[OPE-L] Greg Grandin The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Tue Feb 07 2006 - 18:29:47 EST


"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
"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

An interview with
Greg Grandin
author of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War

Question: Your book begins-and ends-with the 
massacre of some three dozen peasants in the 
Guatemalan village of Panzós on May 29, 1978. Can 
you tell us about that event?
Greg Grandin: Early that morning, hundreds of 
Mayan peasants marched to the plaza of Panzós to 
demand an end to abuses by local plantation 
owners. What happened next is disputed. Some say 
that the protesters were peaceful and that 
soldiers stationed in the square opened fire in 
order to eliminate the leaders of the land 
movement. Others say that they provoked the 
soldiers by throwing chili powder their eyes, 
threatening them with sticks, and demanding the 
installation of a "Mayan king" to head the 
republic. No one has ever been held legally 
responsible for the killing.

Minutes of Panzós municipal council meeting the 
day after the massacre (photo by Marlon García)
Question: You call the Panzós event the "last 
colonial massacre. " Yet in the 1980s and '90s 
the government of Guatemala was responsible for 
the killing of two hundred thousand of its 
citizens, the disappearance of forty thousand 
more and the torture of uncounted numbers. What 
does it mean to call the killings in Panzós "the 
last colonial massacre"?

Grandin: Guatemala had long been independent, but 
I use the phrase "last colonial massacre" as a 
metaphor to distinguish the killings in May 1978 
from the subsequent genocide. The Panzós massacre 
was similar to earlier forms of official reaction 
to Mayan protests, stretching back to Spanish 
colonialism. Panzós marked a turn in Guatemala's 
then fifteen-year-old civil war. Before Panzós, 
government repression was directed mostly at 
urban, nonindigenous activists. Afterward the 
government security forces increasingly targeted 
rural Mayan peasants, culminating in the 
scorched-earth campaign of 1981-83. At the same 
time, the Mayans no longer looked to the central 
government to temper the exploitation of local 
planters but increasingly confronted the 
government directly and challenged its legitimacy.
While the Panzós massacre was mostly a local 
affair, the 1981-83 genocide was a centrally 
planned national campaign. Soldiers swept through 
the countryside, committing over six hundred 
massacres and razing hundreds of communities. The 
viciousness of the killing is beyond description. 
Soldiers murdered children by beating them on 
rocks as their parents watched. They extracted 
organs and fetuses, amputated genitalia and 
limbs, committed mass and multiple rapes, and 
burned some victims alive. The military also 
destroyed sacred Mayan sites and turned churches 
into torture chambers.
Question: You worked on the United Nations truth 
commission that investigated human rights 
violations during the civil war in Guatemala. 
(Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico; see 
report.) Did that experience contribute to this 
Grandin: Without a doubt. We quickly realized on 
the commission that a strictly legal framework 
would not be sufficient to explain the causes of 
extreme violence of the kind that occurred in 
Guatemala. So we turned to historical analysis to 
make sense of the war and to understand the 
social origins of the racism that fueled the 
Question: This year marks the fiftieth 
anniversary of the CIA's 1954 overthrow of 
Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. Does that 
event figure in your book?
Grandin: Of course. The coup plays a central part 
in the book and it's perhaps the single most 
important event in twentieth-century US-Latin 
American relations.
Question: What were the consequences of that coup?
Grandin: They were enormous, both for Guatemala 
and Latin America. Well before the Cuban 
Revolution, the coup led to a radicalization of 
hemispheric politics. My book argues that the 
transformation of Latin America's Old Left-led by 
socialist, nationalist, or Communist parties with 
working-class and at times peasant bases of 
support-to a more insurgent, armed New 
Left-inspired by the Cuban Revolution, Algeria, 
and Vietnam and based in the countryside-was not 
a result of ideological utopianism, as some today 
argue. Rather, the spread of Latin America's 
guerrilla movements was driven by the frustration 
of efforts to consolidate post-World War II 
social democracies.
But let's back up just a little bit. Latin 
America at the end of World War II was far from 
democratic. Capitalism is often seen as the 
requisite for political liberalization, but in 
Guatemala in particular and Latin America in 
general that didn't happen. In fact, the opposite 
happened: there was an increase in forced 
labor-including what in many areas amounted to 
slavery-an intensification of racism, and a 
strengthening of patriarchy.
It was the Left, including the Marxist Left, that 
challenged this system, starting in the early 
twentieth century and picking up steam after 
World War II. While it failed to bring about 
socialism, the Left did manage to bring about a 
degree of political liberalization. But after 
World War II those opposed to a more equitable 
distribution of political and economic power had 
more access to US military aid and beefed up 
their ability to repress domestic dissent. The 
already cramped space for political negotiation 
became even more restricted.
The overthrow of Arbenz was an important 
milestone in this transformation. It represented 
the CIA's first Latin American intervention, and 
it brought to an end the last social democracy 
established in the immediate postwar period, thus 
ending a short but consequential cycle of 
political reform.
The overthrow of Arbenz convinced many Latin 
American reformers, democrats, and nationalists 
that the United States was less a model to be 
emulated than a danger to be feared. Che Guevara, 
for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor 
and witnessed firsthand the effects of US 
intervention. He fled to Mexico, where he would 
meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban 
Revolution. He taunted the United States 
repeatedly in his speeches by saying that "Cuba 
will not be Guatemala." For its part, the United 
States promised to turn Guatemala into a 
"showcase for democracy" but instead created a 
laboratory of repression. Practices 
institutionalized there-such as death squad 
killings conducted by professionalized 
intelligence agencies-spread throughout Latin 
America in the coming decades.
Question: Chapter 3 of your book describes US 
involvement in what you refer to as Latin 
America's first cold war disappearance. What is 
the importance of this event and what was the 
extent of US involvement?
Grandin: Among the lethal measures used by Latin 
American military regimes to eliminate dissent 
during the cold war, the most infamous is the 
"disappearance"-the extrajudicial kidnapping and 
execution of political activists by government 
security forces. This form of state terror is 
usually associated with Argentina and Chile in 
the 1970s, but recently declassified US 
government documents reveal that Washington 
helped pioneer this practice in Guatemala in 1966.
Despite the easy overthrow of Arbenz, Guatemala 
in the 1960s stood on the brink of chaos. The 
regime the United States had put in place in 1954 
was corrupt and cruel, pushing many reformers to 
support a Cuban-inspired armed insurgency. In 
response, in December 1965, the State Department 
dispatched US security adviser John Longan to 
Guatemala to create a small "action unit to 
mastermind a campaign against terrorists which 
would have access to all information from law 
enforcement agencies." Longan dubbed the campaign 
"Operación Limpieza"-Operation Cleaning. Hoping 
to professionalize Guatemala's intelligence 
system, Longan and other US advisers centralized 
the operations of the police and military and 
trained them to gather, analyze, and act on 
intelligence in a coordinated and rapid manner. 
The intelligence unit was equipped with 
state-of-the-art telecommunications and 
surveillance equipment and operated out of 
military headquarters. Soon the unit began to 
carry out widespread raids.
By the end of February, eighty operations had 
taken place, including a number of extrajudicial 
executions. In March of 1966 Operación Limpieza 
netted its largest catch: over thirty leftists 
were captured, interrogated, tortured, and 
executed between March 3 and March 5. Their 
bodies were placed in sacks and dropped into the 
Pacific from US-supplied helicopters. Although 
some of their remains washed back to shore, and 
despite pleas from Guatemala's archbishop and 
over five hundred petitions of habeas corpus 
filed by relatives, the government and the 
American embassy remained silent about the fate 
of the executed.
Among those eliminated in this first collective 
Latin American Cold War disappearance were former 
Arbenz advisers who advocated a negotiated 
settlement to the still embryonic civil war and a 
return of the Left to the electoral arena. As 
with the 1954 coup, I take this event as an 
important turning point in the transition from 
the Old to the New Left. After the executions, a 
young, Cuba-influenced generation of 
revolutionaries dismissed such a position as not 
only naive but suicidal.
Question: Today some argue that an expanded 
American empire is the best hope to bring 
stability and democracy to the world's trouble 
spots. Does the history of the US involvement in 
Latin America support that position?
Grandin: I think that the history of the United 
States in Latin America during the twentieth 
century provides two relevant lessons. First, 
given a choice between democracy and instability 
on the one hand and repression and stability on 
the other, Washington has-in Latin America at 
least-always come down on the side of the latter. 
This is not peculiar to the United States; it 
represents the experience of all empires. But the 
stability that is generated by that repression is 
never permanent, for repressive rule, whether 
imposed directly or by proxy, inevitably 
generates more instability. The second lesson is 
that, to the fragile degree that democracy and 
human rights exist today in Latin America, they 
have been achieved not through the mercy of a US 
empire but through resistance to that empire.
Question: What do you mean when you say that the 
current definition of democracy being extolled as 
an antidote to terrorism is "itself largely a 
product of terror?" (Quoted from the preface to 
the book.)
Grandin: In the years following the end of the 
cold war, nearly every country in Latin America 
underwent a transition to neoliberal free market 
economics. Before this transition could be 
complete, however, the idea of democracy had to 
be redefined. Massive amounts of political 
violence were needed to break the link between 
individual dignity and social solidarity, a 
combination that, as I argue through the course 
of the book, was both the wellspring of the 
Left's strength and the ethical heart of postwar 
social democracy.
Government repression destroyed alliances between 
reforming elites and popular classes, broke down 
powerful collective movements into individual 
survival strategies, and extracted leaders from 
their communities. State-directed terror 
redefined the relationship of the self to 
society, training citizens to turn their 
political passions inward, to receive sustenance 
from their families, to focus on personal 
pursuits, and to draw strength from religions 
that were not concerned with history or politics.
This divorce between self and solidarity-two 
qualities which form, after all, the core of 
political liberalism and social democracy-was key 
to the imposition of the free market ideologies 
and policies that now reign throughout the 
continent and indeed most of the world. The idea- 
widely held at the end of World War II-that 
freedom and equality are mutually fulfilling was 
replaced by a more anemic definition, one that 
stressed personal liberties and free markets. 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, in Latin America at least, a 
product of terror.

Copyright notice: ©2004 by the University of 
Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be 
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Greg Grandin
The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War
©2004, 340 pages, 23 halftones, 2 maps
Cloth $57.00 ISBN: 0-226-30571-6
Paper $22.00 ISBN: 0-226-30572-4
For information on purchasing the book-from 
bookstores or here online-please go to the 
webpage for The Last Colonial Massacre.

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