March 4, 2011

Notes about Grandin's "The Last Colonial Massacre"

There is one overarching theme that crops up in these readings that I can’t stop thinking about: democracy. I have read several histories and ethnographies that talk about US interventions and policies in Latin America, and the stories are usually pretty similar. This book by Greg Grandin provides more of the same: the US took a position on Guatemala that was completely anti-democratic, all in the name of democracy.

Grandin writes about this reinterpretation of democracy toward the end of his book: “the idea, widely held in different forms at the end of World War II, that freedom and equality are mutually fulfilling has been replaced by a more vigilant definition, one that stresses personal liberties and free markets and sees any attempt to achieve social equality as leading to at best declining productivity and at worst political turmoil” (197). This new definition of democracy obviously fits with certain political and economic needs, and defines freedom in terms of “efficient” or open markets. Actual social reform or democracy becomes problematic, because the right or will of particular populations may, in fact, be economically or politically inconvenient for certain government elites or interested outsiders.

My argument here isn’t meant to lionize the political left in Latin America, since the histories of Cuba (to name one) illustrate quite clearly that the socialists are by no means saints either. As Grandin shows throughout his book, the actual histories of violence in the communities of Guatemala are quite complex, contradictory, and difficult to assess. What I am talking about are the relationships between ideals (freedom, democracy, liberty), discourse, and actual political interventions. It’s ridiculously ironic how the US claims to be the global supporter of democracy and freedom, despite it’s less than stellar track record in Latin America, where supporting autocratic regimes was the norm for decades (this helps to explain why so many Latin American nations have a certain ambivalence toward the US).

In effect, US rhetoric about democracy has been incredibly hypocritical and self-serving. Basically, political freedom and prosperity in the US (and elsewhere in the west) has often hinged upon repression elsewhere (Latin America, the Middle East, etc). As Grandin writes, “The way the United States fought the Cold War on the ground was anything but liberal or democratic” (190). Even worse, these histories of intervention remain, in large part, out of public knowledge in the US. Every time I decide to talk about the histories of Guatemala in an intro course, it’s amazing how many students say they had absolutely no idea what happened. These histories are generally taught as being all about eliminating the anti-communist threat, and all of the details of the actual complexities of the events, the details of the real human lives that were lost, are completely obliterated. And today we have a population who thinks that US interventions in Latin America were all about justice, when they were more about serving particular economic and political interests. If that’s not an illustration of hegemonic ideological power, I don’t know what is.

To top all of this off, Grandin provides an example of how the US justified its actions in Guatemala. In a 1986 “retrospective survey” of the violence and war that plagued Guatemala for decades, the US State Department writes, “The explanation for Guatemala’s high level of violence probably is rooted in cultural and sociological factors unique to Guatemala … The use of violence to settle disputes of almost any nature is accepted in Guatemala’s indigenous culture” (100). Not only did the US make excuses for the Guatemalan government and provide material support, it also completely explained away all political factors by using a watered-down, twisted concept of culture to argue that all of the violence was ultimately part of the inherent nature of the Guatemalan people themselves.

This is Exhibit A for the ways in which the anthropological concept of “culture” can be used in incredibly insidious ways to justify pretty much anything. It’s also a good reason for anthropologists to remain actively engaged and vigilant in national and international debates about the histories of development and violence in Latin America to avoid the myopic, Ronald Reagan-esque black and white terms in which many pundits, politicians, and analysts still talk about these issues (Gunder Frank’s analytical arguments, while imperfect, were part of a strong reaction to depoliticized explanations about development and conflict in the “Third World”). Despite the best efforts of many US historians and politicians, Grandin illustrates the fact that democracy can take some very different forms, and while particular governments may not be convenient for the US and other western nations, actively allowing them to be crushed has only resulted in repeated histories of devastation. At some point, it seems the US would learn to actually side with popular democratic movements. But then, maybe the US has already decided which side it wants to take, and the idealists who actually hold onto particular notions about governance and freedom just haven’t figured that out yet.


Grandin, Greg. 2004. The Last Colonial Massacre. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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