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

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

3.8 5
by Greg Grandin

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An eye-opening examination of Latin America's role as proving ground for U.S. imperial strategies and tactics

In recent years, one book after another has sought to take the measure of the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. In their search for precedents, they invoke the Roman and British empires as well as


An eye-opening examination of Latin America's role as proving ground for U.S. imperial strategies and tactics

In recent years, one book after another has sought to take the measure of the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. In their search for precedents, they invoke the Roman and British empires as well as postwar reconstructions of Germany and Japan. Yet they consistently ignore the one place where the United States had its most formative imperial experience: Latin America.

A brilliant excavation of a long-obscured history, Empire's Workshop is the first book to show how Latin America has functioned as a laboratory for American extraterritorial rule. Historian Greg Grandin follows the United States' imperial operations, from Thomas Jefferson's aspirations for an "empire of liberty" in Cuba and Spanish Florida, to Ronald Reagan's support for brutally oppressive but U.S.-friendly regimes in Central America. He traces the origins of Bush's policies to Latin America, where many of the administration's leading lights—John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich—first embraced the deployment of military power to advance free-market economics and first enlisted the evangelical movement in support of their ventures.

With much of Latin America now in open rebellion against U.S. domination, Grandin concludes with a vital question: If Washington has failed to bring prosperity and democracy to Latin America—its own backyard "workshop"—what are the chances it will do so for the world?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
America's post-9/11 policy of idealistic military adventurism has a long history, argues this incisive study. NYU historian Grandin (The Blood of Guatemala) sketches the vexed course of U.S. relations with Latin America, but focuses on the Reagan administration's involvement in Central America during the 1980s, when it backed the Salvadoran government in a brutal civil war against left-wing insurgents and the Nicaraguan Contras against the Sandinista regime. Then as now, Grandin contends, Washington justified a militarist stance by citing a threat to America (Communists advancing on the Rio Grande) and championing democracy and human rights. America did not send troops but did sponsor native death squads in El Salvador, and the author notes recent press reports that the U.S. military is sponsoring similar death squads in Iraq. Grandin's conception of American imperialism-covering everything from outright invasion to corporate investment and Fed interest-rate hikes-is too broad, and he overstates the importance of Central America in the making of the American New Right. But this timely book offers an analysis of the ideological foundations of today's foreign policy consensus and a cautionary tale about its dark legacy. (May 8) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
If you want to know why the American intervention in Iraq has failed, look at the El Salvador of a quarter-century ago. Latin America, writes Grandin (History/New York Univ.), has been a proving ground for America's imperial ambitions since the Jefferson administration. Over the last 200 years, he argues, "two broad arcs of hostility have defined U.S.-Latin American relations." The first is a pattern of direct military intervention, usually to protect American economic interests; the second, often carried out by proxy, pretends to nobler goals such as containing communism or drug smuggling or-now-terrorism. Grandin holds that a third period is dawning, one in which America projects military and economic power to "guard against the resurgence of a new, continent-wide democratic left," which has indeed emerged in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela and may soon sweep Mexico, bringing dreaded red flags to America's borders. Grandin suggests that this is justifiable, for the end product of America's imperialism in Latin America has been an impoverishment of the region, thanks to the neoliberal "economic regime heralded by Milton Friedman and his colleagues and imposed by Reagan and his successors"; at the end of the 1960s, 11 percent of Latin Americans lived on less than $2 a day, whereas by 1996 the number had grown to 33 percent, or 165 million people. This pattern holds in El Salvador, ravaged by U.S.-backed death squads in the '70s and '80s and monitored by then-junior U.S. officials who now hold command, among them Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The latter, Grandin observes, once argued that El Salvador, "with 50 percent of its population below the poverty level, was a model for what hisadministration hoped to achieve in Iraq."Nixon observed that the U.S. could do what it wanted in Latin America because his compatriots didn't give a damn about the place. Grandin's excellent book makes a good case for caring.
From the Publisher

“The Americans who engineered countless military coups, death squads and massacres in Latin America never paid for their crimes -- instead they got promoted and they're now running the 'War on Terror.' Grandin had always been a brilliant historian, now he uses those detective skills in a book that is absolutely crucial to understanding our present.” —Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

“Greg Grandin knows the history of modern Guatemala better than anybody else in the world outside of that country-and therefore understands the nature of U.S. attitudes and action toward Latin America at their most disturbing. This grants him keen insight into the manic ferocity behind U.S. imperialism across the globe today, which he describes in fine, rich, vivid, bitter detail. Grandin also shrewdly observes that the outrages possible in little U.S. neo-colonies are not so easy to accomplish on a grand scale. His admirable book deserves many, many serious readers.” —John Womack, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University and author of Zapata

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The Camel Not in the Koran

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels in the Koran proves its Middle Eastern provenance: only a native author, he explained, could have so taken the animal for granted as not to mention it. Perhaps a similar familiarity explains the absence of Latin America in recent discussions about the United States and its empire. Though Latin America has played an indispensable role in the rise of the United States to global power, it elicits little curiosity from its neighbor to the north. "Latin America doesn't matter," Richard Nixon advised a young Donald Rumsfeld, who was casting about for career opportunities. "Long as we've been in it, people don't give one damn about Latin America."1 Likewise today. In their search for historical precedents for our current imperial moment, intellectuals invoke postwar reconstructions of Germany and Japan, ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Britain but consistently ignore the one place where the United States has projected its influence for more than two centuries. "People don't give one shit" about the place, Nixon said.2

Were it not for Borges's insight, this studied indifference to Latin America would seem ironic, for the region has long served as a workshop of empire, the place where the United States elaborated tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before it. The Western Hemisphere was to be the staging ground for a new "empire for liberty," a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson specifically in reference to Spanish Florida and Cuba. Unlike European empires, ours was supposed to entail a concert of equal, sovereign democratic American republics, with shared interests and values, led but not dominated by the United States--a conception of empire that remains Washington's guiding vision.

The same direction of influence is evident in any number of examples. The United States's engagement with the developing world after World War II, for instance, is often viewed as an extension of its postwar policies in Europe and Japan, yet that view has it exactly backwards. Washington's first attempts, in fact, to restructure another country's economy took place in the developing world--in Mexico in the years after the American Civil War and in Cuba following the Spanish-American War. "We should do for Europe on a large scale," remarked the U.S. ambassador to England in 1914, "essentially what we did for Cuba on a small scale and thereby usher in a new era of human history." Likewise, most discussions of George W. Bush's foreign policy focus on the supposed innovation of a small group of neoconservative intellectuals in asserting the right to unilateral preemptive military action both to defend national security and to advance American ideals. But neither the neocons' dire view of a crisis-ridden world that justifies the use of unilateral and brutal American military power nor their utopian vision of the same world made whole and happy by that power is new. Both have been fully in operation in Washington's approach to Latin America for over a century. The history of the United States in Latin America is cluttered with "preemptive" interventions that even the most stalwart champions of U.S. hegemony have trouble defending.

From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the U.S. military sharpened its fighting skills and developed its modern-day organizational structure largely in constant conflict with Latin America--in its drive west when it occupied Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and took more than half of that country's national territory. And in its push south: by 1930, Washington had sent gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again), Guatemala, and Honduras, fought protracted guerrilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal. For their part, American corporations and financial houses came to dominate the economies of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, as well as large parts of South America, apprenticing themselves in overseas expansion before they headed elsewhere, to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Yet Latin America did more than serve as a staging ground for the United States's early push toward empire. The region provided a school where foreign policy officials and intellectuals could learn to apply what political scientists like to call "soft power"--that is, the spread of America's authority through nonmilitary means, through commerce, cultural exchange, and multilateral cooperation.3

At first, the United States proved a reluctant student. It took decades of mounting Latin American anti-imperialist resistance, including armed resistance, to force Washington to abandon its militarism. But abandon it it finally did, at least for a short time. In the early 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that henceforth the United States would be a "good neighbor," that it would recognize the absolute sovereignty of individual nations, renounce its right to engage in unilateral interventions, and make concessions to economic nationalists. Rather than weaken U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere, this newfound moderation in fact institutionalized Washington's authority, drawing Latin American republics tighter into its political, economic, and cultural orbit through a series of multilateral treaties and regional organizations. The Good Neighbor policy was the model for the European and Asian alliance system, providing a blueprint for America's "empire by invitation," as one historian famously described Washington's rise to unprecedented heights of world power.4

But even as Washington was working out the contours of its kinder, gentler empire in postwar Western Europe and Japan, back in the birthplace of American soft power it was rearming. Latin America once again became a school where the United States studied how to execute imperial violence through proxies. After World War II, in the name of containing Communism, the United States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or encouraged coups in, among other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua. Latin America became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, as military officials and covert operators applied insights learned in the region to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. By the end of the Cold War, Latin American security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington had executed a reign of bloody terror--hundreds of thousands killed, an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile--from which the region has yet to fully recover.

This reign of terror has had consequences more far-reaching than the damage done to Latin America itself, for it was this rehabilitation of hard power that directly influenced America's latest episode of imperial overreach in the wake of 9/11.

It is often noted in passing that a number of the current administration's officials, advisers, and hangers-on are veterans of Ronald Reagan's Central American policy in the 1980s, which included the patronage of anti-Communist governments in El Salvador and Guatemala and anti-Communist insurgents in Nicaragua. The list includes Elliott Abrams, Bush's current deputy national security adviser in charge of promoting democracy throughout the world; John Negroponte, former U.N. ambassador, envoy to Iraq, and now intelligence czar; Otto Reich, secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during Bush's first term; and Robert Kagan, an ardent advocate of U.S. global hegemony. John Poindexter, convicted of lying to Congress, conspiracy, and destroying evidence in the Iran-Contra scandal during his tenure as Reagan's national security adviser, was appointed by Rumsfeld to oversee the Pentagon's stillborn Total Information Awareness program. John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations and an arch-unilateralist, served as Reagan's point man in the Justice Department to stonewall investigations into Iran-Contra.5

Yet the links between the current Bush administration's revolution in foreign policy and Reagan's hard line in Central America are even more profound than the simple recycling of personnel. It was Central America, and Latin America more broadly, where an insurgent New Right first coalesced, as conservative activists used the region to respond to the crisis of the 1970s, a crisis provoked not only by America's defeat in Vietnam but by a deep economic recession and a culture of skeptical antimilitarism and political dissent that spread in the war's wake. Indeed, Reagan's Central American wars can best be understood as a dress rehearsal for what is going on now in the Middle East. It was in these wars where the coalition made up of neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals, free marketers, and nationalists that today stands behind George W. Bush's expansive foreign policy first came together. There they had near free rein to bring the full power of the United States against a much weaker enemy in order to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam--and, in so doing, begin the transformation of America's foreign policy and domestic culture.

A critical element of that transformation entailed shifting the rationale of American diplomacy away from containment to rollback, from one primarily justified in terms of national defense to one charged with advancing what Bush likes to call a "global democratic revolution." The domestic fight over how to respond to revolutionary nationalism in Central America allowed conservative ideologues to remoralize both American diplomacy and capitalism, to counteract the cynicism that had seeped into both popular culture and the political establishment regarding the deployment of U.S. power in the world. Thus they pushed the Republican Party away from its foreign policy pragmatism to the idealism that now defines the "war on terror" as a world crusade of free-market nation building.

At the same time, the conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala allowed New Right militarists to find ways to bypass the restrictions enacted by Congress and the courts in the wake of Vietnam that limited the executive branch's ability to fight wars, conduct covert operations, and carry out domestic surveillance of political activists. The Reagan White House perfected new techniques to manipulate the media, Congress, and public opinion while at the same time reempowering domestic law enforcement agencies to monitor and harass political dissidents. These techniques, as we shall see, prefigured initiatives now found in the PR campaign to build support for the war in Iraq and in the Patriot Act, reinvigorating the national security state in ways that resonate to this day. The Central American wars also provided the New Christian Right its first extensive experience in foreign affairs, as the White House mobilized evangelical activists in order to neutralize domestic opponents of a belligerent foreign policy. It was here where New Right Christian theologians first joined with secular nationalists to elaborate an ethical justification for a rejuvenated militarism.

In other words, it was in Central America where the Republican Party first combined the three elements that give today's imperialism its moral force: punitive idealism, free-market absolutism, and right-wing Christian mobilization. The first justified a belligerent diplomacy not just for the sake of national security but to advance "freedom." The second sanctified property rights and the unencumbered free market as the moral core of the freedom it was America's duty to export. The third backed up these ideals with social power, as the Republican Party learned how to channel the passions of its evangelical base into the international arena.

To focus, therefore, exclusively on neoconservative intellectuals, as much of the commentary attempting to identify the origins of the new imperialism does, deflects attention away from the long history of American expansion. The intellectual architects of the Bush Doctrine are but part of a larger resurgence of nationalist militarism, serving as the ideologues of an American revanchism fired by a lethal combination of humiliation in Vietnam and vindication in the Cold War, of which Central America was the tragic endgame.

After an opening chapter that makes the case for Latin America's role in the formation of the U.S. empire, the rest of this book explores the importance of the region to the consolidation of what could be called a new, revolutionary imperialism. Taken each on their own, the ideas, tactics, politics, and economics that have driven Bush's global policy are not original. An interventionist military posture, belief that America has a special role to play in world history, cynical realpolitik, vengeful nationalism, and free-market capitalism have all driven U.S. diplomacy in one form or another for nearly two centuries. But what is new is how potent these elements have become and how tightly they are bound to the ambitions of America's domestic ruling conservative coalition--a coalition that despite its power and influence paints itself as persecuted, at odds not just with much of the world but with modern life itself.6 The book goes on to explore the intellectual reorientation of American diplomacy in the wake of Vietnam and the increasing willingness of militarists to champion human rights, nation building, and democratic reform. The third chapter considers how the rehabilitation of unconventional warfare doctrine in El Salvador and Nicaragua by militarists in and around the Reagan White House laid the groundwork for today's offensive military posture. Here, the human costs of this resurgence of militarism will be addressed. In the many tributes that followed Reagan's death, pundits enjoyed repeating Margaret Thatcher's comment that Reagan won the Cold War "without firing a shot." The crescendo of carnage that overwhelmed Central America in the 1980s not only gives the lie to such a legacy but highlights the inescapable violence of empire. The fourth chapter turns to the imperial home front, examining how the Reagan administration first confronted and then began to solve the domestic crisis of authority generated by Vietnam and Watergate. It also argues that Reagan's Central American policy served as a crucible that forged the coalition that today stands behind George W. Bush. Chapter 5 is concerned with the economics of empire, how the financial contraction of the 1970s provided an opportunity for the avatars of free-market orthodoxy--the true core of the Bush Doctrine--to join with other constituencies of the ascendant New Right, inaugurating first in Chile and then throughout Latin America a new, brutally competitive global economy.

The last chapter tallies the score of the new imperialism in Latin America. Celebrated by Bill Clinton, and now Bush, as a model of what the United States hopes to accomplish in the rest of the world, Latin America continues to be gripped by unrelenting poverty and periodic political instability, as the promise of living under a benevolent American imperium has failed to materialize. As a result, new political movements and antagonists have emerged to contest the terms of United States-promoted corporate globalization, calling for increased regional integration to offset the power of the United States and more social spending to alleviate Latin American inequality. With little to offer the region in terms of development except the increasingly hollow promises of free trade, Washington is responding to these and similar challenges by once again militarizing hemispheric relations, with all dissent now set in the crosshairs of the "global war on terror."

The history of Latin America, a region that long bore the brunt of the kind of righteous violence enshrined in the Bush Doctrine, has much to say about Washington's current drive toward global hegemony, particularly on how its ideologues have come to believe that American power itself is without limits. More ominously, though, it points to where we may wind up if we continue down this path.

Copyright © 2006 by Greg Grandin

Meet the Author

Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, Empire's Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and the award-winning The Blood of Guatemala. An associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and a Guggenheim fellow, Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New York Times.
Greg Grandin is the author of The Empire of Necessity; Fordlandia, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; as well as Empire’s Workshop and The Blood of Guatemala. A professor of history at New York University and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Public Library, Grandin has served on the UN Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, & The New York Times.

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Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author fails to realize that the United States is obligated to look after its security and national interests. Demagogues like Castro and Chavez flourish in the naive, yet Stalinist world view of the author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a very liberal person and while i enjoyed this book, it is obciously biased. It is also a very detailed accoumt of u.s. foreign policy that makes me want to know more. The organization is a little frustrating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Provocative! This well-researched book details our disastrous foreign policy in Latin America. Both major political parties have used our neighbors to the South as laboratories for mis-guided policies. This is an important book which discusses our relations with most of the Latin American countries. We've sponsored brutal dictators, death squads, and paramilitary insurgencies. Grandin asserts that our relations with Latin America helped form our activities in Iraq! Extensive bibliographic references.
Willp More than 1 year ago
Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University. In this brilliant and important book, he studies Latin America and the USA's impact on it. As Hugo Chavez said, "What is happening today in Latin America? To answer this question, read Empire's workshop." Thatcher lied that Reagan ended the Cold War 'without firing a shot', but the shots were fired in Latin America and elsewhere, to defeat the Soviet Union. Reagan backed terrorists in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and in Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Libya, Yemen, and Cuba. Reagan imposed capitalism by dirty wars, coups and death squads. Thatcher and Reagan imposed cripplingly high interest rates, to cut welfare, education, health and industry, attack trade unions, and wreck pay agreements, job security and pensions. The same high interest rates forced Europe's governments to reply in kind, notably wrecking France's social democratic path. These rates also destroyed development programmes in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The City of London and Wall Street lent these countries petrodollars, which went to pay ever-higher interest on earlier debts, not to invest in industry and services. In Latin America, income per head had risen by 73% between 1947 and 1973, when its countries were using development strategies. But under laissez-faire capitalism, from 1980 to 1998, there was a boom for Latin America's privateers and a slump for its workers. Median income per head did not rise at all. In 1970, 11% were destitute; in 1996, 33% (165 million people); by 2005, 221 million people were in poverty. To develop, countries need land reform, planned industrialisation and decent services for all. For this, they need to have national independence and sovereignty, control over their own resources, and labour needs to control capital, not vice versa. As Grandin sums up, "democracy, social and economic justice, and political liberalization have never been achieved through an embrace of empire but rather through resistance to its command."
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like a lot of Gen X¿ers on the Left, I cut my teeth as a political activist working on Central America in the 80s. We knew then that atrocities and nation razing were taking place in the name of spreading democracy, but until now, no book has underlined that epoch¿s singular historical importance. Over the long term, from the Monroe Doctrine and through countless incarnations of gunboat diplomacy into the present, Grandin shows how the language of free markets, democracy, and American exceptionalism has long clouded our understanding of what in reality amounted to bayonet-backed plutocratic plunder. Over the shorter term, he demonstrates that the ramp up of US anti-communist militarism in Central America during Reagan¿s ¿morning in America¿ helped revitalize the right-wing foreign policy establishment after the retreat from Vietnam, thus setting the stage for our current blunders in Iraq. The Central America wars were not just nasty, in other words. They represented the bloody redemption of what Grandin calls ¿new imperialism¿--a critical and foreboding pivot in the history of foreign affairs. For anyone who wants to have a better understanding of US policy in Latin America generally or who wants a deeper history of our present-day politics of terror than the chattering classes provide, this book is a great place to start. Kudos to Grandin for forcing us to reexamine this shameful but too often forgotten neighborhood history and its unfolding legacy.