Moulton on May and Schneider and González Arana, 'Caribbean Revolutions: Cold War Armed Movements'

Rachel A. May, Alejandro Schneider, Roberto González Arana
Aaron Coy Moulton

Rachel A. May, Alejandro Schneider, Roberto González Arana. Caribbean Revolutions: Cold War Armed Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 174 pp. $24.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-44090-5.

Reviewed by Aaron Coy Moulton (Stephen F. Austin State University) Published on H-Diplo (December, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Caribbean Revolutions: Cold War Armed Movements by Rachel May, Alejandro Schneider, and Roberto González Arana is an attempt to examine armed insurgencies in the Caribbean Basin beginning in the 1960s. The book centers upon the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s movement and the Cuban Revolution’s impact upon the ideologies and structures of guerrilla uprisings in the Caribbean Basin. The text, consequently, tries to examine armed insurgencies in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Puerto Rico by emphasizing the impact of the Cuban Revolution’s image and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s foco theory. While specialists might be able to borrow from its bibliographies and references to primary sources, the text will offer little for the classroom.

The book’s value is its integration of glimpses into five countries’ insurgencies with myriad snippets of guerrilla writings and declarations. Each chapter has a listing of notable organizations and leaders while touching upon frameworks, efforts, and beliefs. Because of the work’s short length, the text does not include longer interviews or highlights that would allow specialists or students a deeper glimpse into how participants understood and interpreted their uprisings or the world around them. The book frequently notes that guerrillas looked globally to borrow from Russian, Chinese, or Vietnamese examples. While a brief reference might be sufficient for those already familiar with these insurgencies, those searching for an introductory text will want more, such as exactly how the 1954 Guatemalan coup or the Cuban Revolution influenced the guerilla movement in Nicaragua. If this work had gone into detail and elaborated upon what the Sandinistas borrowed from Chinese leader Mao Zedong or Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, the text would have been a valuable addition for the classroom.

The book moves quickly between the five case studies to touch upon various important people and organizations. This helps provide readers with a “comparative analysis across this region” of armed insurgencies (p. 13). Despite its many flaws, which the review will describe, the book offers a useful bibliography of primary sources and popular texts. Curiously, all movements are divided into similar phases. The authors break Guatemala and El Salvador’s insurgencies into three phases based upon military failures and reorganizations, but the Sandinistas’ defeats in the late 1960s and recomposition in 1969 does not receive such a phase. This analysis of phases also breaks down at the section on Puerto Rico. The book should be lauded for reminding readers about the island’s long history and struggles that included armed revolutionary movements typically marginalized in Caribbean and Latin American Cold War examinations. Still, it passes over what they label Puerto Rico’s first two phases since those movements predated the international Cold War and the Cuban Revolution. Between this and its speeding through the 1960s, the book does not flesh out how opposition to the Vietnam War’s draft and the Universidad de Puerto Rico’s ROTC program or “Cold War national liberation movements”  “affected the birth and development of the guerrilla organizations in Puerto Rico” (p. 124).

Overall, the book appears caught between two goals that take away from its utility as a class text. It seeks to be both an “accessible and comprehensive history of armed revolutionary struggle in five Caribbean nations” (p. 13) and “a detailed history of armed revolutionary movements in the Caribbean Basin,” yet the “case studies are not comprehensive” (p. 15). After a superficial introduction, each of the five country-specific chapters presents a single case study organized in a generally basic fashion. There is an opening with some background, with Guatemala getting a “Cold War Context” section to explain how US resources and the international conflict shaped events there in the 1950s. This is definitely a good idea for a book on “Cold War armed movements” but it is not repeated for any of the other chapters. The only reference to the influence of the Cold War and global events in El Salvador before 1959 is that there was “an outsized brand of anti-communist sentiment that influenced US policy toward Central America even before the Cuban Revolution,” leaving the reader to debate what the conflict meant for the region and its peoples before the 1960s (p. 44). Likewise, the chapter on Nicaragua has no discussion of the Cold War before 1959, while the only connection noted in the chapter on Colombia is its sending of troops for the Korean War. There are numerous passing references to the Caribbean’s poverty and inequality, but the text takes for granted the reader’s familiarity with these and various underlying issues that led some people to turn to armed struggle. Yes, El Salvador “was also one of the most economically and socially unequal, with a recalcitrant oligarchy and a tradition of brutal retaliation against any challenges to the social order” (p. 43). Beyond “the alliance between the military and the oligarchy [which] controlled national politics through corruption and fraud,” there is no other reference to the brutal repression endured by rural communities and the urban poor beyond Oscar Romero’s assassination and the 1989 Jesuit massacre (p. 44). The discussion of Guatemala overlooks events between 1954 and 1960, when state terrorism proliferated in the aftermath of the 1954 coup, despite a “Suggested Reading” list that includes prominent research from Greg Grandin, whose work specifically revolves around a longue durée of counterrevolutionary violence that went beyond the 1954 coup or 1959’s inspiration.[1] Oddly, for a book that insists “armed struggle ... was a decision that had to emanate from ideology, or at the very least had to be made consistent with ideology,” each chapter’s “ideology” section comes after those on “internal structure” and “mobilization strategy” (p. 15).

Many armed movements are left out, including several that could have strengthened the text’s appeal for the classroom. In what could be seen as a proving ground for exporting revolution, Castro and his allies supported armed expeditions in 1959 into the Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, and Nicaragua, yet none are mentioned as important predecessors to links between the Cuban Revolution and Caribbean Basin armed movements. Insurgencies in Mexico and Venezuela are also absent. Considering the text’s stated aim of offering a comparative analysis, providing selections on these two countries would have significantly increased the appeal of the book to a larger audience. This also would have allowed more in-depth discussion and comparisons of why certain insurgencies lasted longer, why some movements died out, and how states (most notably Mexico under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional) suppressed groups that tied the Cold War with historic grievances. Venezuela would have been invaluable as a case study for such comparative discussion. Not only did Castro invest significant resources to encourage a revolutionary movement there, leaving plenty of primary sources accessible for the work’s analyses of structures and ideologies, but comparing the general defeat of Venezuela’s armed insurgents in the 1960s would have also bolstered the larger arguments about so-called first phase defeats and resulting reorganizations that the authors make for the rest of the Caribbean Basin.

There lingers a question about the emphasis on the formal international Cold War and Castro-inspired movements. The literature on Latin America and the Cold War is replete with nuanced studies of how revolution, insurgency, and violence predated, twisted into, and emerged out of the Cold War.[2] Unfortunately, all that is offered is that Colombia’s Movimiento 19 de Abril was shaped by Latin American populism, without further inquiry and reference to the fact that Guatemala’s Movimiento Rebelde 13 de Noviembre borrowed from Nicaragua’s revolutionary leader Augusto Sandino’s worldview. However, the admission that “other Latin American Marxists were also influential” is just that: a footnote directing the reader to a bibliography (p. 12). Considering other brief references to pre-1959 revolutionary violence (the Mexican Revolution, El Salvador’s Matanza, Nicaragua’s Sandino, Colombia’s Violencia), any kind of engagement would have moved the book beyond simple summaries of structures, ideologies, and phases. Engagement with the latest works on Latin America and the Cold War, such as a popular piece by Andrea Oñate, would have resulted in a better explanation of how the Cuban Revolution shaped the FMLN and, more generally, how the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War reshaped long-standing debates about armed insurgency.[3] Without this, it is impossible to suggest Caribbean Revolutions as either a course book or an introductory primer for students interested in Latin American history, insurgencies, revolutions, or politics.

The book’s limited utility as a resource on contemporary politics is abundantly apparent and quite striking. The text, after all, was meant to introduce readers to the “politics of the entire region, both then and now” (p. 15), while also promising a “fuller discussion of ‘New Social Movements’” in the final chapter (p. 40). This becomes frustrating because that chapter, “Armed Revolutionary Movements in Comparative Perspective,” devotes basically the same amount of space to New Social Movements in its five case studies as to Venezuela and Mexico, which were purposefully excluded from the examination. Such space being redirected for even one of the five examined nations would have been immeasurably beneficial for the classroom, but a handful of pages are the only material offered for current affairs and that “fuller discussion.”  If such a discussion was never the intent of a text presented as “comprehensive,” “comparative,” and “detailed,” then it is unclear what Caribbean Revolutions: Cold War Armed Movements seeks to offer specialists or students when there are already comprehensive, comparative, and detailed works such as Dirk Krujit’s Guerrillas.[4]


[1]. Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2]. Integral works on Latin America’s Cold War that would have helped on this front include Gilbert Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold War: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Julio Moreno, eds., Beyond the Eagle’s Shadow: New Histories of Latin America’s Cold War (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013).

[3]. Andrea Oñate, “The Red Affair: FMLN-Cuban Relations during the Salvadoran Civil War, 1981-92,” Cold War History 11, no. 2 (2011): 133-54. Likewise, recent scholarship from Robert Karl, as in his “Reading the Cuban Revolution from Bogotá, 1957-62,” Cold War History 16, no. 4 (2016): 337-58, would have illuminated how Colombians interpreted Cuban events and bolstered this discussion.

[4]. Dirk Krujit, Guerrillas: War and Peace in Central America (London: Zed Books, 2008).

Citation: Aaron Coy Moulton. Review of May, Rachel A.; Schneider, Alejandro; González Arana, Roberto, Caribbean Revolutions: Cold War Armed Movements. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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