BY BART JONES
CARACAS -- Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Evita. The Bay of Pigs,
Missile Crisis, the Mexican Revolution. Dirty wars, debt crises, dictators.
Latin Americans had a tumultuous 20th Century. They are in a new
century now --
but still struggling to overcome the problems that gripped the region in 1900:
mass poverty, corrupt governments, social injustice and authoritarian rule.
``In Latin America the entire 19th Century and a great part of
the 20th Century
was a battle between dictatorships and democracies,'' says Venezuelan historian
In Venezuela, one of the top suppliers of oil to the United States,
this struggle is
being played out dramatically. A former military coup leader has risen to the
presidency pledging to address the ills that have troubled the South American
country for years.
Critics say President Hugo Chavez may represent a return to the
days of the
strongman, like his idol and 19th Century independence hero Simon Bolivar,
promising to ride in on a white horse and single-handedly resolve the country's
MEXICAN UPRISING LED THE WAY
Chavez's self-styled ``peaceful revolution'' closed out a century
that began with a
Latin American revolt that reverberated far beyond the region. The 1910 Mexican
Revolution led by Francisco Madero was the 20th Century's first great uprising of
the poor masses, preceding the Russian Revolution by seven years and the
Communist victory in China by nearly four decades.
By 1917 the Mexican rebels produced a constitution that ``was
unprecedented for its time,'' says Mary Roldan, a professor at Cornell University.
It promised land reform, free education, the right to unionize, even maternity leave.
``It held out this kind of beacon of hope, that there was this
possibility for national
transformation,'' Roldan says.
The revolution never fulfilled its promise, though, and many of
persist. In 1994, a new group of rebels taking the name Zapatistas -- after the
revolutionary fighter Emiliano Zapata -- rose up against the Mexican government in
the name of social justice.
PERON, EVITA BUILD BROAD POWER BASE
Halfway through the 20th Century, another beacon of hope sprang
up in Latin
America, this time in Argentina. Juan Peron and his wife, Eva, popularly known as
``Evita,'' gave the downtrodden a sense of power.
Building a power base among formerly oppressed unions, Juan Peron
workers unheard-of benefits and Evita personally handed out clothes, money and
Even today ``if you talk to someone who was the child of a factory
became a Peronist and as a result of that had holiday vacations or free dental
care, Peron was a god and Evita was a saint, and Argentina has been going
downhill ever since,'' Roldan says.
But the Perons also polarized Argentina, with the middle class
and rich saying
they destroyed the economy and led the country into fascist rule. In 1976,
Peron's widow -- his third wife, Isabel -- was overthrown as president in a coup
that ushered in a military dictatorship and an infamous Dirty War against
The other great turning point for the region came in 1959, when
overthrew Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Among Castro's companions was
an Argentine doctor named Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara, who became a worldwide
symbol of the struggle for justice.
Castro quickly clashed with the United States, leading to the
failed Bay of Pigs
invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year. This face-off took the
planet to the edge of nuclear war, until the Soviet Union agreed to remove
missiles it had put in Cuba.
Castro embraced communism and built health and education systems
became models for Third World countries. But the island needed huge subsidies
from the Soviet Union, and plunged into economic crisis after European
communism fell in 1989 and Cuba's trade with Soviet bloc nations plummeted.
Yet Castro remains in power. His survival ``speaks of a process
with deep roots in
the Cuban society that no one can deny,'' says Teodoro Petkoff, a former 1960s
guerrilla leader in Venezuela who became sharply critical of communism.
HEAVY DEBT LOAD WEIGHED ON REGION
Recent years saw Latin America shed centuries of dictatorship.
Civil wars in
Central America and military dictatorships in countries like Argentina and Chile
gave way to democratically elected governments. Decades of statist economics
were jettisoned in favor of free market economies.
But a heavy debt load run up in the 1980s has held back economic
and free market policies produced disappointing growth in the 1990s, says
Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
Most Latin Americans are poorer now than they were in 1980, Shifter
World Bank says a fourth of Latin Americans live on a dollar a day or less, while
the United Nations calculates that 40 percent of the population can't meet basic
A mass exodus from the countryside and a population explosion
from 70 million
people a century ago to nearly 500 million people today has turned once tranquil
cities into teeming, filthy and dangerous places. In much of the region public
schools remain poor, justice systems are racked with corruption, and
governments are bloated and inefficient.
And now leaders promising to look for new solutions are rising
to the forefront.
Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup, then was elected
president in December 1998, is wildly popular among Venezuela's poor, while he
stokes fear in the wealthy elite.
He says he is searching for a ``third way'' between communism
and the ``savage
capitalism'' of the new globalized economy.
His detractors fear Chavez, along with Peru's Alberto Fujimori,
may be at the
forefront of a new wave of leaders going back to strongman rule -- who spout
populist rhetoric but fail to deepen democracy.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald