Furious century

A history of political violence in Latin America offers a timely critique of triumphalist, post-cold war revisions of modern social revolutions

A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War
Edited by Greg Grandin and Gilbert M Joseph
2011, Duke University Press
443 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

WHERE have all the revolutions gone? Latin America, once almost synonymous with insurgency and revolutionary violence, is now the stamping ground only of liberals in suits and sandals.

The revolutionary baton has long been passed on: first to eastern and Central Europe, thence the Middle East, and under very different circumstances much more amenable to the past enemies of the revolutionary left. Where next – is there anywhere left?

Such has been the speed of this transition – and the imprint of revolutions on Latin American political culture – that they still form part of living memory for millions in the region.

As Greg Grandin points out in his introduction to A Century of Revolution, from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through the uprisings in Argentina, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and El Salvador in the 1920s and 30s, across to Cuba in the 1950s with its ripple effect fuelling the mobilisation and counter-terror of the Southern Cone in the 1960s, thence to Central America and the Andes into the early 1990s – revolution is a living legacy.

Its terms, however, changed dramatically and ominously in the 1960s when the peasants of Cuba saw not men with bayonets passing their hedges to war, but ballistic missiles – and an equivalent increase in the enemy’s capacity to repress, transnationally so. The US was a willing advocate, exponent and ally of state terror against the backdrop of its global ideological conflict with communism and people’s democracy.

Monumental transitions
A Century of Revolution explores this rich history and such monumental transitions with a singular and absorbing focus on its main currency: violence. It aims to impose some order on the subtle process by which accounts of political violence in Latin America have drifted from explanation to interpretation, from the historical causes and social consequences of to the experience of, from a byproduct of given socio-historical conditions to more subjective and sensitive qualities such as memory, recollection, ethnography.

As Grandin argues, “paralleling the general scholarly turn towards 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” [p. 6]

In response, he takes his cue from the diplomatic historian Arno Mayer whose historical focus in writing European history has been the theme of containment, first of political liberalism and thereafter of socialism. Mayer’s conceptual coordinates are the clash between state, its elites and institutions and society driven by insurgent demands and an opposing worldview; the very contingent and indeterminate nature of politics itself; and the passions unleashed by polarisation, be they ideological or merely vengeful. His influence on the collection is clear, such that Grandin publishes an interview with him at the end of the volume

As a result, the essays in this collection support the call for a socially embedded approach to political violence and aim to sketch a framework to help historians rethink Latin America’s revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence.

The contributions reach back to the Mexican Revolution and then Cuba, but it is probably the later parts of the book, and in particular Carlota McAllister’s examination of violence in a Guatemalan indigenous village and Gerardo Rénique’s descent into the terror of Peru that are most accessible to many readers for being within their lived experience.

McAllister fleshes out the parameters of Latin America’s bloodiest armed conflict, and one of its longest, in Guatemala, which became a punishing war of attrition after 1954 that would take the lives of 200,000 civilians, many of them in the 1980s at the hands of the US-backed army. The great majority of those victims were the indigenous poor who would have been much better served by a revolution.

McAllister also challenges the “dos demonios” narrative that attributes equal blame to the army and the guerrillas. This, she argues, speaks more to the present than the past. She writes:

“The demonization of Guatemala’s armed Left and its adherents participates in a long tradition of seeing the revolutionary enterprise as more senseless violence cloaked in high principle, a tradition that currently has the upper hand on the revolutionary tradition it opposes.” [p. 277]

Rénique examines a similarly brutal conflict between state and society in Peru between 1980 and 1992 when the Peruvian army and the Sendero Luminoso Maoists both used tactics that went well beyond established forms of class-based violence. Above all, he explores interpretations and efforts to understand this singularly savage conflict, and how these speak to the ideological accommodations to neoliberalism in Peru and beyond. Rénique writes:

“Drawing on a dominant – albeit largely implicit – explanatory model in which violence is attributed to a totalitarian drive towards utopia or innate authoritarian tendencies, both left and right observers located the origin of Peruvian political violence not in the country’s highly exploitative and exclusionary social system but in the synergy that resulted from the fusion of Sendero’s Manichean ideology to the iron will of its charismatic leader and founder… By overstating the weight of ideological and subjective motivations, these accounts minimized the pivotal role played by the counterinsurgency in creating a situation in which the state used fear to normalize and further its own violence against both the armed insurgency and the growing popular resistance and political opposition that emerged in response to President Alberto Fujimori’s (1990-2000) neoliberal economic regime and authoritarian policies.” [p. 312]

It is in this spirit of challenging dominant retrospective discourses on history that Gilbert Joseph concludes by reminding readers that this volume provides “a timely critique of triumphalist, post-cold war revisions of modern social revolutions, which effectively have sought to disconnect the category of political violence from socially embedded historical struggles.” The contributors, by contrast, portray violence differently as part of the birth pangs of modernity, but one, Joseph reminds us, played out against the backdrop of the cold war being fought by the US. It was in this context that the Cuban Revolution stripped away the democratic pretense of the hegemon as it practised “imperialist violence” both against Latin America but also against people of colour back at home – and nothing was ever the same again.

It was the fusion of imported high-tech counter-insurgent practise with ferocious local repression and terror that enabled the right to prevail, and the legacies of that violence are still with us. The cold war also laid the foundations for neoliberalism by pre-empting alternative development strategies. The bleak landscape that has since emerged is characterised by weak states dominated by counter-revolutionary and paramilitary elites better positioned to profit in the globalised plunder of their own societies.

Yet the resurgence of the left and the withering Washington Consensus in Latin America represents a new watershed in which those who emerged from the violence of the past pushed forward their new expectations, defended their new notions of rights and began to advance new national projects.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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