Genocide in Latin America during the Cold War: book review

Draft of my review of Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, and Daniel Feierstein (eds.), State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years. London: Routledge, 2010.
To appear in Democracy and Security, September 2012.

Latin America was the site of much political violence in the Cold War period but – apart from the mass killing in Guatemala in 1982 – the growing field of genocide studies has paid little attention to the continent’s recent history. This volume aims to change that, with chapters on Argentina (3), Chile (2) and Colombia as well as Guatemala (2), framed in a perspective which is both continental in scope and focused on Latin America’s relationships with the United States (to which three chapters are devoted).

The existence of ‘genocide’ literature on Guatemala, but not other countries, may be partly explained by the fact that the majority of victims there belonged to the indigenous population and can be seen as targeted because of their ‘ethnic’ identity as well as their social movements and links to armed and political opposition. The apparent problem for a genocide perspective on late twentieth-century Latin America is that in the other countries, most civilian victims of violence seem to have been targeted because of their political rather than ethnic identities, and the United Nations Genocide Convention does not cover attacks on ‘political groups’.

This is widely seen as a problem with the Convention’s definition, and although some genocide scholars argue that the definition should be upheld, the majority believe that (in this respect at least) it is incoherent, and should be superseded by a more inclusive formulation. Several authors in this book are not content, however, to rely on existing authorities for the fact that violence against political groups can be counted as genocide, and devote a lot of space to this question. This seems to reflect a goal, manifest in some contributions and indeed in the volume as a whole, to have recent violence counted as genocide in legal and political as well as in social-scientific and historical terms. The final section of the book is devoted to studies of concealment, justice and reconciliation in the legacies of genocidal violence.

The difficulty of the demand for justice is that it leads scholars to try to square deviant cases with the sociologically incoherent Convention, often through tortuous legal (or legalistic) argument. Thus Daniel Feierstein takes up Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón’s argument (in a 1999 indictment of Argentine officers) that the term ‘national group’ (one of the Convention’s categories of protected group) is appropriate in the Argentine case, because (as Feierstein puts it) ‘[t]he Argentine national group had been annihilated “in part”, substantially altering the social fabric of the country’ (p.52). Yet however laudible the aim of bringing the officers to account, this seems a misinterpretation of the Convention and of the general idea of anti-group violence, since while the Argentine military certainly wished to alter the national society, they did this by targeting particular sections of the population. As Feierstein himself later puts it, ‘eradicating certain political, social and cultural groups was intended to subjugate society as a whole.’ (p.60)

Quite how to define the targeting of Cold War genocide in Latin America is addressed in several places in this book. In the Introduction, Marcia Esparza argues that ‘extreme class, race and ethnic polarization in the region has led to the construction of el pueblo as an entity that can be considered as the “hostage group”.’ (p.13) Esparza’s analytically interesting implication is that, rather than there having been a single type of polarization, common but complex and overlapping cleavages characterize Latin American genocide. These cleavages are deeply rooted, she suggests, in colonial as well as post-colonial history, and have produced in the ruling classes a ‘neocolonial mentality … transmitted from generation to generation’, which informs the specific violence of the Cold War period that has been conditioned by ‘US-led geopolitical projects’. (p.13)

Powerful as this idea of el pueblo is, a problem of any such general analysis seems to be the variety of Latin American national experiences. The over 200,000 deaths in Guatemala (discussed in a thorough chapter by Marc Drouin) dwarf the 30,000 killed and ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, while the latter far exceed the 3,000 murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile and the 3-5,000 supporters of the Unión Patriótica (UP) assassinated in Colombia. These quantitative differences seem to reflect qualitative differences in targeting: in Guatemala extensive violence was deployed against the (mainly) rural masses, while elsewhere violence was focused more narrowly on the (mostly) urban opposition. Of course, even this ‘narrow’ focus was broad in the sense of catching a wide range of people ‘guilty’ only of presumed family or friendship connections with activists, as well as in the sense of being designed to intimidate larger social constituencies and movements.

In this book, illuminating case studies are not complemented by serious comparative analysis which might have indicated the prevalence of genocidal violence in Latin America as a whole (indeed not all countries with large-scale political violence are included, and its relative absence in others is not discussed). Although the case studies indicate significant differences in experiences, the general chapters provide mostly overarching explanations, rather than nuanced comparative analysis; and while Esparza suggests that the profoundly unequal societies developed from the colonial era have been formative, these chapters focus mainly on the US relationship.

The latter is certainly an important frame: genocide studies too often assume that the phenomenon is produced ‘domestically’, neglecting how international relations are involved. Clearly US-led anti-communism was a unifying factor in Latin American regimes’ and militaries’ outlooks, US training informed Latin American militaries’ repression, and the USA encouraged collaboration between the separate national armies, police and intelligence bodies such as that evidenced in the notorious Operation Condor (discussed in a chapter by J. Patrice McSherry). But as Maureen S. Hiebert and Pablo Policzer put it, in assessing US complicity in the Chilean and other regimes’ crimes, ‘indirect complicity, where American officials actively encouraged but did not direct the Latin Americans’ actions against their political enemies’, and situations ‘where the Americans were aware of the Latin Americans’ actions but did nothing to discourage or challenge them’, seem more viable explanations than ‘direct complicity’. (p.76)

Or as Andrei Gómez-Suárez puts it, writing about Colombia, US ‘discourses merged with local representations flourishing in the armed conflict, creating a fertile field for genocide to happen’; US support and ‘misrepresentation of the threat that guerrilla groups posed for the security of the hemisphere allowed’ local genocidal alliances of government and military officials with paramilitaries and drug cartels to destroy the UP. (p.163) Here Gómez-Suárez also draws attention, as do other contributors in the case studies, to the relationships of armed conflict to the emergence of genocidal violence against civilian oppositionists and movements. However in the book’s more general analyses, the role of the armed oppositions in helping to provoke regime violence is not posed as a serious question. Yet ‘armed struggle’ and genocidal violence both marked various countries of Latin America in the Cold War; they have both declined since. Some kind of linkage seems clear, even its ramifications need fuller analysis.

Too much of this book is devoted to conceptual rather than theoretical analysis, and (taken as a whole) it raises more questions than it answers. However in the global framework of genocide research, this is a landmark contribution, not only as the first study to apply genocide analysis to late twentieth-century Latin America, but also because taking account of the context of genocidal violence in that continent, we have new perspectives on the global patterns of the incidence and forms of genocide.

1 thought on “Genocide in Latin America during the Cold War: book review”

  1. Very interesting. I agree with your point on how international influences need to be examined further as a component of genocide. This was and still is an issue when examining genocide in other places such as Rwanda.

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