For the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, it is important to draw attention to lesser known, and often underplayed, instances of mutual influence, solidarity and support between the Soviet Union and Latin America.
Russian Revolution at 100
The most obvious and well-known instance of Soviet influence was its Cold War relationship with Cuba, often misconstrued as an uneven relationship in which the latter was merely used as a geopolitical pawn.
The United States and its Western allies were always of the view that the communist movement in Latin America and elsewhere did not have their own agency, that the Soviet Union was the mastermind behind their strategies and organizations.
The reality is that the relationship was much more profound and complex than they will have you believe.
Soviet influence on Mariategui and other intellectuals
Jose Carlos Mariategui — considered the founding father of Latin American socialism — was insistent on socialism in Latin America not being a “carbon copy” of the European experience, yet he held the Soviet Union in high regard, often invoking the October Revolution as inspiration for an uprising in his native Peru.
Decades before Peru established official diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, Mariategui had already been promoting Soviet literature, making him one of the first cultural ambassadors for the USSR, not only in Peru but in Latin America in general. Reciprocally, after his death in 1930 Soviet intellectuals distributed Mariategui’s texts in their own country, which eventually brought much acclaim to the Latin American thinker.
Big names from Latin America’s literary boom in the 1960s and 1970s were also heavily influenced and inspired by the Soviet Union.The late literary giant Pablo Neruda, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1971, once commented that the Soviet Union was the “bastion for peace and creation” for Latin American peoples.
Similarly, and influenced by Neruda’s line, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others, were known for their socialist ideas and their extolment of the socialist country.
Practical support for revolutions and revolutionaries
The Soviet Union not only helped to inspire Latin America’s intellectuals and revolutionary movements, they also gave them concrete support in the form of financial, military, agricultural and political aid. For decades, and especially in the first few years after the 1959 revolution, the USSR provided crucial support for Cuba in terms of trade and credit. It was not a handout either, Cuba supplied the Soviet Union with sugar in return.
After the Sandinista National Liberation Front came to power in Nicaragua in 1979, the Soviet Union sent multiple shipments of military equipment to support the fight against the U.S.-backed contras. In 1983, after the U.S. government cut Nicaragua's credit line for wheat purchases, the Soviet Union stepped in and sent thousands of tons of wheat to the Central American country. Soviet support for the Sandinistas was in no small part thanks to Cuba’s influence and insistence.
Similarly, after Grenada's revolution led by Maurice Bishop, the Soviet Union allocated grants, loans and technical support to his government, though not on the same level as Cuba and Nicaragua.
Soviet aid was not just limited to Latin American and Caribbean governments either, communist parties in the region were also supported in terms of training for revolutionaries and propaganda diffusion among other things. Furthermore, they offered thousands of scholarships to students from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico among others, where not only did they receive quality education but were also trained in revolutionary tactics.
Mutual support of art and culture
For the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and a group of Latin American artists were invited to the festivities by the Soviet government. During his stay in Moscow, Rivera was invited to give lectures and workshops to Russian students at the Komakademiia or Communist Academy. His work was also published in various art and literary publications. The Soviet government was so impressed by Rivera that they commissioned him to paint murals for the Red Army building in Moscow, among other projects.
"The Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution" — one of Rivera’s most famous murals at the Secretary of Public Education in Mexico City — is undoubtedly influenced by the Russian Revolution, depicting Mexican workers in a communist uprising.
Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most internationally recognized artist, and Rivera's partner, was a member of the Communist Party of Mexico and often showed her political support for the Soviet Union and communism in her paintings. In 1936, Kahlo gave the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky refuge at her parents’ famous Blue House in Mexico City.
From 1957, the USSR made a point of sending their best musicians and artists to Latin America, and in turn hosting Latin American artists often to receive awards. Around this time Neruda was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, recognizing his literary accomplishments. By the 1960s Radio Moscow was the international broadcaster with most airtime in Latin America with shows in Spanish, Portuguese and Quechua.