by Michael Wagstaff
Review of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the rise of the new imperialism, by Greg Grandin
"In Latin America there are no terrorists, only hunger and unemployment and delinquents who turn to crime," said General Rene Vargas in response to another US intervention on South America, where, MICHAEL WAGSTAFF realises, the Yanks' free market theories are no longer welcome.
Greg Grandin is a youngish academic in the United States. He is also an angry man, a friend of Noam Chomsky, who seethes with barely suppressed indignation at the humiliations that have been heaped upon the people of Latin America, particularly Guatemala, over the past 60 years. For many of us such fury would be destabilising, leading only to apoplectic rants; in Grandin it has the opposite effect, leading to a cold-eyed lucidity that gives this book a narrative drive that makes it easy to read.
So far, so good. But Grandin has a problem. He is a social democrat. For him the golden age of Guatemalan history was 1944-1954 when successive reformist governments, backed by a popular movement of workers and peasants, started to shake off some of the effects of colonial oppression, American imperialism and the rigid class society that had been created. For the US, of course, as we know, this was all too much. Post-FDR, post his 'good neighbor' policy towards Latin America, Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles went on the rampage wreaking vengeance on every tender shoot of reform. Mohammad Mossadegh toppled in Iran in 1953, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Almost unreported acts of barbarism on a par with Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
What to do? Certainly Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who were in Guatemala in the early 1950s, knew what lesson to learn. Throw the social democratic textbook into the dustbin; as Grandin quotes Guevara as saying 'Cuba will not be Guatemala'. But equally Grandin begs to differ. He clearly thinks the 'Cuban-turn' in Latin America after 1959 was misconceived and doomed. He says little about Cuba today here but clearly has strong reservations about its economy and trajectory.
Today, after Lyndon Johnson’s intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and the heartbreaking overthrow of Unidad Popular in Chile in 1973, we have a third wave of social democratic experiments - notably in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. We are turning a new page in an old debate; Latin America looks to the left again as it reels from the false hopes of neo-liberalism.
One of the many great quotes in Grandin’s book is, paradoxically enough, from a general. Rene Vargas, the former head of the armed forces in Ecuador, exploding in fury at the 2004 Quito summit after Donald Rumsfeld, then the defence secretary in the Bush White House, suggested that the armed forces of South America ought to subordinate their forces to the Pentagon’s command in order to combat 'terrorism'. First the defence minister of Chile objected, commenting that the UN was the only body that could act globally on security issues, then the Argentinians weighed in with barbed remarks about being able to look after their own borders and then the general summed it all up, hopefully to general applause. "In Latin America there are no terrorists – only hunger and unemployment and delinquents who turn to crime. What are we going to do, hit you with a banana?"
Some readers might find the title slightly grandiloquent but, trust me, it does what it says on the tin. The central thesis is that Ronald Reagan allowed what we now know as the neo-conservatives to road-test their theories on free market democracy in central America simply and solely because they were so totally unimportant strategically. The cost was borne by Guatemala (200,000 killed), El Salvador (50,000 killed) and Nicaragua, where a terrorist movement was created and sustained on the basis that it was fighting a "war of independence" analogous with that waged by the American colonists against George III. Iraq and Afghanistan are now, of course, the centre of the storm.
This narrative holds the threads of the analysis together but by no means does justice to the immense grasp of telling detail that Grandin shows. (For instance, his explanation of the use of "rational choice" theory in suppressing hostile press comment over the El Mozote massacre in 1981 is worth the price of the book by itself.) Barack Obama said before his election to the presidency that the US "had lost" South America. The fact that even five-star generals and defence ministers openly defied the militarised capitalist fundamentalism of the George W Bush administration shows how deep the problem is. Read this account and you get a clear understanding of how it has come to this.
Which brings me back to Che. What to do? I suspect that if Guevara read this book in his library in the socialist heavens he would be full of praise. "Great book, Greg, love the rhetoric, Salvador too, but he wants to know what happens if the imperialists don’t play ball?"
That, of course, is the reservation about the book. Grandin’s politics emerge almost by sleight of hand as he narrates the story of the rise and fall of social democracy, primarily in Guatemala and Nicaragua. But the occasional editorial aside he makes is revealing. For instance, he says of the Sandinista government in the early 1980s: "Rather than comprising hardline Stalinists, as groups such as the [conservative] Committee of Santa Fe claimed, the Sandinista front was made up of a coalition of progressive capitalists, socialists, Marxists and Catholics. Its leaders were pragmatic, fully aware of the realities of the hemispheric power. But they were also adamant nationalists who took seriously the principle of sovereignty ... They stood their ground unwilling to forsake Cuba’s friendship or reject its aid. While they had no desire to replicate sclerotic economy or polity they were dedicated to making Nicaragua more humane through the creation of of a mixed economy in which the state directed capital investment and redistributed wealth by providing health care and education." Grandin is making an awful lot of claims here ("sclerotic economy and polity") that need to be spelled out in much greater detail, and then substantiated.
For instance, any politically literate socialist knows that, nice as it sounds, this coalition strategy (patented by Stalin after 1934) is fraught with dangers when faced with an implacable bourgeois class – los momios, los dueños – backed by the military and the might of an imperial power. The Communards certainly knew the score in 1871. While in the 20th century the Irish civil war erupted over the same issue and then there was Spain, Guatemala, Chile. (Paradoxically, minus the comments on Cuba, this was very much the line, as I understand it, of the Chilean Communist party, who took the view that the coup had occurred because Salvador Allende went too far too fast.) We know what can happen. He just never takes on the arguments that are implicit in Che Guevara’s heartfelt comment on Guatemala. Castroism was an answer to a question. Success might be a strong word but at least the Cubans don’t have to make annual pilgrimages to weep over their mothers, brothers, sons and daughters as they do in the general cemetery at Recoleta in Santiago 36 years after the coup. What is his answer? Pray for another "good neighbour" president? Pray for imperialist tigers to turn into lambs? Wait for the ruling class to turn the other cheek? (To be fair to Grandin, his social democracy is grounded in a belief in "bottom up" active citizenship in a class society, which emerges more clearly in his books on Guatemala, and can be contrasted with the sort of a priori "proletarian Jacobinism" that fuels his suspicion of Cuba. But that is another story.)