Carnegie Mellon University

Realms of Inconsequence: U.S. Imaginaries of Central America, 1979-2005

Author: Eric Vázquez

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2015

This dissertation examines how novelists, solidarity activists, and intellectuals draw out the significance of armed uprisings in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala between 1979 and 2005. The wars that resulted from these insurrections seem to many to have been the last paroxysm of an expired idea: revolutionary struggle. Theorists and scholars often view the 1980s and 90s as the apex of the culture of late capitalism with its attendant features of postmodernist depoliticization and the retreat of the hope for radical social transformation. By contrast, this dissertation demonstrates how Americans engrossed in Central America's conflicts shared a belief in the viability of revolutionary politics and the persistent social importance of culture. Chapters on counterinsurgency theory, David Stoll's anthropology in Guatemala, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's and Jennifer Harbury's solidarity memoirs, and Central American diasporic novelist Héctor Tobar analyze the dispute between political imaginaries relevant to conflict in Central America.

Two prevailing tendencies run through the culture of U.S. imperialism in Central America: a reactionary imaginary that seeks to nullify the premises of revolutionary struggle, and an imaginary committed to the project of radical social transformation. Although both tendencies interpret Central America's rebellions against landed oligarchies, military dictatorships, and U.S. hegemony in the region as aspects of a unified event, they diverge in how they narrate these uprisings. Disagreements about the nature of politics arise in these accounts about the capacities and limitations of populations, the function of the state, the dynamics introduced by capitalist expansionism, and the viability of sweeping social change. While the reactionary strand construes these insurgencies as the manifestation of a Hobbesian primordial chaos, the committed strand apprehends the same occurrences as expressions of an emancipatory groundswell. By mapping the range of political imaginaries that arose as part of and in response to U.S. involvement in Central America, this dissertation supplements scholarship exploring how American militarism in Central American anticipated our contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how forms of violence helped generate conditions necessary for the rise of neoliberalism. It takes up questions of the legitimacy of Americans’ political and cultural solidarity with social transformation occurring outside the United States. This dissertation reveals that, whether they aligned their aspirations with the forces of change or allowed an imperialist agenda to distort the shape of events, Americans mobilized diverse political imaginaries to engage with revolution beyond U.S. borders.