Conference Paper

The Cuban Revolution and Latin America, 1959-69

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Abstract

Herbert Matthews, New York Times senior editor and close observer of Cuba, wrote in 1961: “January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro triumphed, began a new era in Latin America.” Indeed, for the next three decades the Cuban Revolution was the primary driving force of Latin American politics. Castro’s revolution ignited a wave of revolutionary activity that posed unprecedented levels of threat to vested interests and shook the Latin American status quo to its core in the 1960s and early 1970s. The rise of this Cuban-inspired threat of revolution, in turn, catalyzed a wave of reaction which, aided by the United States, led to heightened repression that in some cases rose to the level of state terrorism. This paper focuses on the first impact of the Cuban Revolution, the wave of revolution that emanated from the island following Castro’s assumption of power. It examines the exhortations, material aid and, more importantly, the inspiration that Castro provided to create legions of revolutionaries across the Americas. As the example of Cuba drove up demands for change, the political agenda in most countries shifted leftward, fidelista groups and publications proliferated, street demonstrations and strikes multiplied, and rural guerrilla movements mushroomed. The second half of the paper offers an analysis of how the Cuban Revolution catalyzed the only revolutionary movements that succeeded in taking power after 1959: the Unidad Popular coalition in Chile (1970-1973), led by Salvador Allende, and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional in Nicaragua (1979-1990). In both cases, the impact of the Cuban Revolution interacted with local conditions to create revolutions that actually bore little resemblance to the Cuban example. The paper provides insight into the reasons why the Cuban Revolution spawned so many revolutionary movements yet ultimately failed to foster the creation of other long-lasting revolutionary regimes.

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