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10-08-2015, 16:52

The Move to Authoritarianism

During the late nineteenth century, most governments in Latin America had been dominated by landed or military elites, who governed by the blatant use of military force. This trend toward authoritarianism increased during the 1930s as domestic instability caused by the effects of the Great Depression led to the creation of military dictatorships throughout the region. This trend was especially evident in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—three countries that together possessed more than half of the land and wealth of Latin America (see Map 5.2 on the next page). Autocratic rule by an elite minority often had disastrous effects. The government of Argentina, controlled by landowners who had benefited from the export of beef and wheat, was slow to recognize the need to establish a local industrial base. In 1916, Hipólito Irigoyen (1852–1933), head of the Radical Party, was elected president on a program to improve conditions for the middle and lower classes. Little was achieved, however, as the party became increasingly corrupt and drew closer to the large landowners. In 1930, the army overthrew Irigoyen’s government and reestablished the power of the landed class. But their effort to return to the past and suppress the growing influence of labor unions failed, and in 1946, General Juan Perón—claiming the support of the descamisados (“shirtless ones”)—seized sole power (see Chapter 11). Brazil followed a similar path. In 1889, the army overthrew the Brazilian monarchy, installed by Portugal decades before, and established a republic. But it was dominated by landed elites, many of whom had grown wealthy through their ownership of coffee plantations. By 1900, three-quarters of the world’s coffee was grown in Brazil. As in Argentina, the ruling oligarchy ignored the importance of establishing an urban industrial base. When the Great Depression ravaged profits from coffee exports, a wealthy rancher, Getúlio Vargas (1883–1954), seized power and served as president from 1930 to 1945. At first, Vargas sought to appease workers by declaring an eight-hour day and a minimum wage, but influenced by the apparent success of fascist regimes in Europe, he ruled by increasingly autocratic means and relied on a police force that used torture to silence his opponents. His industrial policy was successful, however, and by the end of World War II, Brazil had become Latin America’s major industrial power. In 1945, the army, concerned that Vargas was turning increasingly to leftist elements for support, forced him to resign. Mexico, in the early years of the twentieth century, was in a state of turbulence. Under the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz (see Chapter 1), the real wages of the working class had declined. Moreover, 95 percent of the rural population owned no land, and about a thousand families ruled almost all of Mexico. When a liberal landowner, Francisco Madero, forced Díaz from power in 1910, he opened the door to a wider revolution. Madero’s ineffectiveness triggered a demand for agrarian reform led by Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), who aroused the masses of landless peasants in southern Mexico and began to seize the haciendas of wealthy landholders. For the next several years, Zapata and rebel leader Pancho Villa (1878–1923), who operated in the northern state of Chihuahua, became an important political force in the country by publicly advocating efforts to redress the economic grievances of the poor. But neither had a broad grasp of the challenges facing the country, and power eventually gravitated to a more moderate group of reformists around the Constitutionalist Party. The latter were intent on breaking the power of the great landed families and U.S. corporations, but without engaging in radical land reform or the nationalization of property. After a bloody conflict that cost the lives of thousands, the moderates consolidated power, and in 1917, they promulgated a new constitution that established a strong presidency, initiated land reform policies, established limits on foreign investment, and set an agenda for social welfare programs. In 1920, Constitutionalist leader Alvaro Obregón assumed the presidency and began to carry out his reform program. But real change did not take place until the presidency of General Lazaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) in 1934. Cárdenas won wide popularity with the peasants by ordering the redistribution of 44 million acres of land controlled by landed elites. He also seized control of the oil industry, which had hitherto been dominated by major U.S. oil companies. Alluding to the Good Neighbor Policy, President Roosevelt refused to intervene, and eventually Mexico agreed to compensate U.S. oil companies for their lost property. It then set up PEMEX, a governmental organization, to run the oil industry. By now, the revolution was democratic in name only, as the official political party, known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), controlled the levers of power throughout society. Every six years, for more than half a century, PRI presidential candidates automatically succeeded each other in office.