Notes from a Latin Americanist

This essay is part of a forum on new histories of the Cold War. All contributions to the forum can be found here.

In 2005, in his book The Global Cold War, Odd Arne Westad formulated an innovative intellectual blueprint for writing new international histories of the Third World through the prism of three southern continents’ shared struggle for postcolonial forms of political and economic sovereignty. This has given rise to new projects on the Global Cold War, particularly in its regional iterations, as these three scholars of the roundtable demonstrate.

Whereas Christina Spohr offers a more traditional account of high diplomacy in the immediate ‘post-square’ and ‘post-wall’ years after 1989, Lorenz Lüthi and Thomas Chamberlin adopt a much more Westadian stance, folding themes of decolonization into their Cold War histories. In a meticulous study, which Jeffrey Engel has aptly described as “Cold War Accounting,” Spohr details the interactions between governments in Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States in what she argued was a short moment of convergence.[1] Chamberlin, by contrast, directs the focus to the “most intensely violent theater of superpower struggle: the Cold War postcolonial borderlands along Asia’s southern tier” (9), examining in almost grisly detail the extreme violence that Cold War conflicts unleashed. Lüthi, meanwhile, in an overview of the Cold War and decolonization in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, provides the most sweeping assessment of regional processes. Depicting the Cold War as a “dynamically developing global system with distinctive regional incarnations” (5), he examines the conflation of local, regional conflicts with Cold War dynamics and draws a nuanced picture of how decolonization and the Cold War overlapped. In addition, Lüthi integrates alternative international actors such as the Non-Aligned Movement and representatives of pan-movements, but also non-state actors such as the Catholic Church in his narratives, providing a multicentric history of the Cold War.

All leave out Latin America, either by chance or deliberation. Whether this speaks to their regional focus or a general uneasiness to place Latin America in Cold War international history remains unclear, but it certainly supports Lauren Benton’s notion of Latin America being the ‘odd even out’ in international and global history.[2] Yet, the notion of regionally distinct Cold Wars is one that scholars on Latin America have argued for some time now. Rebranding the conflict as an inter-American Cold War, they have highlighted its distinct roots, most notably in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the nature of ideological clash in a region where the Soviet Union was virtually absent, and in its specific periodization (more on that later).[3] Here, I would like to show how comparing and connecting regional Cold Wars and their historiographies might prove particularly fruitful by addressing three key themes: regional Cold Wars, Hot Wars and Cold Wars, and overlapping and diverging chronologies.

Regional Cold Wars

All three authors share an interest in the regional—in some cases sub-systemic—Cold Wars, redirecting the focus to specific regional roots of Cold War struggles, on the one hand, and the interplay and interdependence of regional actors, on the other. In so doing, their research highlights the multipolarity of Cold War conflicts, effectively decentering the Cold War, by drawing out the role of middle powers and delineating distinct origins of the Cold War.

Here, Lüthi’s distinction between three categories of the regional Cold War—those whose roots pre-dated the Cold War, those whose roots were unrelated to the Cold War, and Cold War conflicts proper− is particularly helpful, as it draws attention to the pre-Cold War roots of conflicts and attention away from the US-Soviet dyad towards equally important events such as the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions.

The overly strong emphasis on the Russian revolution is in many ways misleading because many fights were between advocates of different versions of socialism (such as in the case of Sino-Soviet rivalry) or, in the case of Latin America, the much more influential Mexican or Cuban leftist radical ideology.

Cold War and Hot Wars

Early on in her introduction Spohr posits that “war between East and West never did take place” (2), employing a common trope of the Cold War that reduces the conflict to a mere ideological struggle. This eurocentric perspective, however, as both Lüthi and Chamberlin demonstrate, obscures the fundamental violence of the Cold War in the Third World/Global South. Indeed, for some regions, be it South Asia or Latin America, the Cold War marked one of the most violent periods in their history.

The focus on the “long peace,” in the words of John Lewis Gaddis, in Europe and the United States to the detriment of a period of violence in the Third World has led to, as Chamberlin provocatively puts it, a “whitewashing of the violent history post-45” (10). Certainly, the notion that the major battlegrounds of the Cold War were in the periphery, as it were, has not been received whole-heartedly in Cold War Studies that still tends to be dominated by great power politics as Christina Rohr’s monograph shows.

For this reason, Latin American scholars have introduced the notion of “hot wars” by underscoring the extreme violence perpetrated against the civil population, that in some cases even culminated in genocide.[4] Over several decades these hot wars exhibited a destructive force that transformed society and minority rights and undermined democracy; a toxic legacy that many Latin American societies still grapple with today, something they share with other Global South countries. Neither has there been, in a wider societal sense, a reckoning with the responsibility of the US and former colonial and hegemonic powers (and I include the Soviet Union and China here) in fanning these conflicts by undertaking military intervention, or providing arms and training, as well as political support for certain factions, often authoritarian regimes. As a result, we do not seem to be talking about the long-term destruction or destabilization the Cold War politics caused and how they created the political basis for a failed state, as can be seen in the case of Afghanistan today or the Central American refugees that reach US American shores.

On Beginnings and Ends: Periodization and Chronologies

One of the most contended topics in recent Cold War historiography has been the question of periodization and chronologies. Both Lüthi and Chamberlin see the roots of the Cold War in empire and imperialism, both formal and informal, interweaving decolonization with later Cold War struggles. Crucially, there were ideological battles between socialism and capitalism that predate the Cold War, key among them the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions. This argument lends itself well to the Latin American case, where the most important key event—the Mexican revolution of 1910—even pre-dated the Russian revolution. This has led scholars, such as Gilbert Joseph and Greg Grandin to characterize the twentieth century as a “century of revolution” for Latin America that began in 1910 and continues to this day.[5]  Likewise, the authors disagree on when to date the end of the conflict. While Lüthi argues that all three regional Cold Wars “ended in structural terms in the early 1980s” (613), Rohr, unsurprisingly adopts the more conventional cut-off date of 1989, seeing the immediate afteryears as a new era of international worldmaking.

Yet, 1989/1990 did neither herald the end of the Cold War nor of socialism per se. Indeed, unlike in Europe (West or East), socialist parties of different couleurs continued to exert considerable political power in the Third World. Indeed, one could argue that 1990 did not have huge reverberations in Latin America, apart from Cuba where it started the “special period”: a period of strife, hunger, and emigration. Rather, the rise of the pink tide in the early 1990s in Latin America starting in the early 1990s points to a very different historical trajectory of the ideological struggle between socialism and capitalism.

For this reason, there has been a slowly growing consensus in Latin American scholarship that, in many ways, the Cold War has not ended in Latin America. Otherwise, it is hard to explain almost hysterical US policies towards Cuba and Venezuela, reminiscent of a US imperialism already believed extinct, and the fact that the radical political Left in Latin America is still alive, in a way that it is not any more in Europe or the United States.

Whose Cold War?

From a bipolar ideological struggle to a multipolar violent struggle, each author offers a striking picture of a very different incarnation of the Cold War. As scholars of international history this leaves us to grapple with distinct realities of the conflict, even more so if we leave the scale of the nation-state to examine the local lived realities of our historical subjects. And it raises the compelling question: Whose Cold War are we talking about?


[1] Jeffrey A Engel, “A Cold War Accounting,” Diplomatic History 45, no. 2 (April 2021): 386.

[2] Lauren A. Benton, “No Longer Odd Region Out: Repositioning Latin America in World History,” Hispanic American Historical Review 84, no. 3 (August 2004): 423–30.

[3] Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[4] On the notion of “hot wars” see: Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 17. The phrase was originally coined by Arno Mayer.

[5] Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, eds., Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

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About Stella Krepp

Stella Krepp is an associated researcher at Bern University, Switzerland. Her first book, titled The Decline of the Western Hemisphere: A History of Inter-American Relations from 1941 to 1990, is currently under review with Cambridge University Press. Together with Thomas Field and Vanni Pettinà, she is the co-editor of the volume Latin America and the Global Cold War (Chapel Hill, 2020). Her current project examines emerging ideas of progress, modernity, and development in Brazil, Cuba, and the British Caribbean and aims to connect Latin American history with the history of decolonization.

One thought on “Notes from a Latin Americanist

  • Lorenz Luthi

    Thank you very much for this engaging review. I expected the criticism that my book did not include Latin America. I sometimes joke this is the curse of writing a long book—for some it still is not long enough. In truth, I thought about including 3 chapters—one on sub-Saharan Africa, one on Latin America, and one on Cuba (and its relation to the other two)—during the writing stage. Yet, I would have moved on even thinner ice than in some of the other chapters, where I already stretched my knowledge and research. Also, my book is argument driven—about agency of smaller powers and how they collectively affect structural change over time. I decided to focus on the periphery of the socialist world where the East-West conflict erupted in some of the most intense incarnations. Yet, the book’s main conclusions, as Prof. Krepp alludes to, can be applied to Latin America and Africa, too. Furthermore, I had reservations to write a book that assumes an encyclopedic character. In many respects, I think Latin America (defined as a geographical space) does not really fit the Cold War narrative (though with some clear exceptions). Also, we need to be careful not to see the region as a unified political space; there is a difference between the Caribbean/Central America, on the one hand, and South America, on the other. And formal decolonization does not play a major role in the region; and some of the basic left-right conflicts date back to the 19th century. In some respects, at least it seems to me, the ‘global’ conflicts of decolonization and the Soviet-American Cold War clashes are only tangentially relevant to much of the region. At best, national elites used the Cold War as foil or tool to address long-standing domestic conflicts. Again, thank you for the critical review.

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