Peace, Freedom, and the Politics of Culture in Early Cold War Latin American

Assistant Professor Patrick Iber led the lecture on his book Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America, which was published by Harvard University Press in October 2015 and won the 2017 Luciano Tomassini book prize from the Latin American Studies Association.

Iber’s book centers around the Cultural Cold War in Latin America and how intellectuals and institutions intertwine and negotiate during this time, and though it was not a military conflict it was a conflict over civilizational superiority.

After World War II, Latin America had an unbalanced overwhelming presence of power by the US and was facing the possibility of social revolution. This situation empowered left wing intellectual activists and made them highly influential, as they represented the voice of those who could not speak for themselves. Where civil society was repressed the intellectuals were tasked with taking on multiple roles such as labor leaders, journalists and redeemers of their society.

The intellectual’s challenge was to interpret and change the continent, thus artists from the regions were unusually close to political power and were appointed to diplomatic posts, lobbied rulers on behalf of an assumed popular voice, opposed, and even assassinated dictators. Intellectuals participated in gorillas struggles and even came to hold political office. However, the Intellectuals relationships to governments within and outside the region made them both allies and opponents of oppression at the same time.

The competing visions of the intellectuals regarding social democracy and their pursuit of justice, peace, and freedom led them to organizations sponsored by the governments of the Cold War powers: The Soviet-backed World Peace Council, the U.S.-supported Congress for Cultural Freedom, and, after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the homegrown Casa de las Américas.

Within literature and arts, Stalin wanted to enact a repressive agenda domestically – socialist realism was the only officially sanctioned art form which intersected one of major themes of peace in the era. The other theme was anti cosmopolitanism as a critique to imperialism and capitalist culture – how the US was dazzling citizens from their individuality making them conforming masses which was disrupting their ability to produce great art.

The artists were symbols of the damage done to Latin American democracy by anti-communist repression of peace movement. Congress for cultural freedom emerged from anti peace campaign against the Soviet Union. Figures like Julian Gorkin headed and establish local branches of the organization, but he and most of the organization was not aware that they were being secretly financed by the US CIA.

The US government also provided support to Fidel Castro and by extent to the Cuban revolution before he took power, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom was convinced that Castro was on their side. However, they soon saw him as the enemy who was promoting Cuban revolutionary nationalism.

But ultimately, intellectuals from Latin America could not break free from the Cold War’s rigid binaries. With the Soviet Union demanding fealty from Latin American communists, the United States zealously supporting their repression, and Fidel Castro pushing for regional armed revolution, advocates of social democracy found little room to promote their ideals without compromising them. Cold War politics had offered utopian dreams, but intellectuals could get neither the peace nor the freedom they sought.

The idea of fronts that emerged from this era, where everyone was a puppet for larger interests don’t serve well. The soviet peace council was a front that was self-financed by individuals who were generally convinced in what they were doing and the ways they wanted to do it. Effects of all of the fronts were surprising – in Mexico the peace movement helped to cultivate the left-wing social movement that articulated a critique of democracy in Mexico and was a model of political change in defending civil liberties.

The World peace council was naïve about the Soviet Union but rationalized the position by blaming the US for the greatest suffering in their own countries. The Congress for cultural freedom’s most consequential political action was to support Fidel Castro’s ascend to power and discredited anti-communism. 

Iber concluded that these intellectuals were all working under moral authority and the idea that they were working for a better world. Thus, they used their art to make statement and help people understand issues and work for a more peaceful and egalitarian world. The Cold War, he said, was not creating different points of view, but it was allowing people to talk about it and potentially influence global politics. Artists in a way were more valued, and were the thought leaders of their time.