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American Empire Project

Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

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“Grandin has always been a brilliant historian; now he uses his detective skills in a book that is absolutely crucial to understanding our present.”
—Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

The British and Roman empires are often invoked as precedents to the Bush administration’s aggressive foreign policy. But America’s imperial identity was actually shaped much closer to home. In a brilliant excavation of long-obscured history, Empire’s Workshop shows how Latin America has functioned as a proving ground for American strategies and tactics overseas. Historian Greg Grandin follows the United States’ imperial operations from Jefferson’s aspirations for an “empire of liberty” in Cuba and Spanish Florida to Reagan’s support for brutally oppressive but U.S.-friendly regimes in Central America. He traces the origins of Bush’s current policies back to Latin America, where many of the administration’s leading lights first embraced the deployment of military power to advance free market economics and enlisted the evangelical movement in support of their ventures.

With much of Latin America now in open rebellion against U.S. domination, Grandin asks: If Washington failed to bring prosperity and democracy to Latin America—its own backyard “workshop”—what are the chances it will do so for the world?

320 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

Greg Grandin

20 books326 followers
Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Professor of History at New York University, Grandin has published a number of other award-winning books, including Empire's Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and The Blood of Guatemala.

Toni Morrison called Grandin's new work, The Empire of Necessity, "compelling, brilliant and necessary." Based on years of research on four continents, the book narrates the history of a slave-ship revolt that inspired Herman Melville's other masterpiece, Benito Cereno. Philip Gourevitch describes it as a "rare book in which the drama of the action and the drama of ideas are equally measured, a work of history and of literary reflection that is as urgent as it is timely."

Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times.

He received his BA from Brooklyn College, CUNY, in 1992 and his PhD from Yale in 1999. He has been a guest on Democracy Now!, The Charlie Rose Show, and the Chris Hayes Show.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 99 reviews
Profile Image for Simon Wood.
215 reviews126 followers
February 7, 2014

Empires Workshop stands a good head and shoulders above most works of this nature I have recently read. Grandin writes fluently about the relationship between the United States and Latin America over the last hundred years or so, identifying the continuities as well as the innovations. The only innovation that comes across as being halfway sensible is FDR good neighbour policy. The rest of the presidents would seem to require some sort of International ASBO to keep them in check.

The interesting part of the book covers the evolution of the Radical Religious Right in American foreign policy and the free reign it in particular was able to excercise in Central America during the 1980's under the Regan Presidency. Central America is where such Bush II luminaries as John Negroponte, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and an assortment of other lunatics including Col. Oliver North cut their teeth. The devastation and death that resulted from their policies was astonishing when one takes into account the population size of those countries. Central America under the nascent neo-cons was a hell on earth.

The thesis, which the author backs up with an immense amount of information and erudition, is that Central America was a sort of "workshop" where the neo-cons developed the ideas and put into practice the policies that were used to such bloody effect in Iraq over the last 6 years. For instance Grandin notes John Negropontes role in Central America and the continuities betwen what happened there and what went on during and after his short stay in Iraq. He also notes American involvement in Death Squads in Iraq, an issue I have wondered about for some time and which formed such a central part of U.S. policies in Central America during the 1980's.

The book also covers Latin America as well, including the Pinochet regime with particular regard the the Friedman/Hayek school of thoughts influence on it. There is something particularly nauseating about reading of Hayek (he of Road to Serfdom fame) praising Pinochets vicious authoritarian regime - by their friends we shall know them.

Thoroughly reccomended, this is this best book of this type I have read in quite some time.
Profile Image for Ed .
479 reviews31 followers
September 7, 2008
U.S. policy in Latin America has served as a model for actions throughout the world especially the Middle East according to "Empire's Workshop". Unfortunately Greg Grandin doesn't make his point terribly well, although this book can serve an important function as an introduction to the role of the United States in creating and supporting right wing dictatorships, military coups against democratically elected governments and rule by terror.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua became, in Grandin's words, "the last killing fields of the Cold War" as the U.S., in the name of anti-communism, supported what became a capitalist jihad against any organizations that they felt could threaten their rule. Rural co-operatives, trade unions and anti-impunity coalitions (people who wanted to bring murderers to justice) were targeted. Their leaders were killed and their members were terrorized. The army officers and noncoms who carried out the killing and torture were trained in the United States under the guidance of the U.S. Southern Command.

4 reviews
August 17, 2013
A number of George W. Bush’s supporters, both during and after his presidency (2001-2009), vocally expressed their belief that history would judge Bush’s polices favorably. In Empire’s Workshop, however, Greg Grandin judged Bush Administration policy in regard to historical precedent. Grandin traced the development and implementation of a new United States imperialism from the late 1970s to the present. In conflicts in Central America and financial crises across the region, Reagan Era neoconservatives used Latin America as a proving ground for a new US imperial policy. Grandin argued that the Bush Administration drew its post-September 11, 2001 policies, including the war in Iraq, from the strategies and tactics of the neoconservative, imperialist experiment in Latin America during the 1980s.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Grandin argued, a new generation of civilian militarists committed themselves to reformulating an ethical foundation for US power in global affairs. Neoconservative intellectuals like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Paul Wolfowitz rejected both the amoralism of Richard Nixon’s policy of détente and the guilt-ridden moralism of Jimmy Carter’s Democratic Party (157). Instead, Grandin argued, neoconservatives created a vision of the US as a purpose-driven nation with a strong moral role to play in the world. In the eyes of neoconservatives, the US was not only in a struggle against the Soviet Union or the spread of communism, but in a battle against “an existential evil, the antithesis of everything the” US stood for (157). Ronald Reagan’s administration adopted much of the neoconservative philosophy and united neoconservatives with evangelical Christians and neoliberal economists in a new imperial coalition.

According to Grandin, Latin America became the crucible where the new imperialists experimented with policy and implemented their vision of a resurgent US. The Reagan Administration supported and aided authoritarian regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala in wars against leftist insurgents. The administration also supplied and funded Contra rebels against the Marxist-inspired Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At the same time, Grandin argued, the US administration supported neoliberal, free-trade policies in Latin America and forced Latin American nations such as Chile and Argentina, by means of International Monetary Fund and World Bank policy, into greater economic dependence on the US.

Grandin traced the new imperialism from the 1980s to George W. Bush’s presidency. The Bush Administration, led by many of the neoconservatives of the Reagan years, carried imperialism further and transformed it into a kind of “hard Wilsonianism.” Bush’s vision not only embraced a vision of the US as the guardian of democracy, but a belief that the US should build democracy through military force (52-53). The Bush Administration’s post-9/11 policies, particularly the war in Iraq, drew on the neoconservative experience in Latin America in the 1980s as a model for success. Grandin deemed neoconservative policy in Latin America a failure that led to the death and torture of thousands in Central America and the poverty of millions across the region. In his conclusion, Grandin called for policy makers to learn the lessons of the history of the past thirty years, noting that if the US was unable to create a prosperous, democratic society in Latin American in the 1980s, it would be unable to do so in Iraq or anywhere else in the world.

Although Grandin based many his arguments on the history of US policy in Latin America from the 1970s to the 2000s, Empire’s Workshop was not a traditional historical monograph. Grandin employed virtually no primary documentation and relied heavily upon secondary historical works, news reports, and works of political commentary. Empire’s Workshop was as much as critique and rebuke of neoconservative policy, both past and present, as it was a work of history. As a result, Grandin frequently revealed his personal political views throughout the book.

Grandin persuasively and skillfully argued many of his points; however, Empire’s Workshop’s lack of original research and Grandin’s blatant biases undercut the work’s reliability. Grandin’s work would surely appeal to Reagan and Bush critics, but it is unlikely Grandin’s harsh and condemnatory tone could convince neoconservative policy makers or supporters. Grandin’s comment, for example, that neoconservatives hoped for a catastrophe like the 9/11 terrorist attacks to galvanize imperialist support took his argument beyond political criticism and into the realm of partisan attack (197). Also, from a historical perspective Grandin disempowered Latin American actors in respect to US policy. In his portrayal of the Chilean coup of 1973, for example, Grandin considered the US effort to overthrow Salvador Allende’s regime the ultimate cause of the coup and disregarded the reality that many Chileans opposed Allende and his policies (59-64). In Empire’s Workshop, only US policy decisions determined events in Latin America and the failures of Latin American regimes played no significant role. As a result, Grandin provided an incomplete image of Latin American history.

Grandin’s attempt to trace the origin and development of a US political philosophy over the course of thirty years and to judge policy successes and failures was a valid historical pursuit. However, Grandin traced neoconservative philosophy to current events that historians had yet to fully research and reflect upon at the time of the book’s publication. Therefore, historians cannot know the full extent of how a Latin American model influenced US policies in Iraq and elsewhere until the past is truly past. Because of this and Grandin’s overt bias, Empire’s Workshop will be of limited value to either historians or general readers beyond those who share Grandin’s political outlook.
Profile Image for Roxana.
30 reviews20 followers
June 12, 2016
The second half of this book is definitely much better than the first half. Don't expect deep exploration of the issues in any particular Latin American country; rather, this book is a big picture analysis of howU.S. foreign policy tactics, strategies, and the resultant ideological apparatus to support them is being spread into the Middle East. One issue I had with this book was that too much credit was given to ideas, in that, in some passages it almost seems as if it is ideas themselves that are driving history as opposed to the material interests generating those very ideas. Overall, great book and I would recommend it.
Profile Image for Nathan  Fisher.
145 reviews32 followers
June 2, 2016
I'm generally a fan of Grandin, but even so this was an impressive read -- demonstrates remarkable scope and expert perception, flowing freely between analysis and history -- especially recommended for those looking to shed remaining American sympathies, natch. Good on Grandin for keeping his eye on the economic determinations of imperialism as well.
Profile Image for Jack Hrkach.
376 reviews1 follower
November 10, 2018
I bought this book because I thought it might help me to remember all the terrible things the US did to Latin America in the name of containment (from the communist threat) and continuing on through the 80s (Regan's reign particularly egregious) to 2006, in Bush II's time, when the book was published. I'm an old guy and was around for much of this, but it was good to get it straight from the hip in one book. I've been thinking a lot about the "caravan" and how much the US have done through the decades to cause much of the suffering those poor souls are going through.

The book is well-written, but is aiming at an audience better acquainted with economics than I am, so I had to do a good bit of re-reading, and at one point late in the book almost gave up on getting all that Grandin was trying to give me. Not sure my description of myself fits you, you might want to re-think the re-read.

But I did get a lot from it - names, policies, brutalities that I'd not remembered jumped back to mind. I think I may want to find something, if only an article or maybe another book that takes the history closer to today - if so, you'll hear from me on it.
Profile Image for Michael Brickey.
20 reviews11 followers
August 7, 2008
Grandin does a good job underscoring the hemispheric policies of the US in the last century. His thesis ties the current neo-conservative foreign policy in the Mid-East with that of the Reagan administration's approach to Latin America. He also describes how US efforts toward "economic development" have often led to economic growth, but rarely to development. He does well to introduce the reader to corporate involvement in Latin America and how US policy has worked to preserve and grow corporate influence in the region. More importantly, he points out how the US has consistently deterred true democracy in the region because it has often resulted in center-left and leftist governments. I'd recommend this book to anyone unfamiliar with US policy regarding Latin America and also to anyone who thinks they know everything about it.
Profile Image for Matthew WK.
364 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2016
Grade: B+
A fascinating look at America's foreign policy and imperialist desires towards Latin America and how it shaped the war in Iraq. Grandin draws the line from 1970s America through the 1980s in Latin America and into the 21st century and the Iraq war. The promiment figures from the Iraq war (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, etc...) all cut their teeth in Latin America during the 1980s; here they developed the propaganda, military techniques, and economic repression that would be brought to bear on Iraq. Bringing democracy, freedom, and free-market economics to Iraq in order to stabilize the region has resulted in the same outcome those objectives were supposed to meet, but failed, in Latin America. My only compliant - book could have easily been doubled in pages, if not tripled, in order to expand and espouse on his theories.
Profile Image for Shariq Chishti.
122 reviews6 followers
September 18, 2017
The history of USA meddling in Latin America is as old as the US itself. And because of its ubiquitous nature it is missing from the daily news unlike the Middle East even though the strategies for the Middle East are formulated and tested in Latin America. This premise of the book is interesting and very important and the book should have been a great one considering the deep research author has done but for me the writing falls flat. Every chapter left me more confused than the previous one and after a few pages it was difficult to give the book required attention. The book is not contextualized properly though there is enough information for the reader to parse through on every page. I wish the book was more detailed and clear in its approach and writing. A big disappointment!
Profile Image for Terry Earley.
931 reviews10 followers
December 29, 2009
A very disturbing commentary on US treatment of countries in our own hemisphere. Although critical of both Republican and Democratic administrations, Grandin makes sense when he points out that the same neocons who designed and implemented policy in South and Central America were instrumental in US policies toward the Middle East, specifically in the invasion of Iraq.

The concluding chapter is especially damning when conventional wisdom, however false and exaggerated, of our "successes" in democratizing Central and South America are glibly voiced in defense of nation building in the Middle East.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,238 reviews18 followers
November 2, 2014
A sobering and impeccably detailed account of how the U.S.'s current nation building spree in Iraq and Afghanistan had its genesis in the neocon awakening of the 60s, 70s and 80s in developing foreign policy and interventionism in Latin America. The insidious and largely clandestine machinery used to usurp democratically elected governments in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Mexico is illuminated in these pages, and in doing so Grandin's demonstrates how those forces are still in operation today in the Middle East. This is heavy but essential history for anyone who would call himself an informed voter.
Profile Image for Jesse.
55 reviews4 followers
March 31, 2012
Super useful books for activists and radicals in understanding the extent of US imperial meddling in Latin America. But, this book is definitely a product of drinking too heavily the New Right/Bush Doctrine kool aid and lets liberals and Democratic politicians largely off the hook for their support for and leading of the right of the US government and corporations to push their economic and military might on other countries.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
July 29, 2014
This book was a bit like a very abridged version of The Shock Doctrine. It excoriates U.S. economic and military imperialism and LATAM and argues that practices perfected there were then imported to MENA and domestically. For me much of it was a retread but there was still some worthwhile new info, the additional background on the Contras was interesting.
Profile Image for Jason Canada.
126 reviews4 followers
June 2, 2012
Just as we are fed propaganda about Islam and the Middle East, so too are we fed lies about Nicaragua, Cuba, and most other Central American countries. Our government seeks to implant democracy in other countries while oligarchic neocapital corporatism is good enough for us here at home.
Profile Image for Robert Morris.
202 reviews33 followers
April 25, 2021
What a scathing overview.

Like many somewhat educated US citizens, I've long been half aware that our history in Latin America is pretty sordid. But ratcheting up that awareness, which this book most assuredly did, was a painful process. Page by page, Grandin lays out the horror. The book doesn't even pretend to be a full accounting. With it's focus on US policy and over all trends, it doesn't have the time necessary to give any comprehensive overview of the treatment of any one country. I suppose it's possible, likely even, that there are more positive aspects of US leadership in the region that Grandin leaves out. But that doesn't make the litany of crimes described any less important or any less scathing.

The one that sticks out in my mind, and will continue to do so I hope, was a 1914 incursion in Haiti. Haiti, after heroically freeing itself from slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, endured a century of diplomatic isolation, both before and after US emancipation. Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France for the "property" the Haitians had stolen by freeing themselves. And how did the US celebrate its final liberation from British hegemony in Latin America by the outbreak of World War I? By sending in the Marines to quite literally rob the Haitian central bank of all its gold. I wish I was joking.

The book demonstrates three distinct phases to US hegemony in Latin America. It sort of hand-waves at US actions before the 20th century, as many books do. But it quite rightly ignores that period, and the fiction of the Monroe Doctrine, when Britain was much more in charge down south than the US did. (Not that the US didn't brutalize the places it could reach, like Mexico) The three 20th century phases are Pre-Roosevelt insane over the top brutality, Roosevelt (ending in 1954, about a decade after his death) and Post-Roosevelt subtler, more quiet encouragement of dictators and death squads. To be clear, Grandin is too careful set out a clear periodization the way I did there, but this is the lesson I took from his book.

There is rightly a lot of focus in the book's marketing on the fact that George W. Bush's crew of fuck-ups largely got their start fucking up Latin America in the 1980s, completing the dismantling of FDR's very partial pull back towards treating our neighbors like peers instead of peons. But as time passes I think Grandin's more subtle point on FDR is more significant. One pleasant surprise for me with this book (the only pleasant surprise?) was how effective FDR's "Good Neighbor" policy was. I'd always assumed it was just a money saving approach during the Great Depression and World War II when the US's resources were needed elsewhere. It absolutely was that, but it was so much more.

By the time FDR came to power decades of abuse had brought Latin America to almost open revolt. But by renouncing intervention, and claiming to be more about development than domination, FDR didn't just save money, he was staggeringly successful. Latin America became a reliable bloc for the US in World War II, and in the early decades of the United Nations as well. It was a coup in the best sense, instead of a nasty story of the sorts of coups that followed. FDR's successors slowly chipped away at his achievement, coup by coup and death squad by death squad. And the reliable "Americas bloc" in international diplomacy faded away too.

But that doesn't mean that FDR's success can't be repeated. Grandin makes the great point that it was the template established by Latin American push back, and FDR's political savvy that provided the public face of the US world system in its most successful phase in the mid 20th century. Grandin, as what I assume is a fairly straightforward leftist, sees this as sinister. But I... as somebody who thinks the US world system still has a little more to offer, and could even evolve into a more just and fair post-imperial system without the wars that ended the British system... see significant hope in what FDR accomplished, and what we could conceivably accomplish again.
Profile Image for Michelle.
119 reviews51 followers
January 27, 2022
This is one of those extremely important works of scholarship that I feel like everyone should read. It's up there with How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney for me - it's that important. It effectively argues and examines how the Latin American continent has been the US' backyard for experimentation of Imperial, interventionist, and capitalist interests and actions and how those actions directly tie into current US international affairs such as US presence in the Middle East. Written in 2006 initially, I would like to see it expanded further to examine how US Latin American involvement has been propagandized in US media - especially video games and film as I believe that is a wealth of analysis that would benefit this argument further.

I highly recommend this book, for everyone to read as soon as possible.
2 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2021
I’ve never read a history book that is so “of its time” as this one. Written during the Bush presidency, it is a history of US imperialism in Latin America through the lens of the Neoconservative militarist movement that seemed to peak with the Bush/Cheney administration and the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan.

The specific angle Grandin takes, pointing out how so much of the counter insurgence tactics and nation-building that was attempted in the Middle East was originated in our forays into Latin America, is an interesting one. But there are better books about that history, and tying everything to a specific point in time (~2005) and administration can’t help but make it feel dated.
Profile Image for Dana.
Author 2 books6 followers
April 8, 2021
I'm not sure I've ever read a book with a higher "wtf" per page ratio. The depth and scale of US meddling and murder in Latin America is staggering, but this book does an excellent job chronicling it, connecting the dots, and exposing the through-line from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror and our current political cluster. Glad I decided to be patient and wait for the updated version, because it was worth it, though seeing certain names (Bolton, Negroponte, et al) pop up again and again nearly sent me into a rage blackout. Highly recommended, despite the rage blackouts.

February 4, 2023
Great book. Grandin explains US policies in Latin America with precision and clarity. While other books on the subject emphasize only the power of American businesses, Grandin explains that evangelicals, militarists and policymakers who wanted to reverse what they saw as America’s decline after Vietnam, also played major roles in US policy in the region.
26 reviews
October 29, 2018
Enlightening but super dense read about America's empire in Latin America and its connections to the war on terror.
Profile Image for Demetrius Lindsey.
5 reviews1 follower
April 17, 2013
The United States has always believed in practice over theory. Latin America is the practice ground that the U.S. uses to better their ability to be an empire and global power. In this week’s book Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of New Imperialism the author demonstrates how the U.S. used Latin America as a testing ground and workshop for the formation of the American Empire. Greg Grandin is the author of the book, he is a professor at New York University and is well respected as a Latin America historian he has four other publications dedicated to Latin America. Grandin wrote this book during President George W. Bush’s second term in office. This is important because Grandin makes many parallels to what Bush is doing now to what happened in Latin America in previous administrations. The author’s argument in the book is that Latin America was a workshop where the United States could learn how to become an empire. Grandin argues that Latin America is ignore and forgotten for its contributions to U.S. foreign relations. This book forces the reader to better understand the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America on a grander scale.
The book opens up with the importance of Latin America to the United States’ formation of an empire. In Latin America the U.S. was able to develop their military against a generally weaker force and fine tone their strategies. Also the U.S. learned how to reconstruct nations the author points out the parallels to Japan, Europe, and Latin America. The author then goes on to state the U.S. changed its policies in the wake of Vietnam. In chapter three of the book the author looks at El Salvador and Nicaragua as examples of how violate and primitive the “New Imperialism” has become. Ronald Ragan is president at this time where the United States is at its peak of violence in Latin America and the author goes on to say that Ragan is credited for ending the Cold War without firing a single shot. (p.8) In the 1980’s during the Regan administration there was an emergence of zero toleration for communism. For the final section of the book Grandin continues to provide evidence that the Bush administration can credit Latin America for many of its policies in the Middle East.
This book is great because it shows the connection of Latin American foreign relations to the relations of the Middle East. Grandin gives great examples from many different sources but because the span of the argument is so spread out it makes it thinner. The argument is thin in this respect he is trying to sell more books because of a hot topic like the Middle East instead of being undeviating on the Latin American topic he goes in million different directions like Vietnam, Europe, Japan and Germany to name a few. This book is a good read for a large audience that enjoys foreign affairs topic as far as secondary sources I would not use this book to build an argument because it is a tad confusing when it goes in some many directions.
Profile Image for John.
540 reviews34 followers
May 13, 2019
So many books have been written about US intervention in Latin America that, when this one was published a decade ago, it might easily have been overlooked. Grandin’s approach was different however: he concentrates not so much on how the US intervened, but why it does, and how this fits into evolving US foreign and domestic policies more generally. He shows that US intervention has at different times had strong political, economic and even religious motives, with the US often treating Latin America as its ‘workshop’ for new approaches to intervention that it has yet to try elsewhere.

As I did not read his book until 2019, I was particularly taken by the present-day salience of Grandin’s analysis of US support for the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and how this was handled domestically (given that for several years the policy was effectively illegal). As is well known, the Contra war against the Sandinista government cost 30,000 lives and did huge damage to a struggling economy. When found guilty of causing an illegal war by the International Court of Justice, the US simply walked away from the court’s jurisdiction. But its refusal to accept international institutions and their judgements is only one instance of a striking parallel between US policy then and now.

What Grandin did was to explore the whole propaganda apparatus that developed to sustain the Contra war and minimise the blowback within public opinion in the US itself. He provides a huge list of tasks that the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America, set up by Reagan in 1983, was intended to accomplish in just one two-month period in 1985, designed to malign the Sandinistas as communists and promote the Contras as freedom fighters. The fact that the Contras were guilty of the most horrendous tortures and executions was to be glossed over. Instead, it was the Sandinistas who were accused of atrocities. One facet of the plan was to produce so much one-sided evidence that the media would simply find it too troublesome to unearth the real stories. As one journalist admitted, it would take months of research for a story ‘that would take up only five minutes of air time’ and that this was ‘not a way to be successful’. Of course a few reporters, like the brave Gary Webb, did do the research, and his fate after breaking the news of the Contra dependency on drug money was a salutary lesson to other would-be investigators.

The US was on a mission, endorsed by many US evangelical preachers who believed that the Sandinistas were pursuing the ‘economics of Satan’ and that in order to defeat them killing was ‘not only right but a duty of every Christian’. The Sandinistas might be accused of human rights violations, but according to Jerry Falwell the forces opposing them ‘had to bring wrath upon those who do evil by hurting other people’. The preacher and ‘moral lawyer’ John Eidsmoe asserted that the way to promote freedom was first to win the war, and only afterwards work for human rights.

The protagonists of the argument that American power can ‘mend the world’ first made the case for achieving democracy and nation building through the barrel of a gun in Central America, before going on to use it even more devastatingly in Iraq. Many of the protagonists – warriors in business suits like John Negroponte – turned up in both arenas of warfare. Under Trump, we’re now seeing others of their number given a new political life, such as John Bolton (whose job under Reagan was to help cover up the illegal funding of the Contras) and Elliot Abrams, whose twisted interpretations of human rights justified continued support for the Contras (and for the equally horrendous regular forces in El Salvador) regardless of the violations they carried out.

Another ‘direct outgrowth’ of Reagan’s Central American policy in the 1980s were the quasi-private organisations developed to ‘promote democracy’ in Latin America and elsewhere, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and by USAID. As Grandin succinctly puts it, they became a ‘vector for transnational conservative coalition building throughout the hemisphere’. Today, they ‘do overtly what the CIA used to do covertly’ and (as a founder of the NED put it) they ‘menace left governments throughout the region’. They were doing this in Venezuela after Hugo Chavez came to power, using (as Jonah Gindin explores) similar methods to those deployed in Nicaragua before the 1990 elections. They went on to use them more successfully to promote coups in Haiti in 2004 and Honduras in 2009.

And they have been at it again in Nicaragua, where the NED admitted last year that it was “laying the groundwork for insurrection”. Their attempt began on April 17 2018, when a government that had merely proposed modest reforms to social security provisions was – within 24 hours – being accused of gross human rights abuses. By 2018, their methods had moved on, of course, focussing on the deployment of social media to sow confusion, plant false messages and provoke dissent against an elected government that had already been characterised as a ‘dictatorship’. The barrage of accusations against the government covered up the kidnapping, torture and murder being carried out by the opposition. The conflict produced 253 deaths, including 22 police, 31 protesters (half were students), 48 Sandinista supporters and 152 members of the public.

John Bolton this year identified Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela as a ‘troika of tyranny’ where ‘the perils of poisonous ideologies’ have been left unchecked. The US government’s duty is now to promote their ‘freedom’. Grandin calls the word ‘freedom’ a ‘universal signifier’ used to bring together and enlist the support of secular nationalists, political liberals, free-market dogmatists and evangelicals. Little attention is paid to who is being given freedom, and to do what.

For example, during last year’s near-coup in Nicaragua, those who had previously organised demonstrations against the government’s project for an interoceanic canal (marches often marked by violence, as the protesters invariably carried machetes), planned and executed a massive armed attack on a rural police station which left five dead and nine kidnapped. When caught and tried, the three organisers received multiple prison sentences, even though in practice they would serve a maximum of 30 years. “The Ortega regime has sentenced three farm leaders to 550 years in prison” tweeted John Bolton, showing the same selective interest in human rights that he’d displayed under Reagan in the 1980s. “Ortega’s days are numbered,” he went on, “and the Nicaraguan people will soon be free.”

Just as in the Reagan era, the press have shown little interest in incidents like this one, preferring to focus on others where it seems easy to call out the Sandinista government for human rights abuses, providing you accept the opposition’s account of events and avoid digging very far below the surface to look for alternative explanations. But fortunately, as in the Reagan era, most Nicaraguans – even if initially misled by the social media onslaught – are astute enough to judge through their own experience who is most guilty of human rights violations, hence the rapid decline in the opposition’s support in July last year after the worst atrocities occurred.

Reading Greg Grandin’s book in this new context is a reminder of just how much the current propaganda war has in common with the one carried out over three decades ago. The scale of the attack on Nicaragua in the 1980s was hugely different, and the country is now more resilient, but in the US ‘workshop’ many of the familiar methods are still being deployed.
65 reviews1 follower
March 14, 2013
The central thread of Empire’s Workshop is that the war on terror – including the Iraq War – is an extension of policies pursued in Latin America during the Cold War. Grandin’s historical coverage is broad, but the focus is on the Reagan administration. In the 1980s, Neoconservative secularists and the religious right found common cause in promoting an aggressive foreign policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua – a policy that led to the creation and support of death squads, rural terror, and massacres.

For the neocons, the U.S. needed to combine Hobbesian realism, the belief that brute force is needed to promote national interests, with Kantian idealism, the belief in universal peace and stability. This perspective was compatible with the views of the religious right who saw the U.S. as a redemptive Christ-like figure locked in a struggle with the forces of evil. The conservatives held on to a fragile coalition, but both factions could agree that the U.S. has a moral imperative to use violence to make the world safe for democracy, capitalism and Christ - whether the people we “help” want it or not. According to Grandin, Reagan conceded Latin American to the right-wing of his party as a way of placating them for his pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union, which they staunchly opposed, and as a way to make up for Vietnam. He points out that mid-level officials in Reagan’s defense establishment, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and John Negroponte would later rise to influential positions of power in the Bush administration.

The ideology and tactics utilized in Central America would return post 9/11. The us vs. them / good vs. evil dichotomies that energized Central American policy returned with greater force in the war on terror, as did the practice of relying upon, and supporting, indigenous paramilitaries to do the dirty work. James Steele, for example, led Special Forces operations in Central America and later organized similar activity with Batthist paramilitaries in Iraq (88).

Grandin makes a compelling case, especially for the ideological and political connection between Latin America and the war on terror, but he could have gone into more detail concerning the military and tactical connections. Grandin makes several references to Iraqi paramilitary “death squads” but is content to merely cite other sources for more detail, instead of informing the reader himself. See the following BBC documentary on this topic - http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video...
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews774 followers
June 28, 2013
I didn't read this very closely after the first two chapters, for reasons that will become obvious, so I apologize to Mr. Grandin if the latter parts of this book are literary masterpieces. But:

there's a great paper in here on how the Bush administration's foreign policy was shaped by the U.S.'s experience in Latin America from the late '70s through to the present. Unfortunately, that's swamped by ridiculous claims (e.g., U.S. troops ignore human rights because they play video games; Christian missionaries believe that extending U.S. power will hasten the second coming of Christ); a very skewed perspective (Republicans and the Executive want to destroy the world; Democrats and Congress want to save it); and silly conspiracy theorizing. A book that should be a gimmee as far as organization goes (just tell the stories of Latin American history during the last quarter of the century) is a disaster; the reader is treated like a blithering idiot, so every claim ('The Reagan administration did this in Guatemala...') is inevitably followed by a parallel ('So the Bush administration did this in Iraq...'), which both interrupts what little narrative flow there is and is immensely irritating, since any competent reader would either already draw the parallel, or could wait to be informed of it later in the book, perhaps in a chapter on the Bush administration's middle-east adventures. But there is no such chapter. Everything is thrown together in a heap.

'Empire's Workshop' was published in 2006, so I suspect that it was rushed into print to satisfy the (entirely justified) boom market for anti-Bush polemic at the time. Sadly, it's much better as polemic than history.
Profile Image for Carlos Smith.
15 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2011
Empire's Workshop reminds us of the often forgotten or untold sins The U.S. has committed in relation to Latin America for the past two centuries and how our exploitation of the continent evolved to become Bush's preemptive national security policy, the basis for the Bush Doctrine. Sure, there is a lot of history to cover if you consider yourself a novice in South & Central American history, but Grandin fills in the blanks pretty well.

The main lesson learned from this book is provocative and open for debate, but the author makes a great case to support the main conclusion: If Washington was unable to bring prosperity, stability, and real democracy to Latin America, which was within it's 'sphere of influence' for so long, what makes it think it can bring it to the Middle East and other areas of the world? Dick Cheney's argument of the United States' leading role in bringing freedom to Latin American countries defies belief in the face of indisputable facts to the contrary presented in this book.

The material in this book also presents a sharp contrast to the anti Hugo Chavez rhetoric we hear in American media. Considering the Imperialistic policies of the U.S. have brought Latin America economic injustice, untold massacres of populations, human rights violations, and centuries of exploitation it is no wonder Chavez' politics are so anti-American. One cannot help but empathize with his views and see his economic, domestic, and socialist policies as pragmatic.

Please read this book if you are at all interested in this topic. You will learn a lot of new things.
Profile Image for Pilar.
1 review1 follower
July 9, 2015
As juvenile as this may sound, something that kept crossing my mind while reading this book was a lyric from a song in Disney's Pocahontas: "how can there be so much that you don't know you don't know?"

Empire’s Workshop: The United States, Latin America, and the Rise of the New Imperialism strives to explain to its readers how the "current" events taking place in Iraq and the Middle East are not only related to politically but also are extremely similar to the past 60 years in Latin America (this book was published in 2004). Written by historian and professor of history at NYU Greg Grandin, the book goes president by president basically from Truman on, with smaller glances back even further, and explains in every single way how politicians and businessmen from the United States repeatedly exploited, damaged, intervened, destroyed, and murdered Latin America and its people, either directly or indirectly. It then draws comparisons to actions being taken in the Middle East of the present day by people like George W. Bush, his appointed staff, and others in the United States government.

This book's argument and evidence repeatedly showed me that there is much about the United States and Latin America that I had never even dreamed to be possible . . . continued on a blog post here
Profile Image for Jack.
272 reviews6 followers
October 21, 2016
An unfortunately forgettable book on a topic that deserves better. Grandin gets in his own way by not organizing the rich history he's mining from in a coherent way. American Imperialism in Latin America has way too much history to fit in 300 pages, I was hoping that this book would give me a good survey of the basic contours, but while the author DOES cover each country where the US had a significant influence, I came out of each story with more confusion. The author does not set enough context before each chapter, but dives right into indignant diatribes. I'm not saying the apparent anger in the text isn't warranted, but it gets in the way of readers looking to learn more about just what US involvement in this part of the world has been.

The most riveting parts of the books are on the period of violence, civil war, and death squad in Guatemala and El Salvador. There are some truly disturbing episodes described here, but, I suspect like many other Americans, the labels and the sides are muddled for me. I kept asking myself, just who are the Sandinistas? Which side is who on? It's a lot to keep track of.

Would have liked for the book also to cover more of US-Mexican relations going back two centuries, and also on the narcoviolence in the 90s in Colombia as well. On to the next bleak account of American neoimperialism....
120 reviews2 followers
January 12, 2022
200 years of the murderous monroe doctrine but some of the stuff that was done under Reagan is too horrifying for words
Profile Image for Z. F..
294 reviews94 followers
March 6, 2017
"'We're an empire now,' boasted a Bush staffer after the invasion of Iraq, 'and when we act, we create our own reality.'"
-pg. 237

I try to be sparing with the Orwell quotes and references, since they tend to be overused to the point of meaninglessness, but it would be hard to find a more fitting summary for Empire's Workshop than "WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

An unpleasant, disconcerting, revelatory book. I don't have enough base knowledge of the subject matter to make any sort of legitimate judgment of Grandin's work as a historian, but if even half of what he presents here is true it's enough to keep me up at night for a long time to come.
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