The Unlocking the Airwaves Latin America exhibit consists of educational radio segments from 1956 to 1969, with the majority of recordings stemming from three radio series that focused on U.S. and Latin American relations during the 1960s. The first series is Contemporary Revolution in Latin America, a documentary series on problems facing Latin America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, that was produced by the University of Florida in 1961 and hosted by Erwin Canham, journalist and editor of the Christian Science Monitor. Focusing on the impact of the U.S. dollar in Latin America, the second series, The Yankee Dollar, was produced in 1963 by the University of Texas at Austin’s KUT-FM and hosted by Richard Arellano. Lastly, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and WSIU’s Latin American Perspectives consists of a series of lectures from 1968 to 1969 featuring Dr. C. Harvey Gardiner, professor of history at Southern Illinois University, about current Latin American problems and their historical setting. Recordings in this collection broadly center on the following themes: the rise of communism and the Cold War in Latin America; Cuba’s revolution of 1959; John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress; and the rise of Latin American area studies in U.S. universities. These materials provide a lens into how educational broadcasting sought to inform domestic audiences about the United States’ Latin American foreign policy during the Cold War. They therefore complement media studies scholarship on U.S.-Latin American relations during the Cold War, including Michael Curtin’s (1995) analysis of Cold War television documentary and Yeidy Rivero’s (2020) research on Cold War radio propaganda. Nonetheless, these recordings portray Latin Americans as an exogenous population, failing to thereby conceive of Latin American descendant people—what are now known as Latinxs—as part of the U.S. imaginary.
Contextualizing U.S.-Latin American Relations
Historically, the U.S. has had a fraught relationship with Latin America, marred by land theft, exploitative economic relations, interventionism, and a paternalistic attitude that has privileged U.S. interests in the region. The origins of this foreign policy are largely attributed to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, which prohibited further colonization of the Western Hemisphere (particularly by European powers), asserted unilateral U.S. protection over this hemisphere, and codified the U.S. as a hemispheric police power that could intervene in any Latin American country exhibiting flagrant wrongdoing. By 1933, the U.S. opposed interventionism in Latin American and instead embraced soft power in the region, a policy established through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy;” nonetheless, the post-World War II period, the rise of communism in Europe and Asia, and the Cold War resulted in the erosion of the Good Neighbor approach. The United States instead relied on supporting authoritarian rulers in Latin America that would protect U.S. interests and embrace anticommunism.
In the midst of the U.S.’s strategy of communist containment, Cuba faced a revolution, led by Fidel Castro, to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. The revolutionaries were successful and after rising tensions between Cuba and the United States, Castro in 1961 declared Cuba a socialist state and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist. This revolution therefore increased fears of Soviet influence in the region, directly placed communism in the United States’ “backyard,” and intensified Cold War politics in Latin America. To quell the rise of communism in the region and to improve strained relations with Latin America, John F. Kennedy embraced peaceful economic cooperation and development as a way to advance social reforms and democracy in the region. Known as the “Alliance for Progress,” the program provided economic assistance to Latin American countries to promote economic development, accelerate modernization, and enhance social welfare to, in Kennedy’s words, “satisfy the basic needs of [Latin] American people for homes, work and land, health and schools.” Nonetheless, the Alliance largely failed in achieving its goals and in the decades that followed, Latin America was plagued by ruthless far-right dictatorships.
Contemporary Revolution in Latin America
Through balanced and nuanced coverage, this series seeks to inform U.S. audiences about the tensions between reform and revolution in Latin America, the conditions that have fomented the spread of communist ideologies in the region, and the workings of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Episodes incorporate interviews with high ranking experts on Latin American affairs—importantly including the voices of Latin Americans— to provide coverage on issues such as social stratification, oligarchic power, economic development, authoritarian rule, social welfare, agrarian reform, education, industrialization, and the communist threat in Latin America. One of the most fascinating episodes describes what is pejoratively known as the “Indian problem,” or the way in which a nation incorporates what it perceives as “backwards” indigenous peoples into the fabric of the nation. Interestingly, Guatemalan diplomat Jorge García Granados views indigenous peoples as the future of his country and as the “greatest bulwark against communism in Guatemala.” Although the series is critical of both the United States and Latin America, its coverage nonetheless embraces the Alliance for Progress’ outlook, viewing economic capitalist development, modernization, and social reform as the best solutions to Latin America’s rising revolutions and as a buttress against communism.
Episodes in this series focus on various facets of economic development in Latin America, using Mexico as a case study to explore advances made by the Alliance for Progress and the impact of the American dollar in the region. Recordings cover the importance of the American dollar for Mexico’s tourism industry, capital investments in the region, the Alliance for Progress’ assistance to the private sector, and U.S. economic assistance to Mexico. As a whole, this series paints Latin American countries as politically stable good neighbors and entices listeners to travel to and invest in the region by advertising capital investment programs offered through the Alliance for Progress.
Comprising the majority of holdings in this exhibit, in this series Dr. Gardiner traces new scholarship emerging from Latin American area studies during the 1960s. By providing reviews of recently published books, the series explores Latin American history, culture, arts, politics, economy, and society through an Anglo lens. Attention is paid to Cold War affairs and the values espoused by the Alliance for Progress through episodes on, for example, the communist threat in Cuba, Belize, Chile, and the region; land reform in Venezuela; economic development and modernism in Brazil and Mexico; Chilean democracy; social stratification; and U.S. intervention in the region. Given the urban race rebellions that occurred in the mid- to late-1960s in the U.S., Gardiner also pays attentiveness to race relations in the region in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Cuba.
Curtin, Michael. Redeeming the Wasteland: Television Documentary and Cold War Politics. Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Rivero, Yeidy M. "Three Peasants Fight for Freedom: Radio and the United States’ Cultural Cold War in Latin America." International Journal of Communication 14 (2020): 18.
Arcelia Gutiérrez is an Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research explores Latinx media activism and advocacy from the 1980s to the present. Her latest article, "Situating Representation As a Form of Erasure: #OscarsSoWhite, Black Twitter, and Latinx Twitter," was published in Television & New Media.