On the History of the Left in Latin America

In some ways, starting a “history of the left” in Latin America with the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 (and his overthrow in 1973) makes some small amount of sense. With his election in 1970, Allende became the first socialist leader in the hemisphere to enter office through existing electoral structures. Allende himself hoped to show the world that a “peaceful path to socialism” was possible. While right-wing violence and the military coup and subsequent Pinochet dictatorship brought an end to that path, if your telos is to trace the roots of leftist leaders in office in Latin America up to the present, then Allende’s a reasonable place to start. [And we’ll simply not worry about whether or not “left” is a useful category for people as diverse as Dilma Rousseff, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Tabaré Vázquez, Michele Bachelet, etc.]

However, the problem is that Allende was far from the first case of leftist politics and parties shaping societies and politics in Latin America. As the piece itself points out, it’s been 54 years since Fidel Castro successfully helped overthrow the Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, and 52 years since Castro himself  turned towards socialism in 1961-1962 after the US made clear its opposition to his government no matter what the ideology. And Castro’s not the sole example. Even before Allende’s peaceful election (and violent overthrow), Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala won popular election in 1950 running on a campaign that one could easily consider “left,” including land reform. While Arbenz, like Allende, ultimately fell victim in 1954 to a right-wing coup that enjoyed US support (though at least Arbenz, unlike Allende, survived the coup), his efforts certainly showed “the left” in power well before 1970. Even Allende himself had a political career that well predated 1970, having worked with the Popular Front in the 1930s and 1940s and previously running for president in 1952, 1958, and 1964 before finally winning in 1970. All this is to say that, if you want to look at a history of leftist leaders in national politics, you ought to start well before 1970.

And that’s only if one wants to focus on political elections or struggles (like the Guatemalan civil war or the Contra War in Nicaragua). However, leftism, politics, and society in Latin America have a much richer and broader history than a focus on elections and warfare imply. In the early-20th century, leftist ideologies began to proliferate among labor movements and the working classes in countries like Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere. Syndicalism, anarchism, socialism, and communism all had activists and proponents advocating alternatives to the global capitalist relationships that workers felt exploited not just the working classes but Latin American countries themselves. Although the numbers of syndicalists, anarchists, socialists, and others often numbered only in the thousands, they were very effective in mobilizing: whether it was the 1907 nitrate workers’ strike in Iquique, Chile, that led to the Santa Maria School Massacre and shaped Chilean memory into the 21st century; the 1917 general strike in São Paulo that saw 20,000 people walk off their jobs and ultimately win rare concessions from factory owners; or periodic anarchist activism and strikes from the 1890s to the 1920s among workers in Buenos Aires, the impact of leftist politics and activism was evident throughout Latin America in the early-20th century. And that’s to say nothing of the progressive, if ideologically undefined, demands for land reform or labor reform in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). And intellectuals like José Carlos Mariátegui in Peru and Luis Carlos Prestes in Brazil were early examples of intellectually adapting Marxism to Latin American contexts and to creating Latin American Communist Parties, respectively. While these parties often faced repression or illegality, that did not stop them from mobilizing, theorizing, and advocating alternatives to capitalism, be it openly or clandestinely. And all of these events, processes, and actions took place well before Allende’s election and Pinochet’s coup.

All of this is to say that, while the effort to look at a history of the left in Latin America is good, to start only 40 years ago or to focus only on political leaders is to overlook the very deep and important history of the left across a variety of social sectors in Latin America, privileging a relatively elite vision of politics and action that neglects the very real daily impacts and experiences of leftists throughout the 20th century.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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