Enrichment Essay Revolutions in Latin America

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Enrichment Essay - Revolutions in Latin America

Latin American nations began achieving independence from colonial powers during the 1800s. The new nations maintained strict social hierarchies, characterized by a huge gap in wealth between a tiny group of elites and the largely impoverished masses. To cope with social unrest, the new governments quickly became more centralized. Political leaders began ignoring the very constitutions they helped create and relied increasingly on the use of force.

As various factions of elites struggled for power, two distinct ideologies came to the fore: liberal and conservative. Liberals generally sought free trade, modernization, separation of church and state, and individual rights. Conservatives, on the other hand, believed in authoritarianism, tradition, close ties between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, and corporate groups. Both parties often exercised power through dictatorial means. By the 20th century, leftist groups began to enter the fray.


In 1821 Mexico achieved independence from Spain. Liberals and conservatives, however, disagreed on what form the new government should take. Liberals wanted a republic. Conservatives, who were the majority, favored a monarchy. After a brief attempt at a monarchy, Mexico’s leaders established a federal republic. Yet ideological differences between the two groups remained, making the new government unstable.

The Porfiriato Political stability was achieved under the dictatorship of General Porfirio Díaz, who served as president from 1877 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. The Porfiriato, as the Díaz dictatorship was known, modernized Mexico’s economy by promoting export crops, mining, manufacturing, railways, and telegraph lines.Modernizing the economy came at an enormous social cost, however. The government took private and communal village land and placed it in the hands of land companies. Workers were paid low wages, and many lost their jobs to industrialization. As a new urban middle class grew wealthier, the rural poor grew poorer.

Life under the Porfiriato was characterized by repression. Díaz maintained order at the expense of civil liberties and used the military to suppress political opponents.Liberal opposition to Díaz began to organize around the turn of the century.

Revolution of 1910 In 1910 the Liberal Party nominated wealthy landowner Francisco I. Madero to run against Díaz in the upcoming election. Madero laid out the goals of a revolution in 1908 when he published La sucesión presidencial en 1910 (The Presidential Succession in 1910). In this book he outlined the negative effects of Mexico’s history of militarism and dictatorship, rousing an apathetic public, and he called for a return to constitutional principle, including honest elections, mass participation in the political process, and a one-term limit for the office of president.

Díaz imprisoned Madero and claimed the election for himself. Madero’s imprisonment and subsequent escape inspired local rebellions. Rebel leaders such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata rose up to help topple the Porfiriato. Although periods of unrest continued until mid-century, a new constitution adopted in 1917 institutionalized the goals of the revolution. The 1917 constitution is still in effect today.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) emerged from the revolution. Although the PRI dominated Mexican politics until the parliamentary elections of 1997, most of the revolutionary reforms were instituted by 1940. Despite land reform and the nationalization of the petroleum industry, Mexico continues to have a great disparity between the wealthy few and the majority poor. The indigenous population struggles for equal rights. Drug trafficking, violent crime, and especially violence against women plague Mexican society.


Gran Colombia, which consisted of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, gained independence from Spain in 1819. By the late 1840s, Colombia was losing some of the feudal characteristics left over from the colonial era. Government monopolies on major export crops were privatized. A middle class of merchants, manufacturers, artisans, and small landowners began to develop. Coffee became the major export crop and, though subject to the ups and downs of the international marketplace, helped to develop the nation’s economy.

Ongoing Power Struggle The political chaos that Colombia, like Mexico, faced upon independence did not subside, however. By the middle of the 1800s, the Liberals and the Conservatives emerged as two distinct political parties. Their establishment fueled, not resolved, political instability and civil unrest. Constitutions were written and abolished in alarming succession as the two parties vied for dominance.

A new constitution enacted by a Liberal government in 1853 achieved the liberal goals of separation of church and state and direct election of the president. By 1857 Conservatives were again in control, putting forth a new, conservative constitution in 1858. A civil war destabilized the Conservative government in 1860. By 1863 a Liberal government was again in place. The new government enacted a federal constitution that once more provided for separation of church and state and other liberal reforms. The Liberal-Conservative tug-of-war continued. For two decades Colombia experienced uninterrupted civil unrest.

Desperate to restore order to the nation, some members of the Liberal and Conservative parties formed the National Party. In 1886, the Nationalists wrote what was to be the longest-lasting constitution in the nation’s history. With this new constitution, the National Party hoped to strike a balance between individual liberty and national order. The 1886 constitution strengthened the role of the central government and launched a conservative era.

The War of 1,000 Days The new constitution failed to end the violence, however. When world coffee prices fell in 1899, conflicts between Liberals and Conservatives peaked. Liberals in the coffee-growing regions rebelled against the Conservative government. The War of 1,000 Days ended in 1902 when rebels accepted a peace agreement with the government, whose too-small army proved unable to crush the rebellion. The war left the country and the economy in ruins. As many as 130,000 people were dead. In the wake of the war, Panama seceded.

After the war, the coffee trade expanded and breathed new life into the economy. Conservatives were able to remain in power until 1930, when worldwide economic depression brought down the price of coffee and other exports.

Colombia Today Rebellion continues to plague Colombia. The problem is no longer conflict between liberal and conservative concerns, however, but terror spread by competing rebel groups that began attacking the government in the 1960s. These groups became heavily involved with the illegal drug trade, which funds their armies.Today the rebel groups, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels run roughshod over the nation. Colombia’s homicide rate is seven times the global average, and violence is one of the leading causes of death in Colombia.

The conflict has spilled over into neighboring countries, straining Colombia’s relations with its neighbors. President Juan Manuel Santos has focused his attention on seeking peace negotiations with the rebels and paramilitary groups.


A similar struggle between liberals and conservatives played out in Guatemala. Guatemala achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and from Mexico in 1823. It became the political center of the United Provinces of Central America, but this union failed in the face of competing liberal and conservative interests. It was effectively dissolved by 1838.

Conservative Nationalism The union’s demise was hastened by the efforts of conservative general Rafael Carrera. Carrera, with the backing of Native Americans, conservative landowners, and the clergy, toppled Guatemala’s liberal government. Installing himself as dictator-president in 1854, Carrera set about placing Guatemala back into the hands of the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church. A strong nationalist, he formally declared Guatemala to be an independent sovereign nation in 1847. His reign lasted until his death in 1865.

Rise of the Liberals Carrera’s conservative successor was overthrown by a liberal revolution in 1871. In 1873 revolutionary leader Justo Rufino Barrios became the first of a series of liberal dictator-presidents that ruled Guatemala until 1944. Largely undoing Carrera’s legacy, Barrios instituted a series of liberal reforms. He curbed the power of the aristocracy and the church and established a free secular public education system. He also oversaw economic reforms, including the development of roads, railways, and telegraph lines, and the cultivation of coffee as an export product. Barrios was killed in a failed invasion of El Salvador in 1885, which he was trying to force to join the union.

Popular Revolt Liberal dominance continued until dictator Jorge Ubico was popularly overthrown in 1944. That same year saw the establishment of Guatemala’s first democratic constitution. Within a decade, however, friction between growing communist influence and U.S. economic interests sparked unrest. Thirty-six years of ensuing guerrilla warfare came to an end with formal accords signed 1996.

Aftermath A United Nations–sponsored commission determined that army and paramilitary forces carried out most of the atrocities committed during the civil war.Reconciliation among factions has been slow. Stability, however, has been maintained. Today Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic and has held regular elections since the 1996 peace accords. Poverty and crime, though, have proved difficult to eradicate after 36 years of civil war.


The indigenous populations throughout the colonies of Latin America were often forced to work on large estates or to labor in mines. This practice continued after Bolivia’s independence from Spain in 1825. Governments often took communal lands from Native Americans, who were then often bound to work it for the new landowners. The legacy of this treatment has been profound and enduring.

Mining Brings Prosperity, Unrest A series of military strongmen, or caudillos, ruled Bolivia for many years following independence. Liberal and Conservative parties, made up of elites, began to form around 1880. Conservatives held power for about two decades, when Liberals cooperated with them to promote economic development.

Conservatives and Liberals in Bolivia differed in more than ideology, however. Economic interests also contributed to the rivalry. Economic success during this era was largely tied to mining. Conservative interests were tied to silver mining. Liberals, meanwhile, enjoyed the backing of tin-mining entrepreneurs.

The Liberal Party seized the government in 1899. Liberals were joined in the fighting by indigenous Bolivian peasants, who were losing more and more communal lands in the silver boom. Social tensions mounted, however, as Liberals did nothing to stop the expropriation of Native American land. More and more poor Native American peasants worked the mines. Strikes became increasingly common.

The Bolivian National Revolution In the 1930s, worldwide economic depression adversely affected the mining industry. At the same time, Bolivia lost nearly half of its territory in a series of border wars. Following the last of these, the Chaco War, discontented young army officers overthrew the civilian government. They tried but failed to introduce social reform. Civilian dissident groups with both fascist and Marxist ideology began to organize. Among these was the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR).

The MNR mobilized Bolivia’s peasant population and overthrew the military regime in 1952. The Bolivian National Revolution, a period of sweeping reforms, was the most influential in all of Latin America. The MNR nationalized the three largest tin-mining companies. It granted Native Americans land, abolished forced labor, and gave Native Americans the vote. Native American militia groups were given arms, making them a powerful voice in Bolivian government. The revolution ended in 1964 as more conservative elements in the government paved the way for a military coup.

Contemporary Bolivia After a series of unpopular and unstable military governments, civilian government was reinstated in 1982. Since then Bolivia has maintained peaceful transfers of power. It continued to nationalize major industries, and in 2005 elected its first Native American president, Juan Evo Morales Ayma. Today Bolivia is one of the region’s most politically stable nations.


Nicaragua first achieved independence from Spain as part of the United Provinces of Central America. It seceded in 1838. Like elsewhere in Latin America, liberal and conservative party forces remained, and then a period of intense foreign intervention followed. Conservative authoritarian rule gave way to a liberal dictatorship in 1893.Disputes over the granting of canal rights caused the United States to back a conservative revolt. The U.S. Marines stayed during most of the period until 1934.

The Somoza Years In 1934 Anastasio Somoza, head of the Nicaragua National Guard, overthrew the government and became president in 1937 after a tainted election. For over 40 years the Somoza family maintained a firm hold on the nation. Through the National Guard, the Somozas repressed civil liberties and controlled government institutions. They were able to acquire great wealth by owning or controlling large portions of the nation’s economy, including real estate, agriculture, manufacturing, and transport. The dictatorship initially enjoyed support from the United States. Support waned, however, as repression and human rights abuses increased.

Rise of the Sandinistas Marxist opposition leaders formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961. The Sandinistas, as they are known, take their name from a liberal rebel leader murdered by Somoza’s National Guard. Other opposition groups eventually supported this Marxist guerilla movement. In 1979 it toppled the Somoza regime.

The FSLN government set about repairing a country devastated by both civil war and an earthquake in 1972. It began by expropriating land held by the Somozas and their cohorts. It nationalized banks, mines, and forest resources and placed the import and export of foodstuffs under government control. A series of statutes guaranteed basic civil rights and freedoms.

Counterrevolution The Sandinistas strengthened international ties with noncommunist nations, but its relationships with Cuba and other socialist nations caused concern in the United States. The United States responded by cutting off aid to Nicaragua. Moreover, the United States supported a group of counterrevolutionaries, known as the Contras. By 1982 the Sandinista government declared a state of emergency because of the Contras’ insurgency, rolling back some of the civil rights it had established.

In 1984 the government held elections. The FSLN candidate, Daniel Ortega, won. International observers evaluated the election as fair, but the United States rejected it. The United States stepped up its economic sanctions, forcing the government to impose harsh measures to speed economic recovery. Fighting the Contras further drained the government coffers. Nicaraguans’ discontent with the Sandinista government grew, particularly among ethnic minorities and peasants.

Cease-fire The counterrevolution came to an impasse in 1986 when a scandal erupted in the United States. In 1985, during a brief period when Congress had suspended support of the insurgents, the U.S. National Security Council illegally diverted funds to aid the Contras. In light of the scandal, the United States suspended further military support. A cease-fire was negotiated in 1988. The fighting came to an end in 1990. In a closely monitored election, Nicaraguans chose U.S.-backed moderate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro over Ortega. U.S. aid to the nation resumed, and Chamorro re-privatized various aspects of the economy, such as banking and mining. Economic recovery, hampered by a hurricane in 1998, has been slow, and Ortega was reelected in 2006.

The Republic of Nicaragua today is a constitutional democracy, functioning under the constitution established in 1987 (and last reformed in 2005). It remains to be seen how far Ortega will break from his Marxist past to maintain and pursue free-market reforms in Nicaragua.

Questions for “Revolutions in Latin America”

  1. Compare and contrast the liberal and conservative ideologies of Latin America in the 1800s and 1900s.

  2. Explain the causes and outcomes of revolution for each of these countries: Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. 

  3. What role do you think these nations’ colonial pasts played in the social unrest that followed independence?

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