May 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Call of Duty: Empire’s Workshop

The video game Call of Duty: Black Ops begins with a mission in Havana, Cuba, a fictitious part of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The player's first objective is to kill Castro. When one finds Castro, he’s hosting a woman in a nightgown, who in the flick of his wrist, he turns into his hostage. But don’t worry -- you can shoot him through her. Sure, parents may complain about the video game Call of Duty 3´s bloody Cold War skirmishes, but had they read Greg Grandin's Empire´s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of New Imperialism, they'd know it pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of people murdered, tortured, and raped in similar clandestine operations. Grandin’s provocative book is more than just a history of US foreign policy of Latin America (although it is that too); Grandin makes a very convincing case that Latin America has been the testing grounds for foreign policies that would be later enforced in other parts of the world: from the 18th century right up through today’s “Obama doctrine.”

I should say that while reading this book, the Arab world erupted in protest. Sycophantic, tyrannical leaders who the US had unapologetically supported for years were suddenly being assailed by mobs of angry protesters. Something similar might have occurred in Latin America, had the Cold War not ended. As it was once anything but communism, it became anything but Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, the Roosevelt’s infamous quote -- “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” (said of Nicaragua's iron-fisted Anastasio Somoza) -- could easily apply to the Middle Eastern leaders that now face the wrath of disenfranchised masses.

Latin America too was often thought of by Washington as naturally backwards and sexist. This cultural relativism, or discreet racism if you like, deemed these countries as caudillo-hungry. These people respect machismo and solipsism, goes this line of thought. Underneath it, Grandin argues, lies thinly-veiled racist beliefs that actually stem from within the United States. The troops that invaded the Philippines and the Caribbean were experienced in “policing” actions, like Andrew Jackson’s initiatives to push Native Americans off their land, as well as the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. General Ivan Miller, who participated in the US invasion of Haiti, writes, “You have to remember that what we consider brutality among people in the United States is different from what they consider brutality.” For anyone who lived through Vietnam, Gulf War I, Gulf War II, or the Afghanistan War, this will sound familiar.  

But the bullish face of American foreign policy is old hat, really, and this brutal fact of daily American life is often accepted with all the guilt of, say, running the dishwasher during a drought. Many as well have accepted that these aggressive US foreign policies are rooted in corporate interests. I guess what is surprising is for just how long this has been going on. There’s the alliance of Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan to pull Panama from a warring Colombia, with plans to convert it into an international trade hub (that would later become SOCOM's southern military headquarters). And there’s the time William Rockefeller of Standard Oil finagled the government to send warships sent to Rio de Janeiro. But what of incidents? Let´s talk trends: in the first three decades of the 20th century, US troops invaded the Caribbean “at least thirty-four times.”

This sounds so strange today, when the Caribbean, alongside its sister Central America, hardly seems hostile. Today, they are synonymous with beaches, poverty, and heavily spiced food. They are millions of migrants and sons of immigrants. They were once, however, the playground for political ideas and ventures. It's kind of amazing that in three decades, the government went from justifying complicated and expensive invasions of these places to utterly ignoring them. Cold War slogans related to those tiny countries sound like they come from some alternative history now. Grandin shows how many of the same structures, in addition to individuals, would persist from the Cold War through George W. Bush’s administration. For example, John Singlaub’s nongovernmental organizations that used to fight the Evil Empire in Central America (i.e, “Civilian Military Assistance Group GeoMiliTech”) were the precursors to the prevalent military contractors used later in Iraq.

Fast forward 20, 30, 40 years from the Monroe Doctrine, and Washington gets progressively more aggressive. Nixon’s reaction to the socialist president Salvador Allende’s fair election in Chile -- “That son of a bitch, that son of a bitch” -- is not that far from Teddy Roosevelt’s realpolitik line of reasoning. In fact, compare Latin America in the '70s and the Middle East today, or ten years ago, and the similarities become obvious. Since then, Latin America has experienced a relatively calm existence since the “magic eagle” -- as the poet Rubén Dario referred to it -- has found new dangers in other parts of the world.

As we entered the 21st century, economic policy became the new tool of influence. The almighty dollar ruined markets in Mexico, Argentina, and other countries that -- thanks to certain cudgeling by the US -- adopted the greenback as their own. Brazil was one of the few economic giants that resisted the appeal, and therefore did better during periods of recessions, relying largely on the government ownership that still controlled 40 percent of the economy. However, the great economic success story in Latin America is Chile. Thanks to the funneling of millions of dollars, in tandem with Pinochet’s nationalist-leaning economic policies, the country of eight million was able to stay afloat, while other countries dealt with the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. But it's not all pisco and cream. Grandin points out: “After a decade of... growth, in 2002, three million Chileans -- one in five -- were living in poverty, with 83 percent of the population report that their lot had not improved under democratic rule.”

Grandin’s book was, and is (it was first released five years ago), significant not only in its description of an often-overlooked aspect of US foreign policy, that has managed to justify a nearly constant state of war for the last hundred years, but also as a critical indictment of American imperialism.

At times I felt so convinced by the book, so emotionally jostled even, that I began to think I was being duped. Better be critical, I thought. So as this sort of essay catharsis washed over me, I turned back looking for some rocks to turn over. There were a few points I thought could have used some more evidence, like when Grandin claims that the neoliberal movement of the '90s -- who supported “laissez-faire absolutism” -- became popular out of fear of retribution from Washington. It could also be argued that much of the grouping of these very different countries together is suspect.

In this updated version, the last chapter of the book focuses on President Obama. Grandin points out how Obama has hardly changed his position of any issues that matter in Latin America, namely drug trafficking and the free trade agreement -- policies that directly and drastically affect the lives of everyone below the Rio Grande. Nor has Obama done anything to side with South American leaders like Lula, Fernández, Chávez, Morales, or Correa (of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, respectively). I should add that Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have all tossed out their American ambassadors; we might expect similar tactics from Peruvian candidate Ollanta Humala, who appears will win in the second round of elections in June.

You could say that in losing, the left has won. While politics seems to have returned to the left, at least rhetorically, in Latin America, literature has looked the other way. Much of the literature of the turbulent '60s and '70s is left in literary limbo. Where does say the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton fit in today?

Son of an American bank robber -- who essentially ran away with the loot, only to reinvest in coffee in Central America -- and a not-so-wealthy Salvadoran nurse, Roque no doubt found the ironies and contradiction inherent in dialectical materialism delectable. He quickly became the black sheep of the privileged school he attended; sought escape, perhaps, in choosing to study in the far off Universidad de Santiago; and from there would attend the famous Moscow Youth Festival, shortly before the Cuban Revolution. After a few years in Castro’s Cuba, he was jailed upon his return to El Salvador -- rumor has it, sentenced to death before a coup d’etat saved him. Then he left for Prague. Ernesto Cardenal’s essay about him recalls Dalton’s visit to Cortázar in Paris, whose first wife told Cardenal that Dalton had the demeanor of someone sure to die.

Like Guatarri and Deleuze's Anti-Oedipus, you can’t help but feel that to really get Tavern and Other Places, one of the books anthologized in Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, you should have been alive and cognizant in 1968. Dalton was there, right in one the centers of action, Prague, just in time for the uprising that would challenge the stubborn remnants of Stalin.

Octavio Paz wrote the history of modern poetry is a history of oscillations between two extremes: the revolutionary and the religious. Some -- for example the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal -- exemplify this quite literally. Dalton embodies this as a martyr. Dalton was killed before the bloodiest and more brutal part of the Salvadoran civil war began in the 1980s, when the US co-opted paramilitary squads, and the evangelical Efraín Ríos Montt orchestrated massive killings of peasants (as discussed in Empire’s Workshop).

When he was killed, however, it was actually by a leftist group he helped create, the ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo). It was a senseless death, of the worst kind. Posthumously, many of Dalton’s suggestions -- uniting students, labor and armed revolutionaries, for example -- were the basis of ERP policies.

Dalton’s poems have stayed, and some have not only aged well, but also read well in English. Although I think some of these poems can stand on their on, most do best within the context of his life, and are best read as a long series of epitaphs:

When you know I'm dead, say other words.
Say flower, bee, teardrop, bread, storm.

Don't let your lips find my eleven letters.
I'm sleepy, I've loved, I've earned silence.


but for the sake of truth
but for the sake of truth

Come to think of it, I’m not sure if they belong on Dalton’s tomb or on that of his epoch.