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Professor Allen Wells - Sabbatical Research

Story posted October 25, 2012

Images: Nixon in Caracas, May 1958 (above) and Charles Porter (below)

During 2012-2013, I am conducting research in Venezuela, Costa Rica and the United States. Below is a description of the project:

Latin America’s Crusade for Democracy during the Cold War


In July 1958, two months after Vice-President Richard Nixon was spit on, taunted, and pelted with rocks and garbage in Caracas, Venezuela and Lima, Peru during an ill-fated “goodwill” tour of the region, a thirty-seven year old, first-term congressman from Oregon drew an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000 who cheered his every word at a political rally in the Venezuelan capital. That reception was not unique—Charles Porter had drawn equally supportive crowds in San José, Costa Rica, Bogotá, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Allen Wells ResearchHow had a political neophyte who did not speak a word of Spanish become an instant celebrity in the region, earning the accolade of “Latin America’s Representative in the U.S. Congress?” What resonated so well was this brash congressman’s principled and dogged championing of democracy and his vocal opposition to his own government’s longstanding practice of coddling such brutal, corrupt dictators as Fulgencio Batista (Cuba), Anastasio Somoza (Nicaragua), Marcos Pérez Jiménez (Venezuela), Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (Colombia), François Duvalier (Haiti) and Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic).

Thanks to Fidel Castro’s abandonment of the U.S. “backyard” in 1959 Latin America became a flashpoint in the Cold War. Even before the Cuban Revolution, however, many regional reformers, unhappy with Washington’s and Moscow’s simplistic “us versus them” mentality, sought a more autonomous path, embracing democratic values and rejecting both right-wing militarism and left-wing totalitarianism. Alliances were forged between Latin American middle-class reformers and U.S. liberals to promote a pro-democracy agenda. Although these efforts met stiff resistance from Washington’s Cold Warriors, who remained convinced that dictators were more likely to thwart communist infiltration than their democratic counterparts, the efforts of these regional nationalists and their allies in the United States did not go unrewarded; a slew of popular upheavals ousted no less than ten military dictators from power between 1956 and 1961.

How had a political neophyte who did not speak a word of Spanish become an instant celebrity in the region, earning the accolade of “Latin America’s Representative in the U.S. Congress?”
— Professor Allen Wells