General Latin American Menu Main Menu What's New Best of this Site Radio History

Latin American Politics and DXing

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the May, 1990 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Like most SW hobbyists, when I started SWLing in September, 1971, the first Latin American station I heard was HCJB. Soon every evening I was tuning in "Studio Seventy", a predecessor of today's "Passport" (and now Studio Nine in 1996). However, one evening, February 15, 1972, I didn't hear the familiar news, light pop music, and short chatty features. Instead, there were just the precorded hourly IDs and instrumental music. The next morning, in my high school library's New York Times, I learned there had been a bloodless military coup overthrowing President Jose Velasco Ibarra's government, and Quito was under curfew. Five times Velasco had been elected or appointed president. Only once did he complete his term of office without being overthrown.

On September 11, 1973, one of Latin America's bloodiest coups ever grabbed the DX world's attention when the Chilean military overthrew President Allende's elected Socialist government. DXers listening to the then many Chilean SW stations noted nothing unusual in the days before the coup - although all stations by that time had been highly politicized. After the coup, the stations supporting Allende were used briefly to broadcast military propaganda, then taken off SW.

Latin America's governments have been no model of stability. Every country has been under military dictatorship several times. The most unstable country has clearly been Bolivia. According to John Gunther's excellant Inside South America, from 1825 to 1961 Bolivia had 179 changes of government - an average of about one every eight months. Several Bolivian presidents lasted just a day before being overthrown. Once Bolivia had three presidents in three days; the first two were assassinated, and the third, assumedly, very nervous. As recently as 1978-1982, Bolivia went through ten presidents and several coups. Honduras and Venezuela, among others, have been only slightly more stable, while still other countries, such as Guatemala and Paraguay, achieved stability through a series of long term dictatorships.

Just days after the 1973 coup in Chile, another type of Latin American politics appeared on the radio. At that time, Venezuela was king of the sixty meterband, with easily heard stations almost every ten kilohertz. Suddenly, it became impossible to tune sixty meters without hearing an upbeat jingle for Carlos Andres, presidential candidate for the Accion Democratica party in Venezuela's 1973 elections. Andres had decided to blanket Venezuela with an extensive radio campaign, which helped lead to his November electoral victory.

Perhaps because we focus on the different and violent, we sometimes forget that Latin America also has some very strong democratic traditions. In most countries after independence, two political parties quickly emerged: the Conservatives, who favored an active collaboration between the government and the Catholic Church, and the Liberals, who admired a revolutionary named Thomas Jefferson and believed in strict separation of church and state. In some places the differing parties battled in partially-honest elections, in other places they resorted to the gun. Regardless, this was a struggle between members of the elite; the common masses had no role, except as soldiers who fought and died when politics turned violent.

Beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a small middle class of merchants, teachers, and government workers emerged in the cities. Unlike the peasants, they challenged the elite for political control. The elite didn't share power easily; countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela and Paraguay remained firmly under powerful caudillos. But in some countries democracy did prevail and free elections were held. In 1889, Costa Rica began 100 years of free elections. Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, among others, had several decades of mainly stable democratic government. In several countries the traditional parties absorbed the middle class and evolved into modern parties; in others, they died out and new ones were born.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Latin America hard. Europe and the United States no longer bought Latin American exports, throwing millions out of work. With civil unrest and the threat of Fascism or Communism growing daily, the army moved in and took firm control of most countries. Ecuador had twelve presidents from 1930-39. Dictators like Vargas of Brazil, Ubico of Guatemala, and Andino of Honduras began over a decade of rule. Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic, ruling until his 1961 assassination. The Somoza family began nearly fifty years of rule in Nicaragua. Dictatorship took a firm hold. Only Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico's one-party quasi-democracy remained unscathed.

Democracy began to blossom again briefly in the late 1940s, but soon Cold War politics quashed it back down. Even Colombia succumbed to a hardline general, despite over 60 years of democratic rule. At one point, tiny Costa Rica was the only democratic country in the entire Caribbean. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, democracy once again made gains. In 1958 ruthless dictatorships were replaced by democratic governments in Venezuela and Colombia. Those two countries have consistently held free elections ever since. But democracy in other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, did not fare as well. By the mid-1960s, dictatorship was once again on the rise, reaching a peak in 1977, when only five Spanish-American countries were ruled by civilian governments.

Starting in 1978 democracy rebounded, as populations demanded more freedom and military establishments realized they were not suitable for governing in the modern age. First there were elections in Ecuador and Peru; then the fall of Nicaragua's Somoza dynasty in 1979 shook dictatorships everywhere and lead to that country's first free elections in 1984 and 1990. From 1982 to 1983, civilian democracy returned to Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, and Argentina, followed by Brazil and Uruguay in 1985 and Guatemala in 1986. In the past year, Paraguay, Panama, and Chile returned to democratic government. Today, Castro's Cuba, Haiti, and Surinam are the only dictatorships in this hemisphere. The military and wealthy elite still exercise considerable behind-the-scenes control in some countries, especially in Central America, but never has the hemisphere been so free.

Perhaps I'm optimistic, but I'll predict that never again will DXers hear a Latin American coup, unless it comes from Cuba, Haiti, or Surinam. That OK, though. Coups are never announced in advance, but elections are, so we can plan to tune them in. For SWLs who understand a little Spanish, it's a chance to hear something of another country's political culture, and for DXers, it may mean extended schedules or reactivations of otherwise hard-to-hear stations. Last month's April 9 elections in Peru nicely coincided with enhanced Andean propagation. It could be coincidence, but the morning after the election I logged three new Peruvian stations. Although conditions were even better the following day, I didn't so much as hear a carrier from any of them.

Two elections are coming up this month. On May 16 the Dominican Republic will hold what could be called the geriatric elections. Joaquin Balaguer and Juan Bosch, two popular eighty-plus year old politicians of days gone by, are contesting the presidency. Look for a possible reactivation of Radio Mil on 4930, or maybe Radio Clarin will preempt the Cuban exiles for a day of local news. Then, on May 28 presidential elections will be held in Colombia. The principal candidates are Liberal Cesar Gaviria Trujillo and Social Conservative Rodrigo Lloredo Caicedo. For some election coverage, Colombian style, tune in CARACOL on 5075. It's easily heard evenings and mornings, and could stay on all night for the elections. DXers should check normally inactive Colombian frequencies, such as Radio Guatapuri's 4818 kHz. In the meantime, of course, listen for political advertisements. They make great details for reception reports!

To finish off, here are a few upcoming station anniversaries. A reception report with a birthday card included might just do the trick! 5/14/43 R Guaruja, Brazil; 6/12/52, R Paz y Bien, Ecuador; 6/16/57, R Atlantida,Peru; 7/2/45 R Reloj, Costa Rica; 7/17/72 R Panamericana, Bolivia; and 7/26/80 R San Martin, Peru. Hasta Luego!

1996 Addendum: Elections continue to be a good time to DX. For example, during Guatemala's November, 1995 elections, shortwaver Radio Mam, which usually only broadcasts during the daytime, stayed on late giving DXers a chance to add a rare one to the logbook.


This article is copyright 1990 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

My Address Is In This Graphic