In 1965, the nationalist government of President Sukarno in Indonesia was toppled in a military coup d’état. Sukarno was a visionary and idiosyncratic leader who, over the preceding 15 years, had struck a precarious balancing act between the country’s ultra-conservative armed forces on one side and its popular and assertive communist party, the PKI, on the other. He was also instrumental in establishing the so-called ‘Third World’ movement of left-leaning, non-aligned states that emerged after the Second World War.
By the start of the 1960s, however, that act had begun to falter. In the middle of the decade, the generals made their move. With the explicit backing of the United States, the Indonesian army ousted Sukarno and then rapidly set about eliminating their ideological rivals. Over the next 12 months, up to one million Indonesian civilians and suspected PKI members were slaughtered in what was, by any measure, one of the worst instances of organised political violence to have occurred during the 20th-century.
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.