Franco questions the dialectic between civilization and barbarism first posed by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Facundo. This is an important challenge to the standard view of Latin American culture and society that, beginning with the Conquest, positions civilization, reason, and progress in contrast to barbarism and primitivism. Franco describes the opposition between civilization and barbarism as a myth that has been deployed in Latin America to conceal violence (5). Cruel Modernity, then, focuses on challenging this myth by revealing the fundamental connection between barbarism and civilization in Latin America.
Franco argues that “civilization” has not eradicated “barbarism” and gives the example of accounts given in Truth Commission Reports that are very similar to Bartolome de Las Casas’ descriptions of Spanish violence toward the Indians in the 16th century. In discussing the guerrilla movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Franco shows how modernity both concealed and shaped the details of cruelty. Torture and repression, for example, were “modernized” through sophisticated equipment, methods, and psychological and logistical training giving new legitimacy and distinction to continued barbarism. In sum, Franco argues that “Neither cruelty nor the exploitation of cruelty is new, but the lifting of the taboo, the acceptance and justification of cruelty and the rationale for cruel acts, have become a feature of modernity”(2).
In the first chapter “The Insignificant Incident and Its Aftermath” Franco focuses on the Haitian massacre of 1937 known in official documents as the “insignificant incident”. Trujillo’s program of modernization fostered racism by making a clear division between Haitians and Dominicans based on race, language and character leading up to the massacre and then made attempts to erase the incident from the collective memory through a campaign of fear and repression.
The second chapter, “Alien Modernity,” examines how the state constructed indigenous populations and later guerrilla movements as enemies of the modern nation. These “others” were perceived as threats to civilization and became natural targets for state violence.
The third chapter “Raping the Dead,” focuses on rape as an instrument of modern warfare. Franco points out that Guatemalan soldiers were trained to rape using prostitutes and that the degradation of women was a necessary part of military training (79).
The next chapter, “Killers, Torturers, Sadists, and Collaborators”, considers how cruelty is ‘normalized’ and made bureaucratic through a myth of civilization. Franco examines the confessions of torturers such as retired navy captain and former ESMA officer Adolfo Scilingo who gave his interview after two fellow officers, who had engaged in torture, were passed over for promotion. Scilingo describes the “vuelos” in which prisoners were put of planes, stripped of their clothes, drugged and thrown into the ocean as “a Christian, and basically nonviolent form of death” (103).
In “Revolutionary Justice” Franco examines the emergence of an ideal guerrilla warrior that was self-disciplined, unwavering and ready to sacrifice his life for the cause. This ideal led to cases of revolutionary justice within the armed left in Argentina, El Salvador and Peru in which members of the left were killed because of ideological weakness or because they were accused of treason. Franco examines the testimony of Hector Jouvé in the Argentine EGP, the case of Roque Dalton in the Salvadoran ERP, and the Shining Path movement in Perú. (See this chapter for more on Jorge Lanata’s Muertos de amor, Hector Jouvé’s Testimony in La Intemperie and Oscar del Barco’s letter “No matarás”)
In the chapter “Cruel Survival” Franco looks at the testimonies of survivors such as Rufina Amaya who survived the massacre of El Mozote in El Salvador. This massacre in particular highlights the double facedness of the United States, a nation that presents itself as a pinnacle of democratic civilization and yet endorsed and trained the Salvadoran Atlacatl battalion to carry out the massacre of the community of El Mozote in 1981. Franco also examines the case of Miguel Mármol who survived a firing squad in 1932 in El Salvador and the cases of eight survivors of Pinochet’s coup in 1973 featured in Cherrie Zalaquett’s Sobrevivir a un fusilamiento (2005). (See this chapter for a discussion on Mark Danner and Miguel Mármol)
In “Tortured souls” Franco’s focus shifts to Luz Arce’s account of detainment and torture in El infierno. After working for the Allende government Luz Arce was captured and tortured and began collaborating with Pinochet’s secret police. Luz Arce’s case gives a voice to the experiences of survivors that collaborated with the regime in various ways in order to be spared. Cruel modernity is exemplified well in this efficient information machine developed by Pinochet’s secret police through torture, terror and betrayal.
In “Ghostly arts” Franco examines the objects that bring together the cruelty of the past and modern techniques of representation such as photography, film, installations, writing and archives. These representations of people disappeared for the benefit of “modernity,” ironically, become evidence of the cruel acts themselves. (See 203 -204 for a discussion of Brodsky Nexo, Buena Memoria and Memory Under Construction)
In “Apocalypse Now” Franco examines the paradox of cruel modernity in contemporary Latin American societies. She notes the “glossy façade” of societies given globalization, technology and increased mobility. However, “beneath this façade, cruelty formerly exercised by military governments is now exercised by powerful gangs responsible for a culture of fear and intimidation” (216).
In the “Afterward” Franco turns the gaze back onto the academic scholar and to readers in general engaging with atrocity in the postwar period. The distance from which readers contemplate cruelty is one final space of cruel modernity that Franco is critical of in her text. “However profound the impression left on them by the testimonies, readers are still at a distance and free to be in some other place. And that is a huge problem that no scholar can evade” (251).