Why The Dictators Were Necessary

September 25, 2007

*Bolivia, August 21, 1971: Colonel Hugo Banzer overcomes armed popular resistance to overthrow the nationalist military government of Juan Jose Torres.

*Uruguay, June 27, 1973: Military commanders stage an internal coup, establishing a dictatorship with right-wing civilian president Juan Marisz Bordaberry as its figurehead.

*Chile, September 11, 1973: A military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet smashes the democratically-elected Popular Unity government, murdering President A llende.

*Argentina, March 24, 1976: A military junta led by GeneralJorge Videla overthrows the civilian government of Isabel Pero'n.

Within half a decade, repressive, military-dominated governments took power in four Southern Cone countries, murdering or imprisoning hundreds of thousands. What was the rationale? Why were these countries, with their differing political histories, all subjected to right-wing military coups at roughly the same time?

The coups were a necessary response of U.S. imperialism and the local ruling classes to an unprecedented crisis in the traditional political and economic structures of the region. Earlier, in the 1960s, the United States had tried to contain the revolutionary movements in Latin America with a two pronged effort: the reforms of the Alliance for Progress and the build-up of the counterinsurgency capabilities of the armed forces. By the early 1970s, however, these measures were no longer adequate to protect U.S. interests. The Vietnam war, coupled with the onset of the international economic crisis, led the U.S. to curtail both its reformist rhetoric and its aid programs. At the same time, counterinsurgency training had not enabled the Latin American militaries to check the growth of the popular movements and massbased political parties.

In the Southern Cone, more than any other region of Latin America, the upsurge of popular movements in the 60s and early 70s presented an unparalleled challenge to U.S. interests. The demands of the masses for an advancement of their economic and social rights threatened not only the holdings of U.S. multinationals, but also the local bourgeoisies and their control of the existing political systems. In the end, U.S. imperialism and its local allies called on the only force capable of protecting their interests--the armed forces. Throughout the Southern Cone, U.S.-backed and trained military leaders seized control of the state, violently repressing the mass movements and their political organizations, and imposing economic measures unparalleled in their rejection of the social needs of their peoples.

Today these regimes are being pressured by the Carter government, via its human rights policy, to end some of their more brutal excesses. This seemingly abrupt shift makes the Southern Cone a key region for analyzing the U.S. human rights policy in the context of broader strategy objectives. By examining both the forces that led to the emergence of the Southern Cone dictators, and the effects of their protracted domination, we will see the extent of continuity and the nature of the modifications being promoted.


The struggle for economic, social and political rights in the Southern Cone is part of a complex historical process shaped by international as well as domestic factors. The pace of economic development, the growth of the working class and the petit bourgeoisie, changes in the lives of the peasantry, and the economic and political interests of the United States-all are key factors that have affected the struggle for human rights in the Southern Cone countries.

WORKERS: At the beginning of the twentieth century, miners and industrial workers were already an important force in the societies of these countries. But their working conditions were primitive and their salaries insufficient to meet even their basic needs. For the next three decades, the history of the region was often written in the violent struggles of the workers who fought to improve their material conditions. Large labor confederations such as the General Labor Confederation (CGT) in Argentina evolved to direct these labor struggles.

In Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, significant gains were won, including the eight-hour day, child labor laws, collective bargaining, pensions and the right to strike. In Chile the strength of the nitrate and copper miners, along with the industrial workers, forced the inclusion of progressive labor and welfare provisions in the 1925 constitution. In Bolivia, many of these rights were won somewhat later, only when the tin miners became the core of that country's working class.

STUDENTS: With economic development and modernization, the struggle for more educational opportunities became part of popular demands to share in the fruits of an expanding society. Education itself brought greater political and social awareness, and at the universities progressive movements played an important role in breaking the hold of traditional oligarchies. Argentine students won university autonomy-a system protecting the university from intervention of state security forces-in 1918. In the neighboring countries as well university autonomy became the militantly guarded right of academics, students, their families and those hoping their children might go to school. Student struggles have often gone far beyond their own particular interests. Bolivian students have fought side by side with miners, and Argentine, Chilean and Uruguayan students have been in the forefront of resistance to military and police repression.

WOMEN: Women began to enter the labor force with the expansion of industry, especially after the 1930s, and have won significant political and economic rights. In Chile and Argentina, they gained the right to vote in the late 1940s, and by the 1950s labor codes in all the Southern Cone countries included provisions for the special rights of women workers. Uruguayan labor legislation includes maternity benefits and the CGT in Argentina compelled the first Peron government to require childcare in all factories employing more than 50 women. The women in these countries have been among the most active in Latin America in combating the tradition of "machismo," while at the same time joining the picket lines and doing support work for members of their families when they are on strike.

PEASANTS: By the 1950s, the backwardness of the agricultural sector dominated by the traditional latifundios--huge and often unproductive estates--had become a serious obstacle to economic development and modernization. It was not the modern urban bourgeoisies however, nor the U.S.-backed reform programs, that broke the back of these latifundios. Rather it was the peasants themselves who rebelled against centuries of primitive exploitation. Bolivian peasants sparked the 1952 social revolution in that country, and although the agrarian reform that followed was set back by succeeding governments, most highland peasants to this day tenaciously hold onto their lands. In Chile, the Frei government's attempts at agrarian reform bogged down under the opposition of the rural oligarchy, but inadvertently unleashed a revolutionary peasant movement. Land takeovers began there in 1969, and the peasants pushed the Popular Unity government to deepen the agrarian reform process. By the end of 1972 the latifundios, which had previously controlled 80% of Chile's arable land, had virtually disappeared.

URBAN POOR: Accelerated industrialization and urbanization in the post-war period have brought thousands of peasant and provincial residents streaming into the major cities of Santiago, Buenos Aires, La Paz and Montevideo, where they have been relegated to slums on the outskirts of the cities. Their living conditions make them a particularly explosive sector in their demand for jobs and better housing and living conditions. Chile's slum dwellers by the late 1960s had become a highly organized and combative force. They took over vacant private lands, and then forced the government to grant them land titles, public utilities and assistance in building permanent housing.

POLITICAL ORGANIZATIONS: Progressive and revolutionary parties have developed to unite the various demands and movements for social justice, democracy and economic independence. In the earlier part of the century, the Socialist and Communist parties grew out of the struggles of the miners and industrial workers. In recent decades, other parties have formed in the heat of the ongoing popular and working class struggles. In Argentina, for example, the Revolutionary Workers Party and its armed branch, the People's Revolutionary Army (PRT-ERP), emerged from the struggle of the agricultural proletariat in the sugar cane and lumber regions of Argentina.

The National Liberation Movement Tupamaros (MLN-Tupamaros) began with the fight of Uruguayan cane cutters and other rural workers for better wages and living conditions. The Chilean Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) has led many of the peasant struggles for land and the slum dwellers' fight for better housing. In Bolivia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), organized by Che Guevara to carry the struggle for the liberation of Latin America to a new level, has formed the Bolivian Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT). Today, these parties play an important role in the anti-dictatorial struggles in their countries.


By 1967 the indicators of a worldwide recession were clear. Capitalist economies throughout the world, led by the United States and other advanced industrial nations, had begun to suffer the effects of a prolonged slump in economic growth. The U.S. rate of economic growth declined from 4.7% in the first half of the 60s, to 3% in the second half, and to 2.1% from 1970-75.1 The U.S. rate of profit, the capitalists' most crucial measure of success or failure, fell from 13.4% in 1966 to 9.2% a decade later.(2)

Throughout Latin America the economic crisis signaled the end of a period of capitalist expansion, and the exhaustion of old patterns of development. In the Southern Cone these changes exacerbated already existing tensions as the faltering economies failed to meet increasing material needs. Conflict intensified among all social sectors-not only between the workers and their employers, but also within the ranks of the local bourgeoisies. In the mid-1960s, certain sectors of the bourgeoisies, in conjunction with transnational corporations, had solidified their control of key areas of the economy, squeezing out many of the medium-sized and small industries that operated with less advanced technology. In Chile, for example, by 1966, 144 industries dominated all branches and sub-branches of manufacturing, and just 17% of Chile's firms controlled 75% of the shares of the joint stock companies. Monopolization was just as prevalent in finance and the control of credit: at the end of 1967, 3% of the borrowers from private banks received 60% of the total credits granted.(3) In Argentina, the toll on the more inefficient enterprises was evident in the number of bankruptcies, which grew from 1,647 in 1968 to 2,982 in 1970.(4)

While the monopoly sectors clearly held sway on the economic front, many of the less efficient enterprises used existing high tariff barriers and their political clout in the government and in the political parties to wrest some economic concessions. This basic conflict made it difficult for the bourgeoisies to maintain a united front against the popular movements.

The monopoly sector in Argentina, for example, took a stand against the economic and political policies of Peronism, while the smaller, more nationalist sectors sought to use Peronism to build up a protected national industry. In Chile in 1970, the bourgeoisie split over the presidential candidacy of Christian Democrat Ramiro Tomic. Some smaller capitalists backed Tomic with the hope that his programs would provide them relief, while the dominant sectors opposed his program as too reformist and supported archconservative Arturo Alessandri.


The onset of the international economic crisis in its more acute form made it imperative for U.S. imperialism to secure its holdings in that region against these deepening bourgeois rifts. Far more critical was the necessity to contain the popular struggles engulfing the Southern Cone. The primary factor in the crisis of these economies in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the strength and militancy of the labor movements in the face of efforts by imperialism and its local allies to make drastic adjustments in the economy at the expense of labor.

The capitalist classes were unable to produce and reinvest a sufficient amount of profits to stimulate strong growth in their economies-what's called the "crisis of accumulation."(5) Struggles carried out by the tin miners of Bolivia and by the entire working class of Chile in the 1960s illustrate the key role played by the labor movements in this crisis of accumulation.

Bolivia's tin mines were seen as the key to economic development in the 1960s. Yet the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL), the largest in Latin America, was also the most inefficient. The United States, through its $40 million "Triangular Plan," launched a major effort to modernize tin production in Bolivia.(6) Modernization, however, meant not only the introduction of new machinery, but massive layoffs and wage cuts for miners who already lived on subsistence salaries. For four years, from 1961 to 1965, 26,000 angry miners prevented the implementation of this plan. "What matters in Bolivia at the moment," railed London's Economist in September 1964, "is that the tin miners, who produce three-fourths of the country's revenue, have become a truculent and unruly law unto themselves." Only after heavy fighting between the military and armed miners was the Bolivian government finally able to reorganize COMIBOL, fire 30% of the miners, curb their unions and cut back their pay.(7) Yet in spite of these setbacks and the continuing massacres of miners and their families, the movement maintained its hold on the nation's economy. In 1969 it forced the regime of Ovando Candia to take more nationalist measures vis a vis foreign capital (such as the nationalization of foreign oil companies), and in 1970 pushed the Torres government to begin restructuring the entire economy to meet popular needs. U.S. plans for stimulating capitalist development in Bolivia were at an impasse as long as the miners and the working class as a whole remained a factor in determining economic policies.

Class struggle in Chile played a similar role in blocking capital accumulation. With the onset of the recession in 1967, and the resulting austerity policies of the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei, the Chilean working class faced a deterioration in its economic position. The fight was intense, as reflected in the increasing numbers of workers involved in strikes, from 195,000 in 1966 to 656,170 in 1970 (over one-fifth of the entire work force). The workers held their own in these economic struggles and even made advances: the real wages of Chilean workers rose every year from 1967 to 1970, while unemployment remained constant or even dropped slightly.(8) The victory of the Popular Unity government in the 1970 elections only deepened the crisis of the capitalist class, as the workers demanded and received an even greater portion of the economic wealth they produced.


U.S. corporations, financial institutions and the various arms of the government itself were hardly neutral observers of this deepening crisis. The Southern Cone countries are important to U.S. imperialism for a host of reasons, mainly economic and geopolitical. The economies of the Southern Cone have played much the same role in the world capitalist system as have those of other Latin American nations as suppliers of raw materials for industrialized nations. Argentina and Chile in particular have become markets for North American and European manufactured goods and, in recent decades, bases for direct foreign investments in mining, manufacturing and agricultural activities.

U.S. investments in Chile as a whole amounted to $962 million in 1968,(9) and of Chile's 100 largest firms, 81 were either directly under foreign control or had some foreign penetration.(10) In Argentina, over half of the largest 120 firms were under foreign control in 1971, and accounted for two-thirds of their sales.(11) U.S. direct investments at the time were $1.35 billion.(12)

Chile and Argentina both represent relatively important markets, on a Latin American scale, for durable consumer goods exports from the United States, Europe and Japan. (Argentina is considered one of the "Big Three" Latin American economies along with Brazil and Mexico.) Foreign and local capital have established significant industrial bases in Chile and Argentina, and import sizable quantities of machinery and intermediate goods for manufacturing and construction.

It is as raw materials exporters, however, that the countries still claim importance. Argentina is by far Latin America's largest wheat producer, and accounts for more than 80% of the continent's wheat exports- an important source of reserves in a world faced with a growing food crisis. During the 60s Argentina and Uruguay were also Latin America's first and second largest beef exporters, respectively.(13)

The region also possesses significant mineral wealth. Bolivia is the world's second largest producer of tin, and has significant reserves of iron ore. Bolivia's oil and natural gas reserves, along with major offshore oil deposits in Argentina, brought the two into view as strategic imperialist reserves in the early 1970s. Energy supplies in the region are all the more significant as the entire Rio de la Plata basin holds a tremendous hydroelectric power potential, and Argentina is developing large nuclear power plants using its own uranium.

For many years, Chile was the world's second largest producer of copper--with 15.2% of the world's production in 1963 representing a large stake for some important U.S. corporations. In the late 1960s, 80% of Anaconda's worldwide profits derived from its Chilean operations in copper, and Anaconda and Kennecott reaped annual profits in excess of 25%.(14)

But the United States is not only intent on maintaining its economic interests; the Southern Cone plays a crucial geopolitical role as well. The region has both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and is contiguous to the mineral deposits in Antarctica. The prospect of anti-imperialist and/or revolutionary governments in these countries also represents a direct threat to key transportation lines for oil from the Persian Gulf, and to important port facilities, especially in the Rio de la Plata area. Finally, as the United States is acutely aware, a revolution in any one country could easily trigger others in the region.

In the past decades, particularly during the Alliance for Progress/counterinsurgency push of the 60s, the United States has responded to these strategic concerns by strengthening and modernizing the armed forces of the region. Aid has been provided, sometimes under the guise of economic "development" projects, for the construction of roads, communications systems and military bases to enhance the integration of the entire region's military forces. More recently, the U.S. government promoted the idea of a South Atlantic Treaty Organization (SATO) as a counterpart to NATO. Such an alliance could act as watchdog and even intervene militarily in conflicts in Latin America and Southern Africa.


By 1971, the eve of the Bolivian coup, the panorama for imperialism in the Southern Cone looked bleak indeed: Allende in Chile; Torres in Bolivia; growing strikes, guerrilla actions and the Frente Amplio in Uruguay;(*) the fall of a dictatorship at the hands of the Argentine masses. The situation demanded that counterinsurgency efforts move beyond anti-guerrilla tactics, into the realm of full-scale counterrevolution. Participation of the armed forces would have to be more direct in shaping the countries' long-range economic and political structures. __________________________________________

(*) The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) was a coalition of the Uruguayan Communist and Christian Democratic parties, along with smaller leftist parties and fractions of Uruguay's two traditional ruling parties. The Tupamaros participated in the Frente through its own mass organization. In the 1971 presidential elections, the nation's first experience of popular electoral alliance won 18% of the nationwide vote and over 30% in the capital city. ___________________________________________

U.S. interests and their allied class forces inside the countries acted. By 1976 military regimes ruled the Southern Cone. The specific events prior to the coups were different but the patterns are similar.

BOLIVIA: In 1970, a convergence of progressive military forces and the Bolivian Workers Federation was able to defeat a right-wing coup attempt and allow General Juan Jose Torres to assume the presidency. He proposed a nationalist, progressive program and expropriated several U.S. holdings. A Popular Assembly, including delegates representing miners, workers, peasants and left parties, sought to broaden Torres' program and to form a popular militia to defend the government against the Right.

In the wings the U.S. provided General Banzer with financial and technical support and coordinated communications for the coup-plotters, while Brazil supplied both money and arms for the right-wing conspiracy.

Torres, although he needed left support, was also afraid of real change. By the time he realized the greater danger was from the Right, it was too late. Gen. Banzer staged his coup in August 1971. After two days of heroic resistance by poorly armed workers, the Left and some members of the military, Gen. Banzer emerged the victor.

URUGUAY: After the inauguration of cattle-rancher Juan Maria Bordaberry in 1972, general strikes, mass mobilizations and spectacular Tupamaro actions threatened to create a revolutionary crisis. Congress, except for the Frente Amplio representatives, voted a "State of Domestic War" in April 1972, granting the military unlimited repressive power. Yet the strikes and mass mobilizations continued. In June 1973, the military, which had been dictating policy for a year, dismissed the same Congress which had given it extraordinary powers. Bordaberry began to rule by decree, a civilian facade for the military dictatorship.

CHILE: A left electoral coalition, the Popular Unity (UP), won the 1970 elections and Socialist Salvador Allende became president on an explicitly anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly and anti-oligarchic program for social development.

The United States began to destabilize the Allende government right after the election, by withholding credit and utilizing the power of the CIA and transnational corporations. The Chilean Right marshaled all its forces using the press, demonstrations and parliamentary tactics to sabotage the UP program.

The workers and people responded to this concerted threat by organizing self-defense committees and other forms of popular power. When the UP gained strength in the March 1973 parliamentary elections, without precedent for off-year elections, the signal for the coup was given. In September 1973, the UP government was toppled.

ARGENTINA: Dr. Hector Ca'mpora, a progressive Peronist, was elected president in 1973 after worker and popular insurrections forced the military government of General Lanusse to relinquish power. With the return from exile of an aged and conservative Peron, the more progressive aspects of Campora's anti-imperialist and democratic program were eliminated.

Peron's death in 1974 left the government nominally in the hands of his widow. Under rightist and military tutelage she declared a state of siege in November 1974, and the paramilitary death squads, financed in part by funds from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, swung into action. The main targets were the militant sectors of the trade union movement and the Left.

Popular mobilizations against both the repression and IMF economic austerity measures culminated in a general strike in June 1975 which provoked a governmental crisis and toppled three ministers. Some 20,000 government troops were engaged in the military confrontation with ERP guerrillas in northwest Argentina. The armed forces moved to take direct political control in March 1976, after workers staged a wildcat general strike in rejection of one more IMF imposed austerity plan.


The Banzers, Bordaberrys, Pinochets and Videlas are the result of a profound crisis in their countries' political, economic and social systems. More precisely, they are an answer to capitalism's inability to maintain its domination in the face of an assault by the exploited workers and peoples of the Southern Cone. The more lucid Latin American revolutionaries saw them coming. As Fidel Castro warned the Chilean people during his visit to Chile in December 1971:

But what do the exploiters do when their own institutions no longer guarantee their rule? What is their reaction when the tools they have historically counted on to maintain their rule break down and fail them? They simply destroy them. There is nothing more anti-constitutional, more anti-legal, more anti-parliamentary, more repressive, more violent and more criminal than fascism. _________________________________________


Why the Dictators Were Necessary

1. Hugh Moseley, "Is There a Fiscal Crisis of the State?", Monthly Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, May 1978.

2. Business Week, October 17, 1977.

3. Oscar G. Garreton, "Monopoly in Chile and the Participation of Workers and the State in Economic Management," in Dale Johnson, ed., The Chilean Road to Socialism (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973), p. 440.

4. Noticias, (New York), January 20, 1971.

5. On the crisis of accumulation in the case of Chile, see "Chile: Recycling the Capitalist Crisis," NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report, -Vol. X, No. 9 (November 1977); Chile: un nuevo modelo economico, Sergio Alvear (Madrid: Ediciones ERA, 1977).

6. "Bolivia: The War Goes On," NACLA's Latin America & Empire Report, Vol. VIII, No. 2, (February 1974), p. 6.

7.Deadline Data on World Affairs (Bolivia), issued February 4, 1966, p.43.

8."Recycling the Capitalist Crisis," op. cit., pp. 5-6.

9.Statistical Abstract of Latin America, (Jas. W. Wilkie, ed., UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1977), Vol. 18.

10."The Chilean Industrial Bourgeoisie and Foreign Capital," Roger Burbach, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1975; "Recycling the Capitalist Crisis," op. cit., p. 9.

11.Hour of the Furnaces, NACLA, 1975, p. 29.

12.Statistical Abstract of Latin America, op. cit.

13.Social & Economic Progress in Latin America, Interamerican Development Bank, 1972.

14. New Chile, NACLA, 1973, p. 96.

Tags: dictatorships, human rights, US politics, people's struggle, military coup

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.