The New Left in Latin America

Alex Aviña

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
The New Left in Latin America

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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In the midst of an intensified Cold War during the 1950s, something qualitatively changed within and without the Latin American Old Left. After a brief “democratic spring” immediately after World War II that witnessed the resurgence of labor unions, socialist and Communist parties, and Popular Front–like coalitions across the region, a violently authoritarian conservatism (aided by local militaries and US diplomatic and other actors) reemerged to repress a nascent Latin American social democracy. While the 1947 military coups in Peru and Venezuela marked the beginning of this reactionary process, the US-supported overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 completed a region-wide turn to authoritarian governance. Even exceptions such as Mexico experienced an intensified anti-Communism melded to one-party political rule and an inequitable political economy favorable to capital. Across the region, socialist and Communist parties, along with labor unions, faced persecution and, depending on the locale, adopted an underground, semiclandestine, and/or co-opted existence. Internal conflict and turmoil afflicted these Old Left organizations as they debated ideological orthodoxy and strategy. As the internal debates regarding reform or revolution continued throughout the 1950s, state violence and persecution—along with US intervention in Latin America—radicalized an entire generation of people (young and old) regardless of whether they were connected to Old Left institutions and politics. The 1959 Cuban Revolution politically evinced for some that the manifestation of utopian revolution (the impossible) via direct action and armed struggle proved possible. For others the utopian impulses emerged culturally in the realms of gender, sexuality, race, education, religion, fashion, family, economics, music, film, literature, and countercultural practices. Rather than articulate an argument for immediate mimesis, the Cuban Revolution helped crystallize the beginnings of an elastic, diverse, and tension-filled New Left that generally advocated direct action, confrontation with state power, antiauthoritarianism, direct democracy, and/or the undermining of traditional patriarchal norms. Such emergent New Left demands found expression through a variety of means—from guerrilla warfare to Cinema Novo and rocanrol—a variety that suggests the contradictory yet interrelated composition of the Latin American New Left. Overall, the corpus of literature reviewed here suggests the need to formulate a wide-ranging and transnational definition of the Latin American New Left that emerged during the early Cold War decades. As a relatively new and bourgeoning field of study, this intervention is timely in order to promote a research agenda that captures the historical heterogeneity of the New Left.

Article.  16041 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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