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World History / Lesson 7: Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean

Setting the Scene

  • Oscar Romero was a conservative member of El Salvador's elite until he became archbishop. Then, he began to condemn government death squads that were killing peasants and students opposed to the government. From his pulpit, he announced, "The church would betray its fidelity to the gospel if it stopped being a defender of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society."
  • Romero's outspoken stance cost him his life. On March 24, 1980, as he said mass, shots rang out. Moments later, Romero lay dead, a victim of the death squads he had denounced. But others took his place, and the protest against injustice continued. As one Salvadoran activist commented, "If you silence a prophet, he will speak out through his people."
  • In the latter half of the 1900s, El Salvador and other Central American countries were battered by civil wars. To the north, their larger and richer neighbor, Mexico, weathered those decades with relatively less turmoil.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

  • Mexico endured a long, violent revolution in the early 1900s. After the revolution, government officials became committed-at least in theory-to improving conditions for the poor.
  • In the 1930s, Mexico's president, L ízaro C írdenas, had taken steps to fulfill the promises of the Mexican Revolution-especially land reform. He distributed millions of acres of land to peasants. Most was given to ejidos, or peasant cooperatives. Some families also received small plots to farm themselves.
  • Over the years, however, the land reform program proved unsuccessful. Much of the land given to peasants was arid. It needed to be irrigated and fertilized to be productive. As rural populations grew, the land was subdivided and exhausted from overfarming. Presidents after C írdenas paid less attention to Mexico's rural poor. Instead, they favored agribusinesses that produced cash-earning export crops.
  • As conditions worsened, many peasants migrated to towns and cities, especially to the capital. The population of Mexico City mushroomed from 1.5 million in 1940 to about 20 million in 1995.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

  • Since the Mexican Revolution, a single party-the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)-dominated Mexican politics. It claimed to represent all groups-from workers and peasants to business- industrial interests and the military. There were some other small political parties, but PRI bosses moved forcefully against any serious opposition.
  • In part, the PRI held on to power by responding to social ills with reform programs for education, welfare, and health. As a result, the party generally kept discontent from exploding into violence. Yet, in 1968, student protests shook Mexico as they did other western countries. Riot police and the army brutally suppressed the turmoil. The riots and the government's response received worldwide attention because the summer Olympic games were held in Mexico City that year. Despite widespread criticism, the PRI remained in power.
  • From time to time, the government faced rebel uprisings. One outbreak occurred in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico which had a large Native American population. Discontent was high there because most Indians had benefited little from the nation's economic growth. In 1994, rebels took up arms and challenged the government. They demanded land reforms and rights for Native Americans. By skillfully using the media, the Chiapas rebels became international heroes. Yet they failed to achieve their goals.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

Under pressure from all sides, the PRI made some election reforms in the 1990s. As a result, an opposition candidate was elected mayor of Mexico City, and the PRI lost its majority in the national legislature. The PRI's hold on power was further jeopardized by reports of political corruption, repeated drug scandals, and splits within the party's own ranks. As the 1990s drew to a close, it even seemed possible that, for the first time since the 1920s, Mexico might have a president who was not a member of the PRI.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

  • After World War II, Mexico pushed ahead with efforts to foster import substitution, reduce foreign influence, and expand agriculture. To promote industry, the government worked closely with private businesses. It invested in building roads, dams, and ports. It also encouraged tourism.
  • From the 1940s to the early 1980s, both manufacturing and agriculture made huge gains. Mexico's economy became the second largest in Latin America after that of Brazil. This growth turned Mexico from an agricultural society into a mostly urban, industrial society. In the late 1970s, new oil discoveries and rising oil prices spurred an economic boom. Optimistic about the future, Mexico borrowed heavily to fund development projects.
  • In the 1980s, however, global economic trends worked against Mexico. A worldwide recession, falling oil prices, and rising interest rates plunged the country deeply into debt. Like other debtor nations, Mexico cut spending on social and other programs so that it could make its debt payments. To spur economic recovery, the government reduced barriers to foreign businesses and privatized some industries.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

  • As the 1900s came to an end, Mexico remained a disturbing mix of prosperity and poverty.  Maquiladors, or assembly plants owned by multinational corporations, flourished along Mexico's northern border. These plants used cheap Mexican labor to assemble imported parts for cars and electronic goods. Finished products were then exported to the United States, Japan, and elsewhere. The maquiladoras provided jobs for many Mexicans-most of them women. Still, environmental problems in the plants, plus the government's refusal to let workers organize, led to labor protests.
  • Despite economic growth, most Mexicans remained poor. The economy could not produce enough jobs to keep up with rapid population growth. Wealth continued to be unequally distributed. The top 10 percent of the people controlled over 40 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent earned less than 2 percent of national income.


Continuity and Change in Mexico

  • Mexico has felt the powerful influence of its northern neighbor. In the 1930s, Mexico set out to reduce economic influence through import substitution. Yet the nation continued to rely on investment capital from the United States. In 1995, a $20 billion loan from the United States bailed Mexico out of an economic crisis.
  • In 1993, Mexico, the United States, and Canada signed NAFTA. Supporters claimed that the free-trade association would boost prosperity by lowering trade barriers, thus opening up a huge regional market. NAFTA did bring some new business and investments to Mexico. At the same time, however, it hurt Mexican manufacturers, who could not compete with a flood of goods from the United States.
  • Issues such as illegal immigration and drug smuggling created tension between Mexico and the United States. Some employers in the United States, especially commercial farmers, relied on Mexican migrant workers to harvest crops for low wages. But as growing numbers of Mexicans crossed the border illegally, many people in the United States came to resent the newcomers. Despite their differences, both nations cooperated on solving issues of international concern such as environmental problems.


War and Peace in Central America

  • In Central America, unrest threatened the ruling elite of military, business, and landowning interests. Discontent grew in the cities and among rural Indian communities that had long suffered from poverty and oppression. Fearing the spread of communism, the United States intervened repeatedly in the region.
  • Along with Mexico and Cuba, Nicaragua was one of three Latin American countries to have a genuine revolution in the twentieth century. From 1936 to 1979, the Somoza family ruled-and looted-Nicaragua. Due to their strong anti-communist stand, they enjoyed United States backing. In the 1970s, various groups opposed to Anastasio Somoza joined forces. They called themselves Sandinistas after Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary of the 1930s. Like Sandino, they were reform-minded nationalists. The Sandinistas included a large number of women and leftist students.
  • In 1979, the revolutionaries ousted Somoza and set out to reshape Nicaragua. Under Sandinista president Daniel Ortega, they introduced land reform and other socialist policies. Fearing that Nicaragua would become "another Cuba," President Ronald Reagan secretly backed the contras-guerrillas who fought against the Sandinistas.


War and Peace in Central America

  • A long civil war weakened the economy but did not unseat the Sandinistas. Other Central American countries finally helped both sides to reach a compromise and stop the fighting. In 1990, Violeta Chamorro, a moderate, won election as president. The Sandinistas peacefully handed over power but kept control of the army.
  • Over the next decade, rival political parties, including the Sandinistas, competed for power in Nicaragua. Although the economy has grown as exports have dramatically risen, many people remained poor, unemployment was still high, and the country had a heavy debt burden. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, one of the most destructive storms of the century, added to the nation's woes by devastating much of the country. As the new century began, both developed democracy and real prosperity still lay in the future.


War and Peace in Central America

  • Fearing growing communist influence and threats to American interests, the United States helped oust Guatemala's reformist government in 1954. Although the military and landowners regained power, they faced constant challenges from leftist guerrilla movements. During decades of civil war, the government routinely tortured and murdered critics, including student and labor leaders.
  • The chief victims were the Native American majority, some of whom had taken part in antigovernment actions. An estimated 30,000 died during the 1980s alone. Some were killed fighting for the land they tilled but did not own. Others were shot as military forces exterminated whole villages.
  • Although a civilian government took power in the mid-1980s, the military remained a powerful force behind the scenes. The United States pressured the government to halt the fighting. In 1996, the 30-year civil war finally ended when the government and guerrillas signed a peace agreement that recognized the rights of the Guatemalan people.


War and Peace in Central America


The ruling class of military officials and wealthy landowners was also challenged in El Salvador. Here, as elsewhere in Latin America, reformers and revolutionaries found new support in the Catholic Church. In the 1970s, some Church leaders in Latin America abandoned traditional ties to the elite and instead pressed for reform. Inspired by the ideas of liberation theology, Salvadoran priests preached that God was "a God of justice and love who acts on the side of the poor and oppressed." Archbishop Oscar Romero even proclaimed: "When all peaceful means have been exhausted, the church considers insurrection moral and justified."


War and Peace in Central America

  • During a vicious 12-year civil war, right-wing death squads slaughtered church workers, student and labor leaders, and anyone else thought to sympathize with leftists. In 1980, Archbishop Romero fell victim to the fighting, gunned down as he celebrated mass in a chapel. Meanwhile, the United States pressed the government to make some reforms. However, it also provided weapons and other aid to help the military battle rebel guerrillas.
  • Finally, in 1991, both sides agreed to a UN-brokered peace. After elections were held, former enemies met in the congress, not in battle. However, problems remained. The civil war had ravaged the economy, which still depended on a single export-coffee. Despite large-scale aid from the International Monetary Fund, El Salvador remained a developing nation with a fragile democracy.


Struggle in Haiti

  • Like other Latin American countries, the Caribbean nation of Haiti has endured a history of dictatorial rule and rebellion. Since independence in 1804, a small upper class controlled the economy and ruled the rural poor majority.
  • From 1957 to 1971, Dr. Fran žois Duvalier  ruled Haiti. "Papa Doc," as he was called, used his brutal secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, to crush opposition and terrorize the people. His son, "Baby Doc," was driven into exile in 1986, but a succession of military leaders then ruled the island nation.
  • In 1990, in its freest election in recent times, Haiti chose Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. A former Catholic priest, supporter of liberation theology, and hero to the poor, Aristide hoped to advance his country at least "from misery to dignified poverty." Overthrown by a military coup and restored when the United States threatened military action, the Haitian leader proclaimed that "This is a day on which democracy rises, never to set."


Struggle in Haiti

  • Despite Aristide's pledge, however, he had little success in imposing meaningful reforms. He and his successors faced many problems. The poorest state in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti lacked adequate roads, electricity, and other services. The weakness of the government discouraged foreign investment, while intense party rivalries, street demonstrations, and soaring crime all pointed toward difficult times ahead.
  • Haiti was only one of many Central American and Caribbean countries that faced a devastating combination of natural and social problems. Almost all were affected by rapidly growing populations. On average, their economies produced roughly a tenth as much per person as the United States economy did. And in most of them, a skewed distribution of wealth put most of the productive land in the hands of one or two percent of the citizens. Poverty and social conflict were widespread consequences.