From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
Aaron Coy Moulton
Between 1944 and 1959, conflicts with anti-dictatorial exiles and democratic leaders against dictatorial regimes and dissident exiles shaped inter-American relations in the Caribbean Basin. At the end of World War II, anti-dictatorial exiles networked with students, laborers, journalists, and politicians in denouncing the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, and Honduras’s Tiburcio Carías. Opponents of and dissident exiles from the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution and Venezuela’s Trienio Adeco (Adeco Triennium) under Rómulo Betancourt likewise turned to dictatorial regimes for aid. By 1947, a loose coalition of anti-dictatorial exiles with the help of Cuba, Guatemala, and Venezuela’s democratic leaders formed what would become known as the Caribbean Legion and organized the abortive Cayo Confites expedition against Trujillo. Seeking regional stability, U.S. officials intervened against this expedition and Caribbean Basin dictators and dissident exiles’ attempts to air-bomb Guatemala City and Caracas.
Caribbean Basin leaders and exiles focused upon these inter-American conflicts, rather than the international Cold War. José Figueres’s rise to power in Costa Rica provided a pivotal ally to democratic leaders and anti-dictatorial exiles, and Caribbean Basin dictators began working with the Venezuelan military regime after the 1948 military coup. In 1949, Trujillo’s regime coordinated a counter-intelligence operation that destroyed the Caribbean Legion’s expedition at Luperón and brought greater attention to the region.
By the early 1950s, dictatorial regimes operated as a counter-revolutionary network sharing intelligence, aiding dissident exiles, supporting Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup in Cuba, and lobbying U.S. officials against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Figueres in Costa Rica. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) utilized these dictators and exiles during Operations PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954, but U.S. officials intervened when the counter-revolutionary network invaded Costa Rica in 1955.
From 1955 onward, anti-dictatorial exiles from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela continued organizing expeditions against Caribbean Basin dictatorships, and multiple groups conspired against Batista’s regime. Among Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro rose to prominence and received important resources and alliances through anti-dictatorial exiles. Dictators shared intelligence and gave aid to Batista, yet Caribbean Legion veterans, Cuban exiles, Betancourt, Figueres, and others helped Castro undermine Batista. In 1959, Castro supported anti-dictatorial expeditions, most notably those against Trujillo and Luis Somoza. However, Castro disagreed with many former exiles and Betancourt and Figueres’s policies, so the resulting tension separated Castro from democratic leaders and divided the region among dictatorial regimes, democratic governments, and Castro.
Eric Paul Roorda
After more than a century of sporadic immigration from the island of Cuba to the United States, the trajectory of the diaspora accelerated steeply, beginning with Fidel Castro coming to power in 1959. In the ensuing years, as bilateral relations between the Communist regime in Havana and the administrations of President Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy soured and the exodus of upper-class, then middle-class, Cubans increased until Castro clamped down on it. Thereafter, the pace of departures became episodic, involving mainly working-class people, and their nature turned increasingly desperate. Three major immigration events punctuated the next 30 years: in 1965 from the port of Camarioca, in 1980 from the bay city of Mariel, and, again in 1994, a more general wave of flight that also heavily involved the port of Mariel. These bursts of seaborne migration came against a backdrop of constant, low-level, individual efforts to flee adverse circumstances in Castro’s Cuba. These include manifold political pressures, with opponents of the regime and cultural nonconformists alike facing harassment and imprisonment; as well as other severe economic challenges, with food scarcity, fuel shortages, and unreliable electric power making daily life difficult for the vast majority of Cuban citizens.
U.S. opposition to Castro has taken many forms, beginning with economic sanctions. A complete break in relations followed in early 1961, an invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and, later, a Central Intelligence Agency–sponsored campaign of terrorist attacks and assassination attempts code-named Operation Mongoose. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a nearly complete embargo has prevented any sort of trade or tourism. In response to the influx of new Cuban arrivals, U.S. policy toward the immigrants themselves altered radically, facilitating their arrival and assimilation as political refugees until August 1994, then actively preventing their entry as economic refugees, until this writing.
On March 12, 1956, Basque National and Columbia University lecturer Jesús María de Galíndez Suarez disappeared from New York City never to be seen again. While no conclusive evidence was ever uncovered, it has been widely accepted that he was taken by functionaries of the regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, flown to the island, tortured, and killed. Galíndez, who had worked for the Trujillo regime after fleeing Spain in 1939 and subsequently immigrated to the United States in 1946, had just completed a dissertation on the Trujillato at Columbia. The regime did not look kindly on his chosen perspective and set in motion a plan to have him disappeared. Following his abduction, many U.S. solidarity activists joined forces with Dominican exile groups to push for greater attention to the atrocities of the Trujillo regime as well as for a closer investigation into Galíndez’s disappearance. While Trujillo had similarly disappeared a number of individuals in the United States and other Latin American countries, the Galíndez case is unique for several reasons. First, Galíndez’s life offers a prime example of a transnational identity, of someone who juggled multiple identities and causes, crossed physical and ideological borders, and operated daily with conflicting alliances and allegiances. Second, the murder of the Basque national mobilized a significant collective of solidarity activists in the United States, garnered considerable national press, and built a foundation for future activism. Moreover, as Galíndez had been working as a U.S. intelligence operative since before his arrival in the United States, his story complicates the traditional nexus of solidarity work. Finally, the case offers a unique window onto the geopolitics of the early Cold War (prior to the Cuban Revolution) and the intricacies of the second half of the Trujillo regime.
U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 19th century initially focused on excluding or limiting the military and economic influence of European powers, territorial expansion, and encouraging American commerce. These objectives were expressed in the No Transfer Principle (1811) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). American policy was unilateralist (not isolationist); it gradually became more aggressive and interventionist as the idea of Manifest Destiny contributed to wars and military conflicts against indigenous peoples, France, Britain, Spain, and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. Expansionist sentiments and U.S. domestic politics inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America. Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. From the 1870s until the end of the century, U.S. policy intensified efforts to establish political and military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, including periodic naval interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, reaching even to Brazil in the 1890s. By the end of the century Secretary of State Richard Olney added the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (“Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . .”), and President Theodore Roosevelt contributed his own corollary in 1904 (“in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power”). American policy toward Latin America, at the turn of the century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend U.S. economic interests and an expanding concept of national security.
From 1800 to the present, US troops have intervened thousands of times in Latin America and have occupied its countries on dozens of occasions. Interventions were short-term and superficial, while occupations lasted longer and controlled local governments. The causes of these troop landings reflected the United States’ motivations as it expanded from a strong, large republic into first a continental and then an overseas empire at the expense of its smaller, weaker neighbors. Those motivations included colonial land hunger, cultural chauvinism, the exploitation of resources, the search for markets abroad, competition against other great powers, political reformism, global ideological struggle, and the perception that US domestic problems originated in Latin America. US troops undertook almost all these interventions and occupations, although private groups sometimes joined. The major periods were the expansion of the continental republic from 1811 to 1897, the war in Cuba and the apex of occupations (1898–1933), the Good Neighbor years (1934–1953), the Cold War (1954–1990), and the post-Cold War period (1991–2018 and ongoing). Scholars of these events have become increasingly critical and diverse, not only seeing them often as unnecessary brutal failures but also foregrounding extra-military aspects of these episodes, such as economics, race, and gender.