The Empire’s Amnesia

Greg Grandin

When it comes to imperialism, Latin America never forgets, and the United States never remembers.

Empire's Workshop

Illustration by Atolón de Mororoa

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The United States has always had a peculiar relationship with Latin America compared to other parts of the world.

Greg Grandin

It’s the most intimate of relationships, since Latin America is where the United States learned how to build an empire. In some ways the peculiar nature of the relationship goes back even earlier than the Jamestown and Plymouth Bay settlements, to when England was developing its sense of a rights tradition projected against Spanish Catholicism, which it considered backward, obscurantist, and cultlike. The emerging distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism — the first understood as modern, the second as backward — plays out in the competing Anglo and Spanish colonial projects.

At the same time, however, by the American revolutions — the United States in 1776, Spanish America in the early 1800s — Spanish-American republicans broadly share what we now call “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the New World represents a world-rejuvenating force. For example, both Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson believe that the Americas offer the world a chance to start history anew; Bolívar even proposes that Panama should be the seat of a new world government based on republican principles.

But over the course of centuries, as the US expanded west and then moved south, this shared exceptionalism splits into two different directions, for a host of reasons. On the one hand, the countries that are eventually called Latin America come to hold national sovereignty as absolute and to embrace social rights — the idea that the state should create public virtue. In the other direction, the United States comes to be the primary executor of individual rights, especially property rights, and holds to a relativist ideal of sovereignty: basically, that only the responsible individual or polity capable of protecting inherent individual rights is worthy of sovereignty. In this view, public virtue springs from the pursuit of private interest — especially, of course, propertied interest.

To put it as crudely as possible, Latin America is both the source and bearer of social rights. The United States, in contrast, is perhaps the last agent of a pure version of individual rights. It’s a purity that has led to a kind of manic perversion, as the current moment suggests.


Can you talk about the Monroe Doctrine?

Greg Grandin

The Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed in 1823 by President James Monroe, who declared the Americas off limits to European powers. Russia especially was making inroads into the Pacific Northwest (how’s that for deep context?), and Washington feared that Europe would take advantage of Spanish America’s break from Spain to project its power back into the New World. The doctrine was actually supposed to be announced in conjunction with England, but then the United States decided to issue it unilaterally.

Over the years, it has — rightly — come to symbolize US unilateralism, militarism, and interventionism. Monroísmo — juxtaposed against a humanistic Bolivarianismo — is an expletive in Latin America. But there’s another, more complicated reading of the Monroe Doctrine. Spanish-American republics, which had gained their independence right around the time the doctrine was announced, came to have their own interpretation of Monroe’s intent. They saw it as analogous to their own doctrine of uti possidetis, an old Roman legal principle that they used to reject the so-called right of discovery. Basically, where the “right of discovery” held that “unclaimed” or “ungoverned” territory could be colonized, uti possidetis insisted that there was no part of the New World that was unclaimed or that lacked sovereignty.

Initially, Spanish-American republicans believed the Monroe Doctrine to support this position vis-à-vis Europe, arguing that it offered the foundation of a specific form of American multilateralism. The United States, as we know, interpreted things differently, understanding the doctrine in exclusively unilateral terms. At first, American power didn’t match the doctrine’s aspirations, but the United States grew into its role as superpower, retrofitting the Monroe Doctrine to justify serial unilateral interventions from the nineteenth century through to the Cold War and beyond.

In turn, Latin American nationalists began to elaborate a notion of “two Americas,” or “our America,” a holistic, spiritual, communal, “Latin” America, distinct from a utilitarian, sterile, materialist, vulgar, instrumental, and interventionist “Anglo-Saxon” America. After 1898, when the United States seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines and neo-colonized Cuba, the Uruguayan Jose Enrique Rodo wrote the novel Ariel, which analogized Latin America as the diaphanous Ariel and the United States as the grubbing Caliban. In the twentieth century, this cultural critique would sharpen into Marxist and anti-imperialist theory, though the cultural sentiment lasts to this day. The popular norteño band Tigres del Norte has many great songs that tap into this critique, including “Somos Más Americanos,” released, interestingly, the week of September 11, 2001, which immediately hit number one on Latin Billboard.


The forties and fifties are considered a Golden Age for many Latin American countries, when relative political and economic autonomy enabled governments to implement growth models that improved the lives of millions of Latin Americans. What was the geopolitics of the era?

Greg Grandin

The geopolitics was the Cold War. Coming out of World War II, Latin America expected its own Marshall Plan. The region’s nations had rallied behind the United States in the fight against fascism, and by the end of the war Latin America was fully integrated into a hemispheric system dominated by the United States: cultural treaties, economic treaties, political treaties, and so on. Latin American nations were the single largest caucus in the United Nations and strongly supported the United States. So their diplomats and politicians fully expected to be rewarded with something like a Marshall Plan — public credit or capital to use for development.

The United States — Secretary of State George Marshall, in fact — said no, instead laying out a vision that divided up world economic production, with Latin America assigned the role of supplying raw materials.

Lack of public capital was, in a way, the mainspring of postwar polarization and radicalization. In Europe, which had access to public capital and credit, there was less incentive to repress democracy to attract investment, which created a space for a noncommunist social-democratic left.

In Latin America, the need to attract capital required social stability and political quiescence. So by around 1948, the idea that democracy and development were mutually dependent had given way to a different equation: that development required the suppression of democracy, especially since democracy in Latin America entailed labor and peasant mobilization. State and private repression came to see little difference between “communist” and noncommunist mobilization: both were targeted with equal zeal.


Why would that be acceptable in Latin America and not in Europe?

Greg Grandin

The assumption among policy and economic elites was that European industrialization should be encouraged and rebuilt for the world market. There was no sense at all that the postwar order needed an industrialized Latin America.

Nearly immediately after victory, the language of wartime economic “planning” and “cooperation” gave way to the cant of “freedom,” “competition,” and “risk,” used especially to lower the expectations of elites from raw-material-producing regions such as Latin America. For example, in February 1948, the National Foreign Trade Council and the Council for Inter-American Cooperation, two powerful business lobbies, provided a long, detailed report that stressed the need to promote a hemispheric economic diplomacy based on “private risk capital.” Latin American countries needed to create a “healthy investment climate” by forswearing nationalization and guaranteeing private property, low tax rates, and profit repatriation — and, of course, by promising to shut down militant unions, which had become very active in the mid-1940s.

George Marshall largely followed this program after arriving in Bogotá, Colombia, in late March to help found the Organization of American States, lecturing Latin Americans hoping for public loans to “remove barriers to private capital investment.” “The rewards of freedom are economic as well as political,” he said; only such freedom could “give full rein to individual initiative.”


Skipping ahead a few years, the US defeat in Vietnam created an awkward combination of an extreme aversion to boots-on-the-ground military action with a continued desire to achieve American foreign policy goals through force. You’ve argued that the result of this was Latin America, especially Central America, becoming a kind of workshop for the US government, giving it the space to experiment with different ways of doing counterinsurgency war as it tried to get its mojo back.

Greg Grandin

On a very broad level, you could argue that the United States’ engagement with the world has pretty much always run through Latin America. It’s through Latin America that the US political coalitions cohere, where the incoherence of competing interests and ideologies acquire form.

The Monroe Doctrine, for instance, weaved together strains of isolationism and internationalism into a fairly coherent foreign policy; Jacksonian racism forged itself via Spanish America, which it saw as an abolitionist threat; post–Civil War nation-building took place as much in Mexico and the Caribbean as it did in the western United States; Wilsonianism was, to a large degree, a weaponized version of Bolivarianism; the New Deal was saved by Latin America; and the New Right rehearsed its efforts to rehabilitate markets and militarism in Central America. Then, after Latin America’s contribution in helping nascent coalitions achieve coherence, those coalitions went global, in effect hoping to shake off the shackles of regionalism and project power on a world level.

The other half of this argument is that when engagement with the world fails, when economic or military policy enters into crisis, the United States turns back to Latin America, which in this sense serves as a strategic reserve of US power.

Here’s an example of what I mean. After the catastrophe of Vietnam, the New Right turned to Latin America to regroup. Central America in particular became a crucible for the different constituencies and ideologies of the New Right, where contradictions could be reconciled and points of affinity affirmed: secular neocons, the religious anti–Liberation Theology Christians, and the militarists looking for a new covert war. Keep in mind, Washington’s imperial retraction didn’t just take place in Southeast Asia. There were congressional prohibitions about counterinsurgency in Angola and Mozambique. Those insurgencies conti-nued in southern Africa, but they were limited by the late 1970s. So Central America became the place where the New Right could regroup and remoralize American foreign policy — and where theocons could launch their first war on a political religion, liberation theology, before they moved on to political Islam.

This is key. The New Right — the recomposition of markets and militarism — didn’t just project power. It remoralized power. That’s what all that nonsense about the Contras being “freedom fighters” was about.


They’re just like the Founding Fathers.

Greg Grandin



The United States’ military embrace of brutal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency tactics gave way to neoliberalism. What did that process look like?

Greg Grandin

Political terror was a predicate of neoliberalism, in a number of ways. Most obviously, it physically eliminated economic nationalists and suppressed mass movements, pushing the postwar development model into the high gear of crisis. But political violence also transformed political subjectivity.

Classic modernization theory credits the market — the commodification of social relations — with creating the modern self. This premise became, stated or unstated, the foundation of much late Cold War liberalism, which held that a refusal to make peace with the modern world, defined as the “market,” led straight to the gulag. After 9/11, the premise was revised to argue that a refusal to make peace with the modern world, still defined as the market, led straight to jihad (by the way, this is the unstated premise of that silly Vox essay that blamed “left-wing economics” for right-wing populism). The desire to return to a pre-market unity or holism, the argument goes, is really the first step toward totalitarianism.

But in Latin America, it was politics — mass politics — that served as a primary vector of modern individuality. In some of these incredibly exploited, marginal regions — where the power of the landed class was absolute, where patriarchal power was absolute, where forms of coerced, essentially slave labor lasted well into the twentieth century — to become involved in politics was a way of gaining a sense of self, agency, subjectivity, whatever you want to call it. Yet at the same time, this insurgent individuality existed in tandem with solidarity and community, be it through labor unions, peasant leagues, rural communities, Liberation Theology congregations, or other forms of collectivism.

The strength of both the Old and the New Left in Latin America was their harmonization of self and society, of individuality and solidarity. Cold War political terror had the effect of severing this relationship.


The viciousness was required because the existing bonds of solidarity were so strong?

Greg Grandin

Solidarity and individuality were, in a way, harmonized through left politics. Terror violently and traumatically cut the relationship between individualism and solidarity, leaving the individual to a market now called democracy. That becomes the experiential predicate for neoliberalism, the essence of the neoliberal self.

A lot of political theorists of repression — the people who actually executed the repression and understood what they were doing — were very clear about their objective. It was about creating, particularly in Chile — those Chicago boys knew that their version of market democracy required repression to bring about and authoritarianism to maintain — an atomized community of individual consumers. And the way you do that is through all these modalities of terror — disappearances, torture, massacres, forced exile — that are designed to destroy the relationship between solidarity and individuality. That’s the foundation of neoliberalism on a more experiential level.


There’s this tendency to think about the old imperialist behavior of corporations like United Fruit in the first half of the twentieth century — that kind of old imperialism — giving way to a different kind of imperialism led by shadowy forces in the CIA. But obviously, US corporate interests have never dropped out of the picture in Latin America.

Greg Grandin

The changes in the influence of corporations in Latin America and Central America track, more or less, the rhythms of capitalism. From the centralized, vertically integrated extractive corporations; banks; and transportation, power, and communication monopolies that defined US capitalism’s first stage abroad on through to today’s more diversified neoliberalism, the modes of intervention changed according to the circumstances.

At any given moment, with any given coup (the United States executed more than forty successful regime changes in Latin America between 1898 and 1994), you need to look at the whole gamut of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment — State, Commerce, Treasury, Defense, its covert branches, and so forth — and how they articulated with private interest.

At times the interventions were barely disguised plunder, with the US government acting, in Colonel Smedley Butler’s famous description of himself, like a “gangster” for Wall Street in the Caribbean. Other interventions were driven by a more complex set of geopolitical, economic, and ideological interests.

What’s interesting is how, since about the mid-1980s, private agents acting in the name of “democracy promotion” have decentralized the business of destabilization. Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1954 are just the most well-known examples of a “public” or, if you like, “Keynesian” coup — that is, where the destabilization campaign that preceded the downfall of Árbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile was driven largely by a government agency, the CIA. By the time you get to the 1980s, the concentrated subverting function of the CIA was increasingly outsourced.

As Allen Weinstein, a pioneer in “democracy promotion” who helped set up the National Endowment for Democracy, put it back in the 1980s, “a lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA.” What he meant by that was that much of the destabilization of any given campaign can be carried out by “civil society” groups, indirectly funded by the United States, to “train” opponents of targeted governments and to push issues related to human rights or press freedom that create an air of illegitimacy and crisis.

Recent successful and failed coups — Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2005, Honduras in 2009, and so on — have largely been driven by nongovernmental organizations such as the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy. Sociologist William Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy is very good on this, not just on the techniques but on how a restricted “polyarchy” — formally democratic but substantively not so — harmonizes with neoliberal economics.

Of course, there are other, even more indirect ways to force nations to comply. Bi- and multilateral “free trade” treaties have little to do with “free trade.” They are in effect regulatory straitjackets, locking in structural inequality: They enshrine the intellectual property rights of multinationals as sacrosanct, enabling companies to extract rent for the use of patented products, such as drugs or seeds. Perhaps even more interesting, many of these treaties have so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, which give investors the power to sue governments and get cash settlements; the World Bank and United Nations basically allow investors to hire private-sector lawyers to fight any domestic laws that could diminish “expected future profits.”

The acceptance of the ISDS as a legitimate principle in global trade marks a profound shift in the relations between rich and poor countries. The principle behind the ISDS — that corporations have an inherent right to demand compensation for any regulation that might impinge on their “expected future profits” — is the perfect negation of a major principle of the 1970s New International Economic Order (NIEO).

The NIEO argued that the West owes “the Rest” a debt, which could be paid for by socializing intellectual property rights, nationalizations, and so on. In the early 1970s, Chile under Allende extended the principle further, insisted that it had the right not only to nationalize foreign property but also to deduct past “excess profit” from compensation for that property, calculated as anything above 12 percent of a company’s value. Under this principle, Allende not only seized the operations of the Anaconda and Kennecott mining companies but, once the numbers were added up, handed them overdue bills for even more money to compensate for “excess profit.”

Allende’s demand was a turning point. Whereas the United States had previously grudgingly accepted the right of countries to expropriate and nationalize, this was a step too far. Nixon freaked out. It was a profound moment. Socialism was on the horizon of the possible, and the principle of “excess profit” was seen as a way for exploited countries to, in Allende’s words, “correct historic wrongs.”

Today, forget nationalization, much less socialism. ISDS mechanisms turn the idea of historic exploitation on its head. The only value is in the future, and only those corporations who have the power to call it forth have the right to claim it, and any government that stands in the way of that right has to compensate.


Americans have a pretty big blind spot when it comes to the role of the United States in shaping the everyday lives of Latin Americans, despite the fact that America has played this shaping role in the region for hundreds of years. What do you think this blind spot comes from?

Greg Grandin

Latin Americans never forget, and the US never remembers — an imperial amnesia that is an expression of imperial power.

Dipesh Chakrabarty once described Europe as “hyperreal,” in that the region is overdeveloped in the imagination, it’s overactive in the political imagination; you can’t talk about intellectual history or world history without talking about Europe. Latin America is hypo-real; it’s underimagined, underthought.

And it’s not just our popular narratives that don’t consider the keystone role Latin America has played in US state formation, power projection, and national identity. Intellectuals, too, seem unable to process Latin America.

Over the last couple of years there’s been in a resurgence in what’s known as “new intellectual history,” which mostly looks at Europe and its relationship with the decolonizing world for the origins of the political categories or ideals that govern modern diplomacy: sovereignty, solidarity, nationalism, nonaggression, social rights, human rights, individual rights, and so on. But these books, almost to a one, ignore Latin America.

In a way, Latin America is “unthinkable” in much the sense that Michel-Rolph Trouillot described the Haitian Revolution. Just as the Haitian fight to end slavery and establish the second republic in the Americas was excluded, until recently, from studies of the Age of Revolution, Latin America too seems to be intellectually indigestible. Like Haiti, the region represents the promises, failures, contradictions, and hypocrisies of the Enlightenment — the radical Enlightenment, in fact — in almost too vivid terms, so it’s ignored.


Thinking about the Pink Tide, it’s been broadly described as a political response to the damage that was wrought by decades of covert wars followed upon by devastating neoliberal reform.

Greg Grandin

The complete failure of the Washington Consensus as an economic strategy is one of the things that led to the return of the developmentalist left. Mark Weisbrot, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has produced a number of detailed papers documenting the scale of neoliberalism’s failure.

What came after took a different shape in different countries. In some countries, the political structures and economic structures remained intact — Brazil and Chile, for example. Other countries — Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela — witnessed the complete collapse of the old order, resulting in a power vacuum filled by the populist, more con-frontational movements. The main variable as to what kind of Left emerged from the wreck was: to what degree did the Washington Consensus destroy the old order or just render it intolerable?

Venezuela is key. The fight over Venezuelan oil and the attempt to repoliticize energy extraction on behalf of a developmentalist left project was central. To understand why, we need to look again at the 1970s. In 1974, the UN General Assembly had adopted the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, a founding document of the New International Economic Order, which included the right to nationalize industries and to bargain collectively to fix the price of basic commodities, a global tariff structure to support poor countries, and a transfer of technology and scientific knowledge from most developed to least developed nations.

The NIEO was a worldwide phenomenon, a product of decolonization, and the high point of the Non-Aligned Movement. But one of its main sources was Bolivarianism — the idea that political sovereignty is meaningless without economic sovereignty. Mexico, in 1917, was the first country in the world to adopt the constitutional principle that absolute sovereignty over natural resources belongs to the state, a principle soon adopted by Venezuela and then accepted as legitimate by the United Nations in 1962.

Venezuela was also an influential founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) in 1960, and many of its oil diplomats went on to be key architects of the NIEO. OPEC was contradictory. It was both a result of the NIEO and its weak point, splitting the tenuous unity of the Third World into two tiers: oil exporters and oil importers.

A central demand of NIEO reformers, therefore, was to socialize petrodollars, to use them to capitalize a public bank that would help the vast majority of non-oil-producing nations subsidize their energy needs and buffer the price fluctuations of other commodities. Middle Eastern oil producers weren’t eager to do this. Saudi Arabia and prerevolutionary Iran paid lip service to the NIEO but didn’t back it up with petroleum power. They neither allowed their prized commodity to be used to shore up the price of other natural resources nor permitted the creation of a petroleum-capitalized public bank.

This was the death knell of the NIEO. With every dollar rise in the price of oil, oil-importing countries had to borrow that much more to meet their energy needs. With every petrodollar placed in New York, London, and Bonn banks, the value of US currency increased, and with it the value of the dollar-denominated debt poor countries owed to those banks. Henry Kissinger, by the way, was key in creating the mechanisms that recycled petrodollars through private channels, in effect laying the groundwork for the shift to neoliberalism.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that to understand Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, it is important to realize that he was, with all his various parallel projects — Bank of the South, ALBA, Petrocaribe, UNASUR — in effect trying to resurrect the original promise of a petroleum-funded NIEO.

Chávez was successful, for a time. When he took office in 1999, OPEC was practically moribund and Venezuela was on the point of pulling out. It wouldn’t be giving Chávez too much credit to say his government presided over the resurrection of OPEC and the repoliticization of oil. Petroleum prices skyrocketed, and even non-OPEC countries such as Mexico began to act in coordination with OPEC.

But, in retrospect, it was unsustainable. The natural-gas revolution, as well as the US Department of State led by Hillary Clinton, began to fracture the unity of petroleum exporting countries. Clinton pushed for the privatization of Mexican oil, which is now under way, as well as the transformation of Central America into one big biofuel plantation. When Chávez died in 2013, global oil prices, as if released from some unseen obligation, collapsed. And now so has Venezuela.


Can you talk about other examples outside of Venezuela?

Greg Grandin

There was a beautiful moment less than a decade ago — around, say, 2008 — at the crest of the region’s Pink Tide, when Latin America was governed by representatives of each of its historic left-wing traditions. They were all on display, like a diorama of Latin America’s twentieth-century left: a trade unionist in Brazil, a liberation theologian in Paraguay, a Peronist in Argentina, a Keynesian economist in Ecuador, a feminist medical doctor in Chile, a (former) urban guerrilla Marxist in Uruguay, an indigenous-rights peasant activist in Bolivia (whose mentor was a Trotskyist miner), a nationalist in Honduras, and a military left populist in Venezuela. Nearly the full left spectrum, especially if we include Cuban Communism.

Key to whatever success this coalition achieved was the relationship between Brazil and Venezuela. Chávez talked about how he was completely alone when he was elected in 1998 and inaugurated in 1999, that it wasn’t until Lula’s election in 2002 and then Néstor Kirchner’s election in Argentina a little bit later that he finally felt he had some allies — particularly the relationship between Brazil and Venezuela, which supposedly represented opposing poles on this left spectrum. But it was exactly that kind of good-cop, bad-cop thing Chávez and Lula had going on that gave a kind of ballast and energy to the whole left project.

Brazil was central. Without Brazil, the United States’ “free trade” project was untenable. And for the rising Latin American left, Brazil, as an economic superpower, could serve as a center of gravity for a political and economic project outside of Washington’s control. It’s hard to believe, since things have turned around so quickly with the collapse of the Workers’ Party (PT) and parliamentary coup, but a while ago Brazil seemed to be a kind of ascendant regional hegemon, able to wed its ideals to its interests and serve as a counterpoint to the United States.

It was really remarkable what the Left managed to do in that decade. They pushed back on Bush’s attempt to remobilize the region in the War on Terror, expand the Patriot Act across the hemisphere, and politicize security forces. They pushed back and derailed the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and managed to implement economic policies that lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. It was a good run.


Obama seemed to have little interest in Latin America, although at the end of his presidency he did make a move to improve relations with Cuba. Where does his administration sit in the long arc of US–Latin American relations?

Greg Grandin

Obama’s was a transitional presidency in terms of Latin America.

The effects of the Obama administration on Latin America were more quiet and subterranean, perhaps, than those of past interventionist presidents. As I mentioned, Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as Secretary of State, was very instrumental in building energy alternatives to Venezuela, including the privatization of the Mexican oil industry.

The Obama administration basically bided its time and waited for internal opposition to emerge, putting its thumb on the scale at key moments. When South America demanded the restoration of democratic rule in Paraguay in 2012 after Fernando Lugo was ousted, the United States stayed quiet and legitimated the coup. Same thing in Honduras in 2009, and in Brazil more recently.


In the 2010 afterword to Empire’s Workshop, you quote Fidel Castro saying that before Obama was finished as president there would be six to eight rightist governments in Latin America. That seems pretty prescient, in light of what’s happened in Brazil and Argentina and elsewhere.

Greg Grandin

I had forgotten that quotation. Fidel always did have his eye on the ten-year plan.


In the 1990s and 2000s, after the Zapatista uprising and right before or during when many Pink Tide governments were coming to power, there was this ongoing conversation on the Left about eschewing the electoral route and focusing exclusively on building social movements. The “changing the world without taking power” kind of thing versus pursuing state power. Now that the Pink Tide is receding, is it worth revisiting the debate over of the limitations of the electoral route?

Greg Grandin

I hope not. Many of those debates, which emerged after the historic defeat of the New Left, centered on a kind of moral positioning of heterogeneity or marginality. In the wake of the Sandinistas’ loss at the polls and the discrediting of the Cuban Revolution for its authoritarianism, scholars began to celebrate “new social movements” for mobilizing around culture, community, sexual, and gender identities and interests and for moving away from class analysis and an obsessive focus on the state and economic development.

The problem with many of these analyses, however, was that they underestimated how diverse the old class-based Left was on the ground. It was often much more varied and vibrant than its rhetoric or tactics suggested. Despite a failure to incorporate culture, race, or sexual identity into their visions of progress, left political parties, labor organizations, and insurgencies — in Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, and Peru, to name a few — drew significant support from rural, often indigenous communities.

As to the goal of taking state power, a focus on national economic development and pushing for economic justice and social rights provided the leverage that allowed marginal groups to press their interests, and class politics became the venue from which other forms of politics, identities, and experiences emerged.

For a more current example of what I’m talking about, look at Honduras’s recent “populist,” Manuel Zelaya, overthrown in a US-legitimated coup in 2009. Zelaya was as “brocialist” as they come. He was a patriarchal son of a patriarchal rural rancher who, for a variety of reasons, moved left once he was elected president in late 2005 as a way out of the political and economic impasse in which Honduras had long been trapped.

Presumably his motivations were little more than mild, progressive nationalism; his focus, at first, was nearly exclusively economic, trying to negotiate better deals with oil importers, raise the minimum wage, and so on. But in doing so, he came to align with and thus empower a broad, diverse social movement coalition that included rural peasants fighting biofuel plantations, advocates for street children, Honduras’s LBGTqI community, and reproductive-rights activists. By the time he was ousted, he had apologized to the victims of a ruthless urban “social cleansing” campaign carried out by his law-and-order predecessor, tried to legalize the morning-after pill, and regulated biofuels.

I think you saw the same process happening in other countries, such as Venezuela and Brazil, where old-school bids to take state power and preside over a standard development-distribution project provided the space for what had been a covert or subterranean heterodoxy to emerge.

Of course, there are plenty of opposing examples in Latin America where social movements didn’t “intersect” and articulate in the bid to win the state. Outgoing Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, who — considering the chronic instability that preceded him — presided over a successful development project, has been an outspoken opponent of abortion. The rump Sandinistas, in order to win back power, entered into a devilish alliance with the most reactionary sectors of the Catholic Church, criminalizing abortion. El Salvador has the most punitive abortion regime on the planet (check out Rachel Nolan’s excellent essay on this), which at least some sectors of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) have gone along with.

In other areas, in parts of Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Uruguay, where a politics demanding recognition of sexual rights had advanced, you see the right wing a bit disoriented on how to respond: do they embrace, as much as they can, those demands and “modernize” their neoliberalism? Or do they use the increasing visibility of LGBT activism as a wedge issue?

In any case, Latin America has a strong state-centric political culture, going back to some of the themes discussed above, and I suspect that despite recent setbacks it will continue to be so. It’s remarkable, really — if any region could legitimately dismiss the state as a blunt, steadfast instrument of class terror, it is Latin America, considering the repression unleashed from the sixties through the eighties. But my sense is that politics still assumes the state as a site of contestation and ideological struggle, of hegemony and counterhegemony, and will continue to do so.

I see one bright spot in what is otherwise a pretty depressing moment: from the forties through say the sixties workers and peasants were more vertically integrated into nationalist or socialist, or developmentalist projects. That made those projects very rigid and vulnerable; when the party or the leader failed, turned, or was overthrown, the whole thing collapsed. The “pink tide” of the 1990s and 2000s rested on a more flexible model in which a diverse set of social movements were linked to national parties and leaders not so much vertically, like pylons, but horizontally, buoying the movement for a more just distribution of political and economic resources.

We are seeing one national project after another being defeated, especially in the critical countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, but hopefully the social movements that powered those projects will endure and be better positioned for the next round. Maybe.

Anyway, to return to the example in your question, for all the celebration of Zapatista separatist syndicalism, their very first declaration called on all Mexicans to join them to “advance to the capital of the country . . . to form a government of our country that is free and democratic,” a government which would provide “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.”

Sounds pretty Leninist to me. Though they adapted pretty quickly to that not happening, turning necessity into the virtue of anarcho-purity. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Zapatistas. I’m ecumenical in my appreciation of what the Left, broadly defined, has managed to achieve in Latin America. But I’m pretty sure that if the Zapatistas could have the state, they’d take the state.


Does it make sense to understand US–Latin American relations today as imperialist? If not, what’s the best way to describe them?

Greg Grandin

I try to avoid those debates. It is what it is.