Review: “A Century of Revolution”

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Book Reviews

In his introduction to A Century of Revolution, series editor Greg Grandin urges historians to rethink Latin America’s revolutionary and counterrevolutionary twentieth-century. Grandin offers a number of programmatic suggestions to historians, including the need to acknowledge the adaptability and dynamism of counterrevolution.[1] In particular, he draws attention to how counterinsurgent terror in Latin America eliminated alternative development programs and ensured subordination to the economic and political neoliberal protocols of what became known as the Washington Consensus.[2] Several of the essays in this volume explore how counterinsurgent military regimes brokered Latin America’s “transition to democracy” and how their brutal “success” against leftist guerrillas and popular movements made possible the region’s radical free market policies.[3] Peter Winn, Gerardo Rénique, and Forrest Hylton all shed light upon these processes of counterrevolution and neoliberal expansion in Chile, Peru, and Colombia.

In “Furies of the Andes,” Peter Winn describes how Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government tried to pioneer a nonviolent road to democratic socialism between 1970 and 1973.[4] Despite provocations from the right, Allende steadfastly refused to arm his supporters against a mounting counterrevolution financed by the United States and carried out by the Chilean Right. As a result, the “Chilean Experiment” was violently overthrown in a military coup that installed the most repressive dictatorship in that nation’s history. The counterrevolution was both adaptable and dynamic. Not only did it begin before the 9/11 coup, it also cast a shadow over the Chilean Revolution from the beginning.[5] It promised to defend Christian civilization and the sacred right of private property against a godless, communist internal enemy.[6] The counterrevolutionaries offered a new vision for Chile’s future, but that vision called for the restoration and reinforcement of the ruling classes. The new Chile left no room for Allende’s supporters. As a result, the Pinochet regime ordered the mass detention and torture of tens of thousands of leftists, students, workers, peasants, and shantytown dwellers and the “disappearances” of some 3,000 Chileans. Winn argues that this strategy not only neutralized Allende’s base, but also ensured that popular opposition would never emerge in the future.[7] By suppressing popular memory of Allende, Pinochet paved the way for the new Chile, rapidly implementing capitalist “shock therapy” while tightening his grip over Chilean political and social life.

The siege of La Moneda, Santiago de Chile, 9/11/1973

Gerardo Rénique considers how the military’s suppression of the Sendero Luminoso and the democratic left between 1980 and 1992 made the expansion of neoliberal reforms in Peru possible. In his essay entitled “People’s War, Dirty War,” Rénique argues that both left and the right have conveniently blamed the Sendero Luminoso for the genesis and propagation of violence and terror that crippled Peruvian society in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, the nation’s political parties have drawn attention away from Peru’s exploitative and exclusionary social system while justifying state violence as “reactive” responses to left-wing provocation.[8] Furthermore, this perspective ignores how counterinsurgency created a situation in which the state used fear to normalize and further its own violence against both the Sendero Luminoso and the growing popular resistance to President Alberto Fujimori’s (1990-2000) neoliberal policies.[9] Rénique retraces Peru’s long and bloody road to neoliberalism, explaining how the Peruvian military fused together national development and security objectives during the mid-1960s. After suppressing the MIR guerrillas in 1966, military leaders presented themselves as agents of modernization and civilization while recasting leftist politics, both insurgent and democratic, as “Cuban contagions.”[10] Thus, Rénique argues that the Peruvian military waged “preventive defense” against both real and potential enemies.[11] As in Chile, the counterinsurgency profoundly shaped the political and cultural imagination of Peruvian society as memory of war and the privatizations of neoliberal reforms combined to undermine the appeals of the left.[12]Alternatives to the Washington Consensus were either eliminated outright or pushed to the margins of the Peruvian political landscape in the 1990s.

Finally, in Colombia, Forrest Hylton contends that counterinsurgency laid the foundations for not only capital accumulation and neoliberal reforms, but also state formation. Beginning in the late 1980s, counterinsurgency combined with economic neoliberalization to “re-feudalize” social relations in Medellin and successfully consolidate a state through an alliance of paramilitaries, organized crime, and neoliberals. While combating the leftist FARC and ELN, Hylton describes how the counterinsurgency oversaw and implemented Medellin’s successful transition from a declining manufacturing center to a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy anchored in the production and export of cocaine.[13] In the aftermath of Pablo Escobar’s murder and the dismantling of the Medellin Cartel, narcoparamilitaries sought to regain foreign investment in Medellin by “pacifying” the city, waging a dirty war against popular militias, organized labor, leftists, and other critics of the counterinsurgency and the neoliberal economic model. By precluding the emergence of a national popular bloc, narcoparamilitarism continues to rule Medellin. For Hylton, narcoparamilitarism represents “neoliberalism in extremis,” in which private economic-political power supplants the state in the form of a parastate that performs state functions but is opposed to democratic accountability.[14]

Carlos Castaño, AUC paramilitary leader

These essays highlight the dynamism and adaptability of counterrevolution, explaining how counterinsurgency “cleansed” Latin America of internal threats and anti-modern forces while paving the way toward neoliberal reform. In Chile, Peter Winn describes how Pinochet’s counterrevolution not only restored traditional hierarchies and vanquished an internal enemy, but also ensured that Allende’s Popular Unity would never re-emerge to derail Chile’s capitalist “shock therapy.” In Peru, Gerardo Rénique argues that the military justified its sweeping counterinsurgency as a necessary reaction to Cuban-style insurgents and used the dirty war to suppress the democratic opposition to the Washington Consensus in the 1990s. Finally, Forrest Hylton reveals how counterinsurgents in Colombia sought not only to an expedient end to a now five-decade-long civil war against Marxist guerrillas, but also to forcibly deregulate an economy fueled by cocaine dollars and defended by right-wing paramilitaries.


[1] Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 400.

[2] Grandin, “Introduction: Living in Revolutionary Time,” 30.

[3] Gilbert Joseph, “Latin America’s Long Cold War,” 409.

[4] Peter Winn, “Furies of the Andes: Violence and Terror in the Chilean Revolution and Counterrevolution,” 239.

[5] Winn, 259.

[6] Ibid, 269.

[7] Ibid, 268.

[8] Gerardo Rénique, “People’s War, Dirty War: Cold War Legacy and the End of History in Postwar Peru, 313.

[9] Rénique, 312.

[10] Ibid, 322-323.

[11] Ibid, 327.

[12] Ibid, 332.

[13] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellin, Colombia,” 339.

[14] Ibid, 361.

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