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Reviewed by:
  • State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years ed. by Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, Daniel Feierstein
  • Christopher Darnton
Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, and Daniel Feierstein, eds., State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years. New York: Routledge, 2011. 303pp. $49.95.

The primary objective of this edited volume is to demonstrate that the systematic killing of civilians by rightwing governments in Cold War Latin America qualifies as genocide, opposing the common argument (based on the definition in the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide) that political groups, unlike ethnic and national ones, are excluded from such considerations. The authors largely succeed in making this case, developing parallel illustrations from four countries in the later stages of the Cold War (Guatemala and Colombia in the 1980s, Argentina and Chile in the 1970s), although—as the authors recognize—these violent episodes have been frequently studied under alternative frameworks such as state terrorism rather than genocide. Taken together, the chapters powerfully depict a prolonged regional pattern of human rights abuses by governments that generally enjoyed some degree of U.S. support, against perceived domestic enemies generally on the political left. The volume is usefully structured to address in separate sections not only the “underpinnings” but also the “mechanisms” and “aftermath” of violence (pp. v–vi). The emphasis on mechanisms is particularly important, because so much existing work already focuses either on causes or on memories of political violence. Future research should be encouraged to trace the diffusion of specific practices such as torture, rendition, and disappearance across countries and organizations, which would also shed further light on foreign influences on Latin American violence. Valuable models might include Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy, João Resende-Santos’ Neorealism, States, and the Modern Mass Army, and Brian Loveman’s For La Patria. [End Page 191]

A second goal of the book is to demonstrate U.S. complicity and culpability in these atrocities. Here the volume is weaker, though provocative. U.S. foreign policy frequently seems reduced to a monolithic, nefarious promotion of national security doctrine, yet the critiques presented in different chapters (as well as within the introduction) appear at odds. Was U.S. Cold War strategy in Latin America primarily realist (pp. 152, 162, 169), anti-Communist (pp. 3, 5, 44, 111, 190), imperial or colonial (pp. 5, 9, 13, 236), or capitalist (pp. 9, 124, 133)? Did it vary over U.S. administrations and across Latin American countries and governments, or not? To what extent was the Cold War an ideological framework that drove new forms of intervention and violence, or a rhetorical cloak for preexisting (and already violent) systems of national inequality and regional hegemony? In what contexts did U.S. objectives influence, rather than simply coinciding with, those of Latin American security policymakers? Luis Roniger’s observations in chapter 1—that the United States at least sometimes supported democratic and reformist governments in Latin America during the first half of the Cold War (pp. 26–27), that opinions about violence may have varied within the U.S. government and that Latin American military leaders had their own independent beliefs (p. 31), and that subsequent U.S. support for repression alongside stated commitments to democracy is more accurately understood as a “contradiction” rather than “deceit” (p. 38)—are notable exceptions to the volume’s overall tone. As other chapter authors recognize, more work is needed (pp. 76, 236).

Similar tensions affect the volume’s treatment of the domestic objectives of genocide. The atrocities profiled in the book occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, so it is not clear how these outbreaks fit into the politics and violence of the earlier Cold War, raising questions about whether escalation came from ideological changes or other conditions. Marcia Esparza argues in the introduction that genocide sought to eradicate el pueblo—that is, the popular sectors of society (particularly workers, peasants, and the urban poor)—in order to protect an unequal distribution of material resources and forestall policy demands such as wage increases and land reform (pp. 3, 6–8). This fits with the idea that repression preceded the Cold War and was readily transferred...


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