Conspiracy Theories, Violence, and Politics in 20th-Century Colombia, Guyana, and Mexico

AHA Session 103
Conference on Latin American History 20
Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Lauren (Robin) Derby, University of California, Los Angeles
“They” Killed Gaitán: Conspiracy Theories and Political Violence in Colombia
Thomas J. Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University
Conspiracy and Rumor in Remembering the Death of Walter Rodney
Vikram Tamboli, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Louise E. Walker, Northeastern University

Session Abstract

This panel examines conspiracy theories and rumor as sites of knowledge production in twentieth-century Latin America and the Caribbean. The papers demonstrate that conspiracy theories were constitutive of new political discourses and forms of collective action. Rumors further reflected the imbricated relationship between modernity and precarity. Departing from dichotomies between modern and pre-modern or rational and irrational, this session explores conspiracy theories within the context of 20th century modernity. In many ways, conspiratorial thinking was a natural response to the “opacities of power” that modernity generated (Sanders and West 2004). The papers here interrogate rumors and conspiracy theories as important, but under-explored, responses to discourses of transparency and liberalism (Mexico and Colombia) and post-colonial insecurity and violence (Guyana). Rumors of forced sterilization or political plots and assassinations reflected on-the-ground ways of grappling with modern problems of population control, colonialism and imperialism, and political gridlock. Reflecting anxieties about surveillance, insecurity, and urban life, rumors evidenced the belief that power operated in secret, hidden from public view and intervention.

The papers foreground the politics of knowledge production and explore themes of violence, secrecy, and political and popular cultures. Vanessa Freije analyzes 1974 rumors about forced sterilization in Mexico City schools. She uses this case to explore the politics of secrecy and concealment in Mexican public life and examines the conspiracy theory as a popular response to international population control measures. In his paper, Vikram Taboli explores rumors around the assassination of radical Marxist historian and activist, Walter Rodney, in Guyana. He pinpoints this moment as critical to Guyanese debates about the ethics of violence and societal order. The case highlights the ways in which the postcolonial has been ordered by sensations of arbitrary and intimate violence. Tom Williford’s paper examines the 1948 assassination of Colombia liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. He explores not only the discourses produced by the rumors but also the on-the-ground responses that conspiracy theories generated. Williford explores how the ensuing conspiracy theories blamed conservatives, anti-gaintanista liberals, and the CIA and undergirded violence for the following years.

As important as rumor and conspiracy theories have been to Latin American politics, they have remained underexplored within the historiography. This panel interrogates the historical methodologies for examining conspiracy theories, while demonstrating rumor’s important role in knowledge production in twentieth-century Latin America and the Caribbean. Finally, the panel speaks to broader conceptual debates by considering the extent to which the cases from Colombia, Mexico, and Guyana shed light on the relationship between conspiracy theories and politics in other countries, including the United States.

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