Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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A Review of Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)


The violence inflicted in the early 1980s on highland Guatemala appears anomalous even by the bloody standards of Latin America's twentieth-century military regimes. First, the scale of the repression was unparalleled: in less than five years at least 130,000 were killed in the army's "scorched earth" campaign (in the thirty-four year civil war as a whole, over 200,000 died); more than a million people were driven from their homes; 300,000 children were orphaned. By contrast, around 3,000 died in Pinochet's Chile, 30,000 in Argentina's dirty war of the 1970s and 80s. Second, the state's response was utterly disproportionate: unlike in El Salvador, where the army and the FMLN were locked in military stalemate, Guatemala's Truth Commission reports that "at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerrilla groups have the military potential necessary to pose an imminent threat to the State." No wonder this violence against an overwhelmingly indigenous highland population is described as genocide. No wonder, too, as Greg Grandin points out in The Last Colonial Massacre, "the Guatemalan civil war in all of its cruelty could understandably be considered history in extremis--singular in its viciousness and devastation" (4).

Yet Grandin's argument is that Guatemala offers us Latin American history in microcosm. If anything, it provides a model later followed elsewhere: its 1944-1954 democratic opening under Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz was one of the continent's most prolonged experiments in social liberalism and economic reform; the 1954 coup that brought down Arbenz was the CIA's first intervention in the region; and it was in Guatemala that, under US guidance, counter-insurgency techniques were introduced and perfected, and the strategy of political disappearances" pioneered. If the rest of Latin America is not quite like Guatemala, it is less that Guatemala is an aberration, and more that a copy is never quite as vivid as an original. And hence the 1980s genocide was no anomaly, but "emblematic of the power of the Cold war" (3). Grandin proposes to read the history of the Cold War, of the Latin American left, and also of the region's modernization and of the clash between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment thinking, through this Guatemalan emblem. More specifically still, Grandin undertakes this reading through a series of life narratives rooted in the Polochic Valley of remote Alta Verapaz. Grandin recounts the stories of José Angel Icó in San Pedro Carchá, of his great-nephew Alfredo Cucul, of Efraín Reyes in Cahabón, and of Adelina Caal in Panzós. These lives were always, Grandin argues, infused with the dreams, desires, and politics of Communism and anti-Communism, national development and international solidarity, as much as they were concerned with local grievances, rivalries, rumors and gossip in a corner of the rural highlands somewhere near the Mexican border.

Grandin shows how social movements such as the Guatemalan Communist Party, and individual leaders such as Icó, Cucul, Reyes, and Caal, availed themselves both of local hierarchies and of changes in those hierarchies caused by a modernizing and expanding state, to pursue grievances, make inroads on the power of private landowners, and forge a sense of both self and community. In some ways Grandin's book is a lament for this "old left" that would later be decimated by the repression that started in the 1960s and reached its bloody culmination in the 1980s. It is also, however, a lament for the liberal state with which that old left wrestled. For even the dictatorial state of Jorge Ubico, overthrown by the 1944 revolution, had conveyed the promise of modernity, and so raised expectations of remedies for the injustices of feudalism and peonage. Grandin suggests therefore that Arbenz's democratic revolution was ironically as much a fulfillment of Ubico's dictatorship as its simple negation. By contrast, today's neoliberal state, ushered in by the counter-revolution of Cold War terror, has uncoupled modernization from promises of welfare, and self from any concept of solidarity. The version of democracy promoted by the state today is a hollow shell.

Yet, in a further irony, the counter-insurgency state only succeeded in defeating the left (both the old left and the guerrilla movements) by implementing many of its demands. The repressive state did, for instance, effectively break up the feudal power of the large landowners. "In this sense," Grandin argues, "government repression was both a backlash against the ongoing legacy of the [1944] Revolution and the revolution's perverse realization" (131). Hence "many of the reforms the left long struggled for were achieved not through victory but through defeat" (132). Even the notorious civil patrols of the 1980s mimicked the forms of guerrilla organization and provided means by which indigenous peasants could "loosen local Ladino control of politics" and make new claims on the state (132). If the Guatemalan Communist Party was indeed "overtaken by history" once it ran out of the negotiating space its popular front politics required (91), this was in part because it had shown the way that history was to follow. The counter-revolution was in fact, in Paulo Virno's terms, a revolution in reverse: not a return to some ancien régime but a real revolution, if not on the terms of those who had first demanded social change.

Unfortunately, like many of his informants--Cucul, now an evangelical Christian "disgusted with the world of men" (47) or Reyes with his "ossified" Marxism" (107)--Grandin has little to offer faced with the neoliberal state, beyond nostalgia for the old left and its liberal adversary. He shows little sympathy for the guerrilla embrace of armed struggle, or for the ethnic particularism elaborated in the late 1970s in the aftermath of the Panzós massacre that gives his book its title. Indeed, this title is misleading: the incident in which Adelina Caal and at least 34 others died was in fact the first modern massacre interpreted in the culturalist terms of an ongoing colonialism. But Grandin's narrative does not lend itself to explanations in terms of pan-Mayan indigenism: the individuals and communities he studies were all both hybrid and ambivalent, believers in modernity while making use of resources offered by tradition. In the end, however, Grandin (unlike Cucul or Reyes) is no longer a believer. He has told a story not of colonialism, nor really of the Cold War, but of the expansion of state sovereignty until it has now subsumed society as a whole. Sometimes that expansion was encouraged or called forth by social struggle, but that struggle was left by the wayside. Ultimately the impression Grandin provides is of a process without a subject, and of the neoliberal terror state, anticipated by emblematic Guatemala in the 1960s, as an inevitable if depressingly hollow finality for us all.




University of British Columbia

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