In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The New Left in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Sources and Translation
  • A Transnational New Left and the Global Sixties

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Latin American Studies The New Left in Latin America
Alex Aviña
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0040


In the midst of an intensified Cold War during the 1950s, something qualitatively changed within and without the Latin American Old Left. After a brief “democratic spring” immediately after World War II that witnessed the resurgence of labor unions, socialist and Communist parties, and Popular Front–like coalitions across the region, a violently authoritarian conservatism (aided by local militaries and US diplomatic and other actors) reemerged to repress a nascent Latin American social democracy. While the 1947 military coups in Peru and Venezuela marked the beginning of this reactionary process, the US-supported overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 completed a region-wide turn to authoritarian governance. Even exceptions such as Mexico experienced an intensified anti-Communism melded to one-party political rule and an inequitable political economy favorable to capital. Across the region, socialist and Communist parties, along with labor unions, faced persecution and, depending on the locale, adopted an underground, semiclandestine, and/or co-opted existence. Internal conflict and turmoil afflicted these Old Left organizations as they debated ideological orthodoxy and strategy. As the internal debates regarding reform or revolution continued throughout the 1950s, state violence and persecution—along with US intervention in Latin America—radicalized an entire generation of people (young and old) regardless of whether they were connected to Old Left institutions and politics. The 1959 Cuban Revolution politically evinced for some that the manifestation of utopian revolution (the impossible) via direct action and armed struggle proved possible. For others the utopian impulses emerged culturally in the realms of gender, sexuality, race, education, religion, fashion, family, economics, music, film, literature, and countercultural practices. Rather than articulate an argument for immediate mimesis, the Cuban Revolution helped crystallize the beginnings of an elastic, diverse, and tension-filled New Left that generally advocated direct action, confrontation with state power, antiauthoritarianism, direct democracy, and/or the undermining of traditional patriarchal norms. Such emergent New Left demands found expression through a variety of means—from guerrilla warfare to Cinema Novo and rocanrol—a variety that suggests the contradictory yet interrelated composition of the Latin American New Left. Overall, the corpus of literature reviewed here suggests the need to formulate a wide-ranging and transnational definition of the Latin American New Left that emerged during the early Cold War decades. As a relatively new and bourgeoning field of study, this intervention is timely in order to promote a research agenda that captures the historical heterogeneity of the New Left.

General Overviews

There are few, if any, works of synthesis that define the Latin American New Left as more than its armed wing. Unlike established historiographical fields in US or European history that associate the 1960s with a broadly defined New Left, the term is more readily used for Latin America to refer to the recent “pink tide” of democratically elected, left-leaning governments in Central and South America or as a descriptive label for the assortment of rural and urban guerrilla movements that emerged after the Cuban Revolution, seeking to seize state power. Wright 1991 represents a classic work that places Cuba at the historical core of the New Left—a thesis seconded by Sorenson 2007. Carr and Ellner 1993 is an early exception, focusing on persistent Old Left political forms after 1973. General overviews of the guerrilla New Left tend to posit such movements as dramatic and misguided deviations disconnected from Old Left organizations and whose use of violence provoked the consolidation of military dictatorships, Dirty Wars, and the bloody defeat of nascent social democracies. Castañeda 1993 represents the most widely read and sophisticated version of this argument. A more recent extension of the argument that guerrillas provoked the rise of military dictatorships in the late 1960s and 1970s is in Brands 2010. A striking response to such studies is Grandin 2004, which traces the radicalization and militancy of both the armed and nonarmed sections of the New Left to the violent military (and US-aided) repression of a nascent “socialized democracy and democratized socialism” that occurred throughout Latin America beginning in the late 1940s. Early Cold War instances of state terror against reformist popular movements radicalized an entire generation prior to a later adoption of revolutionary violence—as Grandin demonstrates in his case study on Cold War Guatemala. Zolov 2008 presents not only a timely historiographical intervention arguing for a broadly defined New Left to include nonarmed social movements and cultural politics but also a Mexican case study to demonstrate the intimate historical (and transnational) interconnections between the armed and nonarmed New Left. Gould 2009 adopts a transnational approach to the 1968 political mobilizations in Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay to demonstrate the conflicted yet productive relationship between Old and New Left in various arenas of struggle. Both Zolov 2008 and Gould 2009 thus offer productive, innovative models for new research.

  • Brands, Hal. Latin America’s Cold War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    Based on multinational archival research, this is a survey of the Cold War in Latin America that puts forth the traditional thesis that the Cuban Revolution in 1959 spawned superpower competition in the region—along with the radicalization of both the political Left and Right. Updated version of the argument first advanced by Castañeda 1993 that posits blame on the armed New Left for provoking state terror and the emergence of dictatorial regimes.

  • Carr, Barry, and Steve Ellner, eds. The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.

    An assortment of contributions that trace the performance of the Latin American Left (defined in party, electoral, and union terms) in the last decades of the Cold War. Essays focus on Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela to collectively argue that the Latin American Left emerged ready to engage a democratic, postdictatorship era. Good for undergraduates and scholars.

  • Castañeda, Jorge. Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War. New York: Vintage, 1993.

    Foundational text that presents the traditional thesis on the armed New Left: guerrilla groups, largely disconnected from popular support, waged suicidal war against states only to provoke terror and the emergence of military dictatorships. Also presents Cuba as the “crucible” for the vast majority of armed groups. Argues that the armed Left interrupted the emergence of organic social democracies.

  • Gould, Jeffrey L. “Solidarity Under Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968.” American Historical Review 114.2 (2009): 348–375.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.114.2.348

    A transnational analysis of the 1968 protest movements that took place in Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay. Presents the movements as constituted by both the New and Old Left, even as the New Left criticized the reformist, authoritarian tendencies of Communist parties. A utopian ethos of solidarity and egalitarianism fused both the Old and New Left in their struggle against authoritarian regimes.

  • Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    Forceful response to the traditional thesis regarding the armed New Left. Dates the beginning of the Cold War to the late 1940s, when US-aided dictatorships around the region deposed nascent social democracies. Such acts, along with state terror, radicalized an entire generation during the 1950s and 1960s—some choosing armed struggle as a political option. Uses Guatemala as a case study.

  • Sorenson, Diana. A Turbulent Decade Remembered: Scenes from the Latin American Sixties. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    Cultural-literary history of Latin America after 1959 that focuses on specific moments—the Cuban Revolution and 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre, for example—and their impact on writers and intellectuals. Argues that the politics of the 1960s were defined by a tension that existed between the desire for utopia (unleashed by the Cuban Revolution) and the recovery of past cultural memory.

  • Wright, Thomas C. Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1991.

    A broad-ranging study based on secondary sources that traces the history of the Cuban Revolution and its effect on US foreign policy in Latin America and on other revolutionary movements in Latin America, including Peru under the revolutionary military officers, Allende’s Chile, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Useful for undergraduate courses on the subject.

  • Zolov, Eric. “Expanding our Conceptual Horizons: The Shift from an Old to a New Left in Latin America.” A Contracorriente 5.2 (2008): 47–73.

    Foundational text that calls for broadening the “conceptual” definition of the Latin American New Left beyond its armed manifestations. Uses historiographical arguments on the US New Left to press for a definition of the Latin American New Left that highlights linkages between armed and nonarmed constituents. Evinces argument by delineating the shift from Old to New Left in 1950s and 1960s Mexico.

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