Dedicated to Democracy

Corey Robin

  • The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War by Greg Grandin
    Chicago, 311 pp, £40.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 226 30571 6

On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.

Amid the hagiography surrounding Reagan’s death in June, it was probably too much to expect the media to mention his meeting with Ríos Montt. After all, it wasn’t Reykjavik. But Reykjavik’s shadow – or that cast by Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall – does not entirely explain the silence about this encounter between presidents. While it’s tempting to ascribe the omission to American amnesia, a more likely cause is the deep misconception about the Cold War under which most Americans labour. To the casual observer, the Cold War was a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, fought and won through stylish jousting at Berlin, antiseptic arguments over nuclear stockpiles, and the savvy brinkmanship of American leaders. Latin America seldom figures in popular or even academic discussion of the Cold War, and to the extent that it does, it is Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua rather than Guatemala that earn most of the attention.

But, as Greg Grandin shows in The Last Colonial Massacre, Latin America was as much a battleground of the Cold War as Europe, and Guatemala was its front line. In 1954, the US fought its first major contest against Communism in the Western hemisphere when it overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had worked closely with the country’s small but influential Communist Party. That coup sent a young Argentinian doctor fleeing to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro. Five years later, Che Guevara declared that 1954 had taught him the impossibility of peaceful, electoral reform and promised his followers that ‘Cuba will not be Guatemala.’ In 1966, Guatemala was again the pacesetter, this time pioneering the ‘disappearances’ that would come to define the dirty wars of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. In a lightning strike, US-trained security officials captured some thirty leftists, tortured and executed them, and then dropped most of their corpses into the Pacific. Explaining the operation in a classified memo, the CIA wrote: ‘The execution of these persons will not be announced and the Guatemalan government will deny that they were ever taken into custody.’ With the 1996 signing of a peace accord between the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas, the Latin American Cold War finally came to an end – in the same place it had begun – making Guatemala’s the longest and most lethal of the hemisphere’s civil wars. Some 200,000 men, women and children were dead, virtually all at the hands of the military: more than were killed in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador combined, and roughly the same number as were killed in the Balkans. Because the victims were primarily Mayan Indians, Guatemala today has the only military in Latin America deemed by a UN-sponsored truth commission to have committed acts of genocide.

The Last Colonial Massacre reminds us that when we talk about America’s victory in the Cold War, we are talking about countries like Guatemala, where Communism was fought and defeated by means of the mass slaughter of civilians. But Grandin is interested in more than tallying body counts and itemising atrocities. The task he sets himself is to locate this most global of contests in the smallest of places, to find beneath the duelling composure of superpower rivalry a bloody conflict over rights and inequality, to see behind a simple morality tale of good triumphing over evil the more ambivalent settlement that was – and is – the end of the Cold War. Mounting the most powerful case to date against the know-nothing triumphalism of Cold War historians and the smug complacency of the American media, Grandin’s book also performs a modest act of restorative justice: it allows Guatemalans to tell their own stories in their own words. In a series of remarkable biographies Grandin shows how men and women made high politics and high politics made them, demonstrating that the Cold War was waged not only in the airy game rooms of nuclear strategists but ‘in the closed quarters of family, sex and community’.

The book opens with an epigraph from Sartre: ‘A victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat.’ The victory Grandin refers to here is singular and by now virtually complete: that of the United States over Communism. But the defeats he describes are various, their consequences still unfolding. First is the defeat of the Latin American left, whose aspirations ranged from the familiar (armed seizure of state power) to the surprising (the creation of capitalism). Next is the defeat of a continental social democracy which would allow citizens to exercise a greater share of power – and to receive a greater share of its benefits – than historically had been their due. Finally, and most important, is the defeat of that still elusive dream of men and women freeing themselves, thanks to their own reason and willed effort, from the bonds of tradition and oppression. This had been the dream of the transatlantic Enlightenment, and throughout the Cold War American leaders argued on its behalf (or some version of it) in the struggle against Communism. But in Latin America, Grandin shows, it was the left who took up the Enlightenment’s banner, leaving the United States and its allies carrying the black bag of the counter-Enlightenment. More than foisting on the United States the unwanted burden of liberal hypocrisy, the Cold War inspired it to embrace some of the most reactionary ideals and revanchist characters of the 20th century.

According to Grandin, the Latin American left brought liberalism and progress to a land awash in feudalism. Well into the 20th century, he shows, Guatemala’s coffee planters presided over a regime of forced labour that was every bit as medieval as tsarist Russia. Using vagrancy laws and the lure of easy credit, the planters amassed vast estates and a workforce of peasants who essentially belonged to them. Reading like an excerpt from Gogol’s Dead Souls, one advertisement from 1922 announced the sale of ‘5000 acres and many mozos colonos who will travel to work on other plantations’. (Mozos colonos were indebted labourers.) While unionised workers elsewhere were itemising what their employers could and could not ask of them, Guatemala’s peasants were forced to provide a variety of compulsory services, including sex. Two planters in the Alta Verapaz region, cousins from Boston, used their Indian cooks and corn grinders to sire more than a dozen children. ‘They fucked anything that moved,’ a neighbouring planter observed. Though plantations were mini-states – with private jails, stockades and whipping posts – planters also depended on the army, judges, mayors and local constables to force workers to submit to their will. Public officials routinely rounded up independent or runaway peasants, shipping them off to plantations or forcing them to build roads. One mayor had local vagrants paint his house. As much as anything Grandin cites, it is this view of political power as a form of private property which confirms his observation that by 1944 ‘only five Latin America countries – Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia – could nominally call themselves democracies.’

And then, within two years, it all changed. By 1946, only five countries – Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic – could not be called democracies. Turning the anti-Fascist rhetoric of the Second World War against the hemisphere’s old regimes, leftists overthrew dictators, legalised political parties, built unions and extended the franchise. Galvanised by the New Deal and the Popular Front, reformers declared, in the words of the Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo, that ‘we are socialists because we live in the 20th century.’ The entire continent was fired by a combination of Karl Marx, the Declaration of Independence and Walt Whitman, but Guatemala burned the brightest. There, a decades-long struggle to break the back of the coffee aristocracy culminated in the 1950 election of Arbenz, who with the help of a small circle of Communist advisers instituted the Agrarian Reform of 1952. This redistributed a million and half acres to a hundred thousand families, and also gave peasants a significant share of political power. Local land reform committees, made up primarily of peasant representatives, bypassed the planter-dominated municipal government and provided peasants and their unions with a platform from which to make and win their claims for equity.

Arguably the most audacious experiment in direct democracy the continent had ever seen, the Agrarian Reform entailed a central irony, critical to Grandin’s argument about the Latin American left. The legislation’s authors – most of them Communists – were not building socialism: they were creating capitalism. Scrupulous about property rights and the rule of law – peasants had to back their claims with extensive documentation; only unused land was expropriated; planters were guaranteed multiple rights of appeal, all the way to the president – the Agrarian Reform imposed a regime of separated powers that was almost as cumbersome as James Madison’s Constitution. (According to one of the bill’s Communist authors, ‘it was a bourgeois law.’ When grassroots activists complained about the slowness of reform, Arbenz responded: ‘I don’t care! You have to do things right!’) As Grandin points out, the Agrarian Reform turned landless peasants into property owners, giving them the bargaining power to demand higher wages from their employers – in the hope that they would become ‘consumers of national manufactures’, while ‘planters, historically addicted to cheap, often free labour and land’, would be forced to ‘invest in new technologies’ and thereby ‘make a profit’.

Guatemala’s socialists did more than create democrats and capitalists. They also made peasants into citizens. While liberals and conservatives have long claimed that leftist ideologies reduced their adherents to automatons, Grandin shows that leftist ideals and movements awakened peasants to their own power, giving them extensive opportunities to speak for themselves and to act on their own behalf. Efraín Reyes Maaz, for example, was a Mayan peasant organiser, born in the same year as the Bolshevik Revolution. ‘If I hadn’t studied Marx I would be chicha ni limonada,’ Reyes told Grandin. ‘I’d be nothing. But reading nourished me and here I am. I could die today and nobody could take that from me.’ Where other peasants seldom ventured beyond their plantations, the Communist Party inspired Reyes to travel to Mexico and Cuba, and he returned to Guatemala with the conviction that ‘every revolutionary carries around an entire world in his head.’ The Communist Party did not require Reyes to give up everything he knew; it gave him ample freedom to synchronise the indigenous and the European, making for a ‘Mayan Marxism’ that was every bit as supple as the hybrid Marxism developed in Central Europe between the wars. When anti-Communists put an end to this democratic awakening in 1954, it was as much the peasant’s newfound appetite for thinking and talking as the planter’s expropriated land that they were worried about. As Guatemala’s archbishop complained, the Arbencistas sent peasants ‘gifted with facility with words’ to the nation’s capital, where they were ‘taught . . . to speak in public’.

Hoping to stifle this riot of thought and talk, Guatemala’s Cold Warriors fused a romantic aversion to the modern world with the most up-to-date technologies of propaganda and violence (imported from the United States), making their effort more akin to Fascism than to a fight for liberal democracy. Here, Grandin again breaks new ground, capturing the delicate amalgam of reason and reaction, elitism and populism, that was the Latin American counter-revolution. Relying on the power of the Catholic Church, the regime that replaced Arbenz had prelates preach the gospel against Communism and socialism, and also against democracy, liberalism and feminism. Reaching back to the rhetoric of opposition to the French Revolution, the Church fathers characterised the Cold War as a struggle between the City of God and ‘the city of the devil incarnate’ and complained that Arbenz, ‘far from uniting our people in their advance toward progress’, ‘disorganises them into opposing bands’. The Arbencistas, they claimed, were ‘professional corrupters of the feminine soul’, elevating women with ‘gifts of proselytism or leadership’ to ‘high and well-paid positions in official bureaucracy’. Because the Church elders were sometimes too fastidious to whip up the masses, emigrés from Republican Spain, who were partial to Franco and Mussolini, frequently took their place, calling for a more ecstatic faith to counter Communism’s appeal: ‘We do not want a cold Catholicism. We want holiness, ardent, great and joyous holiness . . . intransigent and fanatical.’

While the Cold Warriors’ ideals looked backwards, their weapons – furnished by the United States – looked forwards. (Indeed, one of the Americans’ chief justifications for their interventions during the Cold War was that US involvement would contain not only Communism, but also, in the words of the State Department, a right-wing ‘counterinsurgency running wild’. Instead of a savage ‘white terror’, US-trained security forces would work with the anti-Communist ‘democratic left’ – yesterday’s third way – to fight a more ‘rational’, ‘modern’ and ‘professional’ Cold War.) During the 1954 coup, the CIA turned to Madison Avenue, pop sociologies and the literature of mass psychology to create the illusion of large-scale opposition to Arbenz. Radio shows spread rumours of an underground resistance, inciting wobbly army officers to abandon their oath to the democratically elected president. In subsequent decades, the CIA outfitted Guatemala with a centralised domestic intelligence agency, equipped with phones, radios, cameras, typewriters, carbon paper, filing cabinets, surveillance equipment – and guns, ammunition and explosives. The CIA also brought together the military and the police in sleek urban command centres, where intelligence could be quickly analysed, distributed, acted on and archived for later use. After these efforts achieved their most spectacular results, with the 1966 disappearance of Guatemala’s last generation of peaceful leftists, guerrillas began seriously to organise armed opposition in rural areas. In response, the regime threw into the countryside an army so modernised – and well trained and equipped by the US – that by 1981 it could conduct the first colour-coded genocide in history: ‘Military analysts marked communities and regions according to colours. White spared those thought to have no rebel influence. Pink identified areas in which the insurgents had limited presence; suspected guerrillas and their supporters were to be killed but the communities left standing. Red gave no quarter: all were to be executed and villages razed.’

Referring to a 1978 military massacre of Indians in Panzós, a river town in the Polochic Valley, the title of Grandin’s book brilliantly evokes this mixture of modern and anti-modern elements. On 29 May that year, roughly five hundred Mayan peasants assembled in the town centre to ask the mayor to hear their complaints against local planters, which were to be presented by a union delegation from the capital. Firing on the protesters, a military detachment killed somewhere between 34 and a hundred men, women and children. At first glance, the massacre seems like nothing so much as a repetition of Guatemala’s colonial past: humble Indian petitioners ask public officials to intercede on their behalf against local rulers; government forces in league with the planters respond with violence; Indians wind up floating down the river or go home. On closer inspection, the massacre bears all the marks of the 20th century. The Indians were led by leftist activists – one of them an indigenous woman – trained by clandestine Communist organisers. They worked with unions, based in the capital, reflecting the left’s attempt to nationalise local grievances. For their part, the soldiers firing on the peasants were more than a local constabulary defending the interests of the planters. They were a contingent of Guatemala’s newly trained army, spoke fluent anti-Communism, and wielded Israeli-made Galil assault rifles, suggesting not just the nationalisation but the internationalisation of Guatemala’s traditional struggles over land and labour.

Though the Cold War in Latin America began as a tense negotiation between American rationalism and Latin revanchism, Grandin suggests that it ended with the US careening towards the latter. In a rerun of the fabled journey into the heart of darkness, US officials returned from their travels south echoing the darkest voices of the counter-Enlightenment. One embassy officer wrote to his superiors back home: ‘After all hasn’t man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.’ A CIA staffer urged his colleagues to abandon all attempts at mass persuasion in Guatemala and instead direct their efforts at the ‘heart, the stomach and the liver (fear)’. Seeking to destabilise Allende’s Chile, another CIA man proclaimed: ‘We cannot endeavour to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile. Therefore, the station should employ every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre, to create this internal resistance.’ As Grandin writes, ‘Will to set the world ablaze . . . faith in the night-side of the soul, contempt for democratic temperance and parliamentary procedure: these qualities are usually attributed to opponents of liberal civility, tolerance and pluralism – not their defenders.’ With this plangent remark, Grandin concludes his remarkable tale, suggesting that the greatest defeat of the Cold War could be said to be that of America itself.

But there may have been one more defeat, which Grandin’s book suggests not by explicit argument but by the force of its analysis. For all its violence and misery, the Cold War had the virtue of imposing on Western intellectuals, Communist and anti-Communist alike, the duty of historical intelligence. Marxism attracted its share of morally blind and politically repellent followers, but its varied currents carried scholars and writers – in happy or unhappy conveyance – to an unparalleled appreciation of the effects of time and place. Whether it was Lukács discerning the failed revolutions of 1848 in the stilted realism and archaic dialogue of Flaubert’s Salammbô or Louis Hartz attributing American liberalism to the absence of feudalism in the United States or George Steiner hearing the ‘hoofbeats’ of Napoleon’s armies in Hegel’s Phenomenology (‘the master statement of the new density of being’), Marxism pressed intellectuals of varying stripes to think about history’s wayward intrusions. Even W.W. Rostow – the most anti-Communist of anti-Communism’s ‘action intellectuals’, to borrow a phrase from Arno Mayer – was forced by the challenge of Marxism to offer an economic and political programme that tallied, however minimally, the persistent effects of colonialism throughout the postcolonial world.

But the collapse of Communism and disappearance of Marxism have eased the burdens of intelligence. With the market – and now religion – displacing social democracy as the language of public life, writers are no longer compelled by the requirements of the historical imagination. Facing a new enemy, which does not make the same demands that Communism once did, today’s intellectuals wave away all talk of ‘root causes’: history, it seems, will no longer be summoned to the bar of political analysis – or not for the time being. Mimicking the theological language of their antagonists, contemporary writers prefer catchwords such as ‘evil’ and ‘Islamo-fascism’ to the vocabulary of secular criticism. Their language may be a response to 9/11, but it is a product of the end of the Cold War. When Marxism was banished from the political scene in 1989, it left behind no successor language – save religion itself – to grapple with the twinned fortunes of the individual and the collective, the personal and the political, the present and the past. That Grandin has managed to salvage some portion of that historical vision from the dustbin of history suggests not only his resourcefulness, but also the timeliness of this most untimely of meditations.