"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|
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.
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 book?
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 genocide.
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.