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Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the…

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

by Greg Grandin

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I didn't read this very closely after the first two chapters, for reasons that will become obvious, so I apologize to Mr. Grandin if the latter parts of this book are literary masterpieces. But:

there's a great paper in here on how the Bush administration's foreign policy was shaped by the U.S.'s experience in Latin America from the late '70s through to the present. Unfortunately, that's swamped by ridiculous claims (e.g., U.S. troops ignore human rights because they play video games; Christian missionaries believe that extending U.S. power will hasten the second coming of Christ); a very skewed perspective (Republicans and the Executive want to destroy the world; Democrats and Congress want to save it); and silly conspiracy theorizing. A book that should be a gimmee as far as organization goes (just tell the stories of Latin American history during the last quarter of the century) is a disaster; the reader is treated like a blithering idiot, so every claim ('The Reagan administration did this in Guatemala...') is inevitably followed by a parallel ('So the Bush administration did this in Iraq...'), which both interrupts what little narrative flow there is and is immensely irritating, since any competent reader would either already draw the parallel, or could wait to be informed of it later in the book, perhaps in a chapter on the Bush administration's middle-east adventures. But there is no such chapter. Everything is thrown together in a heap.

'Empire's Workshop' was published in 2006, so I suspect that it was rushed into print to satisfy the (entirely justified) boom market for anti-Bush polemic at the time. Sadly, it's much better as polemic than history. ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Grandin's argument is that the Latin America served as the “workshop” for the ideas that set the invasion of Iraq in motion. As Grandin writes; “In their search for historical precedents for out 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.” (pp. 1-2) Grandin sets out to show how American foreign policy in Latin America (in particular the Reagan era) created the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq.

He begins with a very brief history of American foreign policy in the region. From the early imperialism; both economic and militarily, to the “good neighbour model” FDR instituted after imperial overreach in Mexico and El Salvador, and then up to and focusing mainly on the Reagan administration.

He sets this out in three comprehensive chapters. Firstly “Going Primitive”. This is a description of the violence America unleashed onto the Latin American continent, and then how it was justified in ideological terms. Here we can already see the clear link with Iraq, in the moral justification of mass violence. So to give a brief example of Grandin's descriptions:

"Between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala, the [US trained] army executed roughly 100,000 Mayan peasants unlucky enough to live in a region identified as the seedbed of a leftist insurgency. In some towns, troops murdered children by beating them on rocks or throwing them into rivers as their parents watched. “Adios, nino” – good-bye, child – said one soldier, before pitching an infant to drown. They gutted living victims, amputated genitalia, arms, and legs, committed mass rapes, and burned victims alive. According to a surviving witness of one massacre, soldiers “grabbed pregnant women, cut open their stomachs, and pulled the fetus out”" (p. 90)

He describes the wave of violence unleashed by America across the Latin American continent, particularly in Guatemala (the UN truth commission later termed the civil war a genocide), El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Obviously, this sort of thing might make people think, y'know, that America's a bit, well, awful. So Grandin then describes how the American government attempted to justify this in ideological terms. Certainly up to Nixon there was little attempt to appeal to human rights. The Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik reigned supreme. Carter is generally seen as the President who appealled most to human rights. In fact that was one of the criticisms of the man, yet it isn't particularly routed in reality when you consider it was him (and Brezenski) who laid much of the foundations for the Reaganite terrorist wars. But the surprising thing about Grandin's argument is that Reagan is the President who did the most to justify his bloody policy in idealogical terms. Whereas previous Presidents focused on containment of the Soviet Union, Reagan wanted to “rollback” the “evil empire”. How did he “rollback” the communists? Well, in a nutshell, he ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of people. Reagan justified this by arguing that the people who were doing the rolling back (i.e. the terrorists) were “freedom fighters” because they were fighting against the evil commies. So while his government designated such villains as Nelson Mandela as terrorists, Reagan's happy band of freedom fighters were raping, pillaging and murdering their way across Latin America. Jean Kirkpatrick, his UN ambassador infamous for her support for right-wing juntas, introduced the idea that America merely supported “authoritarian” regimes, which was the right thing to do in response to the “totalitarian” regimes of the Soviets. The difference between the good authoritarian regime and the bad totalitarian regime was simple; authoritarian regimes were open to US business. Therefore by supporting an authoritarian regime, America was actually helping the place. It's very simple now that you think about it. Clearly this relates to Iraq, in that the murder of countless people is justified in fighting for a higher purpose.

The second chapter is “Bring it all back home”, where Grandin describes the effect the wars in Latin America had back in the States. Here Grandin is out of his area of expertise, being a scholar of Latin America rather than American domestic politics, but nonetheless he gives a very strong description of how the Reagan administration (as well as others) learnt to use domestic pressures to control their population. Obviously some Americans might be a tad peeved at learning that their government was slaughtering brown people, so the Reagan administration set up the Office for Public Diplomacy, which, Grandin argues, was little more than a CIA propaganda unit. Again, this relates heavily to Iraq, where an “Information War Room” helped to spread pro-war propaganda and limit the discussion of rival viewpoints.

The third chapter is “The economics of the new imperialism”, which is a brief description of the neo-liberal economic revolution America introduced in Latin America. Here Grandin does little more than give a very brief description. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein goes into more detail over pretty much the same topic. Nonetheless, Grandin makes a good fist of it, if it's too brief.

Grandin then concludes by looking at the effects of American interference on Latin America. As the Soviet Union collapsed, America gave in to public demand, and introduced “democracy”, or at least in theory. The results of the economic reforms are grim. Between 1947 and 1973, real income rose 73% throughout Latin America; between 1980 and 1996 (the high point of neo-liberalism) it statnated. At the end of the 1960s, poverty was at 11%; by 1996, it was 33%, three times the amount. The neo-liberal experiment failed; it created a huge dip, followed by a rapid rise as capital flooded in, followed by another gigantic dip and from this point the countries gave up on the experiment. Even Pinochet's Chile, the main labatory for the Chicago school, saw an economic meltdown, and the country was only saved from total collapse by Pinochet devaluing the currency, and instituting nationalisation (by 1984, more of Chile was nationalised than at any point under the Marxist Salvador Allende who Washington helped overthrow). This description of the total collapse of the American project is a satisfying conclusion to Grandin's book.

So overall... I think Grandin's work is key to understanding Latin America and American foreign policy. However I think it dwells far too much on Latin America and not enough on Iraq. Obviously the focus of the book is on Latin America, but the thesis is aiming to demonstrate the connection, and to do that Grandin does not to elaborate more on the Iraqi invasion. Nonetheless, it is a very good, if flawed, little book and one anyone interested in the topic should get. ( )
1 vote thejames | Jan 16, 2011 |
this book was fascinating and disturbing. detailing how much complicity the US has had in the atrocities that have happened in Latin America. this book also delves into how our foreign policy has changed and evolved and how mixed up the religious right is in the government and setting foreign policy. i was shocked by it all, but so glad that i am more educated about it now. ( )
  shannonkearns | Jan 8, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805083235, Paperback)

"Grandin has always been a brilliant historian; now he uses his detective skills in a book that is absolutely crucial to understanding our present."
--Naomi Klein, author of No Logo
The British and Roman empires are often invoked as precedents to the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. But America's imperial identity was actually shaped much closer to home. In a brilliant excavation of long-obscured history, Empire's Workshop shows how Latin America has functioned as a proving ground for American strategies and tactics overseas. Historian Greg Grandin follows the United States' imperial operations from Jefferson's aspirations for an "empire of liberty" in Cuba and Spanish Florida to Reagan's support for brutally oppressive but U.S.-friendly regimes in Central America. He traces the origins of Bush's current policies back to Latin America, where many of the administration's leading lights first embraced the deployment of military power to advance free market economics and enlisted the evangelical movement in support of their ventures.

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:27 -0400)

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