulated.

Castro did not win his battle against U.S. "imperialism," a struggle that has impoverished and isolated his people. But he did stick around long enough to see Washington's grip on the region weaken.

His revolution was, in many ways, the defining event of Latin American history in the 20th century, said Lorenzo Meyer, a professor at the College of Mexico here. "There is no other leader who was able to confront the United States for half a century and survive."

For decades, Latin America was one of the front lines in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. As Moscow's ally, Castro's Cuba stood at the opposite end from Washington in the ideological tug of war for the region.

Today, every Latin American government except Cuba's has a democratically elected head of state. Falling trade barriers allow cash and commodities to flow back and forth across the region as never before, and the dollar even circulates as the official currency in El Salvador and Ecuador.

But the United States is far from triumphant. In some places, new players have emerged to challenge its influence, including the oil-rich government of the firebrand Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Even if they do not mirror Castro's policies, many of the region's leaders feel free to look elsewhere to ensure their countries' interests, and embrace the same defiant rhetoric that marked Castro's early career. It was a rhetoric that attacked an "oligarchy" servile to foreign interests, most famously expressed in a 1953 speech Castro made while on trial for a failed uprising against the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

"We were born in a free country that our parents bequeathed to us," Castro said. "And the island will first sink into the sea before we consent to being the slaves of anyone."

The improbable triumph of Castro's rebels over Batista less than six years later inspired a generation of young men and women to mimic his guerrilla campaign. Cuba offered funding and training for their efforts, most of which were quixotic failures.

Castro's agents funded small guerrilla bands in Argentina, Peru and other countries that were quickly crushed. His closest collaborator, the Argentine doctor Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was killed in a disastrous attempt to launch a "continental revolution" in Bolivia.

Still, Castro's survival just across the Straits of Florida changed political calculations across the region.

"For Latin America, the steps taken by the Cuban Revolution were a clear example that change was possible," said Jose Gabriel Vazeilles, a Buenos Aires historian.

The Cuban regime, while imprisoning dissidents and constructing a one-party state, also built model education and health programs.

The Kennedy administration responded with the Alliance for Progress, a mini New Deal designed to address poverty and illiteracy and promote land reform. Billions of dollars in aid poured southward.

To stop the spread of Castro's "communist menace" to other countries, the U.S. backed some of the most violent dictatorships in the region's history, including the military government responsible for 10,000 deaths in Argentina in the 1970s and '80s. The CIA orchestrated a campaign to undermine the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, a Castro ally who was overthrown in a 1973 coup.

Chile's new military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, adopted free-market polices of the "Chicago school" of economics. By the time he left power in 1990, Chile had South America's most vibrant economy.

But other countries failed badly in attempts to implement the economic and political reforms backed by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund. Argentina's economy collapse in 2001-02, and Bolivia's attempts to privatize its economy sparked popular uprisings that eventually brought to power to Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian with radical roots.

At the same time, the Soviet Union's collapse robbed Castro of money, power and influence, and in the early 1990s he had to implement modest economic reforms just to survive.

The United States unquestionably remains the most powerful force in the region, and some Latin American countries have sought to tie their economic fortunes directly to their northern neighbor. Mexico and Chile negotiated free-trade agreements with the U.S.; Panama, Colombia and other countries are seeking to do the same.

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