Category Archives: South America

21 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Tried Teamwork?

A century ago, Costa Rica severed diplomatic relations with Germany. This didn’t make a lot of difference to the First World War. Costa Rica didn’t actually declare war on Germany until the following May, its tiny army was still preparing for action when the War ended and becoming a belligerent made no substantial difference to the country’s economic position.  So why did Costa Rica bother to get involved?  The answers to that question are straightforward enough, but only when taken in the context of South American geopolitics during the early twentieth century – so here’s a slice of very general context.

Most former colonies of Spain and Portugal had gained their independence during the early nineteenth century.  Most had come into being because their former colonial administrators had broken ties with feeble European governments to seize control for themselves, and most had been involved in long, expensive wars of independence that left the new republics in a state of economic and political disarray.

For several decades, most Latin American ruling elites lived in fear of European re-conquest while seeking to develop transatlantic trading links.  As they found markets for raw materials and agricultural produce in Europe and the USA, increased prosperity brought rapid socio-economic development in and around the coastal areas that had served as colonial trading hubs.  This developmental spurt had relatively little impact across vast swathes of the interior, which remained poor, relatively lawless and politically ill-defined – fertile ground for rebellions and border disputes.  Development also came at an economic cost, encouraging large-scale loans and investment from Europe (and, as the century grew old, the US) that left most of the continent’s governments heavily in debt and left increasingly important export sectors dependent on the whims of European and US markets.

The trade boom fed the rich, inflation starved the poor… general strike in Sao Paulo, 1917.

From about the 1880s, the process of ‘Europeanisation’ accentuated the social divisions and tensions promoted along these fault lines of inequality.  When framing more stable and prosperous futures for their fledgling republics, ethnically European ruling elites turned naturally for inspiration towards Europe, and particularly towards the ‘socially successful’ liberal democracies of Britain and France.

Major cities, particularly in the southern republics, were self-consciously modelled on their European counterparts, maintaining strong cultural and communications links with the European world, and as part of a generalised tendency to compete aggressively with ethnic cultures considered inferior, Europeans were encouraged to follow the money and emigrate to the up and coming continent, the ‘new Europe’.  Millions took up the offer in the decades leading up the First World War, with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany providing the biggest immigrant populations.

Clued-in as they were when it came to the latest strands of European news and ideas, Latin America’s ruling oligarchies shared the view that the first years of the twentieth century were a time of rapidly approaching, world-shaking change.  Europe, it was felt, was heading for a conflagration that might threaten its place at the head of the world, and this prospect was generally viewed as an opportunity to advance their visions of modern, economically stable, independent states based on liberal (if racist) principles.  On the other hand, over and above the need to address social, political and economic instability, they also knew what the expected European war could do for the imperialist ambitions – overt and growing, economic and geopolitical – of the western hemisphere’s emerging, aggressive and potentially dominant great power, the United States.

When European war erupted, all the Latin American nations immediately declared neutrality for essentially the same reasons as the USA:  they had no formal obligations to the powers at war; they wanted to keep trading with both sides; and those with large European immigrant populations wanted to avoid trouble between them.

Maintaining neutrality was easier than coping with its effects.  The dramatic flight of European money from the continent after August 1914, along with consequent crises in the import and export sectors, seemed to presage an economic slump that would leave the door wide open for dollar dominance of regional economies.  By 1915 it was becoming clear that the opposite was true, as mushrooming demand for raw materials (Bolivian tin, Peruvian copper, Argentine meat and Chilean nitrates, to cite a few important examples) brought unprecedented wealth into Latin America – but the boom only pushed economies further into the grip of US interests, because rapidly expanding export sectors needed venture finance, and Wall Street was now its only available source.

Export boom and spiralling commodity prices meanwhile brought wealth to the powerful few and rapid inflation to everyone, creating hardship among the impoverished many across the continent. Poverty and hunger fuelled social tensions and socialist tendencies among the masses, fed the political instability that underlay the post-colonial republics, and prompted repressive reactions from many ruling oligarchies.

So neutral Latin American governments were juggling economic boom, a rising challenge from the masses and the looming juggernaut of US economic imperialism.  They also faced constant diplomatic and propaganda pressure from the Entente, which was determined to cut off all trade to the Central Powers, and from Germany, which spent the next three years dangling unlikely carrots to encourage behaviour that might distract Washington from European affairs.  Meanwhile a continuous chorus of demonstrations from European ethnic groups, for or against both sides, was increasingly trumped by more widespread popular demands for action, usually in response to attacks on Latin American shipping by German U-boats.

These were the parameters within which Latin American nations remained more or less solidly neutral until April 1917, when the US declaration of war against Germany, and Washington’s call for all American states to join the Allied side, forced them into some kind of repositioning.

You are here, 1917.

Of the four biggest Latin American economies, only Brazil reacted by joining the Allies, although it took loss of Brazilian lives to a U-boat attack and a consequent spike in popular anti-German sentiment to push the government beyond pro-Allied platitudes into a declaration of war in October 1917.  In Mexico, a nationalist, anti-US regime remained neutral throughout the conflict, taking German money and fostering pro-German sentiment while wrestling with revolutionary turmoil, supplying the British Royal Navy with oil and almost daring Washington to intervene further in its internal affairs.

The Argentine government of President Irigoyen was equally hostile to the US, deaf to the pro-Allied sentiments of its British, French and Italian citizens, and focused on extracting maximum profit from trade with both sides.  Irigoyen refused US requests for support after April 1917, and made an unsuccessful attempt to convene a conference of Latin American nations that would isolate Washington.  Argentina finally agreed to sell surplus crops to the Allies in May 1918, but the government’s overtly nationalist position left the country diplomatically isolated in the War’s aftermath, albeit in credit for the first time in its history.  Chile, the region’s other big player, pursued a similar line once it had satisfied Allied demands for use of German-owned nitrate output, and paid a high price for wartime profiteering when peace brought its boom to an end. Sudden mass poverty and unemployment fuelled a violent class struggle, and diplomatic isolation left it vulnerable to attacks from neighbours.

The neighbours in question were Bolivia and Peru.  Elements of both societies were already enjoying unprecedented prosperity though trade with the Allies, and both followed the US lead in breaking relations with Germany in 1917.  Partly motivated by popular outage at German submarine attacks, but largely by the (ultimately vain) hope that Washington would support their long-standing territorial claims on Chile.  Uruguay also chose solidarity with the US in 1917, partly because it cherished good relations with Brazil, but also because Germans living in southern Brazil had long threatened to colonise Uruguay for the Fatherland, making Germany particularly unpopular in Montevideo.

The rest of Central America and the Caribbean were, on the whole, too close to the USA to have much choice about their support for Washington, and some of them – Cuba, Panama, Haiti, the modern Dominican Republic and Nicaragua – were either officially or unofficially under US control by 1917.  Of those that remained fully independent, the government of Honduras eventually went to war in 1918, preferring US support to that of an influential German population that took its post-War revenge by sponsoring rebellion, while Guatemala’s dictatorial regime went to war as a means of grabbing massive German investments in the country for itself.

Further south, strict neutrality was a more a feasible option for small countries.  Although German provocation and diplomatic clumsiness eventually drove Ecuador to  declare war, Venezuela and Colombia maintained their neutrality until the end and traded with both sides, the latter in part motivated by lingering fury at US sponsorship of Panamanian independence.   Paraguay, poor landlocked and comfortably controlled by a small European elite, was able to virtually ignore the War, remaining uncontroversially neutral and merely stating its broad support for whatever the US was doing.

That just leaves my excuse for this self-indulgent ramble, Costa Rica. Costa Rica had entered the twentieth century as it would enter the twenty-first, as an example of tranquil stability.  It enjoyed a balanced economic relationship with Europe and the US, based on banana and coffee exports, and provided a calm, peaceful political environment for its 400,000 or so inhabitants – but it was undergoing an unusual period of political unrest during the First World War.

After a general election in 1913 had failed to produce an overall majority for any of the country’s three major parties, Alfredo Gonzales became president of the republic in May 1914.  A compromise candidate, he introduced a raft of popular reforms and is now regarded as a founding father of Costa Rican democracy, but as loss of European markets plunged the country’s economy into crisis he was overthrown by a military coup in January 1917.  The new regime of former war minister President Frederico Tinoco was anything but popular, and set about seeking support from the only nation in the world that could guarantee the survival of any Central American government, the USA.

Backed by the military, hated by everyone else, Tinoco didn’t last long.

It didn’t work, and Wilson’s administration refused to recognise Tinoco’s government.  A blatantly rigged election didn’t help, and Washington ignored an offer to station military forces in Costa Rica as extra protection for the Panama Canal, so Tinoco broke diplomatic relations with Germany on 21 September in the hope of changing Wilson’s mind.  That didn’t work either, but then again it didn’t do Costa Rica much harm, given that the country’s 600-strong standing army and its two naval gunboats saw no wartime action.

Costa Rica wasn’t invited to the post-War peace conference (and therefore didn’t sign the peace treaty, remaining technically at war with Germany until after the Second World War), and Washington supported the coup that overthrew Tinoco in August 1919.  The next president lasted two weeks, but subsequent leaders had restored peaceful, stable democracy to the country by the early 1920s.

The varied Latin American responses to Washington’s declaration of war had one thing in common – a failure to cooperate.  Apart from a fruitless joint meeting with US financial authorities in 1915, Latin American republics made no wartime attempt to meet geopolitical and economic pressures with a united front.  Nobody can say if solidarity, even among a few leading nations, could have curtailed US political and economic influence, controlled economic instability or addressed mounting social unrest.  It can be said that continent-wide pursuit of individual national interests – in many cases the very narrow interests of a ruling elite – exacerbated all of those problems, and that they all brought big trouble to Latin America for the rest of the twentieth century.

13 APRIL, 1917: Long Arm Of The War

A century ago, after a prolonged period of recuperation and planning, the Western Front was back in full-on, bloodletting action. In line with Berlin’s decision to focus resources on the escalation of submarine warfare while remaining poised to exploit fallout from Russia’s revolutionary chaos in the east, the German Army in France had taken a small step backwards to occupy carefully prepared defensive positions.  In line with recent tradition, the French and British armies on the Western Front had chosen to hurl themselves at those positions in the same northern and southern sectors of the front that had been their targets since the beginning of 1915, employing a tweaked and expanded version of the same tactics that had failed every time.

As usual, the Allied attacks were launched in the belief that final victory was just a well-aimed push away, but this time the belief was a little more desperate and a little less universal.  While politicians clung gratefully to French Army c-in-c Nivelle’s assertion that his version of breakthrough tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours, they were forced to override opposition from many senior commanders in both armies.  I’ve talked about the build-up to the Allied spring offensives on the Western Front before (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and on 9 April they finally got underway, when the BEF launched its opening assault in the northern sector.

This was the start of the Battle of Arras (sometimes known as the Second Battle of Arras), which encompassed various smaller battles (beginning with the Battle of Vimy Ridge), and which formed the northern prong of the Allied Artois and Champagne Offensive (often known as the Nivelle Offensive).  If that seems unclear, bear in mind it’s a simplification and then let’s move on.

Vimy Ridge – you know what happens next.

The Nivelle Offensive was destined to be the usual disaster and its centenaries (again beginning with the genuinely heroic, largely Canadian and distinctly minor victory at Vimy Ridge) are destined to keep the Anglophone heritage industry busy for the foreseeable future.  There’s no real need for me to bang on about the combinations of bad weather, bad strategy, bad tactics and bad luck that turned the spring of 1917 into another miserable confirmation that contemporary methods of attack were no match for efficient, trench-based defence, so I won’t.  Instead, let’s take a look at South America, because on 11 April 1917 Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Bolivia followed suit two days later.

The standard line on Latin America during the First World War is that the flight of European money and influence during the conflict opened the door for American business interests, bolstered by money, military force and diplomatic pressure, to gain control over much the continent’s exportable economic output.  This was true enough, broadly speaking, but sweeping generalisations applied to whole continents – like the ones about all African music or all European food – tend to be short on nuance and riddled with exceptions.  US economic encroachment in Latin America was primarily driven by trade winds, so it was directly concerned with securing all approaches to the new Panama Canal and focused on exploitation of small states with easy access to sea lanes; the kind of countries that could be easily coerced by the dispatch a few marines and plenty of dollars.  Much of Central America, the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America were targetted accordingly, but for very different reasons neither Brazil nor Bolivia came into these categories.

Brazil, a country with plenty of accessible coastline, rich in resources for exploitation and a system of government ripe for the marines and dollars treatment, was simply too big to be an easy target for American dominance, as were its neighbours Argentina and Chile. As the region’s most powerful states, the three of them make for an interesting subset within the world at war, pursuing lines of alliance and development that would shape the continent’s turbulent twentieth-century history, so they’re worth a post of their own another day.

On the other hand Bolivia was small, possessed valuable natural resources and was dominated by an almost feudal political system that could be controlled from the centre – but it didn’t meet the accessibility criterion, having been landlocked since the loss or sale of territory to its more powerful neighbours in the late 19th century. Partly because of its relative isolation, and partly thanks to the talents of a particularly acquisitive ruling elite, the country faced no wartime threat to its political or economic independence – but that didn’t protect it from the War’s destabilising effects.

How Bolivia ended up landlocked…

Bolivia’s otherwise agricultural economy was built on abundant tin and silver resources, and during the late 19th century its politics were run by competing oligarchies of tin and silver barons, both principally concerned with maximising their wealth and content to treat the native population as forced labour.  Promises of reform had won some native support for the Liberal Party, representing the La Paz-based tin industry, which had seized power from the silver barons of the Conservative Party, based in the city of Sucre, in 1899. The Liberals still ran a government tightly controlled by the presidency in 1917, by which time they had established La Paz as the national capital and become a lot richer on the back of a tin boom based on European shortages during the early 1900s, but had done nothing to improve the miserable condition of the workforce.

Foreign investment poured into Bolivia during the tin boom, but wealthy Bolivian entrepreneurs quickly learned to exploit the dependence of overseas smelting industries on Bolivian tin.  The process of putting the tin industry back into Bolivian hands was well underway by 1917 and would be complete by the early 1920s – but though the ruling elite remained prosperous during wartime, the long-range economic effects of world war, especially disruption of trade with Europe, were forcing socio-political changes that threatened its hold on power.

A long slump in the silver trade helped keep the Conservatives weak and divided, but the dip in general trade with Europe before and after the outbreak of War, along with a series of droughts that hit agricultural production, brought a third, elite-based political force into play, as a faction committed to territorial expansion broke away from the Liberals to form a Republican Party.  Rapid growth of the tin mining sector, and associated construction of roads and railways, meanwhile bred rising social tensions as native workers moved into cities, where they became more organised and more militant.  With strikes beginning to disrupt the mining sector, the Republicans making appeals for support to workers’ organisations, and a presidential election due in May 1917, the ruling Liberals were understandably keen to promote economic recovery through a resumption of normal trade patterns.

Ismael Montes, President of Bolivia between 1913 and 1917.  All moustache and no chops.

German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 had precisely the opposite effect, and made trade with the American continent, above all with great market of the USA, even more important to Bolivia.  Under the circumstances, the US declaration of war against Germany offered the ruling oligarchy a free hit, which it took by severing diplomatic relations on 13 April.

The move was a no-brainer, offering a chance to display solidarity with the USA and to mop up the remnants of extensive pre-War German investment in the country, as well as leaving Bolivia poised to become an official belligerent should it need a voice at the peace conference.  It was also good local PR, and a sense of better times on the horizon helped the Liberals win the 1917 election, but it made no difference to Bolivia’s immediate economic problems.

Nothing Bolivian leaders could do was ever going to interfere with the tsunami progress of world war economics, and better times were too long coming for the tin barons.  Two decades of relatively stable misery for the Bolivian people came to an end in 1920, when a bloodless coup by the Republicans ushered in a long period of upheaval underpinned by a multi-faceted popular struggle for social reform.

The Bolivian government’s dip into world-war diplomacy involved no pressure from foreign powers, but was yet another case of a ruling elite’s opportunistic self-interest disguised as national interest.  Bolivia’s behaviour was more like that of Bulgaria or Romania than of Cuba or Panama, which had declared war against Germany on 7 April in their capacity as what amounted to US client states.  As with almost every state in any way involved in the First World War, those behind Bolivia’s involvement were destined to disappointment in its outcome, and couldn’t stop the ripples from distant battlefields contributing to fatal cracks in a political system built on repression.

Giving human and civil rights a small shove from a great distance isn’t such a big deal, and war-related changes didn’t conjure up any happy endings (or many happy intermissions) for the people of Bolivia – but even that has probably made a more significant contribution to modern times than the springtime slaughter on the Western Front, and it’s definitely less depressingly repetitive.