Medical Care and Humanitarianism in Latin America

Our fifth session focused on medical care and humanitarianism in Latin America, an under-studied aspect of the history of humanitarian Aid during the ‘long’ Second World War. As our chair Prof Paulo Drinot (UCL) pointed out at the beginning, there are some obvious reasons for this lack of scholarship: only Brazil and Mexico had a direct military participation in the war, even though many Mexicans fought in the US ranks and some individuals played important role in Allied intelligence service towards the end of the war. That said, the war had a great impact on the continent. During this period, Latin America was both the ‘recipient’ of field activities from ‘external’ organisations, such as the League of Red Cross Societies, and a site where humanitarian rhetoric played an important role in processes of national self-fashioning.

Neville Wylie (University of Stirling) and Melanie Oppenheimer (ANU) started the session with a rich paper entitled ‘Irrelevant backwater? Latin America as a field of activity for the League of Red Cross Societies, 1938-1945’.  This presentation was part of their broader collaborative project on the history of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (project’s website available here), an organisation created in the aftermath of the First World War and devoted to transform the Red Cross Movement into a ‘peacetime’ Federation. In this paper, Neville and Melanie established why Latin America became a central field of operation for the League during the Second World War, at a time when its role as a federated body coordinating the work of national societies became increasingly difficult elsewhere. They examined the two visits of the head of the League’s Nursing Bureau Yvonne Hentsch (a Swiss national) to Latin America’s Red Cross societies, hospitals and clinics in mid-1942 and again in 1943. During these two missions, Hentsch visited 18 of the 20 National Red Cross Societies that existed on the continent. Her aims were to collaborate in the advancement and professionalisation of nursing and demonstrate the value of the League to its members. For Neville and Melanie, Hentsch was well suited for the post: considered by her colleagues as the ‘perfect diplomat’, she had been trained at the international nursing course established by the League at Bedford College (London) and was well integrated in its ‘old internationals’ alumni network. She also spoke five languages (including Spanish which helped her in her mission). Ultimately, in Geneva, League officials hoped that these visits would bring increased financial support and prevent Latin American national societies from splintering from the movement, by creating an independent regional League. The conclusion of this paper shed some light on the broader aims of Melanie, Neville and others’ project on the ‘resilience’ of this institution and the ways in which it ‘survived’ the turbulent time of the ‘Long’ Second World War (article available here).

Presentation slide, Neville Wylie and Melanie Oppenheimer, ‘Irrelevant backwater? Latin America as a field of activity for the League of Red Cross Societies, 1938-1945’. 

In his paper on humanitarian rhetoric in the war between Peru and Ecuador, François Bignon assessed how the fate of the wounded and civilian population played an important role in the communication strategies of the two actors.  In a war that has sometimes been described as a conflict of paper and ink rather than of cartridges and guns, humanitarian and health issues fed usefully into Peruvian and Ecuadorian propaganda aimed at delegitimising their adversaries and attracting international sympathies. Through a detailed examination of the propaganda film Alerta en la Frontera, François demonstrated how the Peruvian side extolled the virtues of Peruvian medics and nurses, including the wife and daughter of the Peruvian president being presented as ‘Nurses of the Nation’. The Peruvian government also financed an important leaflet campaign to try to construct the image of a ‘humanitarian army’, committed to humanitarian values (towards POWs in particular) in the occupied Ecuadorian region and countering the claims of the Ecuadorian press. For all their emphasis on issues of morality and ethical behaviours, both Peruvian and Ecuadorian actors refused the intervention of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the withdrawal of the Peruvian troops, Ecuadorians received, however, neutral military observers, prefiguring the use of peacekeeping forces In later conflicts, and the ‘emergency reconstruction diplomacy’ that was organised in the El Oro region by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA) chaired by the young billionaire Nelson Rockefeller, François ended his paper by highlighting continuities between the ‘humanitarian rhetoric’ deployed by neutral countries of the First World War (Switzerland, Spain and Denmark) and analysed by Cédric Cotter and Irène Hermann. According to these authors, this assistance was not only about practical mechanisms for the wounded, prisoners and civilians, but also about communication campaigns, serving broader political and diplomatic aims. Ultimately, François demonstrated that a focus on Latin American can help us reconsider how the ‘long’ Second World War was not solely a global war, but a collection of local conflicts with important consequences for the development humanitarian aid.

These two fascinating papers were followed by a rich and stimulating discussion chaired by Paulo Drinot about the importance of local and regional feminisms, the role of nationalist politics in shaping humanitarian aid and the necessity to consider circulations from ‘the centre’ (Europe, the US) to the periphery (Latin America), but also from Latin America ‘back’ to Europe and the US.

Further reading:

Cedric Cotter and Irène Hermann ‘Les dynamiques de la de la rhétorique humanitaire : Suisse, États-Unis et autres neutres’, Relations Internationales, 3, 159 (2014), pp. 49-67.

Paulo Drinot The Sexual Question. A history of Prostitution in Peru, 1850s-1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Melanie Oppenheimer, Susanne Schech, Romain Fathi, Neville Wylie & Rosemary Cresswell ‘Resilient Humanitarianism? Using Assemblage to re-evaluate the history of the League of Red Cross Societies’, The International History Review, 43, 3 (2021), pp. 579-597.

Monica Rankin ‘The United States in El Oro: The OCIAA and the Diplomacy of Emergency Rehabilitation during WWII’, The Latin Americanist, 63, 2 (2019), pp. 163-188.

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