The Washington Post

July 26, 2006

America the Bullyful

Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan. 286 pp. $25

Reviewed by Roger Atwood, author of “Stealing History” and a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Open any book on Latin America these days, and you’re likely to see a complaint about how little attention is paid to Latin America. “Empire’s Workshop” is no exception – the region “elicits little curiosity from its neighbor to the north,” writes Greg Grandin – and by the time you finish the book, it’s hard not to conclude that Latin America would be better off if even less attention were paid. This book’s vision of Washington’s relationship with Latin America is one of such relentless abuse, such blood-sucking exploitation, that it’s a wonder the region’s voters haven’t elected more anti-Yanqui leaders.

A provocative and lucid writer, Grandin examines how the United States has used Latin America as a proving ground for imperial war strategies employed later elsewhere, most recently in Iraq. Some rhetorical excesses aside, it’s an important book that deserves a wide audience.

Grandin, a historian at New York University, argues that the alliance of neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals and military hawks that championed the invasion of Iraq first came took shape in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s anticommunist crusades in Central America. Conservatives saw an opportunity to reassert U.S. moral authority, fundamentalist Christians wanted to defeat atheistic communism, and everybody wanted to expunge the stain of Vietnam. Central America was the crucible in which these forces came together, Grandin argues. And they stayed together through the Clinton years, joined by a smug conviction that Americans were put on this Earth to bring free markets and elections to everyone else.

The civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s may look now like the Cold War’s furious endgame, but they were viewed at the time as deadly serious challenges to American power. Central America was “the most important place in the world for the United States,” a region “colossally important . . . [to] vital national interests,” said Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Grandin believes the Reagan administration made such a big deal of Central America not because the stakes were so great but because they were so small: While Reagan’s team accommodated and negotiated with the Soviet Union and its proxies elsewhere, it could afford to impose its will on this string of struggling little countries in the confidence that here, at least, it would prevail. Central America was vitally important, but only to the revival of the United States’ sense of its own power and righteousness.

Central Americans paid a price for all this attention. Guatemalans and Salvadorans endured death squads that were outgrowths of elite security units created with U.S. aid in the 1960s, while Nicaragua was bled white by a fratricidal war between an army of U.S.-financed revanchists known as the contras and the leftist Sandinistas, who had taken power by overthrowing a homicidal dictator. Grandin draws an ironic parallel between the contras and the neo-Baathist “dead enders” fighting in Iraq. With little chance of taking power by force, they both fight on to “wear down a fledgling regime through unpredictable acts of persistent terror.”

Grandin sees Central America replayed everywhere in Iraq: the bypassing of congressional oversight, the contemptuous disregard for international law, and the attempts at nation-building, which, in Central America’s case, mostly omitted U.S. troops but did include billions of dollars in aid designed to promote elections, woo the poor away from the guerrillas, and get the military to leash its death squads. Even some of the faces are the same: John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton. Presumably they would welcome the comparison. Far from the pathology Grandin depicts, many conservatives see Reagan’s policy in Central America as a gleaming success, leading as it did to a collection of democratic, right-leaning governments.

Grandin overreaches when he takes his argument beyond the U.S. political realm and applies it to Latin America itself. His whole vision of Latin America, in fact, is of a place where very little happens without being willed by the United States. He thinks Latin American social democrats embraced free markets not because they grew disillusioned with state-driven economics, like liberals everywhere, but because they had been jailed and tortured into submission by U.S.-backed regimes.

For a historian, Grandin can be curiously ahistorical. America has given military aid to a lot of countries, but nowhere did it curdle into death squads as badly as in Guatemala and El Salvador. Surely some aspects of their histories – class and racial antagonisms, caudillo-based power structures, lack of independent judiciaries – were responsible for that, but Grandin concedes nothing. He sees death squads as an entirely American creation, and he offers lusty descriptions of their slaughters and torture techniques to raise the emotional temperature and make you feel even worse about it. Americans share the blame for the “wretchedness that engulfs Latin America,” as Grandin puts it. But by attributing every ill to Washington, Grandin sounds a bit – dare I say it? – imperialist.