Revolution in global times? Domestic and International Ingredients in the Making of Social Revolutions


Carlos M. Vilas *



Revolutions are the combined outcome of a complex set of political, ideological, social, and economic factors at both national and international levels, put together by political agency. In one way or another past revolutionary processes relied on, negotiated with or had to confront the active involvement of external actors. Foreign solidarity was crucial to social revolutions in a variety of ways, from economic and technical cooperation to military training and supplies. The end of the Cold War together with the recent acceleration of global trends and widespread generalization of electoral democracies open up new national and international settings for political processes. At the same time, social and economic inequalities and fragmentation, together with massive impoverishment  persist as central traits of the social fabric in a number of these “new democracies”. Focusing on twentieth century Latin America, this essay discusses the ways national and international processes and structures impact on the probability of revolutionary challenges to the power structure as well of a radical restructuring of socio-economic settings.


1. Introduction

Social revolutions are progressive processes confronting from below the whole arrangement of power structures. When they succeed, they involve profound changes in class relations at both social, economic and political terrains, as well in the material and symbolic dimensions of individual and collective life.


Structural change can also be implemented by government agencies and bureaucratic actors not supported by or resulting from revolutionary confrontations to state power, as e.g. the Peruvian military regime from 1968 to the early 1970s, Chile’s Unidad Popular (People’s Unity) in 1970-73 or even populist experiences such as Argentina’s early Peronismo. More recently and from quite a diverse inspiration, this could also be the case of Neoliberal reforms conducted by several Latin American governments. Stressing the non-state, from below origins of revolutions and its progressive character points to their political confrontational dimension, as much to their impact in fostering access to the institutional, economic and symbolic resources of power to subaltern actors up to that moment marginalized from it --such as workers, peasants, middle classes, indigenous communities or any combination therein. Social revolutions are addressed not just to the overthrow of a ruling elite or the breakdown of the old state apparatus–the armed and security forces, courts and government agencies at both national and local levels— through non constitutional procedures, but also to the promotion of far reaching socioeconomic reforms: changes in property relations, in surplus redistribution as well in institutional and cultural   patterns of power legitimization and prestige.


Social revolutions approach political power as a means to advance structural change. Yet, there is no direct correlation between political revolutionary efforts and social or economic outcomes. In spite of their commitment to far-reaching restructuring and the tremendous social mobilization and violence they usually involve in order to seize power and consolidate its own rule, revolutionary performance in terms of structural change frequently relies on a different set of alliances, resources, capabilities and power arrangements –both domestic and international— than those that propelled the confrontation to the old régime. Moreover, in not a few cases revolutionary elites, once in power, have abandoned the instrumental perspective on political power as they tended to remain in office as long as possible, usually at the expense of shifting politico-ideological allegiances or commitments.


Revolutions are the offspring of political, ideological, social, and economic factors at both national and international levels, put together by political agency. As they have taken place in a world of nation-states, the end of the Cold War plus ongoing global restructuring and increasing trade and financial integration pose questions on the impact of new international settings and actors on the prospects for revolutionary change. Propositions purporting that revolutions were the outcome of foreign manipulation of, or intervention in, domestic affairs of weak governments could not be sustained even during the peak moments of Cold War. In turn, statements such as “a borderless world”, “the end of geography”, “a powerless state” or a “global ruling class” belong to the realm of ideology and are not grounded on evidence –nor from what we can grasp from the foreseen future.


In order to avoid speculation, this paper addresses the question from a  historical comparative perspective on twentieth century Latin American revolutions: Mexico (1910), Guatemala (1944), Bolivia (1952), Cuba (1959), Grenada (1979) and Nicaragua (1979). 1 In a variety of settings, merging different arrays of actors, and operating in specific international environments, each of them was successful in its own specific terms to seize state power and start a new structural design of their societies –the soundness or endurance of these designs not being discussed in this paper.


2. Institutions, structure and agency in social revolutions

Specific domestic socioeconomic and political conditions prompted for revolution in all these cases, which have been the subject of a great deal of literature. While I will not try to summarize it here, three elements emerge  as recurrent interlinked ingredients for the initial development of social revolutions: 1) Political oppression and illegitimate rule; 2) Regressive changes in the ongoing system of economic and social inequalities; 3) Political agency. It is worth stressing that it is the concurrence of all of them which sets up what is usually called a revolutionary situation.


Political oppression and illegitimacy

All social revolutions started as collective attempts to overthrow a government considered to be dictatorial, abusive, fraudulent or in some other way illegitimate. Not every political revolution evolved into a social one; however, none of them have been addressed to the overthrow of a conventionally acknowledged  democratic rule.


There are reasons to explain this negative correlation. Democratic rule can be inefficient in order to advance progressive socioeconomic reforms –i.e. to project democracy from the politico-institutional field to the realms of property, production, income distribution or cultural relations— thus reproducing class, ethnic or other social cleavages that many people think of as unjust. However, democratic rule provides, at least in theory, the means to peacefully and legally change things, which tends to convince many that if they device the proper instruments –a progressive political party, a talented leader, the sensibility of mass media, a progressive tax system…--, are clever enough to make the right decisions, or sufficiently stubborn to keep attached to their demands, things can be improved. On the contrary, there is small room if any for positive expectations from dictatorial rule.


People’s criteria to assess a particular government as dictatorial or illegitimate have to do not just with institutional legal questions but also with practical, daily ones. A technically illegal government –e.g. a government born out of a coup d’état or a military putsch—can grasp broad social support as it enacts social or institutional reforms advocated for long time by public opinion –as was the case of the Peruvian military regime from 1968 to 1975. In everyday life grassroots and middle-class concepts of democracy have never been exclusively built upon political-institutional matters –as referred to in the conventional Schumpeterian definition. On the contrary, they articulate institutional procedures to the ability of political rule to implement progressive socioeconomic changes. Democracy is considered to be the combined product of institutional tools and policy outcomes; it has to do not just with a particular institutional system for decision-making but also with the content of  the decisions made.


Central America is a good case in point. At the beginning of the 1960s the five Central American republics shared relatively similar economic structural traits: land and income concentration, rising urban poverty, labor markets fragmentation (Vilas 1995). Revolutionary guerrilla warfare developed in countries where this structural setting was reinforced by dictatorial rule (El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua). On the contrary, there were no revolutionary challenges in Costa Rica, whose democratic polity in addition to the social and economic reforms implemented after 1948 proved to be receptive to peasants’, workers’ and middle classes’ demands. Neither were revolutionary appeals in Honduras, whose reformist military regimes conducted a mild agrarian reform and promoted peasant organization, while their colleagues in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala harassed peasant villages, repressed workers and students, rejected representative democracy or bribed the docile conservative opposition.


Central America is not unique. Mexico’s 1910 revolution started as a reaction to Porfirio Díaz’s ambitions to manipulate once again the electoral system and get reelected for a new presidential term --a position he was holding from 1874. Political opposition from the middle classes and segments of the well-to-do people in several Northern states (such as Chihuahua, Cohauila, and Sonora) was coupled with active support from the urban petty bourgeoisie as well from small farmers, hacienda or other rural salaried workers, and small or landless peasants in Central states (Morelos, Puebla) all of them adding a variety of social and economic demands to the original political goals. Francisco I. Madero, a big landowner from Cohauila headed the opposition, gathering armed support from other anti-Diaz landowners and urban traders, as well from a dynamic class of Northern independent farmers. What was originally an expression of liberal democratic demands of anti re-election of Diaz, turned into a social revolution when Morelos’ peasants headed by Emiliano Zapata joined the revolution with demands for “Land and Liberty”, a motto they borrowed from the anarchist preach of Ricardo Flores Magón.


Persistent repression of workers and Indian peasants protesting against miserable working and living conditions together with electoral frauds led Bolivia’s Movimiento Nacionalista  Revolucionario (MNR) to commit itself to the armed overthrow of government. In 1946 the nationalist government headed by Coronel Gualberto Villarroel had been toppled by a massive upheaval in La Paz encouraged by the middle and upper class opposition in association with fractions of the army, lynching Villarroel to death. Subsequently the army became the effective government under a civilians´ façade with la rosca (as the traditional families owning mining and export businesses were known) holding effective power behind the scene. The state of siege was enacted in order to broaden repressive government capabilities against MNR’s supporters –many of whom were forced to exile— or workers’ activism. Constitutional rights and liberties were suppressed, workers protests repressed and massacred –as those in Potosi in early 1947—and municipal or legislative electoral results favoring MNR candidates ruled out. Decline in international tin prices triggered a severe fiscal crisis after the second world war. An MNR-led civilian revolt started in September 1949 and lasted for two months; in May 1950 MNR turned a La Paz factory workers´ strike into an armed insurrection which was defeated through harsh military repression. In 1951 MNR won the presidential elections with more than 70% of the votes cast; yet the army prevented MNR´s candidate to take office. In April 1952 MNR launched a more succesful insurrectionary assault; armories in several cities were open the to MNR’s militias and armed workers marched on La Paz. In spite of its reformist ideology, the evolving social conflict led MNR to commit to revolutionary changes –such as a radical agrarian reform which abolished the traditional hacienda system and the nationalization of the big mining companies— which empowered both urban and rural laboring masses together with fractions of the middle classes and eventually dismantled oligarchic rule.


Global capitalism and superpowers’ foreign policies were crucial catalysts for revolutionary upheavals; dictatorial rule was confronted not just because of its oppressive character but also because of its actual or alleged subservience to alien powers. Nationalism and anti-imperialism were central ingredients of revolutionary ideologies, as reactions to what was considered to be an exploitative and oppressive submission to foreign domination. Cuba’s revolutionary watchword Patria o Muerte! (Homeland or Death), or FSLN’s Patria Libre o Morir! (A Free Homeland or Death) witness to the presence of nationalism even in processes where class analysis and Marxist theory were openly addressed as leading ideological tools. The 1952 military coup in Cuba interrupted democratic, reformist politics and brought Fulgencio Batista back to power. His links to the beetroot sugar interests in the US Congress were soon evident. Persistent reduction of the country’s sugar cane quota in the US market forced Cuba to increase her supply to the international markets thus depressing export earnings and increasing overall economic vulnerability and social distress. Furthermore, Batista and his cronies were deeply involved in several of the US crime syndicate’s  businesses in the island –such as gambling and prostitution. These facts proved to many that Batista was little more than a puppet of foreign interests, leading to the build-up of broad social support to the revolutionary challenge (Winocur 1979:37ff). Something similar can be said of the Somozas’ dictatorship in Nicaragua. Its origins dating back to early twentieth century US military invasions, for almost half a century Somozas’ rule enjoyed uninterrupted US government support. Also in Guatemala US governments were perceived as one of the basis of Ubico’s dictatorship, as much as external articulations were identified as central ingredients of la rosca  rule in Bolivia. In turn, semicolonial bonds were approached by Grenada’s revolutionaries as the main foundations of Eric Gairy’s regime.


Reciprocal articulation of nationalism and democracy explains the efficacy of revolutionary appeals to recruit broad segments of the population beyond class borders. At one moment or the other, all Latin American revolutions were able to collect support from almost every corner of society. Political oppression proved to be a leverage for the radicalization of the urban middle sectors and their joining, and not infrequently initiating, revolutionary organizations. The political divide between actors benefiting from or supporting political oppression or foreign domination vs. the revolution, substituted for the class divide of capital vs. labor. Which explains the increasingly and at last overwhelming strength of the revolutionary coalition in its confrontation to state power, as well its internal conflicts with regard to economic, social or any other reforms once it becomes government.


The close intertwining of socioeconomic and institutional criteria in people’s assessments of the quality of a political regime points to a common trait of social revolutions. While starting as political revolutions addressed at the overthrow of an illegitimate government, it  was the massive involvement of the laboring poor with their own demands of social and economic justice and their own symbolic constructions of democracy and social equality (usually developing out of their local, daily life experiences) what prompted up their original politically restricted character to a more radical social one. As Che Guevara put it: “Agrarian reform was not our invention: it was a commination from the peasantry, it was their imposition upon the revolution” (Guevara 1970, II:18).


Regressive socioeconomic changes

Instability, insecurity and inequality at both the structural and micro levels are persistent features of the Latin American countries where social revolutions took place. At the time revolution began all of them were non-industrial economies highly specialized in mining and agricultural production/exports, extremely dependent of the ups and downs of the highly concentrated international markets which set their export prices and condition the levels of domestic economic activity as well the amount of government earnings. Since export goods make a tiny or no part of domestic consumption, productivity increases and lowering production costs in  export production have no  relevant impact on domestic consumption thus deepening the cleavages between both sectors of society. As the chances of these countries to influence international prices is by definition almost none, and since they have to compete with a large number of underdeveloped economies producing the same variety of primary goods under basically similar technical conditions, investors resort to intense labor exploitation --harsh employment standards, low wages and peasant crops’ prices, and the like—in order to increase profits. Persistent high levels of open unemployment, and seasonal employment with a short peak of high employment during harvest time followed by the long “idle season”, compounds the overall matrix of inequality, instability and insecurity. 2


In all, this matrix and its dynamics is the outcome of an increasing tributary articulation to global capitalism. New or renewed modes of capitalist penetration with their impact in terms of shifting land uses, peasant eviction, cash rent substituting for labor or in-kind rent, commercial chains pushing small shops or traders to marginality or bankruptcy, rural migration to cities, growing urban poverty, disruption of family life, increasing labor exploitation to match lowering agricultural or mining yields for lack or insufficient  technological improvements, downsized employment levels because of new technical biases, augmented dependence on food imports and thus of the international prices thence embodied… All of them reinforced by government agencies through legal reforms, disregard of people’s demands or complaints, or open police or military repression, in some cases with foreign support or advice --from the US Marines to USAID, World Bank or IMF technocrats-- and  combined with the perception and the evidence of enrichment and prosperity enjoyed by others. As stated in emotional overtones by an MNR’s cadre:  


“…Bolivians were  repressed with a cruelty never known before in Latin

American history; so, they decided it was better to risk loosing their lives in one definitive combat, than to slowly die in an endless chain of small defensive skirmishes whence they lacked any initiative. This repressed people were mature men, many of them owning a home –which in many cases was to be lost--; they were not frenetic youngsters dreaming with adventure, but adult individuals who had balanced the  pros and cons of what was happening and of  what was going to happen. They had seen their careers cut down, their  progress stopped, their families annihilated, their children in hunger, their wives in daily wandering. They witnessed to the prosperity of the hundreds of protégés and partners of the ruling elites --foreign adventurers that, after enriching themselves, left the country in abundance, having squeezed Bolivia as if she were an attractive California plenty of gold and hard currencies, while Bolivia-born human beings were persecuted like beasts, harassed in every  corner, mistreated in prisons or chased in foreign countries. Anything was better than living in such conditions” (Frontaura Argandoña 1974:237-238). 3


Due to their structural stability, precapitalist or advanced capitalist societies afford few opportunities for revolutionary mobilization. Common people have an assigned place in social relations, with institutionalized systems of rewards and punishments; social behavior is predictable. The probability of revolutionary challenges is tied most closely to the dislocations and conflicts set forth by the transition from one kind of society to another, by the always conflictive move towards a society dominated by the market, commercial agriculture, agro industry, capital and credit concentration, and growing globalization of economic and  social  processes. The  speed  of  mutations is as important as their depth –which means that their negative impact encompasses large segments of the population and not just the lower strata (where deprivation is a persistent feature of everyday life) thus fostering the availability of middle classes and also fractions of the upper class, to revolutionary appeals. When changes are introduced at a very fast pace –such as those stemming from the repercussions of international crisis upon “boom and bust” economies, wars (specially for people belonging to the defeated party), new legal patterns of access to resources, or even natural catastrophes as earthquakes or floods— people lose their mode of integration in the social order faster than they gain new ones, thus experiencing a feeling of exclusion which is not just a product of their imagination.


Under Porfirio Díaz’s 36 years-long rule, privatization of fiscal and communal lands to foster the development of agro-industrial capitalism spreaded instability and impoverishment among the peasantry, forcing them to new ways for survival. Hundreds of pueblos indios were expelled from their lands; lacking individual titles on communal possessions, villagers had no legal way to resist eviction. Proletarianization of the labor force was also nurtured by rapid urban industrial development together with road and railroad construction. New patterns of inequality and deprivation developed. Booming financial and land-related businesses went hand in hand with harsh life for thousands of laboring poor in cities and countryside; traditional rights and life patterns were subverted by new production relations. Growth of salaried labor was not coupled by improvements in workers’ organization or  bargaining power. As in any multi-ethnic society, class relations prompted by capitalist development articulated to ethno-linguistic identities rooted in communal or other non profit-led social matrix, thus reinforcing social conflicts. At the same time, social structure diversified, particularly in cities, where furthering social division of labor prompted for the growth of new middle classes. Support to Madero’s revolution was thus fed by broad grass-root and middle-class social demands, as Diaz’s encouragement of mass deprivations through legal reforms and army or police repression was evident to many, as were government alliances with regional oligarchies (Wolf 1969, Brading 1980).  


From 1941 to 1944 consumer real prices in Guatemala grew by 50%, assessing a severe blow to large segments of the urban population. Increases in house rents, food and clothing, plus skyrocketing prices in import goods put leverage to a broad resentment against the government no just in urban and rural workers but also in the middle classes (Bulmer-Thomas 1993). During the Second World War export earnings from coffee grew. Despite the subsequent increase in fiscal earnings Ubico’s government refused to smooth its economic policies. Wages and employment in the public sector were not improved, and restrictions on credit to private investment persisted. As the entire economy resented because of insufficient liquidity, government accounts were relatively buoyant; there was an open contrast between an enriched government and an impoverished society. “Under these circumstances, the ingredients that had legitimized Ubico’s economic management withered away. (…) The middle sectors resented the burden of policies which in their perspective were just a product of the dictator’s whims (…) Government policies paralyzed almost completely the channels for social mobility for the middle classes which had favored their expansion over the previous 13 years” (Tischler 1998:181). Tensions between deceleration of upward social mobility, frozen wages and public employment, and inflation, manifested in a deep resentment and frustration of the urban middle classes vis-á-vis Ubico’s government which was by now broadly evaluated as an open dictatorship. Moreover, government repression of urban workers and middle classes demands involved the rapid erosion of “the traditional mechanism of paternalist mediation of the state towards the subaltern urban classes” (ibid, 185).


At the eve of revolution Cuba ranked as one of the five most developed Latin American economies according to standard indicators such as per capita GDP, non-rural employment, infant mortality rate or adult literacy. Yet it was a distorted economy with sharp cleavages between urban and rural areas, highly vulnerable to the ups and downs of the international prices of its main and almost only export commodity (cane sugar) which imposed to the whole Cuban society an intense structural instability. Investment and basic services  concentrated in Havana. The tight quota system for Cuba’s sugarcane harvests imposed by the US government –diligently accepted by Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship-- in order to protect US producers of beet-root sugar  involved additional restrictions and instability to the overall economic and social life. According to government figures,  on the eve of the revolution open unemployment averaged 20-30% of the Cuban active population; under-employment ranked as high in cities as in the countryside, while seasonal employment involved about one fifth of rural wage workers. Labor insecurity was a persistent feature in everyday life for a great deal of Cubans, which conditioned their judgments on, and relations to, the institutional setting and turned them into fertile soil for the revolutionary appeal (see Cruz Díaz 1982). Due to consumer-price increases, real per capita income fell down during much of the 1950s. By 1956 Cuba’s per capita income averaged 336 pesos/year, while most of rural families earned no more than 90 pesos per year (rural population amounting to about two fifths of the national population). Corruption was overwhelming at all levels of government. “Perception of foreign dominance and exploitation of the Cuban economy, high unemployment, declining real income for many in the 1950s, and the poverty of the rural population all contributed to the growth of mass discontent preceding the revolution” (DeFronzo 1991:162).  Not just the masses: by mid 1958 several of the largest producers of sugar cane had stepped aside of the government and joined the revolutionary coalition.


Corruption, political authoritarianism and disregard of mass demands undermined in Grenada the legitimacy of Prime Minister Eric Gairy’s regime. Mobilizations for full independence from the British Commonwealth and social improvement from workers and progressive middle sectors were met with systematic police repression. A tiny island in the Caribbean, Grenada’s economy displays every characteristic of any small-sized economy: deep articulation to the international markets yet with no way to play a meaningful role there; highly vulnerable to the ups and downs of external factors and no control thereof; high reliance on export earnings coming from staples with marginal market impact either as consumption goods or production inputs (e.g. nut-meg); lacking infrastructure assets which could  insert her in the Caribbean Basin tourism circuit. A highly overpopulated country, migration to the United States or the United Kingdom was a typical way out for young people looking for better horizons. Revolution was another. Young professionals from middle class with college education and experience in grass-root organization, developed open confrontation to the Gairy régime; under the inspiration of both Black Power ideology and the Cuban revolution they were able to gather a broad support from workers, poor peasants and middle class salaried employees (Pryor 1986).


In Nicaragua, the Somoza family’s almost 50 years-long dictatorship was a direct offspring of US invasions in the 1920s. Export agriculture (cotton, sugarcane, cattle) expanded in the 1950s and 1960s directly linked to the post-World War boom of the US economy. Changes in legal patterns of land tenure and ownership fostered massive peasant eviction, swelling the ranks of rural wage earners and forcing migration to towns or to the mountains. By 1970 almost 39 percent of peasant families were landless. Even before the earthquake that left Managua in ruins in December 1972, urban poverty had exploded as a combined product of migration and the inability of a weak industrial sector to supply employment to the growing population. Meanwhile, new fortunes were built through access to state subsidies and further peasant evictions. In the wake of the earthquake, 57 percent of Managua's population lost their jobs, and 60 percent of the inhabitants were forced to move elsewhere. Urban life was dismembered and remained in that condition for years. The impact of the overlapping of oligarchic accumulation and geological catastrophe on the everyday life of the people was compounded by the National Guard's pillaging and the misappropriation of foreign relief aid by officials of the Somoza government. Segments of the business elite began to separate themselves from the Somoza family, whom they accused of indulging in "unfaithful competition"--corruption, illegal privatization of government-owned assets, manipulation of information and credit, and the like. The tight alliance between Somoza and the traditional elites began to crumble, at the very moment when social unrest and mobilizations were climbing and guerrilla warfare increased its challenges to state power (Vilas 1985).


Political agency

Increasing inequality, economic hardships or political oppression  are insufficient conditions for revolution. A number of Latin American societies display levels of insecurity and instability as intense as those of any of the pre-revolutionary settings in the countries where revolutions took place. Long lasting cruel dictatorships have not been infrequent in the hemisphere up to very recently. Political repression, if effective and combined with ideological manipulation over the years and benefiting from international tolerance, can smash opposition and bring stability to reactionary governance. Traditional religion can afford an explanation for the inconveniences in daily life turning them into signs of salvation and eternal justice. Conservative political parties or leaderships can convince the victims of exploitation that they have to blame no one but themselves for their miseries. People may also run away from aggressive settings: either to neighboring countries looking for a better second chance, or to their very inside though the increasing appeal of charismatic or esoteric cults which always recruit masses of poor or subaltern people in times of crisis. Revolution is just one, and frequently the most complex, difficult and painful,  response.


Poverty, insecurity, oppression, increasing inequality, set the stage for revolutions; as in any stage, agency is needed for the drama to be performed. Revolutions involve consciousness, organization and leadership, which do not develop in spontaneity –although there are always ingredients of spontaneity in every revolutionary process. Spontaneous upheavals can display  extraordinary levels of anger and violence; yet most often than not they prove intransitive in order to topple governments or overturn social oppression. Spontaneous struggle against exploitation or authoritarianism usually restrains itself to the local expressions of political or economic rule: burning down or plundering plantations, factories, commercial shops, and the like.  It is addressed to hit the material or symbolic manifestations of power which are at hand, the faster the better. 4  Repression, isolation, or weariness, may drive them to  end and things keep on going as usual or for worst.


Revolutionary consciousness has to be developed, taught and learnt. It develops from memories and reinterpretations of past struggles which make up the history of any country all over the world: people’s involvement in wars against Spanish rule in Cuba or against Spanish rule and  French invasion in Mexico; struggle against US invasions in both México and Nicaragua; Black Power anti-racism in Grenada; farmers’ resistance against apache raids in Northern México;  and so on. This re-reading of  history includes a revivalism of heroes from the past which turn to be leaders in the present: e.g. the mambises and Martí in Cuba, or Andrés Castro and Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua (Vilas 1989b). It can also be developed out of a different, conflictive approach to religious beliefs which stresses the suffering imposed to the people of God (which is equalized to the contemporary sufferings of peasants, workers, poor students and the like) by the greed and selfishness of the powerful. 5  It is worth stressing that this counter hegemonic discourse is built upon a different articulation of basically the same ingredients of everyday life that make up the discourse of resignation diffused by the ruling elites.


The teachers of revolutionary consciousness may be priests, preachers, journalists, social or health workers, school teachers, university professors, students, agricultural extension trainers and, of course, political activists --what in a previous work I called external agents (Vilas 1995:27-31). They teach the common people the many causes and expressions of their grievances and frustrations and to judge them as manifestations of injustice --i.e. something which is not deserved since they have no responsibility in its engendering or reproduction— or sin.  They praise on the advantages and gains of thinking, discussing, working and struggling together –i.e., of organization—, strengthen their trust in their own efforts and political efficacy, and train them to link their individual experiences of oppression or exploitation to general impersonal processes and actors. In so doing, they contribute to the building of revolutionaries as a collective actor. Not just the summing up of a collection of individuals but a common entity put together by their experience and rejection of oppression; not just confronting this or that foreman, landowner or hoarder but capital; not merely reacting against a repressive police squad or army officer, but fighting against  state power.


In a variety of ways this was the role played in Mexico by Ricardo Flores Magón’s ideological pray over the years, as well by Madero’s Partido Anti Reelexionista. This was also the role of the students’ and teachers’ movements in Guatemala, as well that of MNR and the ideology of indigenismo in Bolivia, of Cuba’s 26th of July Movement and its Rebel Army; the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in Nicaragua. Each in its own way, they trained people to participate in the different ways demanded by  a revolutionary challenge to state power; they also spreaded an ideology that, mixing nationalism with an elementary class analysis, afforded a political explanation of people’s grievances and even a religious one –as was the case of Liberation Theology in the Nicaraguan revolution. Moreover, they convinced large segments of the people and the middle classes that victory would only be possible through their own direct involvement in struggle, as well that the only meaningful and succesful struggle was that which was led by that particular organization. The outcome of this ideological process is summed up in the words of an FSLN Comandante: “Peasants… responded as if by magic, yet there was really no more magic than the years we spent in the mountains” (Ruiz 1980).


3. Foreign settings and actors

Latin American social revolutions developed in a variety of regional and international settings, interacting in a number of ways with external actors and processes. Mexico´s revolution made its road in a time when the US was still building her hegemony upon the Western Hemisphere; Guatemala’s and Bolivia’s revolutions belong to the beginning and early years of the Cold War, while the other three revolutions triumphed during the peak of the Cold War system in areas of uncontested US regional supremacy. Free trade and free cross-border investment were central traits of the world economy in the times of the Mexican revolution; the international trade, investment  and monetary system was looking for a new architecture when the Guatemalans mobilized against dictatorship and oligarchic rule; Bolivia´s and Cuba´s revolutions belong to the golden years of the Bretton Woods regulated world economy –a system that was crumbling down under the initial blows of the current stage of globalization when the Grenadian and Nicaraguan revolutionaries were seizing power in their countries.


Being the hegemonic power in twentieth century Latin America, the US government approached revolutions as dimensions of its own confrontations to third, non-Hemispheric parties, be they Germany or Great Britain during the Mexican revolution, or the USSR with regard to the post-Second World War revolutions (Blasier 1978; LaFeber 1984; Vilas 1991). Policy actions with regard to revolutions were extremely dependent of the US government perceptions of the challenges effectively or supposedly posed by revolutions to national security, perceptions which in turn were decisively influenced by the third parties’ policies towards revolutionary processes and regimes. The traditional support afforded by most US governments to oligarchic or dictatorial rule in Latin America convinced policy-makers that challenges to their Latin American allies could only be the product of some kind of overseas intrusion  in Washington’s national affairs. Against this backdrop, US reactions were also shaped by the particular traits of each revolutionary process, as well by the ability of specific actors to influence Washington’s foreign policy-making –either US actors or those belonging to the country in revolution.


The Taft administration displayed open distrust towards Mexico’s revolutionaries; in 1913 it celebrated –and the US embassy contributed to—general Huerta’s counter-revolutionary military coup which overthrew the new constitutional government and assassinated Francisco Madero and vice president Pino Suárez. On the contrary, Wilson  sympathized with the anti-Huerta opposition, his preferences going to the less radical side. In the autumn of 1914 Francisco Villa –who had just defeated Huerta— and Emiliano Zapata convened in Aguascalientes to launch a radical program threatening the middle class reformers whose leader was Venustiano Carranza. By then, the US had invaded the strategic Veracruz port –as part of Wilson’s decision to undermine Huerta’s government-- and Villa’s and Zapata’s combined forces were in control of Mexico City, ruling nearly all of the country.  As the Constitutionalists fate seemed to dwindle due to insufficient weaponry and financial resources, the US evacuated Veracruz to Carranza, leaving him arms and ammunition. Shortly afterwards Carranza’s allies seized the oil fields in the Gulf Coast and the henequen lands in Yucatan; this provided the Constitutionalists with substantial export earnings which contrasted with increasing financial predicaments in the radical forces. In 1915 Villa’s army was defeated by the more advanced US military technology afforded by the Wilson administration to the Constitutionalists. US involvement in the revolution’s internal feuds proved to be a crucial  contribution to the victory of its moderate, middle-class tendencies and the subsequent defeat of the radical program. However, in the  1930s US governments had to accept oil nationalization as well the deepening of agrarian reform by the Lázaro Cárdenas’ government, and an improvement of bilateral relations did not took place until well after the Second World War.


In Guatemala opposition to agrarian reform from the landed elites, the Catholic Church as well from fractions of the middle classes, was fostered by the support gathered from the Eisenhower government. Agrarian reform expropriated the United Fruit Co. of about two thirds of its land holdings; some of its transport subsidiaries were also affected by a number of governmental infrastructure development projects. UFCO was depicted by Guatemala’s government as an example of a combination of economic backwardness, social abuses and foreign domination. The firm was the largest land owner in Guatemala and a great proportion of its holdings were kept idle in reserve. Two key policy-makers of the Eisenhower administration –John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen— were important UFCO’s stockholders, which increased the US political confrontation to the revolution. US and Guatemala´s upper classes fear of a Communist take-over of the Arbenz government were fueled up when  the small, recently founded Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (Guatemalan Workers’ Party) provided a number of professionals and technicians in the most conflictive areas of economic and labor reforms. After a partially successful attempt at condemning the revolutionary regime at the Organization of American States, the US appealed to funding and providing logistic support to a military invasion from Honduras. In the immediate aftermath of the Arbenz government’s defeat a drastic, counter-revolutionary process was launched to completely reverse socioeconomic and political changes.


The aggressive confrontation to the Guatemalan revolution is in open contrast to US benevolence to Bolivia’s. After some years in power the MNR committed itself to attract foreign capital, protect private property and to put mine workers’ demands and mobilizations under tight state control –a turn prompted by the overall disarray of Bolivia’s economy as an initial  byproduct of structural change and political conflict. Policy shifts were supported by generous US official aid to social programs –including shipments of food which eased the transition from the hacienda system to the reformed one; in the early 1960s Bolivia became the largest single recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America. While sustaining both agrarian reform and state-ownership of mining, oil and gas production and refinery, Bolivia´s diplomacy actively joined the US side in the Cold War, which included repression of the Communist Party as well that of most of left-wing political, labor or social organizations.


Opposition to the Cuban revolution –which includes a number of indirect military operations and a four decades-long embargo— has been a reaction to the initial economic nationalizations and subsequent Cuba´s diplomatic, military and economic integration to the Soviet bloc –human rights and democratic concerns being late comers to the inventory of US complaints. During the 1960s and early 1970s the US governments succeeded in a Hemispheric isolation of Cuba –with Mexico as the lonely exception. However Cuba was able to progressively overturn it and well before the implosion of the Soviet Union full diplomatic and trade relations had been re-established with most of Latin American countries. Moreover, the dismembering of the USSR and the Soviet bloc have not improved the US chances to regain political control over the island. As Cuba’s socialism is being submitted to far reaching changes in order to rearticulate the country to the new international settings –a process whose final outcome is hard to figure out--, nationalism is gaining new grounds in the regime’s ideology.


USSR support was vital to overcome US pressures. Close articulation  to the Soviet version of socialist development involved a number of domestic issues ranging from complex technological and organizational changes to political,  ideological and cultural matters,  which  eventually increased the costs of current shifts. Yet, Cuba´s case was unique. It was not reproduced, not even in a minor scale, either in Grenada or in Nicaragua –despite the fact that, if compared to previous records, the Soviet bloc’s involvement in the latter looked overwhelming. In turn, Havana’s economic and military support to both regimes was an additional argument for persistent US confrontation to all three revolutions. Grenada and Nicaragua were depicted as tools of Cuban/Soviet  expansionism towards the Caribbean Basin and thus a direct threat to US national security. US confrontation to Grenada’s revolution climaxed with the 1983 invasion amidst the internal conflicts that cracked the New Jewell government down. Nicaragua was able to withstand Ronald Reagan’s government manifold opposition –ranging from open encouragement to right wing domestic political and business forces, to economic sanctions and military, financial and logistic support to counterrevolutionary armies—at the cost of increasing economic crisis, social drawbacks and militarization. Together, they paved the road to the 1990 electoral victory of an anti-Sandinista coalition enjoying the explicit sympathies of  the US government.  


Latin American and Caribbean countries played a variety of roles vis-à-vis revolutions and US policies towards them. Some neighboring countries behaved as middlemen to US counter-revolutionary policies –such as Honduras with regard to the 1954 invasion to Guatemala; Nicaragua in the 1961 invasion to Cuba; Honduras, El Salvador and to a lesser extent Costa Rica in US support to anti-Sandinista contras; the Eastern Caribbean states in the immediate aftermath of Grenada’s invasion. On the contrary, Costa Rica and Panama were strategic rearguards for the Sandinista insurrection, as was Honduras  --though in a minor scale. In the 1940s and 1950s Argentina’s Peronist government was openly supportive to both Guatemala´s revolution --which included arms shipments to the Arbenz regime— and the Bolivian one; MNR’s exiles moved and acted in Buenos Aires in the open sun, as in the late 1970s the Sandinistas did in San José, Panama City or Mexico City.  Moreover, in the 1980s a number of Latin American governments enacted a network of succesful diplomatic initiatives addressed at a peaceful resolution of the Central American crisis which the Reagan administration was unable to countervail.  In addition, European and Latin American support was important in order to reduce dependence from Soviet development aid in Nicaragua, as it has been to complement current economic restructuring in Cuba. In all, Latin American governments’ stances towards revolutions were as much an outcome of domestic power relations and political traditions as a product of their own insertion into specific regional or global environments.


4. Revolutions in global settings?                                                              

The end of the Cold War together with on-going global economic restructuring set new regional and international stages for the prospects for revolutionary change in Latin America. The withering away of the Soviet bloc, current economic changes in both Cuba’s and China’s economies –as well China’s affiliation to the WTO--, combined with increasing world-scale financial and trade integration, shrink the room for socialist alternatives, as previous attempts have always relied on cooperation from already established socialist regimes –with the obvious exception of Russia’s revolution. However, socialism was not a crucial ingredient of Mexico’s revolution, neither of the Bolivian or the Guatemalan ones. Cuba’s socialist transition was a by product of its increasing defensive articulation to the Soviet bloc –a dimension of Cold War’s power politics much more than an ingredient of the original revolutionary design. Whether there was or not a transition to some variety of socialism in either Grenada or Nicaragua is still an open question. The hypothesis of a “non-capitalist path to development”, which inspired not a few theoretical discussions up to very recently had basically to do with the many specificities and divergences of these processes with regard to standard Soviet or even classical socialist/Marxist approaches (Thomas 1974; Amirahmadi 1987; Vilas 1987, 1989a). However, central in those discussions was the “moral obligation” of advanced socialist countries to support more backward ones –as Che Guevara spelled it out in the 1963 Algiers meeting of non-aligned countries. Or, in Engels’ words, “to teach them how to do it” (Engels 1894). It is easy to realize that the current international settings do not supply any longer a great deal of teachers.


Yet this is too general an approach for arguing on the chances for new revolutionary challenges in Latin America. In any case, it focuses on the “second moment” of any revolution, once it has turned into state power. What about then with regard to its “first”, “from below” moment?


As stated before, revolutions stem from a specific combination of political oppression, socioeconomic grievances and inequalities, and political agency. In sharp contrast to most of twentieth century, the current Latin American political landscape is one of representative democracies. Competitive party politics and elections through universal suffrage have substituted for dictatorships or authoritarian political regimes, with left political elites and organizations as active participants –uneven success notwithstanding— in the institutional game. In both El Salvador and Guatemala guerrilla warfare ended up in rounds of political negotiation which eventually led to constitutional reforms and the insertion of the former insurgents into civil life and mainstream politics; this looks also to be the inevitable future of the Chiapas conflict. In Colombia, guerrillas seem to approach war as a means to strengthen their positions until the moment arrives when political negotiation will be the only feasible option for all the parties.


Consequently, neither institutional settings, nor political rule or agency, look promissory for a revolutionary alternative today. Not because of the absence of guerrilla warfare challenges to state power --neither in Mexico nor in Guatemala, Bolivia or Grenada was it the vehicle of revolution, while in Nicaragua mass insurrections were as important resources as guerrilla-- 6 but because as has been discussed, democratic stages have never been conducive to revolutions. Even if, from a Marxist perspective, the democratic capitalist state is nothing more than the veil for bourgeois dictatorship (Moore 1971), revolutions popped up when state power not  just performed as, but  looked like, dictatorship –i.e. when the theoretical concept becomes open, un-mediated evidence.


In turn, several aspects of recent economic restructuring –such as rising social inequalities, persistent poverty growth, or labor market fragmentation— add to the traditional sources and expressions of social and economic inequalities in most of Latin America. According to a number of sources, the region ranks first all over the world in terms of social inequality –even when compared to least developed areas such as Africa (CEPAL 1997; IADB 1998). In little more than a decade privatization of state-owned firms, public utilities, health and educational services and pension and retirement systems; across the board deregulation of finance; downsizing of unions’ bargaining power; and dismantling of institutional solidarity networks, pushed for drastic changes in power resources as well quality of life for a great deal of Latin Americans, damaging not just social but also individual physical security. Representative democracy, which for decades and from a broad range of political affiliations was approached as a means to promote social progress, turned to be, under the aegis of the “Washington Consensus”, the instrument to advance increased concentration of wealth, power, and  well-being, risking to confirm the most vulgar depiction of the state as the “steering committee” of the ruling class.


As in early and mid twentieth century, current global processes and actors contribute to the build up of the new regional and domestic settings and to their evolving  tensions, conflicts and contradictions. World Bank, IADB or IMF technocrats accomplish the roles once performed by US Marines or USAID in reforming state institutions and advancing market economies, tightening relations between increasingly “globalized” domestic elites and increasingly “internalized” foreign actors. “Globalization” of domestic elites clearly updates traditional outward biases of Latin American ruling classes. Income and welfare concentration in the upper levels of society grows not only at the expense of the laboring poor or the unemployed, as “new poverty” chases increasing segments of the middle classes and deregulation and global finance drive not a few business sectors into bankruptcy. Far from reducing social inequalities, capitalist globalization reproduces at the domestic level its contribution to uneven development and to deepen cleavages in quality of life at a world scale. From this perspective, kinship ties between late twentieth century globalization and early and mid century imperialism, are worth to be explored.


Concluding remarks

Do the new global and domestic settings foster revolutions? On the contrary, do they hinder them? Our brief comparative trip to Latin American revolutions should have made explicit that each revolution bears the imprint of its time. Every historical period has its own kinds of social injustice, political oppression, collective actions, emancipatory aspirations. The challenge to social and political analysts is to acknowledge the permanent features of social revolutions beneath their shifting phenomenologies.


Revolutions have never been around the corner. As has been seen,  they are the product of a number of political, social and economic circumstances, put together by people’s conviction that the current situation is unbearable, that they have no obligation to accept it, that there are good chances to get rid of it, and that there are no alternatives to that particular way of getting rid of it. Revolutions are as much a product of will as of necessity –and necessity, as political will, is a collective construct. Whether the socioeconomic and political scenarios set forth by globalization contribute to foster or to prevent them, is a question that can only elicit discrete, case-oriented responses. Even within these borders, social sciences can only provide hypothetical assessments on whether a specific combination of those ingredients, in a given setting,  is conducive to a revolutionary situation. Political success, for both insurgencies and governments, is a contingency, and contingency, as Commander Ruiz’s magia, has to be tirelessly worked out. Then it may, or may not, show up.









*  Graduate Studies Professor, Universidad Nacional de Lanús (Argentina). Opinions in this paper are the exclusive responsibility of the author. Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo.  

1  In addition, guerrilla warfare was or is waged in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, southern Mexico. They have either succumbed under state repression (Peru); ended-up in negotiations in both El Salvador and Guatemala which enabled  participation of (now former) revolutionary organizations in institutional politics; shifted to a symbolic or moral demand for government enactment of Indigenous communal rights (Chiapas) or  persist in the stage of politico-military confrontation to state power (Colombia). This paper does not deal with them for they do not qualifyfont-size:12px; (yet? no longer?) as social revolutions.

2  See Rodriguez 1979:29ff and  Winocur 1979:101ff on Cuba; Vilas 1989a: 83ff on Central America.

3  The portrait of the MNR’s rank and file as some kind of Andean yeomanry is remarkably similar to Katz’s depiction of the Northern social bases of the first wave (1910-11) of the Mexican Revolution, as compared to the predominantly younger and poorer profile of those involved in the peasant armies of the post-1912 period (Katz 1998, vol. I).

4  Colombia’s 1948 “bogotazo” is a good example of massive spontaneous violence which, lacking both organization and leadership, ended up in a reinforcement of people’s oppression. See Fidel Castro’s recollections of his involvement in “bogotazo” in Alape (1984).

5  Cfr Cardenal (1979). This is not a unique feature of Central American contemporary revolutions; cfr Clemeña Ileto (1979).

6  According to a member of the FSLN National Directorate, “The truth is that the masses were always taken into account, but they were viewed more as a support for the guerrilla, so that the guerrilla as such could smash the National Guard and not as it happened in practice; it was the guerrilla that served as support for the masses so that they, through the insurrection, could demolish the enemy” (Ortega Saavedra 1980).   

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