A Century of Revolution
Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America's Long Cold War
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
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Living in Revolutionary Time Coming to Terms with the Violence of Latin America's Long Cold War GREG GRANDIN
Over the course of the last century, millions of Latin Americans have lived some part of their lives in revolutionary time. From the Mexican Revolution of 1910, through the uprisings and massacres in Argentina, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and El Salvador of the 1920s and 1930s, into the heightened period of mobilization and terror in the Southern Cone in the 1960s and 1970s, and Central America and the Andes from the 1970s through the 1980s, Latin America has experienced an epochal cycle of revolutionary upheavals and insurgencies. What was it like to live through any one of the many insurgent chapters of such a momentous century? What does it feel like to live in revolutionary times?
The essayist George Steiner tried to answer this question as it pertained to the transformative force of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. "No string of quotations, no statistics can recapture for us what must have been the inner excitement, the passionate adventure of spirit and emotion unleashed by the events of 1789," he wrote. To pass through such insurrectionary moments was to experience "great storms of being" that "literally quickened the pace of felt time," to believe that justice and renovation would be achieved not with the glacial pace of patrician prudence but immediately. The mobilization of revolutionary war likewise superseded provincial dangers associated with the agricultural calendar, natural disasters, and everyday exploitation, with each day bringing news of political conflict and breaks with the "pastoral silences and uniformities" that ruled the rhythms of rural life. "Whenever ordinary men and women looked across the garden hedge, they saw bayonets passing," was how Steiner described how the intrusion of warfare into everyday life changed notions of historical time. "As Hegel completed the Phenomenology, which is the master statement of the new density of being," he wrote, "he heard the hoofbeats of Napoleon's escort passing through the nocturnal street on the way to the battle of Jena."
In Latin America, at least since the early nineteenth century, peasants have marched and countermarched in independence wars, national levees, and rural insurgencies, and not since then could politics, and the terror that often accompanies it, be experienced as the property of the privileged few. Pick up any one of the many testimonios of twentieth-century Latin American activists and you will find a similar exhilaration and hurrying to what we see described by Steiner, and a similar belief that the old dispensations no longer reigned and that "ancient time was at an end." As Jeffrey Gould recounts in this volume, in the days and hours moving toward El Salvador's 1932 La Matanza, peasant Communist militants reacted to increasing repression by shortening the horizon of justice: "They killed my compañero," said one indigenous widow, "but here are my sons and they will see the revolution." During the cold war, terror expanded into an almost inconceivable scale, confirming for "ordinary" Latin Americans that the terms of history had changed. One morning in 1962, for instance, Cuban peasants stepped out of their houses, looked across their gardens, and saw ballistic missiles rolling past. "I saw these weird weapons," said an unnamed interviewee, who appeared in an episode of CNN's cold war documentary series; "I said to my friend Pablo, 'Pablo, how powerful are these weird weapons?' and he answered, 'These are nuclear missiles.' So I thought, 'Oh, really powerful.' " "And they just put them here," said the campesino pointing to his field, "out in the open."
The speeding up of felt time corresponded to, and was driven by, an acceleration of the state's capacity to repress. For untold numbers of Latin Americans, living through revolutionary times meant living part of a life in which political violence and terror were the stuff of everyday existence. First, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, telegraphs, telephones, railroads, cars, wireless radios, repeating rifles, and automatic weapons allowed the state to respond more thoroughly and rapidly to threats. Then, during the cold war, tape recorders, fingerprint and surveillance equipment, cattle prods, filing cabinets, typewriters, carbon paper, radio and other communication technologies, binoculars, cameras, cars, and helicopters contributed to the creation of an omnipresent counterinsurgent infrastructure. But more than stemming from advances in technology, counterinsurgency, above all else, is choreography: starting in the 1950s much of Washington's "public safety" aid was directed at synchronizing the work of military and police forces to better their reaction time-to gather raw information quickly, transform it into serviceable intelligence swiftly, store it effectively, and act on it promptly.
The extension of counterinsurgent violence also entailed a sequential jumping of scale, from the regional to the national, and then to the transnational. At different times in different places, but generally running from the last decades of the nineteenth to the first decades of the twentieth century, local private armies and part-time militias, often headed by regional strongmen, were consolidated into government institutions, be they armies, police agencies, or national guards. During this stage, in southern South America, European countries did the training-Prussia in Chile and Germany in Bolivia, for example, or France in Peru, as Gerardo Rénique discusses below. Further north, in the greater Caribbean basin, where the United States after 1898 engaged in a series of "nation-building" counterinsurgencies, Washington learned it could project its influence and ensure stability through the strengthening of local constabularies. Most infamously, Marines created Nicaragua's National Guard in 1927 and installed Anastasio Somoza as its head. And as the sociologist Martha Huggins documents in her Political Policing: The United States and Latin America, the United States either established or trained police agencies and national and civic guards in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, Cuba, and El Salvador. Washington soon came to displace Europe as the primary provider of security aid and training throughout the whole of the continent, leveraging first the Second World War and then the cold war to win a near monopoly, helping to either create or fortify centralized intelligence agencies in one country after another: Argentina's Secretaria de Inteligencia del Estado, Chile's Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia, Brazil's Sistema Nacional de Informações, Uruguay 's Dirección Nacional de Información e Inteligencia, El Salvador's Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales, Haiti's Sécurité Intelligence Nationale, Venezuela's Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención, to name a few examples. Once lethargic units of limited range were transformed into effective national agencies, the next step was to coordinate their work on a supranational level. By the mid-1960s in Central America, the U.S. Central Command had set up the Sistema Militar Centroamericano de Telecomunicaciones, along with other coordinating bodies, to synchronize the work of individual intelligence agencies. In the 1970s, the United States helped facilitate a similar counterinsurgent consortium in South America with Operation Condor, which carried out operations in multiple continents.
The learning curve of state repression has steadily increased throughout the twentieth century and, except in the cases of Cuba in the late 1950s and Nicaragua in the 1970s, was always a step ahead of movements seeking social and political transformation. But it took a radical and great leap forward in the 1960s. Elsewhere I've described the political and experiential effect the progressive foreshortening of the time it took the state to repress dissent had on a generation of Guatemalan activists. In 1966, reformers trying to recreate the domestic political coalition that generated Guatemala's 1944 October Revolution ran headlong into a new international anticommunist alliance committed and equipped to prevent that from happening. Within the course of three days in a series of sequential raids executed in multiple regions throughout the country-each yielding information that provided intelligence to carry out follow-up raids-a paramilitary unit established and trained by U.S. advisors kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and assassinated thirty-three activists, and then threw their bodies into the sea from U.S.-supplied helicopters. This exemplary act of compressed repression achieved in three days what just a decade earlier would have taken three months, forcing domestic crisis to keep pace with international polarization: the disappearances occurred less than two months after the six hundred delegates from more than one hundred countries, including Guatemala, at the Havana-hosted Tri-Continental Conference endorsed, over the opposition of the Soviet Union, armed struggle in Latin America and elsewhere in the third world. Many in the Guatemalan Left, though, decided to hold to an electoral strategy. That would soon change, as the most persuasive proponents of moderation were disappeared in the March raid.
Escalating political repression was made possible by the provision, coordination, and enthusiasm provide by the United States. Yet its animal spirit was driven by a domestic reaction against the democratization of the region's status hierarchy that had steadily advanced since the decades prior to independence. Expectations of historical progress notwithstanding, the political conflicts that erupted as a result of democracy 's march led to the experience of revolutionary time as suspended time, as a "hiatus between the no-longer and the not-yet." During this pause, contrasting visions of where in time justice and redress were to be found vied for dominance. For those who wanted change, the future summoned: in Chile, as Peter Winn writes in his contribution to this collection, the leaders of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity coalition believed they could buck historical precedent and lead Chile through the world's first socialist revolution without violence. For those threatened by change, the past beckoned: "Let Chile continue being Chile" was a rallying cry for many who refused such a precedent. But more commonly, political actors embraced not temporal consistency but bricolage, where the past exists simultaneously with the future. To take Chile again as an example, in the early 1930s on the country 's southern frontier, as Thomas Klubock's essay discusses, the vanguardist, modernist Communist Party championed Mapuche peasant demands to establish an independent "Auracarian Republic," which would entail not only the return of dispossessed lands but a restoration of indigenous language, culture, and religious practices. "Let 's struggle for the constitution of soviets of workers, peasants, and indios," proclaimed Communist pamphlets. That many of Latin America's revolutionary actors had either experienced firsthand the violence used to break up common land and force them into a labor market, or had second- or third-generation memories of what it meant to live in a community that was not as commodified or bureaucratized as the one they lived in, gave force to the presence of the past in such visions of the future. It was exactly in these disputed moments when political violence became most incandescent, promising to light the way to either the no-longer or the not-yet, when its executors, in either the name of change or the name of order, became more verbal in justifying its use.
Political Violence as a Category of Analysis
In recent years, accounts of the acceleration and diffusion of twentieth-century Latin American political violence have drifted from explanation to interpretation. In the first instance, scholars working in the 1960s and 1970s-whether influenced by Marx, Weber, New Left critiques of imperialism and dependency, or modernization theory-took violence not so much as a primary focus of research but as a byproduct of either social transformation or the dynamics of domination and resistance, depending on their perspective. The Marxist tradition tends to explain violence as a condition of class relations, while modernization theorists take conflict as an indicator of an immature polity. Attempts starting in the early 1970s to sketch out the structural causes of bureaucratic authoritarianism that drew from Marx and Weber often ignored close inquiries into not only the cultural, ideological, and psychological dimensions of terror but also its contingent political dynamics. State repression, therefore, was taken as a reflex of crisis (caused either by class struggle or by an inability to modernize properly) and an instrument of class power, a repeating divisor in the algorithms of state formation and capital accumulation. Social violence was understood, especially by those scholars broadly working in the modernization paradigm, as perpetuated by weak or arbitrarily applied government laws and institutions, which bestowed on a majority of a given country 's inhabitants what Guillermo O'Donnell called "low-intensity citizenship"-a phrase that implies the dependent relationship between structural and overt political repression.
Recently, in the cold war's recession, scholars have offered more interpretative, subjectively sensitive descriptions of political violence. Such studies include those that focus on testimonials, memory, as well as a wave of ethnographies exploring the psychic slashes and cuts of daily counterinsurgent life, how protagonists and victims lived through and recollect experiences of heightened mobilization and terror. Much of the work in this vein rests on the sociological foundations provided by earlier, more macro-level approaches. Yet paralleling the general scholarly turn toward culture and retreat from metanarration, recent efforts to come to terms with the extremity of cold war terror in Latin America have operated within the hermeneutic rather than the analytical wing of the humanities and social sciences. Some postmodern-inflected studies of violence exist in tension between these two branches, interpreting culture or linguistic structures while at the same time offering ambitious explanatory claims. Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wildman: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987), for instance, while still deploying categories such as "primitive capital accumulation," argues that the totalizing power of colonial reason produced "spaces of death" and "cultures of terror" that persisted well after formal Spanish rule ended and can account for both the enslavement and murder of early twentieth-century native Americans in the Putumayo region of the Amazon and the torture of Jacobo Timmerman at the hands of the Argentine junta.
In other regions that have been plagued by mass violence and terror, particularly those outside of Europe and the United States, there has been a more explicit shift away from trying to understand the historical causes and social consequences of violence to an almost exclusive focus on how violence is experienced. Scholars do not necessarily dispute the function or instrumentality of violence, which is often taken as a symbolic enactment of power or an essential element in creating fractured, wounded subjectivities that correspond to the rules of domination, particularly along gender, race, or ethnic lines. Yet they often do so in a flat, historically static manner, which, for all the celebration of contingency, ambiguity, and rupture, results in a leaden account of social power. Gone are attempts to examine the relational formation of political subjectivity, the transformation of economic relations and state forms, and the evolution of competing ideologies vying for common-sense status. Studies of third world violence increasingly replace analytical categories with metaphysical ones: "exploitation," for instance, has given way to "social suffering" as the basic condition of human interconnectivity: "Suffering," runs the opening sentence of an edited volume titled Social Suffering, "is one of the existential grounds of human experience; it is a defining quality, a limiting experience in human conditions."
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