Weekly Digest 9/21/2020

While pandemic news remains relevant and important, there are several more news items this week, from fields as disparate as contemporary politics and historical slavery. In this week’s digest, we’ll look at COVID-19 updates, the Peruvian impeachment process, and a unique discovery off the coast of Mexico.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, many parts of Latin America have reopened economies and begun a transition back to normalcy. While the region has enacted long and stringent lockdowns, the number and rate of cases remains high; World Health Organization leaders are asking national officials not to relax restrictions before COVID-19 is under control in their countries. According to the WHO’s Regional Director, Carissa Etienne, rates of both infection and death are still rising in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and parts of Argentina and Mexico.1 Evidence that a cluster of cases can become a national spike in a matter of days can be seen in the fact that Latin America already accounts for roughly a third of the cases and deaths caused by COVID-19 globally.2

There are political news items from multiple countries this week, as both Haiti and Peru face legislative and administrative decisions. In Haiti, President Jovenel Moise has tapped a nine-person committee to oversee upcoming elections and design a referendum regarding the powers of the country’s executive branch. Moise has come under fire in recent months for failing to stamp out corruption in his country, and he has responded with a call for strengthened presidential powers in order to achieve his goals.3 However, critics fear that a stronger executive will bring back the days of the Duvalier family’s ironclad rule over the country—a major reason for the weakening of the executive branch in the late 20th century. Elections have not yet been scheduled for the country; speculation exists that the referendum will be completed before elections occur, but that has not been confirmed.

In Peru, meanwhile, the impeachment saga of President Martín Vizcarra has come to an end—at least for now. For more information on the background of the impeachment proceedings, check out last week’s digest. Vizcarra faced a vote last Friday that could have removed him from office. However, in the end, less than a third of the country’s 125 legislators voted to remove him, with 78 voting against the motion and 15 abstaining. Removal from office required a two-thirds majority vote. Still, Vizcarra’s position is tenuous, as lawmakers continued to blast his record and show concern over the mismanagement of government funds; the failure to remove him from office seems to be chalked up more to a desire for stability and less to a belief in Vizcarra’s competence. Said Francisco Sagasti, one of the “no” voters, “It’s not the moment to proceed with an impeachment which would add even more problems to the tragedy we are living.”4 Time will tell if the people’s faith in Vizcarra changes in the coming months.

International relations remain a key focus as well. Uruguay, which has handled the pandemic well and limited the spread of COVID-19 within its borders, has seen a large influx of people seeking refuge—and permanent citizenship. Most notably, Argentinians seem to be flocking to their northeastern neighbor in droves, with wealthy Argentine citizens now comprising a shockingly large proportion of the Uruguayan population. In the last six months, some 15,000 to 20,000 Argentinians have moved to Uruguay, roughly equivalent to 0.6% of Uruguay’s 3.5 million population.5 Uruguay is offering its new residents decade-long tax holidays and encouraging migration, which is aided by the country’s high standard of living and excellent coronavirus response. After the pandemic is handled worldwide, it will be worth monitoring to see if these new Uruguayans return to their original homes or stay in their new country.

Uruguay and Argentina hybrid.png
A compilation of the Uruguay and Argentina flags. Source: Bearas – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10643200

Finally, a news item comes from Mexico, where a historical relic has been identified definitively. A shipwreck found in 2017 off the Yucatan Peninsula has been confirmed as a steamboat known as La Unión, which wrecked in 1861.6 The ship was known to be a slave trade vessel—it carried a about 25 enslaved Mayans to Cuba every month, where the people would be forced to work on sugarcane plantations. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, it is the first wreck ever discovered and confirmed to be a Mayan slave ship. Despite Mexico outlawing slavery in 1829, the kidnapping and deportation of Mayan people continued for decades, with victims being sold into slavery in Cuba and other Spanish holdings. La Unión sank after an explosion in its boiler room, which killed half of the 80 crew members and 60 passengers on board. It is unclear how many Mayans were killed in the explosion and sinking, as these people were on the manifest as cargo, not as human passengers.

  1. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/warns-latin-america-reopening-covid-19-risk-200916204647738.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/19/latin-america-covid-coronavirus-warnings
  3. https://news.yahoo.com/haiti-moves-closer-constitutional-referendum-183102748.html
  4. https://apnews.com/3f875e7ac9c1e520492bca385601c5f0
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/20/uruguay-argentina-coronavirus-pandemic
  6. https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/19/americas/mexico-mayan-slave-ship-trnd/index.html

PBSuccess: The 1954 Guatemalan Coup

The list of U.S.-backed, -led, and -sponsored coups in Latin America is lengthy and bloody. In one example from 1954, the United States intervened in the decade-old Guatemalan Revolution, deposing a popular and democratically elected leader in favor of a dictator who would be friendly to U.S. business interests. The following is a short recap of the 1954 coup, codenamed PBSuccess.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Guatemala was a haven for coffee and fruit companies headquartered in the United States. By bankrolling a series of rulers, corporations like the United Fruit Company (UFC) encouraged legislation that reduced UFC’s taxes, allowed it to take over land that had been forcibly taken from indigenous peoples, and granted UFC a de facto monopoly over banana exports from the country.1 In 1944, the people of Guatemala rose up against their government, toppling President Jorge Ubico, who had enjoyed U.S. support in exchange for allowing U.S. corporations to dominate his country’s economic affairs. After Ubico fled the country, the three-man junta he left to rule in his stead also fell in the October Revolution. By the end of 1944, the country was in the hands of Juan José Arévalo, who was mostly conservative but far less repressive than his predecessors.2

Juan José Arévalo - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre
Juan José Arévalo, the first democratically elected President of Guatemala.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juan_jose_arevalo_bermejo_large.jpg

Elected by a majority in the country’s first free elections since independence, Arévalo implemented a number of reforms that cemented his popularity. Among the most notable changes under his administration were a minimum wage and an expansion of suffrage rights that made Guatemala more democratic.3 In 1949, Arévalo and his defense minister Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán defeated a major coup attempt, one of roughly two dozen attempted coups during his presidency. In 1951, Árbenz won the presidency and took over from Arévalo in a peaceful transfer of power.4 It would be the country’s final peaceful transition in three decades.

Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán
Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, the Guatemalan President considered too communist for the United States. Source: https://aprende.guatemala.com/historia/personajes/presidente-jacobo-arbenz-guzman-1951-1954/

Among the top items of Árbenz’s platform were sweeping land reforms designed to help peasants who owned no land. Soon after his election, he enacted a major reform that transferred plots of land from large landholders to smaller farmers, ensuring popularity among peasants but immediately running afoul of the corporations and their huge fruit plantations.5 This act—cast in the United States as full-fledged communist revolution—earned Árbenz the support of the Guatemalan Party of Labor (PGT), a communist political party. In the midst of the Cold War and fearing a communist revolution that might spread to Mexico or Panama, the United States took notice of Árbenz and the Guatemalan reforms. UFC was faced with the prospect of selling its land to the government at the same rate the company declared for tax purposes, but as UFC had consistently underreported value to avoid higher taxes, the company resisted the sale. Meanwhile, UFC’s profits dropped significantly after they were barred from some exploitative labor practices, prompting the corporation to lobby U.S. officials for intervention in Guatemala.6

As early as the spring of 1952, U.S. President Harry Truman authorized a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mission to overthrow Árbenz. It was delayed for months and eventually canceled, but the basic premise remained when Dwight Eisenhower took office.7 Sensing that Eisenhower wanted to develop a firm stance against communism, CIA Director Allen Dulles persuaded Eisenhower to move forward with the plan in 1953. Dulles intentionally inflated Árbenz’s communist leanings and persuaded Eisenhower that the Guatemalan leader was surrounded by communist advisors. CIA operatives planned Operation PBSuccess in a matter of several weeks, with the official launch date set for August of 1954.8 The operation hinged on a small force of fewer than 500 men under a Guatemalan military officer, Carlos Castillo Armas. Castillo Armas also received U.S. aircraft and funding for hundreds of mercenaries to participate in the attack.

Secret Agents, Secret Armies: The Spy Who Captured an Army | The National  WWII Museum | New Orleans
CIA Director Allen Dulles, who played a major role in approving the 1954 coup. Source: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/wwii-spy-allen-dulles

This force landed in Guatemala on June 18, 1954, supported by aircraft and a naval blockade of the country. While the military operation met with limited success, the psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns were much more effective. Radio announcements intended to weaken Árbenz’s government planted seeds of doubt among the army’s soldiers, while a propaganda radio station broadcast untrue reports of invaders’ military successes.9 Diplomatic pressures on neighboring countries, especially Mexico, prevented them from coming to Guatemala’s aid, while the threat of direct U.S. intervention cowed military officers. Despite initial success against the forces of Castillo Armas, the Guatemalan army stood down after just a few days of fighting. As a last resort, Árbenz attempted to arm civilians to resist the invasion, drawing on his robust support, especially among the peasant class.10 Failing to acquire the needed arms and munitions, though, he resigned on June 27, less than ten days after the launch of the invasion. Operation PBSuccess was, well, a success. Castillo Armas would take over as president in early July, reestablishing the precedent of U.S.-backed dictators that would plague the country for decades.11

The international community quickly condemned the coup, which pushed many nations away from the U.S. diplomatically. Anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, in particular, grew much stronger as a result of the operation, which indirectly led to further coups in other nations in an attempt to curb communist influence in the Americas.12 To justify its actions, the CIA launched another mission, Operation PBHistory, in an effort to find evidence of Soviet meddling in Guatemala before U.S. involvement. This operation ended in failure, as no evidence ever came to light, casting the U.S. as an even more dangerous aggressor.13

A map showing U.S.-backed coups and attempted coups in Latin America. Source: Zacherymoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90872331

In Guatemala, the coup terminated what had been a young but blossoming democratic society. Castillo Armas quickly assumed the role of dictator. He immediately ended the social reforms of Árbenz and Arévalo; he also abducted and tortured hundreds of political opponents. Political parties were banned in the country, as well.14 A civil war launched immediately, with left-leaning guerilla fighters drawing on strong popular support to wage an ongoing war with government forces. Castillo Armas and the later U.S.-backed dictators would fight brutally, with some turning to the genocide of indigenous Maya peoples, with U.S. participation.15 In the end, some 200,000 or more Guatemalans died in the Guatemalan Civil War, which finally ended in 1996, more than 30 years after it began. Ultimately, the United Fruit Company’s profits continued to decline, resulting in the company’s merger with AMK to become the United Brands Company; today, UFC’s legacy lives on in the popular Chiquita brand.

  1. Walter LaFeber. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, 76-77.
  2. Stephen M. Streeter. Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961, 12-13.
  3. Streeter, 14-15.
  4. Piero Gleijeses. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954, 73-84.
  5. Richard H. Immerman. The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, 64-67.
  6. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, 72-77.
  7. Gleijeses, 59-69.
  8. Schlesinger and Kinzer, 106-107.
  9. Immerman, 165.
  10. Max Gordon, “A Case History of U. S. Subversion: Guatemala, 1954,” in Science and Society (Summer 1971).
  11. Immerman, 173-178.
  12. Schlesinger and Kinzer, 215-219.
  13. Immerman, 185.
  14. Immerman, 198-201.
  15. https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-12-29/why-you-need-know-about-guatemalas-civil-war

Weekly Digest 9/14/2020

Welcome back to the weekly digest of Latin American news! I apologize again for the lack of posts in the last two weeks—I accepted and started a new job and moved halfway across the country, and unfortunately Everything You Never Know about Latin America just sort of slipped through the cracks. This week should mark a return to twice-weekly posts. In addition to coverage regarding COVID-19, stories from this week include the discovery of mammoth skeletons in Mexico, an impeachment process in Peru, and a new development in the status of Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

First, COVID-19 has infected at least 8 million people in Latin America, more than half of them in Brazil. Some 300,000 or more people in Latin America have died as a direct result of the pandemic. Worldwide, nearly 900,000 people have died from COVID-19.1 However, in better news, the rate of infection in the region’s hardest-hit countries (Brazil, Mexico, and Peru) has slowed in the last week. As economies falter and nations grapple with the fallout from the public health crisis, Latin America hopes to have turned a corner in the fight against the coronavirus.

In Mexico, an ongoing political dispute has led to the death of one protestor and the serious injury of that protestor’s husband. As it has since the signing of a 1944 agreement with the United States, Mexico sends a large amount of water to its northern neighbor every year. This year, facing a water shortage of their own and in danger of missing an October deadline for water deliveries, the Mexican government is drawing heavily from local reservoirs in the northwestern part of the country, like the state of Chihuahua. For months, protestors have attempted to shut down water deliveries and prevent National Guards from enforcing the government mandate. This week, National Guards arrested three protestors accused of having tear gas canisters and handgun ammunition. During transit to a local town, the troops came under fire and fired back, killing one woman and wounding her husband severely.2 The Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, condemned the killings and announced the start of an investigation, while Chihuahua’s governor defended peaceful protestors and stated that the couple had been attacked by government forces.

In other Mexican news, a large trove of mammoth skeletons has been discovered in a Mexico City construction site. Experts have unearthed at least 200 mammoth skeletons, as well as the bones of smaller creatures like horses.3 Whether the mammoths died of natural causes or from the efforts of early humans remains unclear, but it does seem that the human inhabitants of the region made use of smaller bones and carcasses for tools, clothing, and other implements. Paleontologists hope that by studying the remains, they will find more information about what led to the extinction of the huge mammals.

In Peru, a years-long corruption scandal entered new territory this week, as the Peruvian Congress has begun impeachment proceedings against President Martín Vizcarra. Vizcarra is accused of corruption and poor use of government funds, with the ongoing economic downturn caused by COVID-19 serving as stark contrast for recent government contracts.4 This week’s release of a tape seeming to show Vizcarra discussing options for covering up the alleged malfeasance is the flashpoint for impeachment proceedings. The charge against Vizcarra is “moral incapacity,” and if he is removed from office, he will be the second consecutive Peruvian President to leave office early, as Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard resigned in 2018 following allegations of corruption and vote buying.5

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra. File photo
Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54127230

Finally, the Human Rights Watch organization alleges that Bolivia’s interim government is engaging in a campaign of legal sanctions against former president Evo Morales and his supporters. Morales, who was pushed out of his position and exiled late in 2019, faces a charge of terrorism for a phone call with supporters in which he allegedly urged protestors to prevent access to Bolivia’s capital of La Paz. Supporters of Morales face similar charges for speaking with him on the phone and for opposing governmental policies in 2020.6 The Human Rights Watch report accuses Interim President Jeanine Áñez and her supporters of overseeing an offensive of dubious legality targeting over 100 of Morales’s supporters. Such an accusation comes as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the Bolivian economy and society, and as elections have been postponed twice.7 Áñez, who enjoys the support of the United States, promised not to run in the new election, but reversed course, and now finds herself polling in third place far behind Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism Party, which polls at 26%.

  1. https://in.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-latam/latin-america-passes-8-million-coronavirus-cases-reuters-tally-idUKKBN2613MB
  2. https://apnews.com/c65277c05109d7f1d93df44526d9fe8e
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/mammoth-skeletons-bones-mexico-city-airport-remains-a9706466.html
  4. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54127230
  5. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-11/peru-president-says-opponents-seeking-to-remove-him-from-power
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/11/bolivia-justice-system-evo-morales-allies-human-rights-watch-report
  7. https://www.france24.com/en/20200723-bolivian-elections-postponed-again-due-to-covid-19-this-time-until-october?fbclid=IwAR3yA40gSnB-ktuaLupwI6NV8kyAXaBqIBOldRpLxZPjo1arW-oWsRxUE7Q

In Response to the Shooting of Jacob Blake

Just days ago, American police shot yet another Black man, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Jacob Blake remains hospitalized, but multiple people who protested against his shooting are dead, killed by a teenage terrorist who has since been charged with murder. This week, I don’t feel that my voice is the one that needs to be heard. Instead, I am recommending a number of excellent pieces on this topic, both directly related to Jacob Blake’s shooting and the general topic of police violence.

For coverage of what happened on August 23, 2020, the day Jacob Blake was shot:

For coverage of what happened on August 25, 2020, the day a 17-year-old terrorist shot protestors:

For responses to the Jacob Blake shooting from the sports and cultural perspective:

For an overall assessment of the police and white supremacist violence pandemic:

For an overview of Black Lives Matter and responses to police and white supremacist violence:

Note that this post will be updated as more pieces and links are recommended.

Weekly Digest 8/24/2020

This week’s digest is another short one, as non-pandemic news is slow in the region. In addition to coverage regarding COVID-19, stories from this week cover a tragedy in a Peru nightclub and additional dangerous weather in the Caribbean.

Latin America is still the region most affected by COVID-19. This week, the region passed yet another negative milestone, with more than a quarter million deaths caused by the virus. Over the last week, more than 3,000 Latin Americans have died from COVID-19 each day—more than 1,000 Brazilians and 600 Mexicans on average.1 Other countries like Argentina and Colombia escaped high death tolls in the first Latin American wave, but as their economies have reopened infection rates have climbed higher. The health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are difficult to quantify, but in recent weeks protests have erupted from Panama to Bolivia. Last week, more than 25,000 people marched in Buenos Aires, Argentina, protesting the ongoing lockdowns and economic stagnation as well as the government’s plans for judicial reform.2 Protests have occurred sporadically over the last month in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Panama, among other countries.

Protesters in cars drive along 9 de Julio Avenue waving flags in Buenos Aires on Monday.
Protestors in Buenos Aires waved flags and blocked highways. Source: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/americas/latam-covid-19-protests-intl/index.html

In Peru, which remains one of the region’s hardest-hit countries behind Brazil, COVID-19 indirectly caused several additional deaths this week. A nightclub in the Peruvian capital of Lima resisted the government’s COVID-19 regulations and continued to operate without regard to social distancing policies. Police raided the Thomas Restobar club on the night Saturday, August 22nd, attempting to close the club for violating governmental orders to remain closed. However, in the panic that ensued, several partygoers attempted to escape the nightclub through a single door, resulting in 13 deaths and another 6 people suffering injuries.3 Police did not use tear gas or any weapons, but in the rush to leave, several clubbers were pinned between an exit door and a staircase. Government officials like Rosario Sasieta, Peru’s women’s minister, have called for substantial punishments as they seek to hold the nightclub owners responsible for violating public health orders.

However, not all of this week’s COVID-19 news is negative. In an effort to ensure that COVID-19 treatments are available for poor and rural Latin Americans, Mexico and Argentina are partnering with AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine. Details on the agreement are sparse, but Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the collaboration last week.4 This vaccine would also draw on funding from Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico and former richest man in the world, and would ensure ready access to the vaccine for Latin Americans. López Obrador, meanwhile, has come under indirect fire this week, as his anti-corruption campaign might have stalled because of his brother. The Mexican President has been vocal about rooting out corruption in his country, but leaked videos showed his brother receiving money from a former advisor who became Mexico’s Civil Protection Agency.5 López Obrador confirmed that the videos would be investigated but has stated that the cash from the video was from campaign fundraising efforts.

López Obrador. Source: Agencia de Noticias, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68477084

The tropical storm season continues in the Caribbean, where Tropical Storm Laura and Hurricane Marco threaten residents. Marco has already dumped several inches of rainfall on Caribbean islands and is making its way into the Gulf of Mexico, while Laura just hit the island of Hispaniola yesterday and is projected to carry on into the Gulf later this week.6 At this time, reports on damage and casualties remain sparse.

  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-latam/latin-america-passes-250000-death-toll-from-covid-19-idUSKBN25G2QQ
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/americas/latam-covid-19-protests-intl/index.html
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/coronavirus-peru-nightclub-crush-deaths-police-social-distancing-a9684046.html
  4. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/17/903291126/mexico-and-argentina-team-up-to-produce-coronavirus-vaccine-for-latin-america
  5. https://www.voanews.com/americas/mexican-president-defends-brother-receiving-cash-supporter
  6. https://news.yahoo.com/twin-tropical-storms-menace-caribbean-163447337.html

The 1973 Chilean Coup

“¡Viva Chile! ¡Viva el pueblo! ¡Vivan los trabajadores!” As his speech neared its end, Chilean President Salvador Allende cemented his legacy as a martyr for the people of his country. “Long live Chile! Long live the country! Long live the workers!”1 Within hours, he would be dead, and his country would be ruled by a right-wing military junta. The following is a highly condensed retelling of the 1973 coup d’état.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ongoing Cold War entered a new phase in which the United States and Soviet Union each tried to exert influence on nations outside of their existing blocs, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa. Another proxy battleground was Latin America, with military and economic intervention taking place on a grand scale in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay between 1964 and 1976.2 U.S. participation in these incidents paved the way for Operation Condor, a campaign of repression and terror involving intelligence operations and the assassination of political opponents headed by right-wing governments in South America and funded by the U.S. Operation Condor will be the topic of a future post on this site.

Operation Condor | Multimedia | teleSUR English
The graphic above, which comes from TeleSur, details the massive toll Operation Condor tool on several South American nations. Source: https://www.telesurenglish.net/multimedia/Operation-Condor-20161219-0022.html

The 1970 Presidential election in Chile featured three main candidates: Salvador Allende, a socialist of the Popular Front alliance; Jorge Alessandri, a former president and independent of the right-wing National Party alliance; and Radomiro Tomic, of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. The CIA spent large sums of money on anti-Allende advertisements, while the KGB attempted to bolster Allende’s chances.3 The results of the election were fiercely contested and no candidate won an outright majority, meaning that the Chilean legislature would be tasked with selecting the next President from between Allende and Alessandri, who had finished first and second, respectively. Three events convinced the legislature to confirm the retired physician Allende. First, Alessandri announced that if he was selected he would resign so that the previous President, Eduardo Frei, could retain the office—incumbents were not allowed to seek reelection, so this would have skirted the laws governing the Chilean government.4 Second, René Schneider, the commander-in-chief of Chile’s army, was badly wounded during a kidnapping attempt just days before the legislature convened to select the next President. Schneider was a strict constitutionalist who had objected to plans to overthrow Allende should the latter be elected, and his kidnapping had been sanctioned by the CIA.5 This botched kidnapping (Schneider would die of his wounds the day after Allende was confirmed) turned public opinion in Allende’s favor. Third, Allende agreed to sign a “Statute of Constitutional Guarantees,” in which he promised not to weaken or violate the Chilean Constitution. This guarantee in hand, Chile’s legislature appointed South America’s first democratically elected Marxist President.6

The first year of this government went smoothly, with Allende building a fairly broad coalition and passing some reforms, but without the mandate to produce transformational policies. By the end of 1972, though, Allende faced strikes and growing inflation due to unrest and diplomatic, economic, and covert pressure prompted by the United States.7 Still, Allende’s Popular Front alliance of political parties collected more than 43% of the vote in March 1973’s congressional elections. The continued growth and popularity of the socialist parties pushed away the Christian Democrats, who had partnered with Allende since the beginning of his term.8 By the middle of 1973 the executive branch could no longer effectively enforce laws and Allende feared assassination.

A photo of Allende taken soon after his election to President. Source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10899068

On June 29, 1973, Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper attempted to oust Allende with his tank regiment. The coup attempt failed after Allende called on the public and new commander-in-chief General Carlos Prats to quash the rebellion.9 Although Prats acquitted himself well in stopping the coup, he soon lost support from much of the army and the public for refusing to participate in further coup attempts On August 22, the legislature charged the Allende government with violating numerous sections of the Constitution. While Allende refuted the allegations, he was forced to reshuffle his cabinet, including removing Prats from his position, and those opposing his presidency grew bolder. General Augusto Pinochet succeeded Prats as Defense Minister and Army Commander on August 24, 1973.10 He would command the forces of another coup, to be launched just weeks later.

Starting at 7:00 a.m. on September 11, the Chilean military began its takeover of the country, cutting communications and taking over television stations in addition to taking prisoners of Allende’s political allies. By 8:30 that morning, Allende and a few advisors had retreated to the interior of the presidential mansion, where—despite evidence that the entire military establishment was involved in the coup—Allende refused to resign from his position. He also refused suggestions from his advisors to escape and return later at the head of a counter-coup, insisting on maintaining peaceful revolution rather than armed socialism. Soon after 9:00, Allende addressed his nation for the last time.11 Military forces stormed the presidential palace soon after, with Allende’s body being discovered after several hours of occupation. The military claimed that Allende committed suicide to avoid being detained and likely tortured by military forces, but a top-secret account discovered in 2010 suggests that the President was killed and then staged so that his death looked like a suicide.12

Golpe de Estado 1973.jpg
A photograph showing the bombing of La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. Source: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, CC BY 3.0 cl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16325488

The consequences of the coup were disastrous for the people of Chile. The ruling junta, headed by the directors of the military branches as well as the national police, was dominated for years by Pinochet. The new government restricted political freedoms, and ended elections, which would remain forbidden for 15 years.13 Many Chileans who resisted the junta moved to other countries, but thousands could not leave their country and suffered kidnapping, torture, rape, and execution. The Rettig Report, a document from the period after new elections were held, contested that 2,279 people who disappeared during the military dictatorship were killed for political reasons or as a result of political violence, while 31,947 suffered torture.14 This link has graphic descriptions of the tortures and punishments everyday Chileans faced.

The role of the United States in the 1973 coup is still hotly debated. The CIA was involved in ongoing efforts to destabilize Allende’s government, and it clearly supported Pinochet’s rule after the overthrow of Allende. The U.S. government had even created its own plans for a coup, although it was unable to implement those plans before the Chilean military acted.15 Pinochet ushered Chile towards a leadership role in Operation Condor and pursued closer ties with American businessmen and economists. Other observers content that Australia played a role in the coup, as well, but this assertion has its own doubters.16

Pinochet (left) shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976. Source: Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores ([1]), CC BY 2.0 cl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30547377

Regardless of the level of involvement the U.S. or Australia had in the Chilean coup, the incident devastated the South American country for decades. Today, September 11 is commemorated in Chile with moments of silence, although those of right-wing leanings tend to celebrate the anniversary of the coup.17 The 50th anniversary of the attack on Allende will be in 2023, and it will be worth watching to see how the nation responds to the occasion.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC8UirZLCZQ
  2. Hal Brands, Latin America’s Cold War (2010).
  3. Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005), 69-88.
  4. https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/chile/index.html#5
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20040807200347/http://cbsnews.cbs.com/stories/2000/09/11/world/main232452.shtml
  6. Peter A. Goldberg, “The Politics of the Allende Overthrow in Chile,” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 90, No. 1, 98.
  7. https://web.archive.org/web/20161009185456/http://santiagotimes.cl/2014/05/26/new-declassified-files-shed-light-us-role-ousting-allende/
  8. https://web.archive.org/web/20071109051221/http://www.latercera.cl/medio/articulo/0,0,38035857_178048856_151840547,00.html
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20041013002715/http://literature.rebelyouth.ca/educhile_1970s/tanquetazo.html
  10. https://web.archive.org/web/20071109051221/http://www.latercera.cl/medio/articulo/0,0,38035857_178048856_151840547,00.html
  11. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/chile-coup-santiago-allende-social-democracy-september-11-2
  12. http://archive.boston.com/news/science/articles/2011/05/31/chile_tv_secret_report_suggests_allende_murdered/
  13. https://web.archive.org/web/20071112203321/http://economist.com/countries/chile/profile.cfm?folder=History+in+brief
  14. https://www.usip.org/publications/1990/05/truth-commission-chile-90
  15. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/allende
  16. https://www.sbs.com.au/theother911/
  17. http://www.revistas.unam.mx/index.php/rmcpys/article/view/47708/42898

Weekly Digest 8/17/2020

This week, the digest takes on the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including economic effects and a brain drain in Latin America. In addition, protests in Chile continue, while an investigation into a former Mexican president has kicked off.

Latin America remains the hardest-hit region in terms of both COVID-19 positive cases and fatalities. This week, the region crested another milestone, with six million reported cases.1 It took the region 11 days to climb from five million to six million, while it took 12 days to reach five million from four million. Brazil still dominates the region as far as cases, with well over three million positive tests and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus. Brazil’s neighbor Peru, though, now has the highest proportion of deaths caused by COVID-19, with Chile following close behind. About .06% of Peru’s population, and .05% of Chile’s, have died from COVID-19, with more than 1.5% and 2% of the total population infected, respectively.2 All these updates come as various nations in the region attempt to stabilize economies and reopen schools, but the situation in South America remains dangerous.

The scientific and economic effects of COVID-19 remain alarming, too. Researchers have found that many Mexican doctors and scientists are leaving the region for better opportunities elsewhere, in large part prompted by the pandemic. As the novel coronavirus reached the Americas, researchers at a laboratory in Mexico converted their workspace into a diagnostic clinic, helping the country’s find and treat infected patients. But as time went by, they saw their budgets slashed to a point where their labs could no longer function. In May, the National Council of Science and Technology requested that scientists donate a federal supplement to help their country fight COVID-19, further restricting their economic gains and leading some to search for employment elsewhere.3 Similar patterns in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia have resulted in scientists seeking opportunities in other industries or regions. This development comes as many Latin American and Caribbean countries face massive hits to trade and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At a recent virtual meeting of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), executive secretary Alicia Barcena said that the Latin America and Caribbean bloc was “facing the worst crisis in a century.” She went on to state: “GDP is forecast to contract by 9.1%, poverty will increase 37.3% to reach 231 million people, some 98 million people will live in extreme poverty and run the risk of suffering hunger, because they will not be able to cover their basic food intake needs, and unemployment will rise to around 13.5%.”4 However, not all nations face the same economic struggles or are confronting them the same way. In Brazil, where the coronavirus has ravaged citizens’ health, the economic repercussions are somewhat muted. Economists note that the Brazilian government’s decisions to keep the economy open or to reopen it earlier than its neighbors, which have contributed to the spike in cases that make it the hardest-hit country other than the United States, has made its recession less impactful.5 The trade-off of public health and economic growth is an unenviable one, and it will be worth watching Brazil’s COVID-19 rates and economic statistics as the year goes on.

Students protest against a cut in the education budget at Ecuador’s Central University on 5 May. Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

At the beginning of August, members of the Mapuche—an indigenous group in southern Chile—protested the holding of one of their leaders by Chilean officials. Those protests were met with violence from citizens in the area, but the story received little news coverage then. In fact, I only learned about the incidents last week, so the following is belated coverage of that news story. In recent months, the Chilean government has allowed several prisoners to serve terms under house arrest in order to avoid the confined spaces of prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. One prisoner, Celestino Cordova, is serving a sentence for an act of arson that killed an elderly couple; his request for transfer to house arrest through the end of the pandemic was denied, which prompted him to engage in a hunger strike. Those who support his request have peacefully occupied governmental buildings in the southern regions of Chile, and the case has overlapped with protests over inequality and economic hardships. On August 1, one of those peaceful protests was attacked by local civilians in concert with the Araucania’s Ultra-Right Group (APRA), resulting in the burning of an indigenous monument.6 Chilean police officers called in to keep the protests peaceful watched from afar, even as the anti-Mapuche crowd set fire to vehicles. Over the last couple of weeks, protests have continued, with the UN recently sending a fact-finding mission to the area to investigate the violence.7

Protestors supporting Cordova and other community members hold signs. File: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Finally, the Mexican government announced that former President Enrique Peña Nieto was the target of a corruption investigation. Prosecutors opened the investigation following a tip from a former energy executive, who claimed that Peña Nieto took millions of dollars in bribes and played a role in bribing other government officials. Peña Nieto served as the country’s president from 2012-2018 and has been accused of taking bribes from people associated with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, although he has denied all allegations of corruption.8 Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran on a platform of ending corruption, and ending governmental bribes has been a consistent issue for his administration. López Obrador has stated that he does not support charging Peña Nieto with a crime, as he fears it would destabilize the country, but that he would support any decisions made by the country’s attorney general.

  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-latinamerica/latin-americas-coronavirus-cases-exceed-6-million-idUSKCN25B08B
  2. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/peru-surpasses-500-000-coronavirus-cases-marks-highest-death-toll-in-latin-america
  3. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/we-re-losing-entire-generation-scientists-covid-19-s-economic-toll-hits-latin-america
  4. https://theloadstar.com/pandemic-creates-worst-crisis-in-a-century-for-latin-america-and-caribbean-trade/
  5. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-13/brazil-latin-america-s-covid-hotbed-leads-its-economic-rebound
  6. https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/chile-civilians-attack-mapuches-with-carabineros-complicity-20200802-0001.html
  7. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/chile-probes-mapuche-leader-hunger-strike-unrest-200815173724884.html
  8. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-53746715

The Treaty of Tordesillas

In last week’s overview of Carnival, I noted that the celebration had different spellings in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the world. I received a question asking why some parts of Latin America spoke Spanish while others spoke Portuguese (not to mention why English, French, Dutch, and other European languages are also prevalent). The roots of this distinction can be traced to the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, which theoretically divided the non-European world between the two powers of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal.

File:Galleon-spanish.jpg
A Spanish galleon, as would have been used to transport men and goods across the sea in the 1500s. Thyes / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0); https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Galleon-spanish.jpg

In the late 15th century, Spain and Portugal were the dominant maritime powers of Europe. Other nations had navies and plans for expansion, but the Portuguese had established trading posts in Africa and were expanding into Asia, while the Spanish sought new trade routes across the Atlantic. In that context, Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the west provided the Spanish with a counterbalance to the Portuguese overseas empire to the east.1 While neither Spain nor Portugal knew what the lands of the Americas held at the time, both saw the region as a potentially valuable place to expand their empires, prompting diplomatic conflicts when both claimed lands in the so-called New World.

In 1493, after Columbus returned to Spain to inform his employers that he had “discovered” land on his voyage, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella petitioned the Pope for exclusive rights to settle and colonize the lands Columbus had claimed. Pope Alexander VI was Spanish-born and supportive of the monarchs’ claim, so he granted Spain dominion over all lands more than 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. He also granted them all lands belonging to India that might be discovered in the future in this papal bull, known as the Inter caetera.2 While the Portuguese were not explicitly named in the document, they were assumed to dominate any land east of the established line and west of India–namely, Africa. The Portuguese protested this line of demarcation, insisting that it prevented them from sailing wide around West Africa to reach the distant parts of their empire in southern Africa.3 Following a meeting in the northwestern Spanish city of Tordesillas, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to move the line west by another 270 leagues. This new line would be approved by Pope Julius II in 1506.

A map of the Atlantic showing the two lines signifying the borders between empires. Source: https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Tordesillas

The Inter caetera, as well as the later Treaty of Tordesillas, was vague but demonstrably pro-Spanish. Columbus’s voyage had found land, true enough, but the geography of this new landmass remained largely unknown in Europe. Pope Alexander VI’s line was intended to grant Spain dominion over all the new territories that would eventually be mapped in the Americas, but further exploration and the amendment of the agreement would result in the Americas being split. After additional voyages, it would be discovered that the original line separating west from east, or Spanish from Portuguese, gave the Portuguese a sliver of Brazilian coast while granting the Spanish the rest of the Americas. After the line was moved to the west, much more of Brazil became Portuguese territory, although the border was impossible to trace through the dense Amazon growth.4 In the 1700s, the two nations signed a further agreement granting Portuguese control of Brazil and acknowledging Spanish rule over the Philippines.5

In many ways, the Treaty of Tordesillas laid the groundwork for the cultural landscape of Latin America today, and its effects go far beyond the Spanish and Portuguese presence in the Americas. Brazil, a Portuguese colony for centuries before its independence, is the only South American country with Portuguese as an official language. Most other countries on the continent speak Spanish, although Suriname, Guyana, and French Guyana are exceptions because of their colonization by other European countries. Mozambique, Angola, Goa, Macau, and Yemen all existed as “approved” Portuguese colonies in southern Africa and Asia for decades or centuries, although the only Portuguese overseas possessions today are islands of the northwest coast of Africa. On the other hand, Spanish influence in the Americas was sanctioned by the Treaty of Tordesillas, as were possessions in the Pacific Ocean, most notably the Philippines. While Spain never held Indian lands, large parts of India were ruled by the Portuguese during the decades of the Iberian Union, in which Portugal and Spain merged politically.  

File:16th century Portuguese Spanish trade routes.png
Portuguese (blue) and Spanish (white) trade lines in the century or more after the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:16th_century_Portuguese_Spanish_trade_routes.png

Despite their important effects on the development of the Americas and Asia, the agreements between the Iberian nations also face their share of criticism for their treatment of non-Iberian peoples. For one, any treaty between just two countries that proposes to split multiple continents between the two cannot take into account the great ethnic and cultural diversity of those regions. In one sense, this manifests in criticisms of the Treaty of Tordesillas’s Eurocentrism, but even that description falls a little short: the other European countries were excluded from the agreement, and few European navies respected the lines drawn in the treaty. This is part of how the Caribbean, North America, and parts of South America fell into the spheres of other European nations, like France and Great Britain.

The callous disregard of native peoples and non-European empires is a valid critique, as well. The splitting of continents by lines of longitude reminds me of the straight-line borders of many nations drawn by French and British diplomats without regard for cultural and religious boundaries. The act of dividing landmasses without understanding their geographical limits, nor respecting the autonomy and culture of the people already living there, is an act of arrogance on par with the divvying up of Africa and the partitioning of the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Granting European rulers a divine mandate to force their own colonial systems onto peoples as diverse as the Inca, Bantu, and Chinese devastated the self-sufficiency of these areas and stunted the growth of their cultures. No matter how important the Treaty of Tordesillas was for the development of European empires, its profoundly damaging effect on the native population must be recognized, as well.

  1. Lyle McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700, 73-75.
  2. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01289a.htm
  3. https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Tordesillas
  4. Frances Gardiner Davenport, ed., European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, 107-111.
  5. https://opil.ouplaw.com/page/erasing-the-line

Weekly Digest 8/10/2020

This week’s digest is a little shorter than previous weeks’ as there is less COVID-19 news than usual. In addition to the light coronavirus coverage, this week’s edition includes information on Mexican tourism and the ongoing fires in the Amazon region.

Last week, Latin America passed another unfortunate milestone, becoming the world’s region with the largest number of COVID-19 deaths. While the number of infections surpassed all other regions earlier, as detailed in last week’s digest, the number of deaths from the virus had stayed just behind that of Europe. But as August got underway, that statistic also changed, as Latin America and the Caribbean has reported 213,120 fatalities from COVID-19, 460 more than Europe.1 This development comes as some Caribbean observers note the disparity in gross case numbers and per capita infection rates when comparing Caribbean nations to Latin American countries. Particularly in the tourism and hospitality industry, Caribbean representatives note that their home has not faced as many infections or deaths. Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association, stated, “It concerns me greatly that the Caribbean is continuously thrown into the same pot with Latin America. As we know, COVID-19 cases have spiked in Latin America but not the Caribbean.”2 More than a dozen countries in the Caribbean have recorded fewer than 100 cases, and while their populations remain lower, the per capita infection rate in the Caribbean is substantially lower than that of Latin America, where numbers are inflated by Brazil’s and Mexico’s case totals.

Brazil's coronavirus death toll surpasses 100,000
Protesters of the Brazilian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic released 100 biodegradable red balloons last week to commemorate the 100,000 Brazilians who have died from COVID-19 thus far. Source: https://www.france24.com/en/20200809-brazil-s-coronavirus-death-toll-surpasses-100-000

The coronavirus pandemic has also forced changes to a ride-sharing service’s Latin American business model. Uber, which promises its users low fares by outsourcing rides to contracted drivers instead of utilizing vetted and certified taxi drivers, is exploring the taxi model as the pandemic worsens in Latin America. The service Uber provides is often unregulated, but as the pandemic forces changes to how people interact with one another and what types of activities are allowed, the company’s drivers have been more susceptible to interference by local law enforcement. Instead of continuing to place drivers and riders in potentially unsafe conditions, Uber is pivoting to a taxi-like model, with certifications and licenses required for its drivers in Santiago, Chile, and São Paulo, Brazil.3 It remains to be seen if these requirements will spread to other locations or if they will be permanent features in their current markets.

The Mexican tourism industry weathered multiple storms in the last week as an official government website had a translation fiasco and advertisements were pulled from the air. VisitMexico.com, the English-translated version of the country’s tourism website, featured translated pages that also changed the names of cities—some simple literal translations, with others being changed to something entirely different. Puerto Escondido became “Hidden Port,” which is the literal translation of the city’s name, but other cities were not so fortunate—Ciudad Madero, for instance, became “Log.” The Tourism Department quickly issued apologies and noted that it had filed a criminal complaint, opening questions about how such errors came to be represented on a nation’s official tourism page. This news came fast on the heels of the removal of multiple ads for the city of Acapulco. While the city has been hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and has implemented many protections, such as closing nightclubs, until August 6 video ads showed visitors to the city engaging in mask-less activities, attending nightclubs, and living a “no rules” lifestyle, as highlighted by the ads’ narrator. Noting that the ads were not appropriate for the current health climate, officials removed the ads last week.4

Finally, the wildfires in the Amazon and Pantanal continue to rage. As detailed in the July 27 digest, the regions are home to annual sporadic fires that cause significant damage to biodiversity and ecological systems. In 2019 and 2020, however, the fires have been far larger and more damaging than in years past, continuing despite military intervention and stricter laws against fires in the regions.5 Nearly a decade ago, the future of the Amazon seemed promising, as the Brazilian government brought deforestation to record lows in 2012. But in the last few years, fueled by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate change skepticism, the burning of the Amazon has returned to high levels. While the exact causes of this year’s increased fires remain up for debate—with speculators, indigenous peoples, and migrant workers blamed by different groups—the destruction continues. Military units dispatched to the region have been unable to stop or slow the spread of the fires, which typically reach their most intense levels in August and September.

  1. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8606817/Latin-America-Caribbean-surpass-Europe-worlds-hardest-hit-Covid-region.html
  2. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20200809/foul-play-unfair-lump-caribbean-latin-america-covid-19-numbers-stakeholders
  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-uber-didi-focus/uber-pulls-latin-american-u-turn-by-joining-taxi-ranks-idUSKCN2520KF
  4. https://apnews.com/5d4d94cc8b8fd89c961f28d186521535
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/amazon-fires-brazil-bolsonaro-dry-season/2020/08/08/0d57a43e-d731-11ea-930e-d88518c57dcc_story.html