Eisenhower and Latin America
The Foreign Policy of Anti-Communism

Author: Stephen G. Rabe

University of North Carolina Press, 1988

The Republicans captured the White House in 1953 after they claimed that the Truman administration had been "soft on Communism" and after stating that they were determined to turn the tide against the "Red menace." Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, had spoken of "twenty years of treason," and Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had pledged that Republicans would "roll back the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe."

Secretary Dulles warned that conditions in Latin America were comparable to "conditions as they were in China in the mid-thirties when the Communist movement was getting started," and that the time to deal with this rising menace was "now." In a telephone conversation with his brother, Allen, head of the CIA, he said that "the Communists [were] trying to extend their form of despotism in this hemisphere." In a cabinet meeting he spoke of the need to convince Latin Americans that Communism was "an international conspiracy, not an indigenous movement."

In 1954, Latin America had 13 dictators among its 20 nations, and the anti-Communist declarations by dictators pleased the Eisenhower administration. According to the author, Stephen Rabe, when people wanted the U.S. State Department to "intercede on behalf of the political prisoners rotting in the dungeons of the dictator Pérez Jiménez," Dulles refused. President Eisenhower awarded a Legion of Merit to Peru's dictator, Manuel Odría. Jiménez received his Legion of Merit from the U.S. ambassador in a grand ceremony in Venezuela, winning congratulations for his "energy and firmness of purpose" in having "greatly increased the capacity of the Armed Forces of Venezuela to participate in the collective defense of the Western Hemisphere" and his "concern toward the problem of Communist infiltration."

In Guatemala in 1954 the regime of President Arbenz was pursuing democracy and reform and worried the Eisenhower administration. Arbenz had become Guatemala's president in 1951, according to Rabe the country's first ever peaceful transition of power. Arbenz pledged to create an economically independent capitalist state and had begun to build ports and highways. He convinced the legislature to enact a modest income tax, the first in Guatemala's history, and launched a program of land redistribution, including a loss of 1,700 fallow acres that had belonged to his family. Rabe estimates that "Guatemala's new social welfare programs were more modest than those advocated by liberal Democrats in the United States and Laborites in Great Britain." In 1953 the Eisenhower administration estimated that Communists in Guatemala numbered around 1,000, and it saw Communist influence in organized labor and in the agrarian reform movement. Arbenz's ruling coalition consisted of 51 congressional deputies, four of whom were Communists. In January, 1954, President Eisenhower told Guatemala's foreign minister that he "couldn't help a government which was openly playing ball with Communists" and that the United States was "determined to block the international Communist conspiracy." The Arbenz regime replied that their land reform would undermine the appeal of Communism. According to Rabe, the Eisenhower administration rejected explanations from the Arbenz administration and concluded that Arbenz was either a "dupe" of the Communists or worse. Secretary Dulles spoke of the impossibility of producing evidence tying the Guatemalan government to Moscow but that he and the administration had a "deep conviction that such a tie must exist."

The U.S. gave support to a group of Guatemalans in Honduras, led by Castillo Armas, opposed to Arbenz. In late June, 1954, Armas and his little army invaded Guatemala and overthrew Arbenz, and had the support of conservatives in Guatemala opposed to the Arbenz reforms. The Arbenz regime was incapable of defending itself militarily, and soon Castillo Armas was installed as president.

Soviet influence in Latin America had been miniscule. Its only trading partner had been Uruguay and Argentina, the latter something less than a democracy under Juan Peron, who had adopted anti-Communist rhetoric pleasing to the United States. But Argentine benefited from selling its beef, wheat and wool to the Soviet Union in a trade agreement that included buying Soviet oil. Then in early 1956 the Soviet Union launched its effort to expand diplomatically, to extend trade where it could, including Latin American. Its stated purpose was peaceful competition with the capitalist powers in an atmosphere of easing cold-war tensions. Cuba, ruled by the "strongman" Fulgencio Batista, began selling sugar to the Soviet Union. And President Eisenhower spoke of "the new Communist line of sweetness and light [as] perhaps more dangerous than their propaganda in Stalin's time."

In 1956 in Panama, Eisenhower attended a conference with leaders from other American nations and confided to his diary his favorable impressions of the dictator of Nicaragua, Somoza, and of Paraguay's dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, who had reassured Eisenhower that Paraguay was one-hundred percent anti-Communist and would continue to be so."

Then came Sputnik, which heightened concern over Soviet influence. In early 1958 Republicans were trying to put a good face on their achievements and spoke of having blunted the Soviet offense, securing the hemisphere from Communism. Then came Nixon's trip to Latin America in May, 1958. Nixon was harassed by law students in Montevideo, Uruguay, stoned by university students in Lima, Peru, and assaulted by a mob in Caracas, Venezuela. The U.S. had been losing the hearts and minds of Latin America's young intellectuals, who disliked U.S. support for repressive regimes and were blaming the United States for Latin America's social ills, including imposing tariff barriers against the importation of products from Latin America. The riots against Nixon were seen as the threat of Communism risen anew. Vice President Nixon described the demonstrators in Caracas as having been led '"without any doubt" by Communists. That the protesters chanted the same slogan "was absolute proof," he said, that the demonstrations had been "directed and controlled by a central Communist conspiracy."

Business leaders in the U.S. looked for a better explanation. A new policy was formulated. Writes Rabe, "While publicly blaming Communists for the attacks on Nixon, the [Eisenhower] administration knew it needed a new approach to restore public confidence and to assuage the Latin Americans." Vice President Nixon helped enunciate this new policy, declaring that there would be "a formal handshake for dictators; an embraso for leaders in freedom." Secretary of State Dulles was not in total agreement. He said that when Latin America's uneducated masses take over they were "not going to practice democracy as we know it." He spoke of his fear of dictatorships of the proletariat and of populists of the Nasser type. But Dulles lost the argument, Rabe states that "after mid-1958 it was politically unacceptable to claim that socioeconomic elites could best protect the interests of the United States in Latin America." A new approach was being taken toward competition with Communism for the hearts and minds. Rabe describes a congressional committee investigating the Nixon trip claiming that the United States should stop creating the impression in Latin America that it was "indifferent to the sufferings of oppressed people."

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their little army were in the Sierra Maestras in Eastern Cuba, combating the Batista regime. Cuba had "one of the largest" of Communist Parties in Latin America: 17.000 members. It had been opposed to Castro's disastrous attack on the Moncada military barracks back in 1953 and opposed to Castro's armed return to Cuba in 1957. Communist parties, including the one in the Soviet Union, were not well disposed or open-minded about strategies that differed from their own. The Soviet Union did not have the putchist approach to taking power that was popularly ascribed to it. As Rabe writes, Cuba's Communist Party "helped sabotage Castro's April 1958 call for a general strike," and "Soviet periodicals similarly criticized Castro for 'terroristic acts and adventuristic activities.'" The view of a Communist takeover directed from Moscow was in need of revision.

Castro won against Batista in January 1959, Batista fleeing to the Dominican Republic, ruled by the dictator Trujillo, amid wild celebrations in Havana. Rabe describes as politically immature the Cubans blaming the United States for their country's failures, but he describe circumstances that contributed to it. North American inventors dominated Cuba's economy. They produced 40 percent of the Cuba 's sugar, controlled 36 of its 161 sugar mills, operated two of Cuba's three oil refineries, 90 percent of its public utilities and 50 percent percent of its tourism industry.

Castro visited the United States in April 1959. He did not ask the U.S. for aid, wanting to show Cubans that he would be the first Cuban leader since Jose Marti not to be subservient to the United States. "He understood," writes Rabe, "that Cubans wanted their national dignity restored." Without aid, Cuba could not afford to compensate "North American planters" whose property Cuba was expropriating, to the extent that they were demanding. The Eisenhower administration turned against Castro. On November 5, Eisenhower's new Secretary of State, Christian Herter (John Foster Dulles died of cancer in May 1959), recommended to Eisenhower that the policies of the United States should "be designed to encourage within Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America opposition to the extremist, anti-American course of the Castro regime." Herter described Cuba as not meeting "minimum U.S. security requirements." Castro was tolerating and even encouraging the infiltration of Communists into key government institutions. His neutralist foreign policy, Herter claimed, if "emulated by other Latin American countries would have serious adverse effects on Free World support of our leadership, especially in the United Nations on such issues as the Chinese representation problem." Herter said that Castro mocked the free trade and investment policies that the United States was promoting.

Castro turned to the Soviet Union as a partner in trade. By March 17, 1960, writes Rabe, Eisenhower decided to overthrow Castro "after extensive discussions about Cuba by a CIA task force, the 5412 Committee, and the Nantional Security Council." Non-interventionism as a principle regarding Latin America – the excuse used for not acting against the violations of human rights by dictators – was at an end. But the idea of appealing to Latin America's masses was not. The view was alive in the Eisenhower administration that in Latin America it would be either reform or revolution, and it was siding with its concept of reform. 1960 was the year that the Eisenhower administration move also covertly against the Dominican Republic's notorious dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

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