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Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America.

Aterse summation of the past two disastrous decades in Latin America might read like this: death squads in El Salvador; contras and comandantes in Nicaragua; "dirty war" in Argentina; cocaine cartels in Colombia; jack boots and General Pinochet in Chile; Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. That this grim landscape has at times extended from Tierra del Fuego to Mexico is indication enough that something has been and still is terribly wrong in much of the Hispanic Americas.

Tina Rosenberg sifts through this world of failed hope and achieved horrors in search of the roots of its politics of violence.* The details of her discoveries vary, but her sobering conclusion in several cases is that many Latin American societies are condemned to bloodletting by the precedents of violence and gross injustice that characterize their culture and their history. There will be no easy cure for much of what is awry in this part of the Southern Hemisphere. Improvement is possible, but it is not certain and will be gradual at best in splintered nations such as Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

This would once have been considered a fatalistic, even reactionary, conclusion. It is a sign of our age that it now seems almost obvious. In our century, Latin America's malaise has mostly been described in simple cliches referring to poverty, North American imperialism, and capitalist exploitation. Like all cliches, these held, and still hold, a measure of truth. But they do not explain the consistent political failure over so many centuries across the diverse landscape by regimes of such differing political appellations.

Juan and Evita Peron in Argentina, 30 years of generals in Guatemala, Fidel Castro in Cuba, the Ortega brothers in Nicaragua, General Noriega in Panama-the list is long and it almost always adds up to a decline and fall, usually accompanied by bloodshed. Marxists have proved no salvation. Castro in Cuba and Tomas Borge in Nicaragua have sponsored torturers, secret jails, and theocratic absolutism with the same kind of moral logic that braces the hearts of too many Argentine, Chilean, and Salvadoran army officers. In Latin America there is an endless divvying up of the world into enemies and allies. Critics are usually treated as heretics. Secret police and gunmen are integral tools of government. Most Hispanic societies share a politics of envy and a gluttonous appetite for power. There is a consistent inability to reach out, to compromise, to admit mistakes, to pay taxes-to become both citizens and responsible governors.

As Burke understood far better than Lenin, habit is a keystone of political culture. And the fact is that shooting problems, rather than trying to solve them, has been a habit of government in much of Latin America for 500 years. The Sandinista officer whom Rosenberg reports as having been ordered to execute contra prisoners shares a basic belief with both the Salvadoran rightist who guns down trade unionists and with the Colombian cocaine baron who rubs out judges: Violence is a legitimate, proven way to deal with a challenge. Power is a zero-sum game-I will crush you before you crush me.

Guerrillas in their midst

In times of crisis, almost nothing seems to shake this logic. In a wonderful passage of reportage, Rosenberg describes how a well-born, educated young Argentine naval officer, Alfredo Astiz, is even more cold-blooded in his willingness to kill leftists than is the low-brow owner of a plastics factory in El Salvador. Astiz dresses well. Astiz loves classical music. Astiz attends gallery openings. Astiz is regularly promoted in the Argentine Navy. Astiz destroys hundreds of lives.

In Chile, Rosenberg finds that Chileans of the best background and most refined tastes were those least willing to acknowledge that torture had been institutionalized in Chile-and that it was wrong. In Nicaragua, Luis Carrion Cruz, among the most well-meaning and well-bred Sandinista comandantes, helped oversee repression for a new Nicaraguan Interior Ministry that chillingly described itself as the "Sentinel of the People's Happiness" as it regularly tortured prisoners and jailed thousands via party-run kangaroo courts. Good intentions and good education, it appears, aren't sufficient antidotes to violence-a disturbing thought for the well-intentioned and well-read among us.

Rosenberg is excellent at describing such moments of darkness at the most personal level. She breathes life into military goons, fanatical Peruvian guerrillas, Colombian cartel hitmen, and a tired onetime Sandinista army hero ready to sell his tarnished medals. Her book is at its best as a political travelogue. It offers a powerfully written and convincing gut-level view of some of the worst of Latin America's recent history and politics.

But it is less easy to determine why violence has so marked Latin American societies. The reasons are both simple and complex, and as she sorts through them, Rosenberg's analysis becomes debatable.

This book is undergirded by the unspoken premise that Latin America is almost uniquely violent. But the experiences of Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Syria, and Israeli-occupied Palestinian towns are often as bad or worse. Yugoslavia's warring ethnic sects offer new examples of brutality. For that matter, the homicide rate in the growing third world inside the United States is right up there with El Salvador and Guatemala. The major ghettos of Washington, D.C., New York City, Detroit, and Los Angeles are ruled by men with guns who bear a remarkable similarity to the young hoods Rosenberg meets in Medellin, where 20 or more people are gunned down on an average day. And the broad causes seem similar: poverty, a culture that accepts violence, a sense of profound social isolation, an absence of meaning.

Rosenberg argues that such violence is distinct from the state-sanctioned terrorism by police and army officials in many Latin American states. But in some cases, such as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru, we are not looking just at state terrorism. These are societies in which, as in Ireland in its modem moment of mayhem, things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Or, to be more precise in the case of much of Hispanic America, things have always fallen apart because the center has never been knitted together. It's like today's East Harlem-there is no tolerant social consensus.

That is why it is no surprise that Chile and Uruguay have shown a much greater capacity to recognize the wrong of ruling by murder than most of the other Latin American states Rosenberg considers. Their violence was not endemic-their descent into terror was an aberration. By the blessings of historical coincidence and enlightened leaders, they forged a tradition of decency, citizenship, law, and community. y became violent when their highly paranoid militaries, encouraged by the equally paranoid U.S. government, cracked down after an immature and violent left assaulted a social order that was in need of reform-but not of revolution. Chile willies

Rosenberg is uneasy in assessing such moments, struggling to weigh the degrees of excess among leftist and rightist men of violence in Latin America. With biblical weariness, Rosenberg has titled her book Children of Cain. But she empathizes with the desire to seek radical social reform and perhaps purge Latin America of its original sins. This inclination is more than understandable, but in some cases it keeps her from assessing the faults of the violent left with the same clarity that she uses to judge the violent right. A major part of the tragedy of Latin America is that leftist movements that could have been forces for healing and reform have shared the intolerance that stains Hispanic history.

I was in Chile in 1973 as a fervent, if naive, supporter of Salvador Allende. The people I met in the radical Leftist Revolutionary Movement urged class war in a society that did not want or deserve a war of classes. Several leftist organizers were trained in guerrilla warfare in Cuba. They wanted to distribute weapons and start shooting people. This appetite for violent rebellion does not in any way excuse the brutal effort by General Pinochet to form a military fascist state. But it helps make the hatreds that cut Chile into pieces more comprehensible and may offer clues to understanding Chile's current climate of peace and prosperity.

Because she so dislikes the militarist right, Rosenberg cannot come to terms with Chile's amazing economic success today. She is simply wrong when she states that viewed in the context of the nation's past, the economic miracle was not so miraculous." Given the abysmal state of nearly all the rest of Latin America, Chile's economic recovery is miraculous by any standard, including Chile's own history. Rosenberg needs to confront that in Chile, as in Spain, a violent rightist dictatorship may somehow have played a significant part in national recovery. If she could unravel that unsavory, apparent paradox, she would get us closer to the roots of violence and stability in Chile and perhaps the rest of Latin America.

But that kind of analysis would mean discarding her prejudice that the sins of the violent right are unpardonable whereas those of the violent left, because they are seemingly committed with good intent, are at least understandable and perhaps forgivable. Throughout her book, Rosenberg struggles between this kind of reformist approach-which has failed for decades to decipher Latin America-and a more acute analysis that challenges old assumptions.

She is brilliant in describing the sick, closed world of military fascists in Argentina. But her explanation of Argentina's turn to violence again lacks depth because she does not fully appreciate the impact of the violence of the left. Argentina's fanatical Montonero guerrillas helped create the conditions that fertilized military fascism and social corruption. Few want to acknowledge the truth today, but a great many Argentines, perhaps even most, at first silently supported their military's "dirty war" as a necessary measure to destroy a radical left that was kidnapping and bombing its way to public repudiation.

Latin losers

While Rosenberg's chapters on Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina are often thought-provoking, her treatment of El Salvador is less so. Too often she slips into describing the obvious in simplistic terms. She aptly depicts a group of extreme rightist oligarchs and is entirely correct to say that the outrageous greed and violence of the civilian and military right pushed El Salvador into a civil war. But the violent right is only one participant in the politics of narrowness that has poisoned El Salvador. The armed left again shares in a malaise that is spread throughout Salvadoran society.

Too many of the guerrillas who make decisions in El Salvador were trained in Cuba and Vietnam and, until very recently, thought those countries were pretty neat places. They have been in general profoundly undemocratic in their internal decision-making, for years offering a closed vision of government by the Vanguard. The guerrillas are far less murderous than the right. But they lost public sympathy by needlessly assassinating mayors, detonating car bombs, attacking polling places, dragooning peasants, and murdering the country's best poet. The rebels, who include some of the country's finest people, are now making long-overdue efforts to democratize. But is it any wonder that the majority of Salvadorans, most of whom are far more tolerant than the extreme rightists Rosenberg describes, do not support the guerrillas?

In Nicaragua, the tragedy and responsibility of the left is historic. The Sandinistas promised pluralism -and then imported East Germans to train the police. The remains of nearly 100 victims of Sandinista State Security agents have been unearthed from unmarked graves. The Sandinistas promised to end corruption. They ended up hopelessly corrupt-looting banks, farms, homes, and most state industries-a development Rosenberg fails to mention. Having claimed to represent "the people," the Sandinistas left office-but only after they stole the door knobs and the rugs.

Any analysis of Nicaragua is made difficult by the Reagan administration's decision to support a peasant guerrilla war against the Sandinistas. That bloody, terrible war helped to cripple Nicaragua and make political moderation impossible. But even within the ambiguity that is inescapable when dealing with Nicaragua, Rosenberg makes large errors.

She starts on the wrong foot by incorrectly describing pre-Sandinista Nicaragua as a system of absolute privilege, absolute poverty." In fact, one of the striking things about prerevolutionary Nicaragua was that "absolute poverty," now common in the country, was relatively rare. Rosenberg fails to see that Nicaragua was a lousy family dictatorship in need of major reform-but not in need of a revolution claiming it would create a "New Man." Nicaraguans did not want to be "new men." They just wanted a chance to have decent lives under decent leaders.

Rosenberg, normally a very perceptive journalist, wanders so far afield in Nicaragua that she concludes by describing the Sandinistas' electoral defeat as "turning power over to the oligarchy." This not only distorts reality, it turns it on its head. There were rich families in Nicaragua, but there was never a real oligarchy." A majority of Nicaraguan businessmen supported the Sandinistas in 1979. Many of their children were Sandinistas. A number of powerful people showed a willingness to reform that true oligarchs, such as those found in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru, have never shared.

The truth Rosenberg misses is that the only oligarchy in Nicaragua in 1990 was the one created by the Sandinistas. It was a tiny new ruling class of rich, corrupt, and occasionally violent comandantes. These party bosses were thrown out in a free election by a striking majority of Nicaraguans, few of whom are affluent. The government now in power is inept but, again, not especially "oligarchic." In fact, by Latin American standards, it is social-democratic and reformist. Whether democracy will now emerge in Nicaragua is hard to say. But it has a better chance than it did under the monolith of Sandinista control.

It is now time to face a large truth: The explanation for violence in countries as different as Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and El Salvador is not fundamentally a matter of right and left. Violence is a shared disease that seems to arise in all societies where there are profound social differences, profound exploitation, and an absence of either a compelling ideology to make misery bearable or the human ties that bind men and make them tolerant. Runaway slaves were hung on meat hooks in 19th-century South Carolina. The Sioux Indians were slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry in the Dakotas a little more than 100 years ago. General Sherman's "March to the Sea" left a swath of burned villages and many orphans.

But Latin America's violence seems to trouble us more than that of many other regions-and it should. First, as Rosenberg strongly argues, after waging the Cold War for 40 years in much of Latin America, the U.S. is responsible for encouraging armies and secret police to follow their worst instincts. For decades, the U.S. government trained, armed, bribed, and otherwise supported dictators and torturers throughout the hemisphere. There is blood on our hands.

At a deeper level, we are all children of the broad New World family that, from very different roots, has sought a democratic method of organizing society. We are linked by a sad history, by geography, and, broadly, by culture. Latin Americans are, in the main, profoundly Western, Christian, and modernizing. They couch their aspirations in the language of democracy, even when they fail to practice it. They are unquestionably our cousins.

The recovery of hope in a country like Chile is tonic to a tired 20th century soul. Its failure, in lands as diverse as Nicaragua and Peru, is poignant and inescapable, especially because we helped trigger Nicaragua's civil war. There is no certainty that these countries will soon evolve into healthy democracies. What is certain is that many Latin American societies will continue to ravage themselves and, at the same time, will continue the struggle to become more democratic. That path is one that may be shared by almost all developing societies in the century ahead.

We should now stop pretending to offer any panacea to peoples in such conditions. The best we can do in the post-Cold War world is to quit playing the role of superpower patron. Affluent states should offer assistance for social rather than military advances. Underdeveloped states should take responsibility for their own actions and failures. This is not a guarantee against further bloodletting. It is, however, an overdue step in that part of the world we have long asserted is developing"-with little certainty that such "development" would offer a less cursed future to the children of Cain.
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Author:LeMoyne, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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