The Empire’s Workshop: An Interview with Greg Grandin

Grandin ©JB

"It was in Central America and Latin America more broadly, where an insurgent New Right first coalesced."   

Once in a very long while one picks up a book that weaves several divergent threads into a clear but multihued view of reality.  Such is the case with NYU Professor Greg Grandin’s recent book, The Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.  

Grandin’s main thesis is that for more than a century, the "U.S.’s backyard" — Latin America — has served as a testing ground for the experimentation and development of those military, economic and diplomatic policies essential for the U.S.’s rise to its present global superpower status. Grandin places special emphasis on the Central American "low intensity" wars of the 1980s, "where the Republican Party first combined the three elements that give today’s imperialism its moral force: punitive idealism, free- market absolutism, and right-wing Christian mobilization." 

Upside Down World’s contributing author Jeremy Bigwood recently interviewed Grandin about his book and his ideas about what the future holds for Latin America. 

JB:   What events inspired you to write "The Empire’s Workshop"? 

GG: The idea for the book came when a couple of colleagues here at NYU organized some teach-ins and talks on the invasion and eventual occupation of Iraq. One of the things I focused on was the kind of curious mix of realism and militarism and "idealism" – for lack of a better word – that was coming out of the Bush administration and its neocon policy intellectuals.  It seemed to be unique for the Republican Party to justify militarism in such idealistic terms – "bringing democracy to the world."   

Then I realized that this wasn’t actually unique for the Republicans – it was very familiar for anybody who had worked on Latin America, particularly Central America.  I was reminded of Reagan’s elevation of the Contras – the Nicaraguan anticommunist paramilitaries – and how he elevated them to the moral equivalents of the U.S. founding fathers and began to justify the patronage of these killers in terms of keeping faith with America’s revolutionary heritage.  

From there, my thesis expanded to thinking more about how Reagan’s Central America policy, not just in terms of ideology or rhetoric, was the first dress rehearsal for the foreign policy that is being played out today in other parts of the world.   

JB:  So Central America represented a change in U.S. foreign policy?  

Central America was really the place where all of these different groups were brought together that now stand behind George Bush’s pre-emptive warfare doctrine. 

JB:  And in terms of the players? 

Even prior to the invasion of Iraq there was discussion, mostly in the form of snide comments about how so many of the Bush administration advisors and hangers on seemed to have been recycled out of Iran Contra.  There was Eliot Abrams, John Negroponte, Otto Reich, and even John Poindexter for a brief period – who had been dusted off and put in charge of a "Total Information Awareness" program before he had to back down on that.  

People seemed to be perplexed as to why all of these people were being recycled, so I tried to provide a little deeper history about why that was happening. And look at Central America as the place that first brought together all of these groups. 

JB:  Isn’t there a religious aspect too?  

GG:  There is a religious aspect.  Again, in a lot of commentary about Bush’s aggressive foreign policy, there was a lot of discussion about the role of neoconservatives in the "remoralization" of American foreign policy — again using this idealistic rhetoric to justify pre-emptive warfare and militarism. And what is often not discussed is the role of religious evangelicals – the Christian New Right – in this "remoralization."  And again, it goes back to a large degree to Central America where Reagan and the White House mobilized the Christian New Right – to find a way to try to provide support to the Contras.  Faced with Congressional and domestic opposition, the White House had to rely on its social base, which used evangelicals to raise money and provide supplies for the Contras.   

The other dimension in terms of the "remoralization" of foreign policy is the fact that it was Liberation Theology that was the enemy in Central America combined with the fact that domestically, opposition to Reagan’s Central American foreign policy was much more Christian-based.  There was much more of a kind of religious ethic to it, in the sense that Quakers, and social gospel Protestants and progressive Catholics were involved. Reaction to that kind of "Christian Humanism" or "Peace Christianity" served in some way as a kind of first "political religion" which brought together the New Right, both the militarists and these religious evangelicals.  So, because Liberation Theology has a profound and extensive analysis of capitalism, it forced evangelical intellectuals – theologians and economists to respond by re-affirming a link – in their minds – between morality and capitalism.  So it wasn’t just a rehabilitation of American militarism, but it was a rehabilitation of the free market foundation of that militarism.  So it is not just an evangelical or conservative view on cultural issues, like abortion and gay rights, but their leadership has been very much involved in rehabilitating the "market" as a site of moral rectitude and righteousness.

JB:  How can such a multifaceted regressive force be toned down or otherwise kept in check? 

GG: Well, it certainly is not going to be checked by the Democratic Party, which continually runs away from its anti-imperialist base. Since the 1970s and 1980s, changes within the social structure of the United States have led to a kind of fusion between the Republican Party and its more radical militant conservative base.  But the Democratic Party runs away from its base.   

If you look at the American population even at the height of the jingoism leading up to the Iraq War – and during those initial weeks when it seemed like the invasion was going to be a success — something like 35 to 40 per cent of the population still opposed the war. That was despite September 11th, and despite what seemed at the time to be an easy victory.  

But the Democrats – instead of taking that 35 per cent and building on it, and being willing to embrace it and expand it — they distanced themselves from it. That includes the Democratic Party and its leadership – both the Democratic National Committee types like Hillary Clinton – but also people who ought to position themselves more on the left-wing of the  Democratic Party  — people like Al Gore and John Kerry in his various manifestations (I guess that now he is recycling himself as a leftist again).    

The Democrats were not willing to lose on the Iraq issue and make that loss something meaningful like the way the Republicans did with Goldwater in 1964.  Goldwater lost big time, but he was able to change the debate.  Democrats aren’t willing to do that, so they constantly try to hive off and quarantine that 35 or 40 percent of the population that is anti-imperialist and anti-militarist.  And hide them away, because the Democrats also have strong ties to America’s corporate structure and because they want to prove their legitimacy in terms of being able to wage war. 

JB:  To change the subject a little bit, do you think that U.S. global power is expanding or contracting right now? 

I would have a hard time coming down either way on that. There are some people who seem to think that the U.S. is in trouble; that it has lost its edge in a number of different spheres, and it is deeply indebted and that all it has left is its military power. And that this new militarism is a kind of reflex of that or a kind of indication of that – a kind of last gasp.  But then there are others like Leo Panitch who would argue that the ability to borrow on such good terms and not have the economy crash is actually an indication of the U.S.’s strength.  If you look around, it seems that in geopolitical terms that the U.S. is in trouble, which it is losing or undergoing strained relationships with all of these continental regions.   

It does seem that the U.S. is losing its geopolitical influence – certainly in a region like Latin America.  For instance, if you look at the refusal of Latin American nations – even those that the State Department holds up as allies – to get behind the "War on Terror" as an ideological project, their refusal to isolate Chávez, the refusal of some of the bigger, more important economies like Brazil and Argentina to sign the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, it does seem that the U.S. is losing these points of influence.

JB:  Do you think that if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq that it would move again into Latin America strongly or do you think that it is now too late? 

I don’t know if it is too late.  Any number of things could happen.  The U.S. has historically turned back to Latin America whenever its bid for a larger global drive towards hegemony has failed.  In the 1930s, with the contraction of the Great Depression, it turned back to Latin America and that is when it actually attempted to put into effect the institutions and ideas that we associate with multilateral "soft power," which the U.S. then used after WWII to extend its power elsewhere.  

After it was kicked out of S.E. Asia in the 1970s — not just Vietnam, but also Laos and Cambodia – it again turned back to Latin America.   But this time it was to rehabilitate "hard power" — militarism – which it then uses to project elsewhere. 

So the question remains – now that it seems to have been checked in the Middle East — will the U.S. once again turn back and focus on Latin America?  It may be more difficult now because while in the 1980s it was able to use militarism; it also formally used the institutions of multilateralism to justify that militarism.  And it doesn’t have the multilateral support anymore. None of the Latin American nations are supporting any of its bids to isolate either Bolivia or Venezuela, like they did to isolate the revolutionary left in Central America. So, it is unclear if they will be able to do that after Iraq.   

One thing that very well may happen is that a Democrat may be elected president, and that Democrat would serve to kind of "temper" the empire, to re-establish cordial relationships, to weaken some of this antagonistic rhetoric.  Things could very well worsen between the U.S. and Latin America, but another scenario, which is not necessarily a good scenario, is that a Democrat would get in and "normalize" and tone down some of the rhetoric and try to bring Latin America back into the fold through diplomacy. For instance, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas is much more likely to pass under a Democratic administration than it is under a Republican administration.  

JB:  Do you see any parallels between U.S. behavior against the Sandinistas during the 1980s and its behavior towards the Chávez government today? 

GG:  Well, there are a lot of parallels.  One of them is that U.S. groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute urged the opposition of Venezuela to boycott the National Assembly elections last December. The opposition actually wanted the Assembly to become a unanimous Assembly of Chavistas – which is what happened — instead of the Chavistas receiving a 60 per cent majority, which is what the polls at the time were indicating they would receive.   That way the opposition could say that the elections were "totally illegitimate."  The U.S.-allied opposition did the same thing in Nicaragua in the 1980s when they also boycotted the elections because it knew that it was going to lose.  

The second thing are the rumors of the U.S. supporting secessionist movements in the Venezuelan oil-rich state of Zulia in which the governor is very anti-Chavista – it is kind of a reaction of anti-Chavista sentiment.  The U.S. did the same thing with the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua during the 1980s. 

And then, there is also talk about using the paramilitaries in Colombia as a force to harass Venezuela, much in the same way that the Contras did in Nicaragua.   

But that said, I think that there are very important differences.  Venezuela is a much more consequential country than Nicaragua was.  And it is unclear whether the paramilitaries could serve the same function as the Contras did in Nicaragua.  The Contras – even though they were remnants of the old National Guards – and murderers and torturers — they could at least claim to be Nicaraguan.  I don’t think that there is a sufficient exile force in Colombia that could make up a Contra-type organization.  And Chávez is just much better at cultivating diplomatic relations.  It is doubtful that Colombia itself would go along with that policy the way that Costa Rica and Honduras did in Central America.  So there are important differences. 

Greg Grandin’s new book Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, is available on

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