The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War

The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War

by Deborah Cohn

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During the 1960s and 1970s, when writers such as Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa entered the international literary mainstream, Cold War cultural politics played an active role in disseminating their work in the United States. Deborah Cohn documents how U.S. universities, book and journal publishers, philanthropic


During the 1960s and 1970s, when writers such as Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa entered the international literary mainstream, Cold War cultural politics played an active role in disseminating their work in the United States. Deborah Cohn documents how U.S. universities, book and journal publishers, philanthropic organizations, cultural centers, and authors coordinated their efforts to bring Latin American literature to a U.S. reading public during this period, when interest in the region was heightened by the Cuban Revolution. She also traces the connections between the endeavors of private organizations and official foreign policy goals.

The high level of interest in Latin America paradoxically led the U.S. government to restrict these authors' physical presence in the United States through the McCarran-Walter Act's immigration blacklist, even as cultural organizations cultivated the exchange of ideas with writers and sought to market translations of their work for the U.S. market.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Through a remarkable job of exhaustive archival research, the study reveals how the promotion of Latin American literature in the United States became entangled in political interests.


Historians will benefit from Cohn’s transnational approach to Cold War issues and especially her discussion of “the relationship between literature and the state[, which] plays a key and recurrent role” in the story
--The Journal of American History

"An exciting study of the Boom in translation, taking an experimental 'contrapuntal' approach to the hot-cold promotion of Latin American literature during the period of U.S. Cold War nationalism. Cohn's politico-literary history counterpoints the worlds within the U.S. that produce, consume and promote the Boom, revealing its striking success as an import-export phenomenon, both created and threatened by the relationship between literature and the state. In these days of walled borders along the U.S. South and an increasing Latino demographic within the U.S., Cohn offers a timely look back to another moment of immigration anxiety as it played itself out in the paradox of containment and dissemination of Latin American literature during the 1960s and '70s."
--Susan Gillman, University of California, Santa Cruz

"A splendid, engagingly written work, based on a wealth of hitherto unexplored archival material. It offers a fascinating account of how the publication and dissemination of Latin American literature in the U.S. were enmeshed in the contradictions of Cold War culture: caught between the desire to support the literary revolution of the Boom writers and the fear of revolutionary politics. Essential reading for all scholars of the Americas."
--John King, University of Warwick

"Deborah Cohn's lucid, meticulous study is a model of historical inquiry and critical acumen. Unprecedented and groundbreaking, in a field still muddled by academics who have not moved beyond political agendas and the careless shortcuts of historical amnesia, is Cohn's fair-minded retrospection of what was clearly a fiercely paradoxical era of intense cultural productivity and conflict under the deforming shadow of the Cold War."
--Suzanne Jill Levine, author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction

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The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism During the Cold War

By Deborah Cohn

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1805-7


"Catch 28"

The McCarran-Walter Immigration Blacklist and Spanish American Writers

In 1952, the immigration and naturalization law known as the McCarran-Walter Act was passed by Congress. President Truman vetoed the act, declaring that "seldom has a bill exhibited the distrust evidenced here for citizens and aliens alike—at a time when we need unity at home and the confidence of our friends abroad," but Congress voted overwhelmingly to override his veto (Cong. Rec. 1952, 8084). The act was a product of the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and for almost forty years, it had a major and negative impact on the attitudes of Latin American authors—as well as many others—toward the United States. One of the principal changes that it introduced to existing immigration law was the addition, in Section 212(a)(28), of provisions for denying visas to foreigners who believed in, wrote about, or were affiliated with organizations or individuals that promoted Communism; who advocated or were in any way affiliated with organizations that advocated "the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism or the establishment in the United States of a totalitarian dictatorship"; and so on. Section 212(a)(28) did allow an individual's ineligibility to be waived: a visa could be granted following an interview with a U.S. consular officer, who had to approve the application, after which both the State Department and the attorney general had to agree that "the admission of such alien into the United States would be in the public interest" (Immigration and Nationality Act). Securing a waiver was, however, a complex, time-consuming, and often Kafkaesque process. Many visa applications were turned down by local embassies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the State Department, and even the attorney general's office. This generated great hostility toward the United States, as did the waiver application process: many foreigners refused to apply for visa waivers because they resented being asked whether they were members of the Communist Party, convicted felons, drug addicts, or prostitutes (among other classes of aliens ineligible under Section 212); because visas were frequently denied at the last minute; and because when visas were approved, they only allowed an individual into the country for as long as his or her commitments lasted. Moreover, the smoothest implementation of the McCarran-Walter Act depended on the collaboration of two separate government bureaucracies with different databases and different chains of command—the Department of Justice, headed by the U.S. attorney general, and the State Department, to which U.S. consular offices report—a collaboration that was often far from seamless.

The ideological exclusion clause was applied broadly. Time and again, it was used to justify denying visas to individuals who had expressed leftist or anti-American views or were simply suspected of holding them. Over the years, political figures, intellectuals, and writers were placed on a secret government list of "undesirable" aliens whose presence in the United States was deemed "contrary" or "prejudicial to the public interest." These individuals included Hortensia Allende (Salvador Allende's widow), Michel Foucault, Graham Greene, Farley Mowat, Jan Myrdal, Daniel Ortega (a former president of Nicaragua), Pierre Trudeau, and Nino Pasti (an anti-nuclear activist who had formerly served as a deputy supreme commander of NATO for nuclear affairs). The list also included several winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Dario Fo (as well as his wife, Franca Rame), Doris Lessing, Czeslaw Milosz, and, from Spanish America, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Even U.S.-born writer Margaret Randall fell afoul of the act. The reach of the act extended well beyond public figures: in 1964, hundreds of Eastern European athletes had to petition the State Department for visas so that they could change planes in Alaska while en route to the Tokyo Olympics ("U.S. Eases Visas"), and in 1982, three hundred antinuclear activists from Japan who wanted to attend the U.N. Disarmament Conference were denied visas ("McCarran Redux").

There was public outrage at such incidents, and concern that they violated the guarantee of freedom of expression and the free circulation of ideas in the First Amendment—and, later, concern about whether such exclusions contravened the Helsinki Accords of 1975. These issues prompted numerous efforts to modify and repeal the clause in Section 212. The McGovern Amendment of 1977 weakened it, requiring the secretary of state to recommend visa waivers for ineligible individuals unless she or he explicitly stated that an individual's activities—not just his or her presence in the United States—represented a threat to national security.

The amendment, however, was frequently circumvented. McCarranWalter was initially, as Cheryl Shanks writes, "the first line of defense against communism," and it was viewed by supporters as an important weapon for "preventing] threats by foreign ideologies" (128)—rationales that helped to keep the act in effect. As Steven Shapiro discusses, resistance to the act grew in the early 1980s (937), but the government upheld the need for the restrictions that McCarran-Walter imposed, arguing in part that (in Shapiro's words) "ideological exclusions are an indispensable tool of foreign policy in the world of realpolitik" (944); the failure of efforts to repeal or modify the act was similarly due, in large measure, to the fact that "few members of Congress [were] anxious to cast a vote that might be portrayed as soft on communism by political opponents" (939). Thus it was not until 1990, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that adherence to Communism and the expression of so-called subversive ideologies were removed from the law as grounds for excluding foreigners from the country.

The close encounters of Spanish American writers of notably different political stances with the ideological exclusion clause began in the early 1950s, but became much more frequent—not surprisingly—in the years following the Cuban Revolution, to which, as we have seen, many of these writers were politically linked. This chapter studies these run-ins, focusing in particular on Carlos Fuentes's long-standing saga of difficulties with the act, which ultimately charted a path between a dock in Puerto Rico, the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the floor of the U.S. Senate. The experiences of Fuentes and his fellow Spanish American writers were emblematic of the paradoxical nature of U.S. anti-Communist tactics that simultaneously courted and excluded Spanish American intellectuals, pitting the nation's cultural diplomacy efforts against its own immigration policy and containment efforts. Additionally, the response of writers, publishers, and politicians to these incidents offers insight into the rising prominence of Spanish American literature within U.S. literary and academic circles, and of the writers themselves within the U.S. public and political sphere.

"Catch 28": Spanish American Writers and McCarran-Walter

In the years following the Cuban Revolution, USIA, Department of State, and covert CIA programs promoting U.S. accomplishments abroad were stepped up, and the State Department also brought writers, artists, and political figures from Spanish America to the United States under the aegis of its various exchange programs in an effort to portray the United States in a positive light to them. But even as the U.S. government reached out to foreign intellectuals, the support of many Spanish American writers for the revolution and their high-profile activism on behalf of Cuba combined with generally high levels of paranoia in official circles regarding the spread of Socialism in Latin America to bring about numerous run-ins with the McCarran-Walter Act. Time after time, intellectuals and cultural leaders from the region and around the world were denied visas to enter the United States by the State Department's passport and visa offices, which one critic described as "contain[ing] the hard-core remnants of the McCarthy era" (A. Schwartz, 4). Such difficulties led many critics to comment on the hypocrisy of exchange agreements authorized by the act that automatically granted waivers to Communist Party members from Eastern Europe.

Few waivers of ineligibility were issued prior to the Kennedy administration, which took an early stance against the act. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy believed that admitting foreigners with oppositional political views did not pose a threat to national security. On the contrary, they carefully cultivated the image of the United States as an "open society" that, in the words of one official, welcomed "visitors of every political persuasion in the conviction that we are strong enough as a democracy to sustain the expression of every belief, no matter how unpopular.... [The Kennedys also embraced] the principle that the more people who are exposed to democracy as we know it in the United States—and to the achievements and aspirations of this system as a free society—the more people we can hope to impress favorably" (A. Schwartz, 35). Despite the Kennedys' efforts, though, many visas were still turned down at other levels.

The language of Section 212(a)(28) was vague enough to be used to justify the exclusion from the United States of individuals who were not Communist Party members, advocates, or even sympathizers. The troubles did not start with the Cuban Revolution. At times, the results were paradoxical. Few would consider Jorge Luis Borges to be a leftist, let alone a Communist, and yet he still had difficulties getting a visa in the 1950s. Also, in 1953, within a year of the act's implementation, Colombian writer Germán Arciniegas had his first of three run-ins with McCarran-Walter, episodes that brought notoriety to the act at an early date and offered insights into the complexities and contingencies of its machinations. Arciniegas was a distinguished writer, historian, educator, and diplomat who had lived in the United States since the early 1940s. He had been a leader of his country's Liberal Party and an outspoken advocate of democracy whose criticism of military dictatorship in Colombia and throughout Latin America had led to the banning of several of his books in his homeland, as well as exile in the 1950s. Arciniegas was also critical of the U.S. government for its assistance to military regimes in the region. At the same time, he served as an officer in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), the U.S. branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, of which he was a founding member; in the early 1960s, he would assume the editorship of the latter's first Spanish-language journal, Cuadernos, the precursor to Mundo Nuevo.

Despite marked ideological differences between the two writers, Arciniegas's case eerily foreshadowed that of Fuentes in its high-profile status; in the ire and activism it provoked, as well as efforts to change the legislation; and in the ways it revealed the inconsistent and paradoxical manner in which the act was applied. Arciniegas's anti-Communist credentials granted him no immunity from the scrutiny given to foreigners living in the United States. In September 1953, on returning from Paris to New York, where he was teaching at Columbia University, Arciniegas was taken from the airport to Ellis Island, where he was held overnight for questioning "as a security case" ("U.S. Seizes"). Arciniegas had been granted a reentry permit by the U.S. consulate in Paris, which is part of the Department of State, but he was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a branch of the Justice Department, thus revealing the mixed messages and procedures involved when two separate agencies, each with different information and each serving different masters, were responsible for enforcing the act. In the morning, the writer was asked by an INS official "whether he had been critical of the relations between the United States and some South American countries"—a question to which he replied in the affirmative, citing his 1952 book, The State of Latin America. He was then released with an apology from the officer for the inconvenience ("Professor Freed").

Arciniegas's detention made the front page of the New York Times. It was also the subject of a scathing editorial that decried the "reprehensible" McCarran-Walter Act, claiming that it "has injured a distinguished foreigner and humiliated all Americans who see their own traditions of democracy violated by fellow Americans" ("McCarran Act at Work"). The newspaper followed the fallout from the case over the next few weeks, focusing on proposed changes to the legislation and protests by the ACCF and American Civil Liberties Union, to which the INS responded by committing to "seek ways of avoiding unnecessary detainment of resident aliens of the United States when they re-enter the country after visits abroad" ("Rules May Be Eased"). The Times also printed a letter to the editor from Arciniegas in which he thanked the paper for its editorial and spoke of the outpouring of support on his behalf as examples of the freedom of expression enjoyed in the United States and an affirmation of the power of democracy.

Arciniegas traveled widely over the next few years. For the most part, he had no difficulties reentering the United States. In 1954, however, he was detained again, although with little fanfare. In 1957, he was detained when returning to New York from a trip to Panama, where—ironically—he had given a lecture titled "Problems of Democracy in the United States" ("Aide at Columbia"). He was held for two hours under what immigration officials described as "a routine policy of investigating non-citizens when they reenter the country" (ibid.). Arciniegas, for his part, attributed his troubles this time not to U.S. policy per se but rather to his political enemies, who he speculated had put together "a dossier on him 'proving' he was a Communist" and sent it to the FBI (ibid.). Once again, there was a large public outcry. The chairman of the International League for the Rights of Man, a consulting agency for the United Nations for which Arciniegas had served as a board member, sent a telegram to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stressing Arciniegas's anti-Communist credentials (ibid.). The New York Times published its second strongly worded editorial on the writer's troubles, decrying the latest incident as a "deplorable piece of stupidity" and arguing that it "harms us" rather than Arciniegas by making "the United States look ridiculous in Latin American eyes and foster[ing] the belief that Washington favors the dictators" ("Unfortunate Incident"). The commissioner of the INS responded immediately with a letter to the editor in which he admitted that the incident was "regretted" and "unfortunate," and that Arciniegas's name should have been removed from the blacklist sooner—a shortcoming for which he accepted some responsibility. He agreed with the editorial's "statement that a single such case is one too many and a poor advertisement abroad," but criticized the paper for granting the incident notoriety and, further, upheld the act as a matter of national security (Swing). The INS seems to have straightened out its records after this, and Arciniegas does not appear to have had any further troubles with the blacklist.

After the Cuban Revolution, troubles with McCarran-Walter came fast and furiously for Spanish American writers. During the 1960s, virtually every single one of the best-known writers fell prey to the act in one way or another. As the U.S. government was not required to confirm the accuracy of the information whereby an individual's name was added to the blacklist, some aliens were excluded because of wrongful suspicions or outdated information (May). Guillermo Cabrera Infante, for instance, was the first Cuban writer to break publicly with Fidel Castro, but he still needed a waiver to enter the United States for years afterward. Other Spanish American writers endured frustrating and humiliating experiences at the hands of passport officials as well. On different occasions, Leopoldo Zea and Jaime García Terrés, both distinguished writers with official positions with the Mexican government, were detained by immigration authorities and almost denied entry to the United States, despite holding proper paperwork—and, in the case of García Terrés, a diplomatic passport.

In early 1965, José Donoso was denied a visa when trying to enter the United States to participate in an interview and celebrate the publication of his novel Coronation by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. In her memoirs, Donoso's wife, María Pilar, attributes the incident to a case of vengeance: the Indian ambassador to Chile had taken offense at something that Donoso had done and had taken revenge by telling the U.S. embassy that the writer was a Communist and a member of the Instituto Chino-Chileno de Cultura, prompting the labeling of Donoso as ineligible for a visa (207). A few months later, Donoso accepted a position as writer-in-residence in the University of Iowa's renowned Writer's Workshop. This time, he did not leave the visa approval to chance, and he asked several U.S.-based contacts to lobby on his behalf. Robert Wool, president of the Inter-American Foundation for the Arts, spoke to a contact at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. According to Wool, the official speculated that the earlier visa problem had been a bureaucratic mistake rather than a political problem, and reassured Wool about the prospects for the new application. Paul Engle, the director of the Writers' Workshop, likewise reached out to a contact in the State Department, who seems to have smoothed the way for the issuing of the visa. Donoso also apprised his publisher of his troubles, but Alfred Knopf was hesitant to get involved in the matter. Ultimately, his assistance was not needed, as the visa was granted without difficulty this time.


Excerpted from The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism During the Cold War by Deborah Cohn. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Deborah Cohn, Associate Professor of Spanish and American Studies at Indiana University Bloomington is the author of History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish American Fiction (Vanderbilt University Press).

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