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Latin America was born in blood and fire, in conquest and slavery. So that is where to begin a brief introduction to Latin American history, cutting straight to the heart of the matter, identifying central conflicts, and not mincing words. It is precisely conquest and its sequel, colonization, that created the central conflict of Latin American history. Conquest and colonization form the unified starting place of a single story, told here with illustrative examples from many countries. We need a single story. Rapid panoramas of twenty national histories would merely produce dizziness. But, before beginning the story, we must ask whether nineteen countries can really share a single history. At first blush, one might doubt it. Consider everything that story would have to encompass. Consider the contrasts and paradoxes of contemporary Latin America.
Latin America is young—an average age in the teens in many countries—a burgeoning land with a population soon to reach a half billion, with all the innovative dynamism that youth implies. And it is old—a land of ancient ruins, of whitewashed walls and red tile-roofed hamlets continuously inhabited for a thousand years. Some Latin Americans still grow corn or manioc on small plots hidden among banana trees, carrying on fairly traditional rural ways of life. These days, though, most Latin Americans live in noisy, restless cities that make their societies far more urbanized than those of developing countries in Asia or Africa. Megacities like BuenosAires,São Paulo, and Mexico City have far outstripped the ten-million mark, and many other capitals of the region are not far behind. Latin America is the developing world and also the West, a place where more than nine out of ten people speak a European language and practice a European religion. Most of the world's Roman Catholics are Latin Americans. And Latin America has deep roots in indigenous cultures, too. Most of the world's native Americans, by far, live south of the Rio Grande.
Today many Latin Americans live and work in circumstances not so different from those of middle-class people in the United States. The resemblance seems to have grown in recent years, as government after government throughout the region has liberalized its trade policies, facilitating the importation of cars, videocassette recorders, and fax machines. But the vast majority of Latin Americans are far from being able to afford such things. A family that owns any sort of car is much better off than most, but the great majority do have some access to a TV, if only at the house of a neighbor. So Brazilians and Chileans and Colombians who cannot have a car nevertheless live thoroughly immersed in Western consumer culture and, night after night, watch bright television commercials tailored to those able to emulate the lifestyle of the U.S. middle class. It is for this reason, and not just because of proximity and poverty, that so many Latin Americans come to the United States.
Consider next the contrasts among countries. Brazil occupies half the South American continent, its population surging toward two hundred million. Most countries in Latin America are quite small, however. The populations of Panama, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador added together could fit in Mexico City or, for that matter, in Brazil's urban giant, São Paulo. Contrasts in other social indicators are also vast. Argentina and Uruguay have adult literacy rates comparable to those in the United States and Canada, whereas 44 percent of the adult population in Guatemala cannot read. Costa Ricans live to a ripe, old average age of 77, Bolivians to only 62.
Now ponder the incredible ethnic complexity of Latin America. Most Mexicans are descended from indigenous people and from the Spanish who colonized Mexico. The Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead—with its candy skulls, inviting people to "eat their own death"—embodies a mood so unfamiliar to people from the United States precisely because its intimate inspirations are largely non-Western. The capital of Argentina, on the other hand, is ethnically more European than is Washington, D.C. Not only does a larger percentage of the population descend exclusively from European immigrants, but they also maintain more European contacts, such as dual Argentine-Spanish citizenship and relatives born or still living in Italy or England. The modern cityscape of Buenos Aires is very self-consciously modeled on Paris, and French movies have a popularity there unheard of in the United States.
The experience of racial diversity has been central to Latin American history. Latin America was the main destination of the millions of people enslaved and taken out of Africa between 1500 and 1850. Whereas the United States received about 523,000 enslaved immigrants, Cuba alone got more. All Spanish America absorbed around 1.5 million slaves, and Brazil by itself at least 3.5 million. From the Caribbean, down both coasts of South America, African slaves performed a thousand tasks, but most especially they cultivated sugarcane. Today their descendants form large parts of the population—about half, overall—in the two greatest historical centers of sugar production: Brazil and the Caribbean region.
Latin American countries are highly multiethnic, and all sorts of racial combinations occur. Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil, like Argentina, have populations of mostly European extraction. Some countries, such as Mexico, Paraguay, El Salvador, and Chile, have very mixed, or mestizo populations of blended indigenous and European heritage. Other countries, such as Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia, have large populations of indigenous people who remain separate from the mestizos, speak indigenous languages such as Quechua or Aymara, and follow distinctive customs in clothing and food. In many countries, black and white populations live in the coastal lowlands, with a more indigenous and white mix in the mountainous interior regions. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela all follow this pattern. Brazil, half of the South American continent, shows regional demographic variations on a grand scale: whiter in the south, blacker on the north coast, with indigenous influence still visible only in the large but sparsely populated Amazon basin.
To repeat the question, then, does this startling variety, divided into twenty countries, really have a single history? No, in the sense that a single story cannot encompass their diversity. Yes, in the sense that all have much in common. They experienced a similar process of European conquest and colonization. They became independent more or less at the same time. They have struggled with similar problems, in a series of similar ways. Since independence, other clearly defined political trends have washed over Latin America, giving its history a unified ebb and flow.
In 1980, most governments of the region were dictatorships of various descriptions. In 2000, elected governments rule almost everywhere. And the globalizing energies of the 1990s have helped Latin America leave behind its 1980s "Lost Decade" of debt, inflation, and stagnation. Economic recovery has given prestige to the "neoliberal" (basically free market) policies pursued by practically all governments in the region. But, as in much of the world, current free market growth seems to make the rich richer, the middle class more middle class, and the poor comparatively poorer. In Latin America, with a poor majority, that kind of growth can produce more losers than winners.
Winners and losers. Rich and poor. Conquerors and conquered. Masters and slaves. That is the old, old conflict at the heart of Latin American history. The conflict remained alive and well in the 1990s. To protest the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States and Mexico in the 1990s, Mayan rebels began an uprising that lasted years. These Mayan rebels took the name Zapatistas in memory of earlier rebels, many of them indigenous, who fought for land reform in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, middle-class Mexicans found that NAFTA reduced the prices and increased the availability of urban consumer goods. The Zapatistas continued to protest, but the Mexican government kept NAFTA in place.
Aspects of this confrontation can be traced straight back to 1492, which is exactly the purpose of this book. Here, in a nutshell, is the story: In the 1500s, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers imposed their language, their religion, and all their social institutions on the indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans, people who labored for them in mines and fields and who served them, too, at table and in bed. After three centuries of this, however, things began to change (at least partly) with the introduction of two new political forces.
The first force was liberalism. Students should carefully separate this international meaning of liberalism from narrow U.S. uses of the word. Liberalism, in this larger sense, composes the core principles of the U.S. constitution, principles shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. Historically, liberalism is a complex of values and practices that developed in the 1600s and 1700s, largely in France and England. Both 1776 and 1789 (marking the American and French Revolutions) are landmark dates in world liberalism. Liberalism favors progress over tradition, reason over faith, universal over local values, and the free market over government control. Liberalism also advocates equal citizenship over entrenched privilege and representative democracy over all other forms of government. Unfortunately, these last elements have sometimes been treated as icing on the cake, a finishing touch too often put off. Overall, the U.S. experience with liberalism has produced prosperity. The Latin American experience with liberalism, on the other hand, has been more mixed.
Nationalism, the second new political force, eventually became liberalism's rough opposite. Liberalism and nationalism emerged together in the struggle for Latin American independence. Latin American nationalism—different in different countries but always built on similar themes—is deeply embedded in the region's historical experience. A portrait of it will emerge gradually over the course of this book. One initial observation: people in the United States often regard nationalism (nationalism elsewhere, anyway) as negative. But Latin American nationalism has often provided an ideological self-defense against imperialism, a positive force for social equality, and an antidote to white supremacy.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, Europeans no longer ride on the backs of indigenous porters or in sedan chairs carried by African slaves. But everywhere, wealthier people still have lighter skin and poorer people still have darker skin—a sweeping but sadly accurate generalization that does have exceptions, and lots of them, but only of the kind that prove the rule. The conclusion is inescapable: the descendants of the Spanish, the Portuguese, and later European immigrants to Latin America still hold power, and the people who descend from slaves and subjugated indigenous people still work for them. Half a millennium later, this is clearly the enduring legacy, rippling across the centuries, of the fact that African, European, and indigenous American people did not come together on neutral terms, like various pedestrians arriving simultaneously at a bus stop. Just how they did come together will be our concern in the next chapter. (Get ready for the blood and fire.)
This quick introduction is for U.S. readers who are encountering Latin American history for the first time. Such readers need to know something about past U.S. thinking on Latin America, because examples of it float freely in our popular culture and still influence our ideas.
Until roughly the 1930s, the interpreters of Latin America focused largely on race and culture, considering the Latin American varieties defective goods, responsible for such woes as poverty, political instability, and dictatorship. "Hot-blooded Latins" with too much "nonwhite blood," according to this outmoded idea, simply lacked the self-discipline and the brains to make stable, democratic, prosperous societies. As Catholics, they lacked a "Protestant work ethic" (to make work not just a necessity, but a virtue), and their tropical climates further discouraged economic activity with debilitating heat and too many sensuous satisfactions—mangoes, papayas, and passion fruit—literally, as well as figuratively, growing on trees. In this version, Latin American history was racially, culturally, or environmentally "determined," and more or less inescapably so. Another U.S. image of Latin Americans created during these years was the image of laziness, of the indolent peasant snoozing under a large Mexican sombrero, an image totally refuted by the hard-working reality of the Mexican farmworkers who migrated into the southwestern United States as braceros ("hired hands") after World War II.
Between 1940 and 1970, racial and environmental determinism went out of style intellectually. U.S. historians of Latin America replaced the former villains of the region's history (those pesky indigenous or African genes) with new bad guys: backward mentalities and traditional social structures that had to be "modernized" (basically, made more like those of the United States) so that Latin America could advance in stages along the developmental trail blazed by other countries. Large landowners who monopolized fertile soils in ostentatious, unproductive estates, conservative priests who opposed modern social legislation such as that governing divorce, generals who just could not get used to democracy—these took over from laziness, hot-bloodedness, and tropical heat as explanations for Latin America's problems.
After the mid-1960s, most students of Latin America became convinced that earlier interpretations of its problems were a convenient way to blame the victim. Instead, they argued that Latin American economies stood in a dependent position relative to the world's industrial powers, which used their existing advantage to forestall Latin American industrialization. They believed that "economic dependency," and not an overly traditional culture, explained why Latin American development did not follow the path of its supposed models.
Today, the dependency model still provides some useful insights, but it has lost its central place in Latin American studies. Within the United States, interest in Latin America now focuses on matters that also preoccupy us at home. As U.S. citizens consider "multiracial" census categories and explore new ways of thinking about race, for example, they are interested to learn that Latin Americans long ago began to think in terms of multiracial identities. People concerned with multiculturalism and "identity politics" in the United States find a valuable comparative perspective in Latin America. By the 1990s, both the humanities and the social sciences gave a new prominence to the study of culture and, more specifically, to the way race, gender, class, and national identities are "constructed" in people's minds. (To be male or female is a matter of genes, of biology, but the definition of a "real man" or a "real woman," for example, differs greatly from culture to culture.) In matters of cultural and racial complexity, the world has much to learn from the Latin American experience.
Let us begin our story.
|List of Maps||9|
|1.||First Stop, the Present||15|
|Countercurrents: A Statistical Portrait||25|
|Countercurrents: Friar Bartolome de las Casas||58|
|Countercurrents: Colonial Rebellions||88|
|Countercurrents: The Gaze of Outsiders||114|
|Countercurrents: The Power of Outsiders||144|
|Countercurrents: More International Wars||175|
|Countercurrents: New Immigration to Latin America||207|
|Countercurrents: Populist Leaders of the Twentieth Century||240|
|Countercurrents: Liberation Theology||270|
Posted March 28, 2003
The legacy of colonial and Spanish rule is a legacy of serfdom verses elitism. The stories of Cuba and the communist rebellions were totally understandable when appreciated in light of the historical context that this book presents. The history of Brazil, how it was once the seat of the Portuguese royal family, and the various nations on the southern tip of South America that have struggled with development offered a fascinating glimpse at a rarely talked about region of the world. The Cold War and the effects of globalization after de-colonization in Latin America was also fascinating. The analysis of the class structures, and how they have continued in different forms from government to government was detailed and convincing. Also I found the stories of the heroes and heroines of the attempted revolutions penetrating. Mostly I got a sense for the dramatic story that these many diverse and connected peoples have experienced.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.