SD Alternative

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” - Dr. Seuss

US Interventions in Latin America Reading List

Promised a friend ages ago I’d upload the course reading for a seminar I’m in this semester, US Interventions in Latin America and the World. I’m still working on that but in the meantime here are my impressions of the non-electronic reading.

Overthrow : America’s century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq
by Stephen Kinzer

Very accessible. This is a sort of broad, compare-contrast look at American interventions, written to educate people who think Bush is the worst president ever and the United States has never before engaged in shady nation-building activities. XD According to Kinzer the Iraqi insurgency is sort of like the Philippine insurgency, Bush’s claim to being a “liberator” is sort of like McKinley’s claim that American empire would be “benevolent”, and the way Bush’s chiefs of staff have confused personal and corporate interest with national interest is sort of like John Dulle and United Fruit. The book gives a quick summary of events (no need to know anything going in!) and discusses imperialism in general (it always comes down to control of strategic areas and access to resources and markets, doesn’t it) and American imperialism in particular. Kinzer sometimes falls back on sweeping generalizations about Americans including what he calls our “historically short attention span,” ahaha. The book is slightly attention-deficit itself, jumping between events, randomly inserting anecdotes, and occasionally highlighting similarities in cases where differences might be more important (like for example, his discussion of the differences between open (military) and covert (CIA) operations sort of fades in and out). Also in the conclusion, Kinzer says some totally wacky things like “The difference between American and European-style imperialism is that only Americans think they’re doing it for the good of the conquered” (paraphrased) which is, um. What? (The difference between American and European-style imperialism is that Europeans believe it is necessary to know something about the people you are subjugating.)

Basically, he’s not a very careful historian, but his treatment of conservative and liberal assertions is evenhanded, and his ideas are different and interesting. If I wasn’t so ignorant — and was an historian with connections like Kinzer — this is exactly the kind of all over the place (but intriguing!) thematic book I’d write.

The war of 1898 : the United States and Cuba in history and historiography
by Louis A. Pérez, Jr.

This was the first book we read so bear with me, cause my memory is a little hazy. Um. This is a book about how Cuba is not, after all, indebted to the United States for its independence. The book is short, only about a 120 pages, but it is packed with quotations from Congressmen, Presidents, military officers, American historians, and even some Cubans, all of them highlighting the way that Cuban history has historically been misrepresented in this country. Perez’s goal is to prove that 1) Cuba was on the verge of achieving its independence from Spain before the US stepped in to claim the spoils, 2) the US government misrepresented the war to its own people, 3) historians promulgated this false impression, with the result that 4) in 1959 JFK couldn’t understand why those ungrateful bastards hated us so much!!

Some things I remember thinking:
1. I’d forgotten just how openly racist Senators were back then.
2. Patriarchalism here smacks of convenience, I wonder if McKinley really believed it? Wilson definitely did.
3. Suddenly I have so much more sympathy for Thoreau. [1]
4. Perez quotes a lot of historians who took the “mysteriously, we won the war!” route. This is the story I learned in high school, it didn’t make sense then, but it makes sense now.
5. The book sort of stops at an analysis of the historiography, an doesn’t venture to say what effect it had on subsequent events. The readers are left to draw that conclusion. Though this is valid, I guess, since Perez has already done what he set out to do (prove the record wrong), I really wish there’d been more here. Oh well, I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to find another book to read.

The United States occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934
by Hans Schmit

This is a pretty traditional history book of the type I am most familiar with, which is to say, it’s 80s-style sledgehammer history. Schmit is a socialist historian and he’s not subtle — his book is all about INSTITUTIONS such as the INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY which is SELF-PERPETUATING and leaves no rooms for individual action. Reading the book you wonder, where are the people? You don’t really get a sense of the motives of the intelligencia or of the subsistence farmers, and as for anyone else, well as far as you tell from the book there isn’t anyone else.

But he is really good at characterizing institutions; highlights include his work cateloguing the ironies inherent in paternalistic colonial rule (“self-defeating” military policies, f’r instance when the Service Technique’s goal of improving agriculture was sabotaged by its refusal to learn from native cultivators) and the aforementioned self-perpetuating nature of slavery/racism. In light of the occupiers’ conflicting aims and self-defeating blindness, Schmidt says, it is no wonder that U.S. impulses (for sincere?? improvement) were perverted. According to Schmidt, in such a situation military atrocities are inevitable — which is, again, ignoring any individual psychological considerations, and the other two articles we read addressed this topic. In any case, this is a very good account of events and institutions; Haiti has an extremely interesting, extremely depressing history.

In the time of the butterflies : a novel
by Julia Alvarez

This is fiction. Alvarez is a brilliant writer, and reading this, you get a very clear sense of what living under a repressive dictatorship (Trujilo’s Dominican Republic) is like, and of the personalities and thought processes of the Mirabal sisters. But uh, THIS IS FICTION. To restate. -_- I don’t know, I read an awful lot of historical fiction. I don’t really mind when authors take liberties or make mistakes <-- really! But Alvarez' attitude bothers me. It's like, okay, after this book came out there was a huge upsurge interest in the US in the story of the Mirabals, and subsequent accounts were a lot more accurate. But it's like. This book is very, very similar to another (completely fictional) book Alvarez wrote, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. And she, um, says in an essay that she decided not to interview someone who was present when the shot that killed the Mirabal sisters was heard, because it might disturb the image she had in her head. I don’t deny that the novel reads well, possibly better than it would have if there was more truth to it, but it’s like. The Spanish translation of Garcia Girls uses “chicas” for girls. Isn’t chicas, um, Mexican American slang, not Dominican? It’s extremely well-written, though.

Shattered hope : the Guatemalan revolution and the United States, 1944-1954
by Piero Gleijeses

Oh, geeze. I don’t really remember this. Okay, Gleijeses’ main point is that Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s first freely-elected President, was the best leader the country ever had and that by plotting to have him overthrown, the United States has doomed Guatemala to be the country with the most inequitable distribution of resources in the Western hemisphere. He contends that Guatemala’s communist party member were some of the hardest-working, most dedicated people in the country, with no connection to the Soviet Union (despite efforts — it seems the U.S.S.R. simply didn’t want to be involved with such a poor country, so firmly within the U.S. sphere of influence), and that the land reform was just reform, which Guatemala sorely needed, and not a communist plot. Most of the book is dedicated to this theme, was-he-a-communist-or-wasn’t-he. It’s mostly convincing but there are some very peculiar blind spots. Questions we discussed in class were things like is there a socialist element to all land redistribution policies, Cold War us-vs-them thinking, etc. Also the personal motivations of everyone’s favorite CIA director Alan Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

One of the more interesting things in this book is the account of PBSUCCESS, the CIA plot to overthrow Arbenz which succeeded with, apparently, great ease, leading the CIA to conclude that it could overthrow any government with not much more than a fake radio station plus handful of exiles in rags. Conveniently forgetting the real source of their power — not skill in making threats, but Guatemalans’ certain knowledge of defeat should the U.S. military intervene openly. Used to be considered the CIA’s greatest success, now considered its greatest tragedy. Che Guavara was reportedly deeply moved.

I, Rigoberta Menchú : an Indian woman in Guatemala
by Rigoberta Menchu, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, translated by Ann Wright

This was apparently a huge deal in the seventies. It’s the account of an Indian from Guatemala reporting all of the atrocities that befell her and her family…which, as it turns out, were not entirely true. That is, most of them happened (except no one was burned to death in public), but they happened to various people Menchu talked to rather than all happening to her family. She also exaggerates the “uneducated folksy Indian” part of her background, though not the exploitation. Reading the book, and knowing the truth, you wonder why she felt she had to lie. Wasn’t the truth horrific enough? She had an older brother who died of starvation — before she was born — why did she have to invent a brother who’d die of starvation in front of her?

Anyway this book is horrible but fascinating, and for something that was dictated and — supposedly — edited into a continuous narrative but not changed, it’s surprisingly organized and thorough. Plus like I said, it was a huge deal when it came out.

Bay of Pigs declassified : the secret CIA report on the invasion of Cuba
edited by Peter Kornbluh

Now this is interesting. It’s the CIA’s internal report of where the Bay of Pigs invasion went wrong. If you want to know about the internal workings of the CIA, circa 1960, this is the book to read. Korbluh’s input is minimal — basically, he presents the document, and he writes a short introduction that explains the importance of making documents like this public. Something about the danger when a secret agency functions like a state within a state.

However, you can tell that while the CIA, as an anti-democratic institution, interests Kornbluh a lot, he’s not so interested in Cuba in particular, so his analysis falls a little flat, and you’re left to wade through the CIA documentation basically on your own. Something that’s not in the report, but that we discussed in class, is the possibility that the invasion failed, not because gross incompetence, overconfidence, over-reliance on a bizarre assassination plot, or inadequate resources (those too), but because Alan Dulles, the director of the CIA, expected Kennedy to simply order an outright invasion when the mission failed, so in a sense it didn’t matter how much he overstated the odds of success or how bad the planning was. (My professor, by the way, LOVES KENNEDY.)

The Pinochet file : a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability
by Peter Kornbluh

If you read one book from this entry, READ THIS ONE. It is seriously an amazing piece of work. Kornbluh strings together, from fragments of partially declassified documents, a history of covert US involvement with the Pinochet government — before and after — that is just amazingly complete. To makes things even better, he includes photocopies of all of his original sources after each chapter. Not only is his dedication remarkable, his analysis of the events…well, it’s the best analysis of any book we have read for this course. (Keep in mind my total ignorance!) Kornbluh’s goal is to lay out, step by step, a complete picture of U.S. guilt. And uh. Have I been enthusiastic enough yet? READ THIS BOOK.

On another note, Kornbluh gave a talk in November about what he went through to get the documents declassified. Salmon sandwiches at the reception. I have notes on the first hour but after that, unfortunately, I had to leave for another class. ;_; nothing exciting to report about that hour, maybe he’s one of those speakers who takes a while to warm up? Or who have one great story to tell. Anyway, on yet another note, pause here to note the irony of Pinochet’s “leftist conspiracy” rhetoric when his country was ACTUALLY a member of the South American repressive fascist dictators engaging in terrorism abroad club -_-.

A nation of enemies : Chile under Pinochet
by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela

Quote-tastic. The authors seem to have interviewed half of Chile for this book. I have a feeling this is biased since from what I’ve heard, most people in Chile simply do not talk about the unsavory aspects of Pinochet’s rule, so the people who are willing to talk are, mostly, the ones with something to say. (Well, duh.) Two things that stuck out were absolutely chilling descriptions of the psychological aftereffects of torture, and the way the book continually flashes back to the Allende years — flashes that have, alternately, the character of a nightmare and the character of a dream. If you want to read nonfictional history that seems almost too novelistic to be true, this is pretty good.

Another highlight of the book is its characterization of Chile’s military establishment. Also, judicial establishment, school system. The authors try to capture the sense of how various sections of the country view the world; you come away with the impression that no one talks to people outside of their own group, which really explains a lot. As much love as I have for Chile Declassified this is a place where that book falls short — no description of Chilaen considerations, only of the US role. Anyway I enjoyed this book a lot, particularly the sections on the military.


[1] Okay, flash back to high school. In US History I, we’ve just learned that because the Maine blew up for mysterious reasons, the United States is at war with Spain in Cuba, also for mysterious reasons. Mysteriously, the war is very unpopular with a small minority of Americans, but fortunately the Spanish are defeated easily (why? who knows!), validating the majority. Finally, after the war Cuba is mysteriously never heard from again. <-- EXACTLY LIKE THAT. Meanwhile, in American Literature, we are reading On Walden Pond. This is the book Thoreau wrote while living “self-sufficiently” in the woods because he refused to pay taxes since his money was being used to support the Mexican-American War (not the same thing, but equally imperialistic and popular). I have to tell you, this aspect of Thoreau’s work COMPLETELY WENT OVER MY HEAD at the time. I remember thinking, what’s so bad about America that you have to childishly not pay your taxes, and run away to play woodsman, and write long rambling rants essays about whatever you feel like? And I COMPLETELY MISSED the frustrated, self-aware humor of Thoreau, who must have known he was full of shit but who did it anyway, because it was important to him and there was nothing, nothing else he could do, because the injustice he was feeling so keenly did not even register to most Americans. So, uh. My apologies to Thoreau.