On March 27, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken issued a curious tweet. “We are deeply concerned by growing signs of anti-democratic behavior and politicization of the legal system in Bolivia,” he wrote. “The Bolivian government should release detained former officials, pending an independent and transparent inquiry into human rights and due process concerns.”
Blinken’s remark, which went virtually unchallenged in United States media, cast as illegitimate the Bolivian government’s decision to jail former de facto President Jeanine Áñez and members of her régime for their role in a 2019 coup that left dozens dead and hundreds more injured. More crucially, it offered a window into the Biden administration’s foreign policy — not only in its own backyard but across the globe.
For much of the 20th century, the United States used Latin America as a laboratory to develop its tools of colonial rule: annexation, military intervention, clandestine and paramilitary warfare, kidnapping and so-called “extraordinary rendition.” Most Latin Americans are intimately familiar with this history, even as the full extent of U.S. intervention in the region is still coming to light.
The overthrow of socialist governments in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973), has been well-documented, for example, but newly declassified State Department memos reveal that U.S. diplomats in Buenos Aires, Argentina, were aware a coup d’état was imminent in 1976, and that the severity of the military’s repression would be “unprecedented.” (The Argentinian junta would rule for seven years, killing or disappearing as many as 30,000 people.)
This kind of subterfuge enabled the United States to forge a Pax Americana that was never all that peaceful and has ultimately proven unsustainable. Today, the imperial lab is in disarray; the machines have malfunctioned (or ceased to function at all), and the floor managers have gone raving mad. Even as the United States is reckoning with decades of imperial violence in the form of mass migrations along its Southern border, the Biden administration wants to limit Latin American trade with China while simultaneously refusing to end patent protections for urgently needed Covid-19 vaccines in the Global South.
As Greg Grandin, Pulitzer-winning author of the newly republished Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism acknowledges, Latin America is no longer a workshop for American empire. What’s more, the United States has become a refuge from its own failed experiments.
On the anniversary of the 1976 coup in Buenos Aires — March 24, marked as a day of remembrance in Argentina — and subsequently via email, I spoke with Grandin about President Biden’s possible imperial ambitions, the legacy of former President Donald Trump and the limits of the liberal imagination. The following transcript has been edited and compressed for clarity.
Maria Esperanza Casullo: In pushing for more radical policies, President Biden appears to have come to power with a very clear understanding of where Obama failed domestically. At the same time, he seems eager to show that he’s as strong abroad as he is at home. What do you see in the first months of his administration?
Greg Grandin: I think the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill and the forthcoming infrastructure bill are clear indications that the Biden administration has moved beyond the austerity paradigm. When it comes to foreign policy, however, it’s not just more of the same — it’s worse.
While the Biden administration’s unexpectedly hardline stance against China has made the news, it’s also pursued something like a sleeper Monroe Doctrine in Latin America, carrying forward many of Trump’s worst policies. These include recognizing an alt-president in Venezuela, chastising Bolivia for trying to hold those responsible for the recent coup and repression legally accountable, and toying with the idea of filling in the gaps of Trump’s border wall. Clearly, Biden and his close counselors are betting that by giving the foreign policy “blob” what it wants, it can break domestic policy free of austerity restraints. It’s a dangerous game.
MEC: From reading Empire’s Workshop, it seems as though any time the United States is facing an internal crisis, it encourages Latin America to become more democratic. So after World War II and again in the 1980s, Latin America takes the United States at its word and begins developing its own forms of social democracy.
But at some point, the United States steps in and says, “You’ve gone too far, you’ve fallen into the populism trap.” Reformists like President Getulio Vargas in Brazil during the 1950s were doing what they were told, and they were punished for it. The same can be said for the pink wave of center-left governments in the 2000s that included Lula Da Silva in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
GG: Whenever the United States tries to go global and has a crisis of imperial overreach, it turns to Latin America to regroup. Then it goes global again, and the cycle begins anew. The Pan-America Conference of 1933 kicked off a period in which communist parties basically aligned with the United States, culminating with the allied victory in World War II. It seemed a new world of democracy — specifically social democracy — was dawning, and there was widespread support for it across the political spectrum.
Between 1946 and 1948, however, there was a backlash. And that obviously corresponds to U.S. involvement in the Cold War. Where the State Department previously saw democracy and development going hand in hand, it came to view stability and development as the antidotes to communism and the Soviet Union.
Europe didn’t have to suppress its social democratic Left to capitalize its industry. So long as they weren’t allied with the Soviet Union, parties could organize unions, demand better wages, and help socialize spheres of the economy. Latin America didn’t have that luxury because elites had to attract private capital and loans. They had to put down unions, so there’s this sharp turn to the right. By 1948, the continent is once again under the heel of dictatorships, and there’s a cycle of coups and crackdowns that radicalizes whole generations in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
MEC: Do you think the United States is — or will be — focusing again on Latin America now that it’s facing another crisis of hegemony?
GG: The short answer to your question, which I explore some in this new edition of the book, is that it’s too early to tell. What’s clear is that the United States is in a state of decline that may be irreversible, and it no longer has the power to use the promise of limitlessness to organize its domestic politics. That much is evident in the incoherence of its Latin America policy now. This is where I close: Latin America is no longer the “workshop.” Now, the United States is exporting its craziness.
During the 1980s, the extremists that made up the New Right coalition came together in Central America and they were as “out there” as QAnon, in many ways. They were as conspiratorial as the 16th-century Catholics who thought they were involved in an end-time struggle to bring about God’s realm. But what you have today are the same forces that are leading to the disintegration of political consensus domestically — the extreme libertarianism, extreme corporate power, a kind of unhinged Christian nationalism — being re-exported to Latin America.
Before he went to war with Iraq in 1991, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama and installed a democracy. That became his stepping-stone to moving out globally. By contrast, Trump was all over the place, supporting an intervention in Venezuela at the same time that he was threatening Iran.
And now we see the Biden administration doing the same kind of saber-rattling with China. Over the past few weeks, China has become a subject of extreme moralizing for U.S. political elites. In the past, the United States wouldn’t have done that until Latin America was secured. And Latin America is not secured. Central America and Mexico are in crisis, which manifests itself on the border. In Brazil, Bolsonaro is some kind of mirror image of Trump. It’s a mess.
MEC: That is really striking. And as a Latin American, U.S. foreign policy in the region feels increasingly incomprehensible. That’s not only true of the Trump administration but the last years of the Obama administration as well. Many of us opposed Ronald Reagan, but we could acknowledge he had a clear policy that served a strategic purpose.
GG: It was coherent.
MEC: And during the H.W. Bush years, of course, Latin America was largely absent because U.S. attention was elsewhere. It’s not clear what that strategy is anymore. The United States has been fixated on Venezuela, but it doesn’t have any idea of how to effect the change it seeks. Instead, it funds these adventures that seem to go nowhere.
The Left populism in Latin America has also shown itself to be remarkably resilient. After Vargas committed suicide in 1954, there was almost nothing left of his movement in Brazil, yet the Workers’ Party is still a force today and [Founding Workers’ Party member] Lula is back. In Bolivia, the socialist MAS party has returned to power. [Left-wing] Kircherism remains a force in Argentina. Efforts to crush these political ideologies have failed, so what is the plan now? There doesn’t seem to be any kind of discernible strategy.
GG: I think that’s absolutely correct. The Biden administration continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela based on who knows what. It doesn’t even correspond to the reality of the country’s own opposition, which is totally fractured. And why Venezuela? Why not Cuba? It makes no sense.
I think what we’re seeing is the piling up of decades of militarized securitization, extractivism and free market policy, to say nothing of the blowback to the genocide and repression of the 1980s. It’s all created societies that are simply unsustainable, so people feel they have to leave.
Nobody puts a child in a boat unless their land is unsafe. Nobody sends their kid on a 1,000-mile trek unless they have no chance of living at home. And yet there’s no recognition of this by the U.S. foreign policy elites. They just can’t think holistically about these problems. It’s beyond their realm.
The only thing they can think to propose is Plan Colombia, which has become an all-purpose solution for Latin America. Of course, Plan Colombia led to huge increases in regional drug production and political violence, so it was a failure on its own terms and won’t work now. The United States talks about spending more on development, but all that it’s interested in doing is liberalizing these countries’ economies and driving people off of their land. And where are they going to go?
Obama was a perfect example. His presidency was a missed opportunity on so many profound levels, and I think the American Left understands this. He could have radically reoriented American foreign policy like FDR before him, but Obama chose not to. At one point, almost every country in South America had some kind of leftist government or another. There was Lula, who was a trade unionist. The Peronists in Argentina. Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, who was a liberation theologian. Chile’s president was a feminist doctor. Even Hugo Chavez [in Venezuela] was eager to welcome Obama as a champion of civil rights and anti-racism in the United States. And Obama completely capitulated to coups or soft coups in countries like Brazil, Paraguay and Honduras.
I wrote about this in the Nation, but Obama spoke about the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff [in Brazil], and then the prosecution of Lula, in the same way he would ultimately talk about the election of Trump — that the institutions are strong, and we that we have to have patience. In this way, Obama’s acceptance of the Brazilian coup presaged his acceptance of the Trumpian backlash against him. But to say the Obama presidency was a missed opportunity is probably an understatement. It would also be giving him a lot of leeway in what his true intentions were. He had the chance to do something radically different.
MEC: And now there’s this idea that the United States has to go back to Africa and Latin America to position itself for a new Cold War. I think Latin America, by and large, is willing to do business with anybody, but there’s not any kind of pro-China sentiment. The United States comes across as deeply paranoid about Chinese involvement in the region.
GG: Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement that Obama wanted to enact and the Trump administration ultimately killed, was part of a broader U.S. effort to keep China out of Latin America and dividing Latin America from the Pacific Rim.
MEC: Much of my work has been devoted to populism and how populist discourse requires an adversary. After four years of statements from Trump like “they’re not sending their best,” and the constant fearmongering about the border and migrant caravans, does the United States now see Latin America as an external threat? It just seems inconceivable that anyone could have thought this 60 years ago. Not because Americans necessarily believe Latinos are great people, but because they pose no threat whatsoever.
GG: I think even more dangerous than treating Latin America as an enemy is resorting to a strategy that is the hallmark of all empires that are hemorrhaging moral authority — which is to divide and rule. I don’t want to give the United States too much credit, but one of the reasons why Latin America hasn’t had an interstate war is because, as a dominant hegemon, the United States has avoided playing one country or region against another. That might be changing as Colombia becomes a local proxy, but we’ll see.
There are so many currents swirling around that it’s hard to predict anything, but I think the fusion of state developmentalism with new social movements in Latin America has been much more resilient than the post-war model in which peasants and unions were vertically tied to populist parties, and much more rigidly dependent on them. If a coup happened or the leader was overthrown, the whole model collapsed.
MEC: Both my dissertation and my book are about the real political innovations that are taking place in the region. That doesn’t mean they’ve all been fantastic, and some have ended badly — like Venezuela, no doubt about it. But new political identities and movements have been constructed where they haven’t as easily in the United States for some reason. Why do you think that is?
GG: I think part of that has to do with the unique nature of American empire and how much social progress correlated with expansion or the promise of expansion. There was no expansion of liberalism in the United States that wasn’t conditioned on growing American power abroad. I don’t want to suggest there isn’t an organized Left in the United States, but progressive liberals just can’t imagine any kind of domestic good without the existence of a foreign adversary or another to justify its funding.