It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution in Latin American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations since 1959. The Cuban Revolution inspired two generations of Latin American revolutionaries, spawned guerrilla movements across the hemisphere, and dominated inter-American relations into the late 1980s. These two very different books, by a historian and a sociologist, acknowledge in their own ways this pervasive impact.
Wright’s book is an excellent synthesis of the literature on the Cuban Revolution, its impact on Latin America, and the U.S. policy responses from 1959 to 1990. He includes a chapter on rural guerrilla warfare, one on urban guerrillas, and two chapters detailing the Peruvian (1968-1980) and Chilean (1970-1973) variants on nationalist reformism, always with the relationship between these cases and the larger inter-American scenario in mind. He then surveys the “antirevolutionary military regimes” (chapter 9) and the Nicaraguan Revolution, ending with the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections.
This book is easy to read, an ideal textbook for survey courses on modern Latin American history, politics, and inter-American relations. The conclusion, that the decline of Cuban influence “resulted in part from the secular tarnishing of the luster of revolution” (p. 199), is accurate; but as Wright indicates, the “tarnishing” was not only the result of a natural loss of luster: “By 1990 the spirit of revolution, which had swept strongly over Latin America in the 1960s, had been brutally extinguished” (p. 200).
Revolutionaries and their supporters paid a high price in blood, torture, imprisonment, and exile. The military and civil-military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s in Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Honduras resisted change violently. As Wright aptly notes, revolution “also ran squarely into the historic, unswerving resistance of the United States to radical change in the hemisphere” (p. 201). The demise of Cuba as a role model followed not only from defects in Cuba’s economic and political systems, but also from the punishment exacted for experiments with socialist and nationalist models that threatened domestic elites and U.S. policymakers.
Wright’s easy historical narrative contrasts markedly with Wickham-Crowley’s generally well-written but self-consciously theoretical study of success and failure among Latin American guerrilla movements after 1956. This is not meant as faint praise. Wright’s book is a smooth survey for students and a general readership; Wickham-Crowley’s is a contribution to theory and empirical research for specialists, policy analysts, and graduate students. His work deserves attention from historians as well as social scientists; for if he had written nothing more than “the facts should be firmly established before attempts are made to theorize about the facts” and “accurate description must precede explanation” (p. 19), this book would still be a tool in dismantling their tiresome methodological debates, as well as a reminder of the collective, multidisciplinary nature of both history and social science.
Wickham-Crowley’s book is a genuinely comparative, data-based effort to explain the successes (Nicaragua and Cuba) and the failures (Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) of guerrilla movements to oust governments and take power. He places his case studies in the context of the ongoing debate over the causes of revolution, assesses their fit in alternative explanations, and concludes that revolutionary movements in Latin America succeeded when they faced weak or weakened regimes (for example, Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua). Such regimes confronted rural-based guerrilla movements with strong peasant support. These movements achieved substantial military strength and secured a cross-class alliance against the patrimonial dictator, especially when U.S. support for the government was withdrawn (p. 320).
As the author acknowledges, his findings are not new. But his rigorous theory testing is a lesson in empirical research, despite a sometimes annoying confusion of sociology as a discipline with the multidisciplinary enterprise of social science. He provides a meticulous, systematic, and careful review of the major theories of revolution (Skocpol, 1979; Paige, 1975; Scott, 1976; Goldfrank, 1979; and Goldstone, 1979) and fits the Latin American cases into this literature with great detail. His discussion includes biographical and social data on guerrilla leaders and movements and an excellent supporting list of references.
Two apparent breakdowns in the theoretical argument, however, are intellectually important and politically salient. First, in analyzing what he facetiously calls the “Petras-Kirkpatrick theory of revolution” (that withdrawal of U. S. support was the key variable in revolutionary success or, alternately, that U.S. support prevented regime collapse) (p. 316), the author provides the counterexamples of Argentina and Guatemala. Argentina, of course, lacked other conditions postulated in the theory, such as a “mafiacracy”; a strong, rural-based guerrilla movement; and multiclass opposition. In Guatemala, however, the Carter administration’s cutoff of aid to the military government is cited as “one of the strongest counterexamples” (p. 317). Such a claim is misleading; for as the author recognizes earlier, the Guatemalan regime’s maximum vulnerability occurred in the 1960s—when U.S. counterinsurgency assistance was more important and the guerrilla movement more threatening (p. 179)· Thus while Wickham-Crowley correctly asserts that no government that was not a “mafiacracy” succumbed to guerrilla movements, he dismisses too easily (or underestimates) the role of U.S.-supported counterinsurgency and civic action programs in protecting regimes that were still fragile, but less vulnerable than those of Batista and Somoza.
It is not clear that other governments might not have fallen to guerrilla pressure without U.S. military assistance. Indeed, the United States was so impressed by this possibility that it committed more than 20,000 troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965, provided covert and overt assistance to Colombia and Venezuela throughout the 1960s, and orchestrated the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. This does not detract from Wickham-Crowley’s general conclusions regarding the key variable—regime vulnerability—but it does remind us of the complexity of explaining “failed revolutions.” Had the United States committed troops to support Somoza in 1979 (or allowed the Israelis to land supplies and weapons to replenish the Guardia), is it certain that the Sandinistas would have prevailed? Could Castro’s ragtag rebels have resisted even a small deployment of U.S. troops to buttress an interim government that replaced Batista? Contrarily, to what extent did U.S. assistance permit the consolidation of formal democracy in Venezuela and contribute to the defeat of guerrillas in Colombia? Whatever the answers, Wickham-Crowley has not disconfirmed Petras’ or Kirkpatrick’s notions about the role of U.S. military aid in suppressing revolution in Latin America so thoroughly as he implies.
Wickham-Crowley ends his book with an appeal for integrating theoretical approaches to construct a unified theory of Latin American revolutions (p. 326). Wright ends his with a look backward and forward, noting that Cuban-inspired revolution in the 1990s is unlikely and that “the issue [is] now the survival of Castro’s revolution itself (p. 205). Latin America ended the 1980s with a legacy of massive human rights abuses, more indebted and with more social and environmental challenges than in 1959. Both these books offer insights into how and why this occurred, especially the role of the Cuban Revolution and the U.S. response to it in impoverishing and bloodying the region.