The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War


"This remarkable recounting of popular resistance and Cold War terror in Guatemala weaves biography and history, ideology and politics, into a coherent narrative of the local embedded in the global. Greg Grandin has written a book that is moving and compelling."—Mahmood Mamdani

"This remarkable and extremely well-written work is about more than the dark history of Guatemala and the Cold War in Latin America. It is about how common people discover politics. It is about the roots of democracy and those of genocide. It is about the hopes and defeats of the twentieth-century left. I could not put this book down."—Eric Hobsbawm

Read an interview with Greg Grandin.

An excerpt from
The Last
Colonial Massacre

Latin America in the Cold War
Greg Grandin


Soon after September 11, 2001, the novelist Ariel Dorfman penned a short essay comparing that day to the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende, which took place on September 11, 1973, also a Tuesday. Dorfman, who served in Allende's government, made his point gently. Although the United States sponsored the military forces that ended Latin America's most stable democracy and killed thousands of Chileans, Dorfman took no pleasure in a retribution exacted by, as he put it, the "malignant gods of random history." Instead he insisted that the twin tragedies offered a unique possibility for reparation. An author of works dedicated to the roughly one hundred thousand Latin Americans "disappeared" by Cold War terror, Dorfman recognized immediately the grief and uncertainty in the faces of the relatives walking about the streets of New York in search of their loved ones, carrying their photographs, not knowing if they were alive or dead. That pain, broadcast to the nation, forced the whole United States "to look into the abyss of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those beloved men and women who are missing." In that confusion resided, Dorfman wrote, an opportunity to end the "famous exceptionalism" that has sheltered the United States from the storms of suffering and insecurity that lash at much of the earth, to nurture a new empathetic internationalism, to mend the many wounds, such as those inflicted on that first September 11, still festering in the wreckage of the Cold War. In catastrophe, he wanted to believe, lay a hope for a future that could escape the repetitions of the past that have made the present so shaken and fearful. Dorfman envisioned a response that, in recognizing a shared fate, a universal anguish, would bring about the humanization rather than the militarization of our world.

U.S. exceptionalism, however, is hard wrought. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, with the implosion and repudiation of Soviet totalitarianism, the idea that the United States has a unique mission in the world flared even brighter than before. Liberal democracy was held to have triumphed absolutely, its fulfillment tightly bound to the history and destiny of the United States.

To be sure, there is no shortage of critiques of U.S. Cold War foreign policy, and many of them, such as investigations into its actions in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, have seeped into popular consciousness. Latin America in particular has long been the Achilles' heel in the hard armor of U.S. virtue, and even the most triumphal of Cold War scholars have been forced into moral contortions to explain away U.S. actions that contributed to the torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Aside from making visibly disastrous and deadly interventions in Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, and El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s, the United States has lent quiet and steady financial, material, and moral support for murderous counterinsurgent terror states, directly resulting in the kind of suffering so easily recognized by Dorfman. But the enormity of Stalin's crimes ensures that such sordid histories, no matter how compelling, thorough, or damning, do not disturb the foundation of a worldview committed to the exemplary role of the United States in defending what we now know as democracy.

A post-Cold War redefinition of democracy has reinforced this fundamental faith. In the years following World War II, a widely held belief across the political spectrum understood democracy as entailing both individual liberty and some degree of equality. Such a definition animated the popular front and the New Deal. Even Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and Fidel Castro in 1953 famously drew from the U.S. Declaration of Independence to make their cases for freedom and justice. Yet today many political theorists, historians, and commentators dismiss as a fundamental philosophical error the notion that Jeffersonian democracy would lead to, and be fulfilled by, socialism. The horrors of the Soviet Union, not to mention those of Vietnam and Cuba, proved to them that political liberalism with its emphasis on legal equality, procedural guarantees, and individual freedom, and socialism with its market regulations and critique of economic inequities, were not, as many had previously argued, mutually reinforcing. Although socialists and liberal democrats have advanced many of the same causes, the twentieth century, according to this new perspective, bloodily demonstrated that the desire for comprehensive equality, for the achievement of an absent unity, for historical meaning in a meaningless modern world will inevitably lead advocates of the socialist idea to elevate ends over means, reject pluralism, and trespass the legal limits set by constitutional protections and individual rights, especially the right to private property. Socialism today is seen not as a sincere and better variant of democracy but rather as a potentially treacherous ideological progeny that needs to be policed and contained. The Cold War substituted the notion that individual freedom would require some form of economic equality and security with a more vigilant definition of democracy—a definition the United States both embodies and swears to defend. As the opening sentence of its 2002 National Security Strategy puts it, the "great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

Along with the notion that democracy needs a firm hand comes a rehabilitation of empire. In the decade following the Cold War, Washington preached with evangelical optimism the belief that open markets combined with constitutional rule would produce a peaceful, prosperous world. Yet since September 11, 2001, that faith has given way to a more Napoleonic idealism, one that understands that free market democracy is not necessarily part of the "social order of nature" but requires strong institutional restraints—legal if possible, military if necessary. Such opinions do not only emanate from the political right, although that is where they first gestated. They often receive their most impassioned advocacy from many on the liberal-left. In the face of genocide, social rot, terrorism, corruption, and failed states, it is the West's mission, moral obligation even, to finish the task initiated by the old imperialism, a task that national liberation movements were not up to completing. "Empire," as the human rights theorist Michael Ignatieff put it in his somewhat reluctant endorsement of war with Iraq in 2003, is now "the last hope for democracy and stability alike." So the equation "democracy and socialism" gives way to the equation "democracy and empire" with little notice, at least by those who claim to care about social justice, that the definition of democracy today being exported is a shell of its former self.

Latin America, where this definitional transformation was most profound, plays a curious role in current geopolitical debates taking place in the United States. The right sees the region as a success story: following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States, facing an insurgent blend of Marxism and militant nationalism, responded with an effective mix of hard and soft power, neutralized the opposition, and transformed most of the continent's nations into free market allies and their populations into willing consumers of U.S. goods and technology. Emblematic of this success—and key to understanding Washington's current imperial resoluteness—is the 1981 presidential transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Carter, the story goes, with his liberal hand-wringing, almost lost the Caribbean and Central America, if not all of Latin America, until Reagan stepped in, brushed aside a chorus of doubters, and threw the full weight of U.S. power toward containing communism, thus liberating Nicaragua, saving El Salvador and Guatemala, and isolating Cuba. Liberals were wrong about Latin America in the 1980s, conservative strategist William Kristol states today in justifying Washington's new hard line. The left of course draws a different lesson. For those who unequivocally oppose military interventions abroad, the sad history of U.S. hemispheric policy is a self-evident confirmation of their position. Others, however, who support some version of the "war on terror" in the name of progressive values, while admitting the base motives and baleful legacy of the United States in the region, argue that the past does not necessarily have to determine the future. And besides, according to this perspective, even if Washington is driven by less than noble purpose, it does not follow that its power could not achieve some good—to stem religious intolerance, for example, or to stop massive human rights abuses and overthrow indefensible dictatorships—in an increasingly volatile and dangerous world.

But more than just providing a moral standard on which to test the sincerity of U.S. claims, the history the Cold War in Latin America, I believe, can help us understand how our world has become so inflamed. It corrects the myopia of those who decline to consider the toll of Cold War success, who refuse to make the connection between nearly a half century of unrelenting war on real or potential revolutionary threats and the militarization, violence, endemic hunger, chronic poverty, rising fundamentalism, and loss of modernist optimism that now grip much of the world. Cold War triumphalists would of course respond by saying that the West's victory merely set the stage for a potential but by no means guaranteed extension of liberal democracy. This book argues the opposite for Latin America: Cold War terror—either executed, patronized, or excused by the United States—fortified illiberal forces, militarized societies, and broke the link between freedom and equality, thus greatly weakening the likelihood of such a fulfillment and making possible the reversal of the gains that had been achieved.

In Latin America, in country after country, the mass peasant and working-class movements that gained ground in the middle of the twentieth century were absolutely indispensable to the advancement of democracy. To the degree that Latin America today may be considered democratic, it was the left, including the Marxist left, that made it so. Empire, rather than fortifying democracy, weakened it. Launched first by domestic elites in the years after World War II and then quickly joined by the United States, the savage crusade, justified under the guise of the Cold War, against Latin American democratic movements had devastating human and political costs. In some countries, such as Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile, national security states carried out a focused, surgically precise repression. Other states, such as Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala, let loose a more scattershot horror. In all cases, terror had the effect of, first, radicalizing society to produce febrile political polarization and, second, destroying the more capacious, social understandings of democracy that prevailed in the years around World War II. One important consequence of this terror was the severance of the link between individual dignity and social solidarity, a combination that, as I will argue through the course of this book, was the wellspring of the old left's strength. During the transition to constitutional rule that occurred throughout Central and South America following the Cold War, democracy came to be defined strictly in the astringent terms of personal freedom rather than social security. This redefinition served as the qualification for the free market ideologies and policies that now reign throughout the continent and indeed most of the world. It other words, to make the point as crudely as possible, the conception of democracy now being prescribed as the most effective weapon in the war on terrorism is itself largely, at least in Latin America, a product of terror.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages xi-xv of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War by Greg Grandin, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Greg Grandin
The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War
©2004, 340 pages, 23 halftones, 2 maps
Cloth $57.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-30571-4
Paper $26.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-30572-1

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