Latin America is a region of the world wracked by many revolutions, civil wars, and other remnants of colonial mismanagement and relics of the Cold War. This sample history paper explores three major revolutions in Latin America, namely the Bolivar movement, the Mexican Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution.
Latin American revolutions and economic change
The history of revolutions in Latin America illuminates the increasingly liberal economic outlook of the region’s citizens over the course of recent history. Revolutionary movements in the area started as simply anti-colonial in the nineteenth century, became more economically redistributive in the early twentieth century, and transformed all the way to communist by the mid-twentieth century. This pattern is a logical outgrowth of the pattern of colonial rule and economic imperialism that has plagued the area.
The movements that most clearly illustrate this trend are the revolution against Spanish rule led by Simon Bolívar, the Mexican Revolution led by Vincent Guerrero, and the Cuban Revolution. The progression in the aims of these revolutionary movements exemplifies the increasingly economically reformist viewpoint of the political thinkers of Latin America. To understand the reasons for the emergence of this trend we must first examine the goals, successes, and failures of the earliest Latin American revolutions so that we may begin to understand their impact on those that followed.
Seeking independence from Spain
The early Latin American revolutions had the relatively simple goal of independence from Spain, and focused on this aim in a manner that largely related to the needs of the wealthiest, most aristocratic members of society. Simon Bolívar was an expert military leader and achieved great success in his battle against the Spanish for Latin American independence, but he did not have the social vision of prosperity for the lower classes that became the hallmark of later revolutions.
As John Lynch succinctly states in his discussion of Bolívar’s motivations for revolution, “It was the colonial élite for whom he spoke when he denounced the tyranny of Spain, the servitude of Spanish Americans, their role as primary producers and consumers of Spanish goods.”1
While Spanish tyranny and economic domination were certainly a very real and justifiable concern, Bolívar attacked it from the point of view of a wealthy elite trying to keep a greater portion of the spoils, not the average citizen who was being exploited by such policies. Bolívar’s concept of revolution, while necessary for the development of an independent Latin America and in many ways a positive step forward for the region, was clearly lacking a concept of economic equality and social justice that would characterize the Latin American revolutions that followed.
Bolívar’s economic development goals through the democratization of the region held a selfish and elite point of view. He wanted the rich to benefit more than the lower class.
As Karen Racine states, “Bolívar and the other Latin American revolutionaries of his time period “believed in a paternalistic, aristocratic form of democracy that would allow them to maintain their own privileged position while the rest of the population caught up.”2
Clearly, these revolutions lacked the commitment to economic equality that would come to characterize much of later Latin American revolutionary thought. We can begin to see the emergence of this more egalitarian viewpoint when examining the ideals, actions, and leaders of the Mexican Revolution.
The Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution was one of the first Latin American revolutions that was fought not against a foreign colonial power, but rather against an economically exploitative local dictator. While many citizens may have hoped that overthrowing the Spanish and French colonial regimes would help their economic fortunes, it was becoming apparent that many of the problems of the old colonial system remained under the leadership of the dictator Porfirio Diaz.
According to John Mason Hart, some of the key causes of the Mexican Revolution were “peasant displacement through the expansion of export agriculture far out of proportion to the ability of new technology to the ability of new technology and industrial growth to absorb them through new employment and peasant and industrial working-class repression and deprivation.”3
This was not a revolution led by elite aristocrats fighting for independence from foreign intrusion, but a revolt for the lower classes led by working-class heroes like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. This trend of redistributive economic focus would continue to new levels in Latin American revolutions to follow.
The Cuban Revolution
While the Mexican Revolution opened the door for more liberal lines of economic thought amongst revolutionaries, the Cuban Revolution took this idea to it’s most extreme logical conclusion. Poverty and the economic and social rights of the lower classes may have been a cause of the Mexican Revolution, but they were the cause of the Cuban Revolution.
As Fidel Castro himself said,“Cuba’s land situation, the problems of industrialization, living standards, unemployment, education and public health: these are the problems—along with the attainment of civil liberty and political democracy—to the solution of which the revolutionary 26th of July Movement directs its efforts.”4
By the time of the Cuban Revolution, the needs of the poor and working class had become the primary goals of revolutionary movements in Latin America. The line of political thought amongst revolutionary leaders in the region had clearly shifted immensely since the era of Bolivar.
The history of revolutionary movements in Latin America illustrates the country’s growing focus on economic and social equality amongst the political thinkers of the region over the course of time. The earliest revolutions, such as those led by Simon Bolívar, were focused on the needs of the aristocracy, while the Mexican Revolution began to shift the focus towards relief of poverty, and the Cuban Revolution was founded entirely on the principles of economic equality. This shift illustrates a profound change in the political philosophy of the region’s revolutionaries and citizens, the future of which will likely continue to profoundly shape the region.
Castro, Fidel. “What Cuba’s Rebels Want.” The Nation. http://web.archive.org/web/20090417033036/http://www.thenation.com/doc/19571130/castro (accessed November 18, 2013).
Hart, John Mason. Contemporary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
Lynch, John. “Simon Bolivar and the Spanish Revolutions.” History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/john-lynch/simon-bolivar-and-spanish-revolutions-0http://www.historytoday.com/john-lynch/simon-bolivar-and-spanish-revolutions-0 (accessed November 18, 2013).
Racine, Karen. Simón Bolívar: essays on the life and legacy of the liberator. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2008.