26 Sep 2006

Empire's Workshop:Interview with Greg Grandin



Greg Grandin (shown left) is an Assistant Professor of History at New York University, where he specialises in US foreign policy in Latin America. His most recent work, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, is an excellent book on the US attempts to build an empire in Latin America, and the parallels between the policy once adopted in Central America and the US foreign stance on the Middle-East today. Below is the interview I recently conducted with Greg, as well as an exclusive extract from Empire's Workshop!

You are known as a specialist in Guatemala politics. Can you tell me how you came to study the country and its relationship with the US?

I got involved in Central American solidarity work in the late 1980s, at the height of Reagan's Central American wars. It was toward the end of the Cold War, and opposing the Contras and US funding of death squad states in Guatemala and El Salvador, along with the South African anti-Apartheid and nuclear freeze movement, was one of the most important Left causes of the time. I actually thought I would do my dissertation on Nicaragua or El Salvador, since by the time I had entered graduate school those wars were winding down. But from the first time I entered Guatemala, over land from Mexico, I fell in love with the country.

Do you think US foreign policy is driven by corporations? For example, did the 1954 coup in Guatemala occur because “they grow fruit”? Was it a United Fruit Company coup or is that too simple?

I don't think that is simplistic at all, but I do think that US foreign policy is over determined to a degree by its economic and political interests as well as its ideological self-understanding of itself as a purpose-driven nation. There is a way in which foreign policy elites universalize the particular interests of the US to believe that they are acting in the name of the common good, either of the nation, or now increasingly, of humanity. What I try to do in Empire's Workshop is lay out the interplay of ideology, economics, and geopolitics. The neo-conservative and theo-conservative ideology of war, which I argued was forged in Central America in the 1980s, needs to be taken as seriously, I think, as objective interests in trying to figure out what drives US foreign policy.

Do you think Che Guevara became a socialist because of the 1954 coup in Guatemala?


Well, I think Che Guevara, who was in Guatemala working as a doctor in the indigenous highlands, had already developed a heightened political consciousness prior to the coup. His travels throughout Latin America, recently popularized in the Motorcycle Diaries, sharpened his internationalism, his work in the Andes and Guatemala deepened his commitment to the marginalized, and his witnessing first hand the US-backed coup deepened his anti-imperialism.

You argue that the neo-conservative policy in the Middle East is rooted in the US experience in Latin America rather than being something that is really ‘new’.

I argue in Empire's Workshop that it was in Central America, and Latin America more broadly, where an insurgent New Right first coalesced, as conservative activists used the region to respond to the crisis of the 1970s, a crisis provoked not only by America's defeat in Vietnam but by a deep economic recession and a culture of skeptical antimilitarism and political dissent that spread in the war's wake. Reagan's Central American wars can best be understood as a dress rehearsal for what is going on now in the Middle East, the place where the coalition made up of neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals, free marketeers, and nationalists that today stands behind George W. Bush's expansive foreign policy first came together. There they had near free rein to bring the full power of the US against a much weaker enemy in order to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam – and, in so doing, begin the transformation of America's foreign policy and domestic culture. A critical element of that transformation entailed shifting the rationale of American diplomacy away from containment to rollback, from one primarily justified in terms of national defense to one charged with advancing what Bush likes to call a "global democratic revolution". The domestic fight over how to respond to revolutionary nationalism in Central America allowed conservative ideologues to remoralize both American diplomacy and capitalism, to counteract the cynicism that had seeped into both popular culture and political establishment regarding the deployment of US power in the world. Thus they pushed the Republican Party away from its foreign-policy pragmatism to the idealism that now defines the "War on Terror" as a world crusade of free-market nation building.

I was interested in your discussion of how 'soft power' (or propaganda) has been used by the US in Latin America. How is it now being used to remove Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro?


Well, just today it was reported that the US government had paid at least ten Miami journalists up to $174,000 to print propaganda on Cuba. So much for a free and independent press. And just a few weeks ago it was reported that the National Endowment for Democracy, a quasi private group funded by public money, channelled millions of dollars to Venezuelan "pro-democracy" organizations. To get a better sense of how all this plays out in Venezuela, I would recommend checking out Philip Agee's take on it, which can be found on Venezuelan Analysis. Agee of course is the former CIA agent who broke with the Agency in the late 1960s, so he knows whereof he speaks.

My readers who tend to be ecosocialists would be fascinated in your account of how Henry Ford in 1928 tried to establish a rubber plantation with a model village in Brazil. It seems like a story from One Hundred Years of Solitude!

I use the story of ‘Fordlandia’ as a parable of imperial hubris - but it could easily be read as a parable of ecological arrogance. The idea was to cultivate rubber for use in the automobile industry and to override the British monopoly on the crop. Henry Ford's agents took no heed of the ecological complexity of the Amazon, believing they could impose on it Ford-style mass production. They refused to cultivate disease-resistant clones or to follow the advice of Brazilian botanists who warned that rubber trees needed to be scattered at safe distances throughout the jungle in order to prevent the spread of South American leaf blight. They cultivated seedlings in tight, well-ordered rows. Within a few years, microcuclus ulei had spread from tree to tree and destroyed the plantation. The same kind of heavy-handedness guided Fordlandia's labor relations, and the plantation suffered from chronic labor conflicts. Seventeen years and twenty million dollars later, Henry Ford II sold the property to the Brazilian government for a pittance.

Iraq has failed as a project in the same way you argue US attempts to create 'democracy' in Latin America have failed. Where next for Bush, the neo-cons and US foreign policy?

Whenever the US fails in a global bid for hegemony, it turns back to Latin America. After the global economic crisis of the 1930s, the New Deal state regrouped in Latin America, working out strategies of extra-territorial rule associated with "soft power" - multilateral treaties, alliances, concessions to economic nationalists, etc. After getting kicked out of Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Washington turned to Latin America to rehabilitate "hard power" militarism, of the kind I described above and in the book. So the question is: as its power erodes not just in the Middle East but in Asia and elsewhere, will it once again return to Latin America and, more critically, what will that return look like? Will it be to rehabilitate the techniques of soft power or to intensify militarism. If it is the latter, watch out.

Do you see the British Labour and Conservative parties as automatic allies of the neo-cons?

Blair went a long way in legitimating to liberals the war in Iraq as some kind of noble fight in the name of pluralism and tolerance. He of course came off more much more articulate than Bush did, but ultimately he, and not Bush, was the fool. Blair thought he could manage, and perhaps dampen, the unilateral, radically anti-Democratic and militarist tendencies with the US, perhaps nudge Washington to, say, sign on to Kyoto or accept the International Criminal Court. But to believe that you can junior-partner with the US radical right, as led by George Bush, was an act of supreme idiocy, and will be Blair's legacy. We'll see if Gordon Brown is any better, but I imagine the "special relationship" will continue unchanged.

Finally, the US Greens, such as Howie Hawkins, in seeking to challenge not just Bush but Bushism, have a difficult task. Any thoughts on how US progressives can best promote multi-party democracy in the USA?


Over the last two decades, changes within the social structure of the United States have fused the Republican Party and its more radical militant conservative base. There is now an organic relationship between the New Right and its electoral vehicle, the Republicans. The Democratic Party, in contrast, continues to run away from its base. If you look at polls 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 continued to oppose the war. This is a significant, if not majority, anti-militarist base. But the Democrats - instead of taking that moral core of 35 per cent and building on it, and being willing to embrace it and expand it – they distanced themselves from it. The Democrats were not willing to lose on the Iraq issue and make that loss something meaningful like the way the Republicans did with Barry 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. I don't know what the answer is, but it clearly isn't the Democrats.


Extract from Empire's Workshop - Chapter One: How Latin America Saved the United States from Itself

For over two centuries, Latin America has been caught in the crosswinds of empire, buffeted by the United States's revolutionary ambition and battered by its counterrevolutionary cruelty. Take the case of the Ford Motor Company. In the late 1920s, Henry Ford, on the advice of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, set out to build a rubber plantation on the banks of the Tapajós River in the Amazon rain forest in order to break the high-priced British latex monopoly. Combining fancy and expedience, the project represented more than an effort to bring rubber production under Ford's direct control. "We would revolutionize the world," said National City Bank president Frank Vanderlip in 1918 of the global aspirations of early-twentieth-century, pre-Depression American industrialists, financiers, and politicians. Fordlandia, as Ford's jungle adventure came to be called, was an effort to do just that.

Ford planted rubber trees on a plantation three times the size of Rhode Island, equipped with state-of-the-art processing facilities intended to replicate the kind of mechanized industrial production he had pioneered in Detroit. The town that arose on the property soon housed four thousand workers, making it the third-largest city in the Amazon. But unlike those other rough-and-tumble settlements, this one sported concrete sidewalks, fire hydrants, a fully equipped hospital, modest bungalows for workers, larger homes for administrators, grass lawns, and white picket fences. "Shades of Tarzan!" ran a caption under a photograph of smiling plantation worker kids in a promotional brochure. "You'd never guess these bright, happy, healthy school children lived in a jungle city that didn't even exist a few years ago."3 Churches, a golf course, a movie house, swimming pools, and weekly square dances simulated the customs and conventions of an American factory town, especially Ford's own Highland Park and River Rouge complexes. Just as Ford paid five dollars a day to American workers to create a disciplined working class with middle-class values and consumption habits, Fordlandia hoped to attract a steady labor force with a decent wage, free education, and health care.

The enterprise was doomed from the start. Swindled by a Brazilian con artist, Ford paid much more than the start-up land was worth. The terrain was hilly, which made it impossible to deploy the kind of large-scale mechanization Ford had envisioned. Its sandy soil leached out nutrients, a problem made worse by seasonal heavy rain. Chronic labor shortages and conflicts crippled production, while good pay and health care couldn't compete with the allure of industrializing cities like Rio or São Paulo. Rubber tappers, accustomed to having more control over their lives and work routines, protested the rigidity of the plantation's rules, the segregation of tasks according to race, and the abuse of administrators, who ranked Brazilians on a spectrum ranging from "savagery" to "tameness," much as they would livestock. They also balked at attempts to regulate their social life, diet, and drinking habits. Riots frequently broke out, with workers destroying the time clocks and whistles used to organize the workday. Managers responded with mass firings, which led to more clashes.

Ford had a reputation as a pioneer of applied industrial science, yet for the first five years of Fordlandia's operation he employed not one expert with experience in either tropical agriculture or rubber planting. Plantation managers refused to cultivate disease-resistant clones or to follow the advice of Brazilian botanists who warned that rubber trees needed to be scattered at safe distances throughout the jungle in order to prevent the spread of South American leaf blight. Mimicking the regimentation Ford imposed on his River Rouge factory floor, they instead stubbornly planted trees in tight, well-ordered rows. By 1934, Microcuclus ulei had spread from tree to tree, laying waste to the fledgling plantation. But Ford refused to give up. From his office in Detroit, he ordered the whole operation, dance hall and all, moved downriver. This effort, alas, failed too. After seventeen years, an investment of twenty million dollars, and the plantingof more than three million trees, hardly any Fordlandia latex found its way into a Ford tire. In 1945, Henry Ford II sold the property to the Brazilian government for $250,000, abandoning the town and its manicured lawns-along with his father's dream of leading a peaceful cultural revolution in Latin America-to the jungle.

Fast-forward three decades: Ford Motor Company had not, of course, deserted Latin America. Far from it, as its factories rolled out cars and trucks for sale throughout the continent. But America's corporate and political leaders were no longer sponsoring revolution but counterrevolution.

Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists, along with working-class and peasant allies, had begun to take seriously the twin promises of democracy and development held out by the United States since the 1930s, pressing for both an extension of political rights and a more equitable distribution of national wealth. But their efforts were repeatedly thwarted by their respective nations' ruling classes, made up of military officers, Catholic conservatives, and economic elites. Politics became polarized throughout the continent, as one side increasingly saw revolution as the only way to give birth to a new world and the other embraced terror as the only way to abort it. Washington, by this time more concerned with confronting the Soviet Union than advancing democracy in Latin America, threw in with the forces of order, sponsoring coups, championing death-squad states, and embracing dictators.

Neither did American business stay neutral. In the mid-1960s, executives from thirty-seven corporations organized themselves into the Business Group for Latin America, made up of delegates from Ford, U.S. Steel, DuPont, Standard Oil, Anaconda Copper, International Telephone and Telegraph, United Fruit, and Chase Manhattan Bank. David Rockefeller, whose family had extensive holdings in Latin America going back to the nineteenth century coordinated the group's activities and served as its liaison with the White House. The idea was both to influence Washington's hemispheric policy and to apply direct pressure at the source, funding the campaigns of friendly Latin American politicians, helping allies hold down prices, and providing financial guidance to cooperative regimes. When lobbying proved insufficient, members of the group, either individually or in concert, worked with the CIA to foment coups, as they did in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973.

Some went further. A number of multinational corporations, including Ford, Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and Mercedes-Benz have been accused in recent years of working closely with Latin American death squads-responsible for hundreds of thousands of killings throughout the hemisphere in the 1970s and 1980s-to counter labor organizing. In Argentina, Ford provided the squads with a fleet of greenish gray Falcons they used in their kidnapping and established on the premises of its manufacturing plant outside Buenos Aires a detention center where union activists were held.8 Henry Ford's vision may have died in the jungle, but the discipline of his work rules remained: the Ford factory fired kidnapped workers, at least those lucky enough to have survived, because of absenteeism.

As a parable of empire, Fordlandia captures well the experience of the United States in Latin America. The quixotic faith that led Ford to try to remake the Amazon in an American image-a truly utopian endeavor considering that he never set foot in Brazil-reflects a broader belief that the United States offers a universal, and universally acknowledged, model for the rest of humanity. In turn, Ford Motor Company's subsequent support of death-squad regimes demonstrates how that kind of evangelicalism easily gives way to brute coercion.

This chapter follows the long history of the United States in Latin America, swinging as it has between reform and reaction. It makes the case for the region's unacknowledged importance to the development of America's truly exceptional empire, unlike any that have come (and gone) before it. For over a century, Latin Americans resisted, often violently, both the United States's self-assigned mission to reform humanity, of the sort that drove Ford to the Amazon, and the militarism that such a mission inevitably generated. In doing so, they forced the United States, often against the worst impulses of its leaders, to develop more pragmatic and flexible imperial strategies, strategies that proved indispensable in its postwar rise to global superpower.

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