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Empire’s Workshop Under a Flailing Empire

Latin America is not the United States’ “backyard.” It’s the training ground, historian Greg Grandin argues, for periods of imperial retrenchment and regroupment. But it’s also a region where radical movements have consistently refused to be crushed by US imperial power.

Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa and several of his soldiers of the US-trained and funded Atlacatl Battalion, responsible for the El Mozote massacre in 1981 in El Salvador, which remains the largest single massacre in recent Latin American history. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Fifteen years since its original publication, historian Greg Grandin has revised and reissued his now classic 2006 book, Empire’s Workshop. Having dedicated the intervening years to studying US imperial power through the prism of figures from Herman Melville and Andrew Jackson to Henry Ford and Kissinger, Grandin’s razor-sharp insight into the structural contradictions of the US imperialist project make this work required reading for today’s Left.

Grandin reveals Latin America as a laboratory of both US military expansion and soft power. Rather than the United States’ “backyard,” as the region has so often been referred to, he contends that Latin America has served empire as a “training ground, where the United States could regroup during periods of retrenchment, where ascendant governing coalitions could work out new tactics and new worldviews.”

Writing in the early years of the Iraq War, Grandin traced the origins of the neoconservative project to Ronald Reagan’s counterrevolutionary crusade in Central America. There, the New Right worked to re-moralize and remilitarize “both American diplomacy and capitalism,” restoring to the Republican right the moral purpose and idealist grandeur that was once the purview of liberal internationalists like FDR and JFK.

After fifteen years of crisis and collapse, Grandin has reframed his arguments. Originally published with the subtitle “Latin America, the United States, and the rise of the new imperialism,” the new edition announces instead “Latin America, the United States, and the making of an imperial republic.” The idea of “the new imperialism” has been retired from the new edition and replaced with a broader analysis of the arc of US empire, upon which multiplying forever wars and spiraling economic disasters have taken their toll. Unlike the extravagant imperialist hubris of the Bush era that confronted the author in 2006, today’s empire lurches, flailing, toward ruin.

Empire’s Dialectic

Throughout US history, Grandin shows, Latin America has been “buffeted by the United States’ revolutionary ambition and battered by its counterrevolutionary cruelty.” Through generations of struggle for sovereignty, the region’s resistance to US incursion both “limits US ambition, and is the place where US ambition learns to overcome limits.”

Grandin reviews how Latin American raw materials were fundamental to early US capital accumulation, justified as a white, Christian, civilizing mission. In the imperial imagination, Latin America was a land of both “perceived corruption” and “imagined innocence,” where the fledgling US empire welded its professed democratic ideals to capitalist expansion.

At the turn of the twentieth century, US free-market policy abroad was posited as an alternative to colonial occupation. The region hosted the United States’ first experiments in restructuring neighboring nations’ economies, starting with Mexico following the US Civil War and then Cuba after the Spanish American War in 1898. But US capital sowed chaos in its wake, prompting more overt interventions, and the early twentieth century saw the United States deploy troops to Central America and the Caribbean on at least thirty-four occasions.

In a context of global economic collapse, Grandin argues, FDR’s much-lauded “Good Neighbor” policy — characterized by a commitment to nonaggression, respect for sovereignty, and cooperative, diplomatic conflict resolution in the Western Hemisphere — was a product of Latin America’s confrontations with US imperial excess, from the Mexican Revolution to Augusto Sandino’s insurgency against the US occupation of Nicaragua (“the United States’ first third-world quagmire”). Latin American defiance “saved the United States from itself,” writes Grandin. The celebrated diplomatic breakthroughs in this period yielded important regional trade agreements and political alliances that helped the United States emerge from the Great Depression as a newly consolidated world power.

The multilateral turn would not last. In the postwar period, Latin American nations undertook democratization and state-led industrial development. Under pressure from capital, Washington backed anti-communist dictatorships against developmentalist reformers and rapidly radicalizing social movements. The CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954 served as a blueprint for future interventions, while Cuba’s 1959 revolution ensured continuing US belligerence.

The grand mantle of liberal internationalism was raised again by President Kennedy, whose Alliance for Progress provided a framework for US international aid aimed at staving off the gathering tide of revolution in the Americas. In the name of democracy and development, the alliance turned the region into a “counterinsurgency laboratory,” creating the institutional foundations for the paramilitary death squads that would sow terror across the region in the coming decades. The Alliance for Progress “wedded the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary traditions of US diplomacy to especially toxic effect,” writes Grandin, encouraging democratic reformers while simultaneously arming their assassins.

In the following decades, this poisonous synthesis would achieve genocidal proportions in Central America, where the alchemists of empire conducted their next experiment.

Central America

In the 1930s, the United States turned to Latin America “to regroup after setbacks limited its global reach.” In the wake of another crippling economic crisis and humiliating defeat in Vietnam, the United States again turned to Latin America in the 1980s. This time, the ascendent governing bloc set its sights on Central America, where the triumphant Sandinista revolutionaries and formidable insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala were determined to follow Che Guevara’s directive to create “two, three, many Vietnams.”

Reagan effectively maintained Cold War détente throughout most of the globe, but in the lower-stakes periphery of Central America, “all bets were off.” For the rising Right, “Central America’s very insignificance, in fact, made it the perfect antidote to Vietnam.” Eager to restore US prowess, conservative intellectuals and Vietnam veteran spooks flooded the Reagan administration. These operatives used the region as a laboratory for counterinsurgency and proxy warfare, refining their methods toward the goal of rehabilitating US military power and re-moralizing the imperial mission.

Grandin argues that the New Right, the conservative coalition behind Reagan and Reaganism, was forged in Central America, built on a tripartite constituency of anti-communist policy intellectuals, militarists and mercenaries, and evangelical fundamentalist Christians: “Central America, in other words, was the crucible that brought together missionary Christianity, free-market capitalism, and American hard power.”

There, Reagan framed the US nation-building project as an epic battle between good and evil. Contrary to Vietnam’s progressive drain on US moral high ground, Reagan responded to “mounting evidence of atrocities committed by U.S. allies” in Central America by constantly raising the “ethical stakes” of US involvement.

President Reagan makes his address to the nation on the Iran-Contra controversy from the Oval Office on March 4, 1987. (National Archives Catalogue)

The corollary to this discursive idealism was political terror, conceived as — often preemptive — “counterterror.” From their offices in Washington, the academy, and associated think tanks, counterinsurgency analysts used rational choice theory to calculate the appropriate margins of slaughter. In practice, those margins proved extraordinarily flexible.

In policy terms, Reagan’s strategy translated to “promote reform and fund militarism, and watch the militarists murder the reformers.” Historian Stuart Schrader provides a chilling example of this approach in Badges without Borders, noting that up to 75 percent of graduates from a 1980s USAID leadership program in rural Guatemala were assassinated — by US-backed state security forces. All told, US-backed counterrevolutionary violence in the region left hundreds of thousands dead, tens of thousands disappeared, and millions more displaced by the mid-1990s.

The Covert Cold War

Readers may be familiar with the US-inflicted carnage in Central America in this period. In El Salvador, infamous massacres like El Mozote, the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the rape and murder of four US churchwomen, or the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter made international headlines, while the bloodshed wrought against Mayan communities in Guatemala was later deemed genocide in the courts.

Less understood, perhaps, is the extent of the Reagan administration’s operations within US borders, and its intersections with the vast international conspiracy referred to as “Iran-Contra.” Here, Grandin’s dive into the inner workings of the clandestine anti-communist crusade remains indispensable.

At its most basic, the Iran-Contra affair was the scandal provoked by revelations that the Reagan administration had secretly violated its arms embargo to sell weapons to Iran, using the profits to fund the counterrevolutionary army of mercenaries and fascists destabilizing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua — despite congressional prohibition from doing so. In fact, conspiracy to supply and fund the Contras extended well beyond Iran, mobilizing a sinister “anti-communist international” of intelligence services, organized crime, conservative financiers, fascists, and religious fanatics that operated from Israel and Taiwan to Panama and Mexico.

Eroding the boundary between the foreign and the domestic, the Reagan administration also executed sophisticated internal psychological and covert operations. This program had three components: the intelligence and PR-based “public diplomacy” campaign, surveillance and intimidation of dissidents like those organizing with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and the construction of a grassroots evangelical base to counter the prevailing anti-interventionist climate of the post-Vietnam period.

Central to this strategy was conservative Cuban émigré Otto Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean — the “homeland branch” of the Contra plot. The Office was essentially a CIA propaganda operation housed within the State Department, working to influence domestic opinion in favor of the US-backed Contras. These operatives sought to demonize the Sandinistas in the press and in Congress, marketing the counterrevolutionaries as freedom-fighting underdogs.

The Office of Public Diplomacy distributed propaganda materials; organized conferences, talks, and regular congressional briefings; and planted op-eds in national newspapers. On the one hand, Grandin writes, staffers strove to “dumb down debate,” reducing “foreign policy to a series of emotionally laden talking points that linked the Sandinistas to any number of world evils” and affirming the irrefutable nobility of the Contra cause. On the other hand, the office worked to wear down the opposition, inundating the discourse with a steady barrage of misinformation and outright lies.

Like counterinsurgency warfare, the goal wasn’t necessarily to win over a majority of hearts and minds of the US public to support military interventions, but to render opposition to that program too costly. Setting a crucial precedent for the Bush and Trump presidencies to come, the administration overwhelmed their adversaries with falsehoods and fabrications to the extent that it became “difficult, if not impossible, for human rights organizations to establish the facts of a case.”

At the same time, Reagan’s operatives forged a global network to raise and launder funds for the covert Contra war on the margins of congressional oversight. Their partners included Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, military dictators, and fugitive terrorists. Many of the architects of this scheme are recurring figures in US politics, from John Bolton and Oliver North to Elliott Abrams and even Colin Powell.

Despite the staggering scale of the lawlessness involved, the scandal’s impact was relatively minimal. Congress had long since accepted the ideological premises of the paramilitary campaign against Nicaragua’s revolutionaries, leaving only procedural disputes to settle.

Victory

“Iran-Contra,” writes Grandin, “with its many tangents and tentacles, reveals the essence of what Reagan called the ‘New Right Revolution.’” This revolution was, “at its core, a transformation of class power in the United States” and worldwide, where imperialist capital launched a reconquest of the Third World, starting in Latin America.

Empire’s Workshop is, in many ways, a history of the neoliberal turn. Grandin characterizes the Washington Consensus as a bipartisan commitment to preemptive intervention and neoliberal economic restructuring. Starting with Augusto Pinochet’s US-backed 1973 coup in Chile against socialist president Salvador Allende, imperialist capital’s counteroffensive was imposed at the barrel of a gun.

The democratic transition in Central America was conditioned on sweeping structural adjustment: privatization, deregulation, and free trade. The Sandinistas, whose transformative social program was curtailed and debilitated by a decade of counterrevolutionary assault, lost the 1990 elections to the Washington-backed neoliberal reformer. In Guatemala and El Salvador, negotiated peace accords demilitarized the state but left the US-dependent, unequal economic structures intact.

By the mid-2000s, the twin frameworks of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) locked the region into its subordinate position in the US-led global economy as an exporter of primary materials, maquiladora manufacturing, and cheap, racialized migrant labor. Some twenty-four US air bases and US-trained local security forces are positioned across the isthmus to contain the escalating social costs.

When, in 2009, reformer Mel Zelaya strayed too far from the bounds of acceptable neoliberal governance in Honduras, he was summarily ousted in a military coup that was hastily legitimated by the Clinton State Department, sending an irrefutable message to the incoming government of El Salvador’s former insurgents next door. Today, Central America has entered a profoundly reactionary period, with notable authoritarian militarists and mafiosi presiding over the mounting social, political, economic, and ecological crises that have sent broad segments of the working class to seek asylum at the US border.

Empire’s Tailspin

Grandin points to Plan Colombia, the bilateral security framework in 2000 to combat drug traffickers and leftist insurgents, for which then senator Joe Biden was a leading advocate, as Washington’s latest blueprint, a “diplomatic shorthand” for endless war and accumulation by dispossession from Latin America to the Middle East. Indeed, Plan Colombia is the basis for the Biden administration’s policy approach in Central America, ostensibly oriented at reducing the root causes of mass migration.

But the world is a very different place in 2021 than it was in 2006, when the book was first published. Reagan’s unwavering faith in free markets has been largely dispelled today, a decade after the global financial crisis brought the neoliberal world order to the brink of collapse. And the US invasion of Iraq, like Vietnam before it, cast widespread doubt upon the nobility of US moral purpose in the world that the neocons had worked so hard to rebuild.

Trump, of course, came to best incarnate this crisis, famously remarking: “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” George W. Bush launched the War on Terror as a divine mission, declaring a “world crusade of free-market nation building.” Trump, in turn, renounced the frontier for a fortress, as Grandin persuasively argues in The End of the Myth.

The Biden administration appears resolved to continue the glorious imperialist tradition of learning nothing from its predecessor’s mistakes in Latin America. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Biden administration’s dilemma in Central America today reveals something of this imperial impasse. Biden devised his “Plan Colombia for Central America” as Vice President in 2014. The Alliance for Prosperity in Central America’s Northern Triangle was evidence of the degradation of Kennedy’s counterinsurgent developmentalism into naked neoliberalism. The plan was reborn in 2020 in the form of a $4 billion foreign aid package for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This funding, the State Department has now announced, must circumvent the region’s presidents entirely, mired as they are in accusations of drug trafficking, corruption, and rampant human rights violations.

The administration’s half-heartedly revived nation-building ambitions have run up against US imperialism. After decades of military, political, and economic interventions in the region, the United States finds itself with no credible partners and little political credibility of its own to pursue reform. With such dismal prospects for democratic development, Washington has predictably retreated to the more reliable approach of repression against the refugees fleeing the wreckage.

In his new epilogue, Grandin concludes that the prior pattern of imperial regrouping in Latin America followed by reinvigorated expansion no longer holds: Latin America can no longer save the United States from itself. Obama had the chance, the author muses, to follow FDR and respond to the resurgent Latin American left’s calls to retract the claws of US capital and militarism from the region. Instead, he bowed to the opposition’s pressure, shoring up the coup in Honduras and imposing sanctions against Venezuela, only to be succeeded by the very tide of reaction he so often deferred to, while the Right’s counteroffensive swept through Latin America with a vengeance. After Honduras, progressive democratic governments were toppled in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, with Ecuador and Bolivia not far behind.

What followed was an accelerating march from tragedy to farce. Grandin calls the Trump administration’s misadventures in Venezuelan regime change a “burlesque Iran-Contra, . . . evidence not of the rise of a new governing coalition that resets the US empire but of that empire’s unraveling.” The Biden administration, with its embrace of the hapless coup plotter Juan Guaidó in Venezuela and stern rebukes of Bolivia’s efforts to prosecute the leaders of the 2019 coup against indigenous socialist president Evo Morales, appears resolved to continue the glorious imperialist tradition of learning nothing from its predecessor’s mistakes.

Nevertheless, the spirit of rebellion is far from extinguished in Latin America, as the ever-resilient popular movements of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Brazil  have recently demonstrated. Latin America has been “empire’s workshop, yes, but democratic socialism’s laboratory as well,” writes Grandin, who leaves us with “the most important lesson taught by the history of the United States in Latin America: democracy, social and economic justice, and political liberalization have never been achieved through an embrace of empire but rather through resistance to its command.”

Latin American struggles for self-determination have produced some of the most audacious and inspiring experiments in popular rule, from Cuba to Venezuela, Chalatenango to Chiapas. If there is hope for a future beyond empire, beyond capital, beyond heteropatriarchy and racism, we may find it in those struggles and their lessons. The empire is in decline. What comes next is up to us.