Fidel Castro and his rag-tag band of fighters assembled on the shores of Mexico, stealthily navigated their overcrowded boat to southeastern Cuba, and unleashed a 1956 insurgency that rocked all of Latin America. That temblor lasted 60 years and ended, more or less, on Monday.
Castro seized power in 1959, and his brother Raul still rules Cuba today. The revolution washed over the entire region, inspiring leftist insurgencies throughout Latin America for decades until the final one effectively came to a close as the Colombian government and the FARC rebels signed a peace deal in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.
“Long live Colombia, long live peace,” the crowd chanted as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, both dressed in all white, shook hands on Monday evening.
The deal brings peace to a country that has endured more than a half-century of civil war. Yet widely overlooked is the far more sweeping notion that it brings down the curtain on six decades of nonstop conflicts in Latin America.
To take an even broader view, there’s no longer a single war in the Western Hemisphere, a collection of more than 30 countries stretching from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America.
Of course, the absence of war isn’t necessarily full-fledged peace. Mexico still suffers chronic drug violence, as do several other countries. The Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are riven with gangs responsible for some of the highest murder rates in the world. Venezuela is wracked by political turbulence. And even as Colombia’s main guerrilla group agreed to lay down arms, a separate, much smaller rebel faction carries out the occasional attack.
Still, Latin America, long plagued by autocrats, coups and endless civil wars, now has a moment worth savoring. Elections and peaceful transfers of power have steadily become the norm.
“The region has made tremendous progress from 20, 40 years ago,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who closely follows Latin America. “On almost every front — politics, economics, social programs — we’ve seen vast improvements.”
Here’s a condensed look at 60 years of war and peace:
Castro Fires The First Shot: The Cuban revolution wasn’t the first uprising in an unstable region, but it did mark the dawn of a new era that had major ramifications all across Latin America.
Castro inspired countless imitators who adopted his leftist politics and sought to oust authoritarian rulers, many of them generals who seized power through coups. These rulers tended to represent the military and the tiny elites who dominated politics and business.
Cold War politics drove the U.S. to support pro-American rulers, even outright dictators, while the Soviets looked for additional opportunities to expand their influence. In this bipolar world, there was little, if any middle ground. Genuine democracy and competitive elections simply weren’t part of the equation.
“The U.S., the Cubans, and sometimes the Soviets would be feeding these conflicts with ideology, money and weapons,” said Feinberg, author of the recently published Open For Business: Building The New Cuban Economy. “All these international actors were polarizing, and you didn’t see any change in their behavior until years later, when the Cold War was over.”
A Region Aflame: At the peak in the 1970s and ’80s, nearly every country in Latin America had a guerrilla movement, and some had more than one. (Special mention goes to Costa Rica, the only Latin American country that doesn’t have an army and is generally regarded as the only one that hasn’t had an insurgency in the past 60 years.)
During the 1980s, in particular, the U.S. was deeply involved in Latin American conflicts. The U.S. removed the leaders of Panama and Grenada during brief invasions. Washington backed the right-wing government in El Salvador in a vicious fight with left-wing guerrillas. The U.S. funneled arms to pro-American rebels in Nicaragua battling the left-wing Sandinista rulers.
Most Latin American civil wars were waged at a relatively low level, with bands of rebel fighters using small arms to wage hit-and-run attacks from rural hideouts. Yet the collective impact on these impoverished nations was often devastating.
Latin American governments poured limited resources into the security forces. The fighting ravaged rural areas in countries heavily dependent on agriculture. Right-wing and left-wing ideologies dominated, drowning out moderate voices. These civil wars had the nasty habit of dragging on indecisively for years, often decades.
Colombia’s civil war offers an extreme example. It erupted in 1964, has involved multiple rebel groups, and claimed more than 200,000 lives. The weakened country was also vulnerable to the emergence of drug cartels, which in the 1980s and ’90s arguably posed a greater threat than the civil war.
Yet in all these years of Latin American warfare, only two rebel groups ousted rulers by force: Castro’s fighters toppled Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and the Sandinistas brought down Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979.
“Revolutions are extremely hard to pull off,” said Feinberg. “Most attempted revolutions fail miserably at tremendous cost to everyone involved. Conditions are rarely there for violent overthrows. For starters, you need to be facing a very decrepit regime.”
The Cold War’s End Eases Tensions: The end of the Cold War rapidly reduced regional tensions, led to peace treaties and elections, and helped create the space for Latin American countries to work out protracted feuds.
Nicaragua held an election in 1990, which the Sandinistas lost. El Salvador made peace in 1992. Guatemala followed in 1996.
One-by-one, the generals faded away and in many countries, former rebels did better at the ballot box than they had on the battlefield.
In Uruguay, El Salvador and elsewhere, former rebels won elections. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed for three years and tortured as a member of a guerrilla group in the 1970s, was elected president twice, once in 2010 and again in 2014. She was, however, impeached last month on corruption charges, a move her supporters called a “coup.”
Politics in Latin America is still a rough business. But these days, it’s no longer waged with guns.
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.