Notes about Greg 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idea, widely held in different forms at the end of World War II, that freedom and equality are mutually fulfilling has been replaced by a more vigilant definition, one that stresses personal liberties and free markets and sees any attempt to achieve social equality as leading to at best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.


Cross-posted at Ethnografix

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Comment by ryan anderson on March 14, 2011 at 5:33pm

Thanks for the comment Keith.  The more I read about the histories of Latin America and the US policies during that time, the more these contradictions keep cropping up.  And these issues are not specific to Latin America, let alone the US.


You can't have a democracy where corporations and the rich bring grossly disparate economic resources to politics or when individuals can get locked up or worse at a dictator's whim. So somehow the two have to be reconciled in quite complex ways.

This is something that I always find amazing about the whole "free-market" argument--it's so one-sided.  Granted, states certainly have the ability to monopolize power and devolve into corrupt entities...but so does the private sector.  It amazes me that people buy into the idea that the private sector can simply be managed by the free hand of the market.  I mean, people really seem to think this makes sense, and they often attribute this to Adam Smith, even if people like Amartya Sen (and the late Alison Snow Jones aka Maxine Udall argued quite forcefully to the contrary).  So ya, I agree that there needs to be a balance, or a reconciliation between freedome and equality.  Didn't Polanyi make that argument as well (that freedom can also lead to the freedom to exploit)?


This is a pressing topic for anthropologists, but let's not fall into the old habit of America-bashing as a way into it.


I agree that it's an important issue for anthros to address, and I also agree that it's critical to avoid making this about US-bashing.  Because there are plenty of other cases around the world.  I suppose I happen to get a little stuck on the US mostly because I am constantly amazed at how well my public school education elided certain social and political histories (like US involvement in Latin America, treatment of Native Americans, etc). 


Thanks again for the comment!



Comment by Keith Hart on March 13, 2011 at 6:06pm

Since I believe that anthropology was born as an intellectual midwife of democratic revolution in the eighteenth century and must play a similar role in this one, I can only applaud your decision to air this topic, Ryan. Obviously the US's role in its own backyard and at home is crucial evidence for any discussion of democracy. For all the inequality and violence, I would still make a case that people power is more reliably instituted there than anywhere else on our planet. But I realise this is contentious. And I would like to encourage a discussion that is global and pays attention to equality as well as freedom. For it seems clear to me that in some form democracy is indispensable to making a better world for humanity.

What did we learn from the twentieth century? That unconstrained markets in the name of individual freedom generate huge inequality and that bureaucracy can justify unlimited coercion in the name of equality. Both are inimical to democracy because they ignore one side of the freedom and equality pair. You can't have a democracy where corporations and the rich bring grossly disparate economic resources to politics or when individuals can get locked up or worse at a dictator's whim. So somehow the two have to be reconciled in quite complex ways.

Europe (with its unaccountable EU bureaucracy and the likes of Berloscuni allowed to get away with it) or China (with its politburo and massive commercialized army) do not compare favourably as democracies with the US. Lula's miracle in Brazil was to persuade the middle classes that letting some wealth be redistributed to the poor is better than relying on the army to crack heads when necessary. India is the world's largest democracy, but man, take a look at the rural-urban gap there, even if the myth of India as the most unequal society in the world was a British colonial invention. South Africa has become more economically unequal since the end of apartheid! Putin's Russia is a disgrace. And so on.

This is a pressing topic for anthropologists, but let's not fall into the old habit of America-bashing as a way into it. It is a fact that the most vocal and systematic opponents of US excesses are Americans like you, Ryan!



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