In 1977, all but three of the 20 countries in Latin America were under dictatorships. One can only wonder: how did this happen?

Tackling this complicated question requires consideration of both the conditions that allowed for such dictators to take power, and the timeframe it happened in. There’s no simple answer. It varies from country to country, but the general answer is that it was an amalgamation of factors both locally and internationally which helped create the perfect opportunities for these ruthless men to assume dictatorial power.

Internal divisions

The social unrest within Latin American countries was a crucial factor in creating prime conditions for military dictators to emerge. A general feeling of dissatisfaction amongst the masses can often be enough for the opposition to become popular due to the (however mild) desire for "change."

Class divisions

First, it is clear there were severe long-term class issues which contributed to the emergence of the dictators. The colonialisation of Latin America in the late 15th century established prominent class divisions which caused political unrest during the 1900s. Countries built upon the hacienda system, where working-class citizens worked on the plantations, mines, and factories that the wealthy landowners owned, thus creating a clear hierarchy perhaps comparable to the feudal system in Europe. For example, 6% of the Bolivian population owned 90% of the land until the mid-20th century. This division was deeply entrenched into Latin American society, and when workers caught wind of the socialist countries that flourished in the 1900s, there was a growing sense of injustice amongst the workers and a conflict of interests ensued: the workers wanted more wealth and the elite wanted to maintain their wealth. 

This caused a hostile political climate which forced the elite to install a dictator to keep order and prevent the working-class from overthrowing the government

An economic weakness

As Spanish and Portuguese control only ended in the late 19th century, Latin America's economy fell significantly behind their European counterparts as they could never reap the benefits of early industrialisation and modernisation. Therefore, these countries were often underdeveloped and economically weak. The 1929 Wall Street Crash only exacerbated these problems, and a crisis ensued: Bolivia, Chile, and Peru recorded as the hardest-hit countries in the world. This left Latin America economically and politically unstable and vulnerable to government collapse. Military dictators assumed control when they promised a "quick fix" to the poverty citizens fell into.

Reliance on the military

Latin American countries often had no alternative to dealing with a domestic threat other than enlisting the military's assistance.

The leaders often resorted to attaining a mandate to rule alongside the military so the problem to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. However, having gained that power, many leaders were unwilling to give it up and effectively established a dictatorship to retain it.

Uruguay– case study

In the 60s and 70s, the Tupamaros (a Marxist urban guerrilla movement) terrorised Uruguay. To combat the imminent threat, in 1964, President Juan Maria Bordaberry closed parliament and ruled with the assistance of a few, select military generals creating a dictatorship. He retained power until the restoration of democracy in 1985.

Read the rest of this article in our September issue...