Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin America’s Revolutionary Generation: A Look Back

Reading Time: 7 minutesThree recent memoirs take a look at some of Latin America’s most tumultuous chapters, and how baby boomers experienced them to the fullest.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Romano Cagnon

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on transparency and the 2018 elections

With its peace signs and flower dresses, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco hosted the 1967 Summer of Love. But across the Bay, Berkeley was a hotbed for politicos struggling to shake up the world capitalist system.

In the fall of 1972, I entered nearby Stanford University to earn a doctorate in international economics. Before matriculating, I spent the summer burnishing my math skills at the University of California (Berkeley). I was also busy marketing my new book on the democratic revolution then underway in Chile, where I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Common interests put me in touch with the Bay Area’s political crowd, especially those passionate about international affairs. I had the good fortune to befriend three contemporaries whose memoirs have just been published (in one case, the author is the son of my deceased friend).

The three memoirs take the reader through some of the most tumultuous chapters of Latin America’s 20th-century history, from Salvador Allende’s Chile to Cuba’s revolution to Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement.

Interestingly, all of the books reveal common traits among the authors. All three hailed from the American heartland: two from Kansas, one from Wisconsin. Each references early family trauma as the psychological backdrop for their future political radicalization. Although each of these Berkeley politicos chose different career paths, all three remained politically engaged. Despite many setbacks, none became cynical or withdrawn; on the contrary, they turned more worldly, not world-weary.

As conscious agents of change, active in various mediums and relentlessly hardworking, each developed their own clear voice. In their adult years, their appreciation of the complexities of history and society deepened, even as the more radical of the three  adhered to unrealistic assessments of the latent power of their revolutionary allies. As they aged, all three became more introspective, and more drawn to the common virtues of strong family ties.

As the three memoirs tell us, all pursued lives well-lived. They worked at professions that fulfilled their creative talents and engaged deeply in loving, if sometimes unstable, relationships. They all pursued lives — some more effective than others — directed toward alleviating human suffering at home and abroad.

Intellectual Vagabond

As he recounts in Fractured Utopias, Roger Burbach (1944–2015) grew up on a failing family farm in Wisconsin and suffered through tough-minded Catholic schools. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, the young Burbach’s father was strict and remote. Burbach roots his political radicalism in the Catholic Church’s belief in utopias, whether the vision of heaven above or the more earthly utopia of the medieval theologian Thomas More. In college, Burbach devoured the classic leftist literature of the 1960s and 1970s: Marx and Engels, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills and the radical historian of American diplomacy, William Appleman Williams. The common themes: anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, criticism of conspicuous consumption and grating inequalities; and in favor of collective solutions, personal liberation and sexual fulfillment. Heady stuff, especially for a Midwestern Catholic boy. Always a hard worker, Burbach completed his Ph.D. in history at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Burbach’s first major trip was not to the East Coast but south, to Mexico City. To the young Burbach, U.S. politics seemed depressingly tame compared to the more open class warfare and anti-imperialist rhetoric of Latin American politics. To avoid the Vietnam-era draft, Burbach joined the Peace Corps; in rural Peru, he witnessed extreme poverty and revolutionary movements.

For Americans of Burbach’s generation fascinated by Latin America, the seminal events were the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, and the Nicaraguan revolution and the subsequent Contra wars by the Ronald Reagan administration against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Burbach was intensely engaged in both struggles, thrilled by the philosophical debates, by the colliding visions of utopia on earth, when a “whole new world opens up.” Of Nicaragua in the 1980s, Burbach commented,“The Summer of Love in 1967 in San Francisco pales in comparison to what happened in Nicaragua,” referring not only to the society-wide transformations but also to “a decade of tumultuous lovemaking” in which he participated lustfully.

In the mid-1970s, Burbach also visited Cuba. While he applauded the revolution’s social egalitarianism, his American mind was repelled by the Soviet-inspired dogmatism and excessive economic centralization. In contrast to the revolution’s early enthusiasm, Burbach was disturbed as “a certain grayness settled over the country.” No society could sustain Burbach’s quest for high-level emotional intensity and intellectual purity: He would find no lasting utopias.

Burbach was badly shaken by the collapse of the revolutionary experiments first in Chile then in Nicaragua, but not so much as to abandon his strongly held principles or deter his “continuing quest for the exotic in life.” The determined dreamer comes down hard against the Chilean opposition politicians who accepted a negotiated restoration of democracy in 1990: “I couldn’t admit that the path to utopia had once again been obliterated in Chile.” Throughout, Burbach attached an exaggerated weight to the political heft of his far-left comrades, a self-deception that kept him going on his quixotic missions, but inevitably left him disappointed in outcomes. For Burbach, the passionate journey gave meaning to human existence.

Chasing Rainbows

Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, written by Peter Andreas (now professor of international relations at Brown University), is a memoir of his political mother, Carol (1933–2004). It centers on their extraordinary travels in Chile and Peru in the 1970s, when Andreas was a young boy. In drafting this tender but critical portrait, Andreas drew on Carol’s extensive, self-reflective diaries as well as on his own searing memories.

As Rebel Mother describes, Carol grew up in a pacifist Mennonite family in Kansas. Married at the age of seventeen, she promptly bore three sons. However, she was bored and frustrated by her straight-laced husband and a conventional suburban lifestyle. When the family moved to Detroit in the mid-1960s, Carol was drawn into the radical politics consuming the city. As a Ph.D. sociologist, she published Sex and Caste in America (1971), an early feminist manifesto.

Bravely, some would say recklessly, in 1970 she absconded with her three sons, and set off for Berkeley, California, where she opened a communal home whose members shared chores and participated in collective decision-making. This was no deep-woods retreat: Neighbors included the original Peet’s coffee shop and a restaurant called Chez Panisse.

Again, Carol grew restless. As throughout her life, she was searching for a revolutionary milieu where she could advance progressive political causes. Her pilgrimage to South America overlapped with Burbach’s, taking her to the impoverished highlands of Peru and to Chile during the Allende years, where, badly jolted by the violent military coup, she was forced to flee. Like Burbach, Carol was attracted to the more radical movements in Latin America, eschewing compromise with reformist “bourgeois” parties and even advocating armed insurrection. Unlike Burbach, Carol did not establish lasting linkages with leftist intellectuals in Latin America. Her marriage to a working-class Peruvian man floundered on the clash between his Leninist principles and her feminist assertiveness. Eventually, she returned to Denver, to teaching and organizing around local causes.

As her memoirist, Andreas appreciated the political passions of his mother, her zest for the active life, her forcefulness and determination, and her devotion to her children. Her lack of concern for material possessions and personal ambitions, while sometimes careless and irresponsible, had a certain insouciant charm about them. However, her political dogmatism and negativity were wearing and divisive. As time went on, her rigid, rhetorical politics even distanced her from her beloved son, Peter. Nevertheless, Andreas and an older brother, Joel, have matured into creative, purposeful scholars; Carol would have been proud.

Burbach and Carol Andreas held disparate views of engagement with Washington politics. To deepen his understanding of U.S. diplomacy toward Latin America, Burbach from time to time interviewed U.S. government officials and informed analysts (including myself). In contrast, for Carol, Washington smelled of “sell out.” When Andreas contacted me for a summer internship, Carol wrote in her diary, “I worry that Peter is dazzled by Feinberg (a defender of capitalism with a little morality thrown in to keep the masses in line).”

A Journalist’s Life

Of the three protagonists, Elizabeth Farnsworth chose the more mainstream career path, her professional journalism leading to her becoming a frequent anchor on PBS’ NewsHour. Stylistically, however, A Train Through Time is the most ambitious of the three memoirs. Farnsworth weaves together memories of growing up in Topeka — obsessing on the early passing of her mother — with characters from The Wizard of Oz, a mythical transcontinental train ride trapped in a freezing blizzard, and her many adult travels to dangerous conflict zones around the world.

Farnsworth faulted her father and her gruff, stoic grandfather for failing to prepare her nine-year-old self for the impending death of a cherished parent. She rooted her politics and her risk-taking journalism in this early traumatic exposure to deep sorrow and shame, to the existential fragility of life. Farnsworth delves into her own subconscious, but she primarily focuses on the too casual, unfair sufferings of others: victims of misdirected American bombs in Iraq; families dismembered in Vietnam; and women bound by extreme restrictions in Saudi Arabia. It was her duty to use her tools — her voice, her crews’ cameras — to help.

While Farnsworth’s politics are less in-your-face, her sparse stories and curated images leave no doubt that she harbors strong objections to the U.S. military interventions in southeast Asia and now in the Middle East. The collateral human damage has been much too great.

Immediately after her mother’s death (from cancer), her father took her to northern California to visit relatives. She recounts her first romantic take on surfers, on the beautiful vegetation, on Stanford University (where she would later receive her master’s degree in history), and the film industry. This was prelude to her settling permanently in Berkeley. In contrast to Burbach and Carol Andreas, Farnsworth succeeded in creating a stable family, with an attorney husband, two grown children, and six grandchildren, to whom she dedicated the memoir.

During the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, Farnsworth was reporting from Chile. We know from Burbach’s memoir that Farnsworth co-authored publications disclosing U.S. policies intended to destabilize the Allende government. Burbach quotes Allende as referencing Farnsworth’s work (some of which I co-authored). A few years later, when working in Jimmy Carter’s State Department, I was told by a senior CIA official that our assessments of U.S. actions against Allende were the most accurate his colleagues had seen.

In 2004, Farnsworth returned to Chile to film what would become an award-winning documentary on judicial efforts to bring General Augusto Pinochet to justice. She met with the relatives of the “disappeared,” the thousands of Chileans taken from their families and murdered — some tossed from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. Farnsworth explained her motives: “In places far from Kansas, I also found relief from self and sorrow by concentrating on the lives of others. I felt a kinship with the people I covered and especially with those who weren’t told the truth about the disappearance of the people they’d lost.”

The moment of greatest triumph in the book is the author’s interview with Henry Kissinger. She confronts him directly: Why didn’t you tell Pinochet to stop killing people? And she traps Kissinger into telling a direct lie about the U.S. role in Chile during the Allende years. Two points scored, for correcting the historical memory and for shaming the guilty!

Donald Trump belongs to the same baby boomer generation as our three protagonists, but inhabits a very different world. While our protagonists were battling to alter U.S. foreign policy, Trump was striving to build a personal fortune in the real estate business in Manhattan. Yet, just as their more radical utopian visions fade away, we can also suppose that Trump’s dystopian vision of American “carnage” (as he described in his inaugural address) is a last gasp of the remnants of an equally bygone era.

Feinberg’s four decades of engagement with inter-American relations span government service (in the White House, Department of State, and U.S. Treasury), numerous Washington, D.C.-based think tanks, the Peace Corps (Chile), and academia. He is also a member of AQ’s editorial board.

Tags: books, Culture
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