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

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We speak with historian and New York University professor Greg Grandin about his new book, “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.” It examines how U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has served as model for U.S. actions in the Middle East and beyond. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to another story out of Latin America. Historian and NYU professor Greg Grandin has just published a new book examining how U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has served as model for U.S. actions in the Middle East and beyond.

In the book titled “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism,” Grandin writes, “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.”

Grandin goes on to write, “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.”

  • Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at NYU and author of the new book “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.”

- Read Greg Grandin’s article: ” The Wide War: How Donald Rumsfeld Discovered the Wild West in Latin America

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin joins us in the studio now. Welcome to Democracy Now!

GREG GRANDIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out your thesis?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, in the years between September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, there was a number of books and articles trying to take the measure, compare the United States to other empires. They searched historical analogies. They looked to the U.S. as one experience. In Germany and Japan after World War II, they compared it to Rome and Britain and the French empire, but they all seemed to ignore the one place where the United States had the most extensive imperial experience, and that was in Latin America.

In Latin America was where the United States learned how to be an exceptional empire, extraterritorial — administer extraterritorial countries without actual direct colonialism. And then, I also started to think more about why so many of the administration’s advisers and officials and hanger-ons, people like Elliott Abrams and Otto Reich and Donald Kagan and even John Bolton, who was in the Justice Department during Iran-Contra, came out of Reagan’s Central American policy. And it seemed to me that the connections between Bush’s post-9/11 pre-emptive aggressive militarist foreign policy and Reagan’s Central American policy was actually much more profound than a mere recycling of these personnel.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you say who those men are?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, Otto Reich was, under Reagan, was in charge of the Office of Public Diplomacy, which was this kind of operation run out of the White House and linked to Iran-Contra that perfected a lot of the media manipulation techniques that we saw in the run-up to the war in Iraq. And during the first term of Bush, Jr.’s administration, he was the chief envoy to Latin America.

Elliott Abrams was the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights in the State Department and then the chief envoy to Latin America under Reagan, and now he’s in the National Security —

AMY GOODMAN: And then convicted of lying.

GREG GRANDIN: And then convicted, but then pardoned, I believe. And now, he is in the National Security Council as Bush’s point person in his democratic program of promoting democracy throughout the world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, there’s John Negroponte.

GREG GRANDIN: There’s John Negroponte, who during the Central American days of Reagan presided — was kind of a U.S. Pro-Counsel in Honduras. He presided over the Contra war as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, and then, obviously, he has had a number of positions in this new incarnation of the new right foreign policy, including the Pro-Counsel in Iraq and now the Chief Intelligence Officer of the U.S.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But how would this new imperialism, as you call it, differ much from how the United States acted in Latin America during the Kennedy and the Johnson years? There was obviously Guatemala. And under Eisenhower, there was the Dominican invasion in 1965. And you could take it back further to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the early 20th century.

GREG GRANDIN: Right. All of the elements that I call the “new imperialism” have been in play for decades, if not centuries, in U.S. foreign policy, a kind of promotion of free market capitalism, a certain sense that the United States has a special purpose in the world to advance democracy or freedom, a certain kind of real politique cynicism in which we back dictators and coups and death stars in order to maintain stability in allied countries.

What makes it new, I think, is the particularly potent way in which it’s been blended together in this administration and then also projected on a world scale. It’s one thing to move U.S. foreign policy from containment to rollback in a country like Nicaragua, say, in the 1980s, when we supported the Contras. It’s another thing to think that we can kind of launch this as U.S.’s foreign policy — global foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Greg Grandin, what is the “El Salvador Option”?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, the El Salvador Option famously became talked about in the press when things started to go wrong in Iraq, and people like Robert Kaplan — well, Sy Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker talking about the U.S.’s support of paramilitaries in order to maintain order in Iraq. And then people, journalists, kind of hawkish journalists such as Robert Kaplan actually advocated that the Pentagon embrace what he called the “Salvadoran Option,” the use of paramilitaries, otherwise known as death squads.

But there’s another aspect to the Salvador Option, and if you remember in the Vice Presidential debate in 2004, where Dick Cheney evoked not the U.S. rebuilding of Japan and Germany as the model for what we hope to do in Iraq, but El Salvador as what we hope to do, which was this other aspect, this other dimension of the Salvador Option, the use of this incredibly violent and brutal explicit use of it, unapologetic use of violence and allying with the paramilitaries and death squads, but then justifying it in idealistic terms. And this is the particular contribution, I think, from people like Douglas Feith, who you focused on, reported on earlier. This kind of blending of a real politique militarism with this notion that we’re doing it in order to advance democracy, and that’s what I think is unique in the new imperialism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Because even, I would guess, the term “Salvador Option” is a misnomer to some extent, because the same policy was pursued with the militias in Guatemala in the genocide in Guatemala and with the right wing death squads in Colombia up until this day. >> Colombia and Argentina. You could call it the “Argentine Option.” You could call it the “Chilean Option.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, in fact, some of the very same people who were involved, say in Salvador, actually the mercenaries or the U.S. soldiers or trainers are in Iraq.

GREG GRANDIN: Yes. People like James Steele, who was a colonel, was involved in the U.S. military mission in El Salvador, came out of retirement to work with paramilitaries in El Salvador and “professionalize” them, in quotes.

AMY GOODMAN: Especially for young people, and you’re a professor of students at New York University, if you would describe what happened in El Salvador for people to understand what’s happening in Iraq today? What would you say was the picture in the 1980s? What did happen?

GREG GRANDIN: What happened is that the United States, in — well, and not just in El Salvador, in Guatemala and Nicaragua, turned Central America into one of the last killing fields of the Cold War. And this is why Central America has such a pull on the imagination of the neo-cons, is that it occurred simultaneously with the end of the Cold War. Now, Reagan for the most part acted in moderation everywhere else in the world, in other hotspots of the world. In El Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua, he gave that policy, U.S. policy to movement conservatives for them to act — it’s kind of wish fulfillment — to act the way they wished the U.S. would act towards the Soviet Union and the Middle East and in South Asia.

In El Salvador, the U.S. supported an anti-communist regime in order to contain an insurgency that resulted in the deaths of something between 60,000 and 70,000 civilians. In Nicaragua, we supported an anti-communist insurgency, which resulted in the murder of 30,000 to 40,000 civilians. And in Guatemala, we provided moral justification for a regime that was committing genocide, murdering somewhat around 200,000 civilians, mostly Mayan Indians. And that was throughout the 1980s. So when somebody like Margaret Thatcher says that Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot, there’s a certain kind of historical amnesia with those kind of pronouncements which get circulated in the mainstream press.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about Iraq, not only about the military model being used, but about the free market model, and look back to places like Chile. Can you connect Pinochet to Iraq?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, not Pinochet, per se, but you can connect a certain kind of free market absolutism, which first gets rolled out in Latin America. And Chile — this is stepping back a little bit — this is more in the 1970s. Chile, with the United States’ involvement in the overthrow of a democratically elected Salvador Allende and Pinochet’s long 17-year dictatorship, the new right, or the emerging new right, which begins to celebrate the market as a kind of creative venue for society — right, there’s this kind of re-moralization of the market that happens among the new right — they first apply that experiment in Chile starting in 1975 with the Chicago Boys. Chile becomes something of a mecca for the new right, who head down, and they bring delegations down to see the Chilean miracle at work. And it was a complete, what was called shock therapy, complete privatization through hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the Chicago Boys, for those people who are from Chicago or aren’t, or aren’t familiar with economic battles, are?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, they were these Chicago graduate students — Chilean graduate students who went to Chicago to study with Milton Friedman and with Friedrich Hayek and other neoclassical economists, who saw themselves as conducting a certain kind of a something like an capitalist jihad. They saw the New Deal written large across global stage with third world state developmentalism, and they saw Chile as a kind of bridge head in which they could breach that kind of that economic model which they railed against. And in some ways there is a direct connection, I think, between Iraq and Chile.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just going to say it’s also interesting that some of these mercenary firms that are in Iraq right now actually are employing guys from the Pinochet regime.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the amazing thing, throughout the '80s and the ’90s, there was this massive sell-off of government-owned industries and resources throughout all of Latin America in furtherance of this model, and now you're having this enormous popular reaction against it. Can you talk a little bit about that? What’s happening now in terms of the popular reaction to this new imperialism in Latin America?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, it takes many forms, the reaction to the new imperialism and the free market absolutism. I mean, just to give you some statistics, free market capitalism of the kind advanced by the United States under Reagan and then Clinton, extended by Clinton with all of the free trade agreements, has been an absolute failure. Between 1960 and 1980, which was the kind of heyday of state developmentalism, the economy in Latin America over the course of those two decades grew 89%. During the heyday of neoliberalism or this kind of free market absolutism, it stagnated at somewhere around 1%. I mean, there’s been ups and downs, but overall — and this is measured in terms of real wages per individual. So, it’s been a complete disaster. There’s been enormous growth of inequality. There’s been a massive gutting of the agricultural sector, which has forced migration from the rural areas to the cities. And then, obviously, this is connected to the rise in migration to the United States. It’s just been an enormous disaster. So there’s been a reaction against that more broadly, and then specifically, there’s a reaction against Bush’s militarism, post-9/11 foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Iraq saved Latin America, with a Bush attention on Iraq, how Latin America, in country after country, have gone in a very different direction right now?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, I think there has been. I think there have been moments in which the U.S. empire has cast its ambitions more broadly, and whenever they do, they kind of start — they kind of leave Latin America with a little bit of breathing room in order to try to come up with some kind of alternative developmental or political scheme. But what’s interesting is that whenever the United States gets pushed back, it turns back towards Latin America. So when it gets kicked out of Southeast Asia in the 1970s with the defeat in Vietnam and elsewhere, it turns back to Latin America. And that, in some ways, is what Reagan’s Central American policy was about. It was this kind of rehabilitation of hard power, of brutal hard power, and now there’s a projection of that on a global scale.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Grandin, you begin your book with a quote by Mary Shelley, which says, “I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.” Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Why?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, I think there’s a lot of allusions in that quote to U.S. policy in Latin America, the notion of a workshop, a workshop of filthy creation. The title of the book is Empire’s Workshop. Some of the death squads were certainly death squads, and torture rooms were certainly dissecting rooms, along those lines. But then there’s also a certain kind of movement in that quote bringing the work towards completion, and I think that one of the arguments of the book is that this new imperialism is particularly dangerous.

The United States obviously has had horrible — the U.S. policy has had horrible consequences in countries in Latin America for quite a long time now, but I feel — but it seems like we’re at a particularly precarious moment, where the new right coalition, the governing coalition that stands behind George Bush — the secular neo-cons, the Christian new right, the militarists, and the free marketeers — in order to hold that coalition together, the contradictions inherent in that coalition between people who, say, are more libertarian-minded and open to social issues and cultural issues and, say, the evangelical base, the Republican Party has to channel those passions into the foreign policy realm, and that ability to do that, that kind of — through an aggressive foreign policy through national security — has allowed the Republican Party to constitute itself as the governing coalition. And in order to maintain that, I think that there’s a dangerous tendency to constantly deflect those tensions into the foreign policy. And so that quote kind of captures that kind of bringing it towards completion, of certain danger involved.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But yet, despite all of these decades now of this new imperialism and defining this enormous rise in public hope and optimism occurring now, which —- your sense of the direction, because I’m astounded now that the Bush administration is being forced to choose by supporting the moderate socialists in some of these countries -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- like Chile and Brazil, versus the more radical nationalist -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — that you’re finding in other countries. But there doesn’t seem to be that much left in terms of their own preferred kinds of political leaders, except in Colombia with Uribe.

GREG GRANDIN: Except in Colombia and Central America and maybe Mexico. Yes. I mean, certainly if it wasn’t for Chavez and Bolivia — Chaves in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, we would certainly be less tolerant of what Condoleezza Rice likes to call “differences with friends,” so Lula’s opposition to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas or even Chile’s refusal to get behind the war on terror in a significant way certainly would be, I think, less tolerated if it were not for a greater threat.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds. Do you see a renewed U.S. attempt at crackdown on Latin America?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, I see an attempt to remilitarize hemispheric relations in using the language and rhetoric of the war on terror, these different — understand the war on terror in these very broad terms to include not just political militants, but a whole range of illegal criminal activities and lumping them all together as the Pentagon’s objective and role to contain.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you, Greg Grandin, for being with us, professor of Latin American History at New York University. His new book is called Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism.

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