Webcast Recap

On Thursday, May 1, 2008, the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and Latin American Program (LAP) co-sponsored a discussion on a new book–In from the Cold: Latin America's New Encounter with the Cold War. The event featured the book's editors, Gilbert Joseph, the Farnam Professor of History at Yale University and Daniela Spenser, a senior research professor at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City, as well as commentators Max Paul Friedman, an associate professor of history at American University and Vojtech Mastny, a senior fellow at George Washington University's National Security Archive.

Gilbert Joseph opened the discussion by describing the distinctions between how the Cold War unfolded globally and in Latin America. While the larger conflict between the superpowers is often viewed as a relatively non-violent competition, the Cold War in Latin America was the bloodiest era in the region's modern history. Reform movements and regional conflicts became politicized, polarized, and internationalized within the framework of the larger Cold War. Money, weapons, military advisors, and other resources poured into the region from both sides of the Iron Curtain, making local conflicts more lethal.

Most of Latin America, Joseph suggested, is under-studied by mainstream Cold War historians. The historical analysis that does exist is largely based upon U.S. sources, and therefore overlooks the influence of Latin American governments, organizations, and individuals. In from the Cold represents an attempt to view the Cold War in Latin America from the perspective of Latin Americans themselves and to acknowledge the fact that the people of the region were agents themselves, not just pawns of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Daniela Spenser went on to discuss ‘next steps' in the study of the Latin American Cold War. This research, Spenser argued, will shed light on how the conflict was fought. She noted that a variety of Russian sources have yielded new evidence on the Cold War in Latin America. These include archival documents, Vasiliy Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrews' book, The World Was Going Our Way–an account of the Cold War in the third world based upon evidence secretly collected from the KGB's own archives and now available in CWIHP's virtual archive–along with interviews with former KGB Latin America expert Nikolai Leonov. Useful though these sources are, much work remains to be done in the archives of Latin American Cold War hot spots like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Grenada, as well as in the archives of other countries of the former Soviet Bloc. This research, she contends, will dispel the myth of the Soviet Bloc as a monolith, and will help scholars to develop a more nuanced picture of the relationships between various Communist countries and countries in Latin America.

In his comments, Max Paul Friedman described In from the Cold, as a ‘corrective' in the study of the Cold War in Latin America. While U.S. foreign policy exerted a strong influence on Latin America, the essays in In from the Cold demonstrate the need to look beyond the U.S. perspective. To illustrate this point, he pointed out that even the time span of the Cold War appears different when viewed from a Latin American perspective: U.S. Marines intervened in the region to put down leftist insurgencies 20 years before the Bolshevik Revolution, while U.S. relations with Cuba retain their Cold War characteristics to this day.

Vojtech Mastny discussed the new light that In from the Cold sheds on the Cold War in Latin America, emphasizing Daniela Spenser's chapter on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro, Mastny pointed out, had an often overlooked role in influencing Soviet decision-making during the Crisis; he was, as new evidence shows, a reckless advocate of nuclear brinksmanship. Mastny argued that during the Cold War the United States contributed to the creation or worsening of many of Latin America's problems. Now that the Cold War is over, the United States has few resources and scant assistance with which to help Latin American countries address lingering problems.

Christian Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program