Corey Robin reviews Greg Grandin's The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War in the LRB:
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.
Amid the hagiography surrounding Reagan’s death in June, it was probably too much to expect the media to mention his meeting with Ríos Montt. After all, it wasn’t Reykjavik. But Reykjavik’s shadow – or that cast by Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall – does not entirely explain the silence about this encounter between presidents. While it’s tempting to ascribe the omission to American amnesia, a more likely cause is the deep misconception about the Cold War under which most Americans labour. To the casual observer, the Cold War was a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, fought and won through stylish jousting at Berlin, antiseptic arguments over nuclear stockpiles, and the savvy brinkmanship of American leaders. Latin America seldom figures in popular or even academic discussion of the Cold War, and to the extent that it does, it is Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua rather than Guatemala that earn most of the attention.
But, as Greg Grandin shows in The Last Colonial Massacre, Latin America was as much a battleground of the Cold War as Europe, and Guatemala was its front line.