The United States fought the Cold War in Latin America on various fronts. Perhaps most importantly, it forged strong alliances with the region’s armed forces to bolster friendly regimes and fight Marxist guerrillas. Diplomatically, it rallied the Organization of American States to isolate unfriendly governments, most notably that of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and had its diplomats actively engaged in countering Soviet influence throughout the region. On the economic front, it used public assistance programs like the Alliance for Progress to bolster anti-communist democratic governments and encouraged (and protected) growing U.S. private investment in the region. Most notoriously, it used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to undermine and help overthrow democratically-elected government seen as hostile to U.S. interests in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973).
Within this context, Patrick Iber examines a relatively understudied aspect of the Cold War struggle in Latin America—the battle on the cultural front. In an engaging, well-written, exhaustively-researched, even-handed, and insightful book, Iber not only brings to light previously obscure aspects of this story but also details the complexities and contradictions that bedeviled all sides of the struggle.
Patrick Iber examines a relatively understudied aspect of the Cold War struggle in Latin America—the battle on the cultural front.
The story that Iber tells, in general terms, is not unique to Latin America. Europe was also a major battlefield to win over the “hearts and minds” of prominent intellectuals and the public at large. But the struggle in Latin America, he argues, did have unique features. One was the historic predominance that the United States had enjoyed in the region for more than two centuries. Another was the enormous impact of the Cuban Revolution on Latin America and on U.S.-Latin American relations. Finally, although one might quibble as to its uniqueness, should be added the significant influence that artists, writers, and scholars enjoyed in Latin America. Many were politically active. In the 1940s, for example, poet Pablo Neruda was elected to the Chilean Senate on the ticket of the Communist Party and novelist Rómulo Gallegos served as president of Venezuela (1947-1948). In the early 1960s poet and essayist Juan Bosch was chosen president of the Dominican Republic. (Both Gallegos and Bosch were ousted in military coups.) Later, in 1990 novelist Mario Vargas Llosa ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Peru while famed sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso served two terms (1995-2003) as president of Brazil.
Recognizing the importance of intellectuals as cultural icons in Latin America, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, both the United States and the Soviet Union—and later the Castro government—sought to sway them to their side and enlist them in their cause. They did so through the establishment of front organizations that hosted conferences, provided funding for favorable publications, and backed political groups. In late 1950, the Soviets sponsored the creation of the World Peace Council (WPC), “the first great front group of the Cold War”(50), which aimed to support and promote Soviet aims. The United States countered with the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), covertly funded by the CIA, and “The centerpiece of the U.S. government’s Cultural Cold War.” (85) In Latin America, the CCF aimed to back moderate democratic forces committed to creating a “humane socialism” in contrast to the many authoritarian regimes in place at the time and later as an alternative to the more radical Cuban variant. Finally, after the Revolution, the Cuban government created the Casa de las Américas, which became the Castro regime’s main instrument in the larger cultural struggle.
While most of the focus on the Cultural Cold War in Latin America is on the 1950s and 1960s, Iber makes a convincing case that there were important elements that appeared well before those decades. In particular, he details the prominent role that Republican exiles from the Spanish Civil War played in Mexico City, which under President Lázaro Cárdenas became something of a Mecca for leftists fleeing persecution in their homelands (including, most famously, Leon Trotsky). Originally sympathetic to the Soviet Union for having supported the Republic, some of these exiles in the early 1940s became strongly anti-Stalinist and anti-communist and carried these sentiments into their participation in the CCF, where they battled mainline communists.
In late 1950, the Soviets sponsored the creation of the World Peace Council (WPC), “the first great front group of the Cold War”(50), which aimed to support and promote Soviet aims. The United States countered with the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), covertly funded by the CIA, and “The centerpiece of the U.S. government’s Cultural Cold War.” (85) In Latin America, the CCF aimed to back moderate democratic forces committed to creating a “humane socialism” in contrast to the many authoritarian regimes in place at the time and later as an alternative to the more radical Cuban variant.
Having established the importance of these antecedents, Iber traces the significant developments that occurred within the framework of the three main organizations of the Cultural Cold War in Latin America. He brings into the story the key roles played by many of the region’s best-known cultural figures: Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siquieros; Mexican writers Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Rulfo; Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo; Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa; Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez; Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral; Brazilian writer Jorge Amado and architect Oscar Niemeyer among others. Those who recognize these names primarily through their artistic production will find much new information and many new insights in Iber’s discussion of their political activities within the three main Cultural Cold War organizations.
Of the three organizations, Iber focuses primarily on the CCF. He describes the disputes and divisions within the organization over such matters as the 1954 intervention in Guatemala and more significantly over the Cuban Revolution. Many in the CCF originally supported Castro’s struggle against dictator Fulgencio Batista but like many others experienced “buyer’s remorse” when the regime allied with the Soviet Union and turned radically to the left. Particularly dismayed and disillusioned were those who had hoped for the kind of “humane socialism” that social democrats envisioned for the future of Latin America.
This disillusionment with the Castro regime was particularly acute among those Latin American writers who had begun to acquire worldwide acclaim. The Cuban Revolution had coincided with the so-called “boom” of Latin American literature in the 1960s, epitomized by Gabriel García Márquez’s international sensation, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Most of the best-known writers of this generation were early and enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution. With the notable exception of García Márquez, who remained a loyal supporter throughout, most distanced themselves from the Castro regime as it became more subservient to the Soviet Union and imposed ever-greater constraints on Cuban writers and artists. Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the early enthusiasts, by the early 1980s was identifying with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
He brings into the story the key roles played by many of the region’s best-known cultural figures: Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siquieros; Mexican writers Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Rulfo; Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo; Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa; Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez; Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral; Brazilian writer Jorge Amado and architect Oscar Niemeyer among others.
The CCF did its best to encourage this change in sentiment, shifting its focus from trying “to mobilize an anti-Soviet center-left … [to] trying to mobilize an anti-Castro center-left.” (145) The CCF supported publications where anti-Castro voices could be heard, organized literary conferences where debates over the Revolution could take place, and helped fund social science research that aimed at alternative paths to development in Latin America that countered the Cuban model. The CCF’s effectiveness, however, was severely damaged in March 1967 when Rampart’s magazine revealed the connections between the CIA and the U.S. National Student Association (NSA). Ramparts, along with the New York Times, also exposed the agency’s funding of the CCF, leading to what Iber describes as widespread “disenchantment” among the region’s intellectuals.
One of the common threads tying the CCF to the NSA was the fact that while there were many members and associates who either knew of or suspected the organizations were funded by the CIA, there were many who did not. I count myself in the latter number. Initiating research into student politics in Argentina for my doctoral dissertation in 1963 I explored the NSA archives in Philadelphia in preparation for my field research. In the book that resulted from my dissertation, I acknowledged the assistance of the NSA, still unaware of the CIA connection. That connection is shown in great detail in Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal (Yale, 2015) which shows that I was far from the only student unaware of the CIA’s support for the NSA. In 1964, when I conducted my research in Argentina, I interviewed and interacted with scores of students and political figures, many of whom were prone to be suspicious of North American scholars who might also be serving the U.S. government. Any hint that I was somehow connected to the CIA through the NSA, wittingly or unwittingly, would have made my life there much more complicated.
As Iber notes, while the CCF had done much to discredit communism in Latin America, “by its existence and exposure as a CIA front, it discredited anti-Communism.”
While the revelations of CIA support were serious, they were not immediately fatal to the CCF, which in 1967 continued its activities under a new name, the International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF). Nonetheless, whatever the name, the U.S.-backed efforts to promote alternatives to the Soviets and Cubans through such organizations were fatally weakened. As Iber notes, while the CCF had done much to discredit communism in Latin America, “by its existence and exposure as a CIA front, it discredited anti-Communism.” (243) In the last analysis, he concludes, all three of the organizations that fought the Cultural Cold War—The CCF, the WPC, and the Casa de las Américas—suffered from the strains and contradictions that came from seeking to serve larger imperial purposes. However well-intentioned and idealistic many of the participants in the struggle were, they ultimately failed to achieve, at least in the short run, the “peace and freedom” they so fervently sought.