Chapter One How Latin America Saved the United States from Itself
"Latin America doesn't matter," Richard Nixon once said, "people don't give one shit" about the place. Not quite. Ever since the very first report from Jamestown settlers to London in 1607 warned of the "devouringe Spaniard," British colonists and then US elites defined themselves in relation to their Spanish- (and Portuguese-) speaking neighbors to the south. The following selection of documents, most of which are referenced in the first chapter of Empire's Workshop, illustrates this preoccupation across the centuries. They start with a diary entry from the Puritan Samuel Sewall, a Salem witch trial judge, hoping that a passing comet would strike Mexico City and spark a "revolution." "I have long pray'd for Mexico," he wrote, "that God would open the Mexican fountain" – one of the first examples of the Shock Doctrine in the Americas.
In the 1970s, with the United States reeling from cascading crises – Watergate, Vietnam, dissent and skepticism at home, résistance to its authority abroad, and the longest recession since the Great Depression – the New Right, as illustrated by the following documents, turned to Latin America to regroup. In particular, it used Reagan's Central American wars to revive militarism and free-market absolutism, infusing that revival with moral righteousness. This fusion -- militarism and market absolutism sanctioned by moralism -- is, I argue in Empire's Workshop, not just the foundation of the modern conservative movement but the successor to the New Deal consensus, accepted by US political elites across the spectrum.
A cornerstone of the emerging New Right consensus was a rehabilitation of counterinsurgent warfare, which had become discredited after Vietnam. The primary venue for this rehabilitation was in Central America: 1. El Salvador was the perfect corrective to Vietnam, a chance for counterinsurgents to get their doctrine right; 2. and in Nicaragua, where the US supported the anti-Sandinista "insurgents" – really a bunch of old-regime murderers, torturers, and rapists – militarists had the opportunity to imagine counterinsurgency not just as a defense maneuver but an offensive thrust, to move beyond "containment" and "roll back" socialism in the name of democracy. The road to the Baghdad (and the Bush Doctrine) passed through Nicaragua (and the Reagan Doctrine).
Reagan's Central American policy allowed the first generation of neoconservatives (who went on to play a dominant role in shaping George W. Bush's post 9/11 diplomacy) a way of circumventing domestic dissent and drive a war forward over majority opposition. This is what the Iran-Contra scandal was about, a notoriously confusing crime that was less a conspiracy than the foreign-policy debut of the New Right, bringing together for the first time in purposeful activity all the major constituencies that continue to dominate US politics: neoconservatives, the Religious Right, free-marketeers, and militarists.
The following documents are divided into two sets: the first provide examples of how Iran-Contra allowed New Right activists opportunities to contain dissent at home, to bypass moderates in the CIA and the State Department, discredit critics in Congress, slander skeptical reporters, and feed disinformation to the general public – in effect to run, via the Office of Public Diplomacy, what a congressional inquiry described as a covert psychological operation on domestic soil.
The second set indicates how the fight against Latin American liberation theology allowed for the ideological fortification and unification of the New Right, bringing together for the first time secular neoconservatives and the conservative religious activists. In other words, progressive Catholic humanism was the first "political religion" that united modern conservative activists, before they turned to Islam. Documents include analysis of liberation theology by influential religious-right theologians and the mission statement of the "mainline" Institute on Democracy and Religion, affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute.
Even before the Central American wars were brought to a close with the end of the Cold War, Latin America, as the following documents illustrate, became the place where neoliberalism – an extreme version of what would be called Reaganomics – would be put into place, first in Chile and then the rest of Latin America (and eventually most of the world). The "Chile model" entailed not just neoclassical economics but the New Right fusion of defining democracy in terms of individual economic freedom and restoring the power of a militarized executive branch. In putting this model into place, free-market ideologues were as fervent and uncompromising as the left revolutionaries they sought to displace. As Friedrich von Hayek, author of the influential The Road to Serfdom, put it in an interview he gave in Chile in 1981, reproduced here, Pinochet's death-squad dictatorship was necessary to establish a "stable democracy and liberty, clean of impurities. This is the only way I can justify it - and recommend it."