Writing in The New Yorker last month, the journalist Jon Lee Anderson posed a difficult and probably unanswerable question: “Does Henry Kissinger have a conscience?” Anderson’s query was prompted by the release earlier this summer of classified documents that shed new light on US involvement in Latin America during the 1970s. Specifically, the papers indicate that Kissinger – who served as Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – tacitly encouraged Argentina’s then military government to torture and kill its opponents. “If there are things that have to be done, do them quickly,” Kissinger told the Argentinian Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti in 1976. “The quicker you succeed the better.”
This disclosure would not have surprised the late Eric Hobsbawm, who spent a sizeable if largely overlooked portion of his career as an academic and historian detailing Washington’s “neo-colonial” policies in the region. Viva La Revolucion is a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays and articles on Latin America stretching over four decades from 1960 to 2002. According to his publisher, it is also the last posthumous anthology of his work that we are likely to see: Hobsbawm left instructions for its publication, along with a separate volume, Fractured Times, shortly before he died in 2012.
The book is typical of Hobsbawm’s style: dry and densely informative. The most interesting pieces tend to be the most journalistic. His 1971 report from Chile for the New York Review of Books, on the progress of Salvador Allende’s experiment in democratic socialism, neatly evokes the initial confidence of Allende’s supporters: “The nearest thing to the Chilean mood is the mood of the early months … after the Labour victory in Britain in 1945. It is one of solid satisfaction among the organised left, quiet and unmessianic expectation among the unorganised poor, and hysteria among the rich.”
Two years later, Hobsbawm wrote a second, very different piece about Chile in response to the Washington-sponsored coup that toppled Allende and brought General Pinochet to power: “The Allende government did not commit suicide but was murdered. What finished it was not political or economic mistakes and financial crisis but guns and bombs. And to those commentators on the right who ask what other choice remained open to Allende’s opponents but a coup, the simple answer is: not to make a coup.”
A lifelong Marxist, Hobsbawm was instinctively sympathetic to Latin American revolutionaries, but he never let his ideology cloud what he saw as their limited chances of success. He was especially critical of the “Guevarist” tendency in the region’s socialist movements, arguing that the “hopeless, Cuba-inspired guerrilla dreams of 1960-67” underestimated “the reserve powers of government, once it decides to mobilise fully against armed groups, abandoning parliamentary and legal constraints.” (Ironically, on a trip to Havana in the mid-1960s – in an episode frustratingly absent from Viva La Revolucion – Hobsbawm actually found himself translating for Che Guevara, whom he described as “as fine a figure of a man as he looks on the famous photo, though he said nothing of interest.”)
Hobsbawm travelled widely throughout South America, learning about the broad array of radical organisations that scatter the continent. In 1992, he attended a conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil, after which he shared a meal with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leader of the centre-left Workers’ Party and future Brazilian president. However, by the time Lula won the presidency in the early 2000s, Hobsbawm’s faith in Latin America’s revolutionary potential seems to have dimmed. “The expected and in so many countries necessary revolution has not happened, strangled by the indigenous military and the USA, but not least by domestic weakness, division and incapacity,” he conceded in 2002. “It will not happen now.”
That pessimism may well have been justified. Hobsbawm lived long enough to witness the rise of the so-called ‘pink tide’, a popular democratic revolt that carried reforming leftwing leaders into office in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, as well as in Brazil. But he died before those regimes began to falter amid growing levels of social and economic unrest. Last month, Lula’s anointed presidential successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached following a (politically-orchestrated) corruption scandal and, in December of last year, Argentina elected its most rightwing government in a generation. Among the first acts of the new government was to scrap an investigation into the alleged complicity of Argentina’s central bank in human rights abuses committed by the military in the 1970s.
This article is a review of Viva La Revolucion: Hobsbawm in Latin America by Eric Hobsbawm.