Apr 3, 2009

Empire's (and resistance's) workshop

(draft of a book review coming out in the journal Political Geography)

This book is a fast and compelling read and makes a strong case for its main argument: that Latin America served as a laboratory for what Grandin calls “new imperialism”. He argues that it was in Latin America that the US rehearsed both ideas used to justify US power and techniques (from napalm to finance) for a new imperial project in world where formal colonialism was no longer workable.

Lest this argument seem like the grandiose vision of a Latin Americanist, let me point out that David Harvey makes a similar argument in The New Imperialism (2005) (surprisingly Grandin never cites Harvey). Harvey argues that it was because in South America the US faced countries that, like itself, had recently “freed themselves from the colonial yoke through independence struggles” that it had to “work out means of imperial domination that nominally respected the independence of such countries yet dominated them through some mix of privileged trade relations, patronage, clientelism, and covert coercion” (2005: 48). It was in Latin America that the US “learned to mask the explicitness of territorial gains and occupations under the mask of a spaceless universalization of its own values, buried within a rhetoric that was ultimately to culminate, as Neil Smith points out, in what came to be known as ‘globalization’” (Harvey, 2005: 47).

Of course US empire in Latin America started out much more old school. Many of largest US companies got their start in Latin America, including those of the Guggenheims, Schwabs, and Rockefellers (Grandin, 2006: 17). They had astounding military backing. Grandin argues that Nicaragua in the 1920s was the “first practical laboratory for the development of post-war aviation in coordination with ground troops” The US marines practiced tactics that would become standard, such as reconnaissance flights, ground-to-air signalling, and propaganda leaflet drops. They also engaged in the first dive-bombing campaign in military history (2006: 22).

Grandin argues that the US’s overt imperial moment ended when FDR, in 1933, proclaimed the Good Neighbor policy and withdrew occupation forces, declared a non-interventionist policy, and even stood by while Bolivia and Mexico nationalized their oil (2006: 27). Why? He argues that though Sandino, in Nicaragua, had drawn them into their first quagmire, and the Mexican revolution threatened to be a second, it was really the great depression that inspired a new sort of imperialism (2006: 28). The US decided that it was more cost effective to be a good empire, er, neighbor. It set up alliances/treaties, and in the name of fighting communism and promoting development, structured economic and political relationships so that it had effective control over the supply of oil, ore, minerals and other primary resources – free of the burdens of formal colonialism (2006: 40).

When Arbenz came to power in Guatemala in 1954 the CIA, recently established 1947, took it as a chance to practice their new psych ops techniques for the first time (2006: 43). These were given a new spin with Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in the early 60s, which tried to steal the thunder of the ‘59 Cuban revolution and began the tradition of speaking of democracy while training death squads and supporting coups (in Uruguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile from ‘64 to ‘76) (Grandin, 2006: 47, 48).

Grandin argues that there was no whiff of insurrection in El Salvador in the early 60s when agents from the State Department, green berets, CIA and USAID organized two paramilitary groups that became the backbone of the death squad system. This was part of a purported attempt to professionalize Latin American security agencies and was part of Kennedy’s campaign to pre-empt communism (2006: 95), though if anything the ‘counterinsurgency’ repression in El Salvador seems to have finally conjured up the insurgency (2006: 99).

As part of same push “General William Yarborough also advised the Colombian government to set up an irregular unit trained to, “execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents”. As Grandin puts it, this is “as good a description of a death squad as any” (2006: 96) (and seemed to serve to similar effect, for the FARC guerrillas also attribute their taking up arms to US intervention in the 60s (Murillo 2004). This general had just come back from Vietnam, from which there was a good bit of traffic of personnel and tactics at the time. Strikingly, Grandin argues that it was actually in Colombia that the US did its first pre-Vietnam experiment with scorched-earth tactics (ie, razing villages and setting up “strategic hamlets”) and that it was in Colombia that the US first used napalm in combat (2006: 98).

Grandin argues that it was with the Latin American solidarity movement that the US government learned to bring its psych ops techniques home. Much of the Patriot Act and recent attacks on the peace movement are eerily like the COINTELPRO campaign he details. The FBI and CIA worked together in the 80s, using over two thousand individual agents to infiltrate over one thousand groups over five years in a campaign that involved all 59 FBI field offices. CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, was the primary target. They shadowed and intimidated activists, seized papers, tampered with mail, questioned employers, and did over 200 obvious break-ins. Yanira Correa was kidnapped from in front of the LA CISPES office, driven around in a van, tortured and raped, while explicit comments were made about her activism. There has been total impunity for all of these crimes (2006: 129), so why not do it all over again today?

My main frustration with Grandin is that he does not detail how Latin America has also been a key workshop for both grassroots and state resistance to empire, which continues to grow in brave creative new ways. For those of us in the global North who work against the new empire to ally and work with these movements in Latin America is not a matter of guilt or good will (though surely some of both comes into play), but good strategy. We need all the help of their courage and vision from their key location inside the workshop for our own resistance work inside the belly.

Grandin, Greg (2006) Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism. NY: Metropolitan Books

Harvey, David (2005) The New Imperialism. NY: Oxford Univ. Press

Murillo, Mario (2004) Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. NY: Seven Stories Press

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