October 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

A Secret History and an Uncertain Future

What If Latin America Ruled the World? Would there be an "occupation" of Wall Street? For Colombian economist and historian, Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, the answer in short is: no. Things would be better.

The book's central position is that Latin America -- first, in its Pre-Colombian societies; second, via its liberated Afro-Latin and indigenous populations -- maintained a world view drastically different from the now, flailing contemporary global economy. So it follows that this Latin American answer to the homo economicus finds a home in today’s "New New Latin American Left" emerging in nearly all sides of continent -- as I write this Argentina is voting in left-leaning Nicole Kirchner for a second term.

How he gets to this conclusion, however, is much more interesting than the conclusion itself. It begins, well, in the beginning. The author recounts indigenous people’s histories from a hemispheric perspective (a neat comparison that Guardiola-Rivera's cross-cultural erudition allows -- it should be noted this Colombian wrote his book in English). His focus in great part is the very many things that the indigenous people had mastered, including systems of writing and recording that were not understood by their European conquerors. Even the conquerors seem a bit smarter than the common dolts that high school history teaches us about. In the 16th century Bartolome de las Casas not only petitioned for greater protection of the indigenous but did so on the platform of international human rights.

This alternative history -- or meta-narrative if you will -- contradicts the common assumptions of the Northern Hemisphere, specifically those of “backwardness” and “despotism.” Guardiola-Rivera depicts a Latin America in many ways more advanced that their Eurocentric compatriots to the north. For starters, indigenous groups were cultivating and manipulating land far before the Europeans arrived. The author remembers his amazement at the spectacular terrestrial rivets that run roughly from the Caribbean to the Amazon: “These lines and circles and other abstract geometrical forms are deeply meaningful. When seen from the air they seem to leap out of the landscape towards you.” His point also is this is at once symbolic and useful, as a system of irrigation.

In the 19th century, during the rise, or revolution of the republics, Guardiola-Rivera describes a simmering continent of progressivism, more radical than that of the United States. Universal male suffrage was granted in Haiti and Colombia decades prior to its begrudging acceptance in the United States. When the Latin American states reached out to the U.S. they were met with suspicion. Guardiola-Rivera explains how the Monroe Doctrine, as well as its spokesperson, Henry Clay, is a misunderstood policy in letter, as well as in spirit. Apparently, Monroe had originally intended to cut-off European intervention and avoid the potential North American colonization of Latin America. Congress interpreted Clay’s gesture as the federal powers meddling in foreign policy and refused U.S. involvement in the Pan-American conference 1826. When the Adams government finally caved, after invitations from Mexico and Colombia, the U.S. representatives would only commit to inaction.  

As Bolivar had suspected it seemed that the United States was “foreign to [Latin America] and heterogeneous in character.” In fact, Britain, often with its own best interests in mind, was more helpful to the newly founded republics. Figures like the Lord Thomas Cochrane, a sort of Garibaldi of Britain, directly aided the young republics in their struggle against Spain and Portugal.

The Monroe Doctrine would later be warped into a license to ill for filibusters and the like. Meanwhile, underlying all of this is race. Here Guardiola-Rivera has many interesting things to say. Afro-Latinos, the author points out, actually occupy a larger share of Latin America than they do in the United States, and there are more Afro-Latin Americans than Afro-Americans -- 110 million to 35 million. These large African populations were granted more rights under the new republics than they ever were in their sister republic to the north. The result of which is openly racist encounters in Panama, where recently freed pardos did not live as second-class citizens, and thus didn’t enjoy being treated as sub-human by the North Americans passing through to the Pacific. The filibuster -- derived from a Spanish word that means pirate -- actions in Texas and Nicaragua, hardly differ in attitude from the California Rangers in their actions against californios. Both were intended essentially to put down races perceived as inferior.

Are you getting that secret history feeling? That's pretty much how this reads. In a critical, at times even alarmist tone -- something like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America -- Guardiola-Rivera shows us that the Latin America’s recent slide towards the left is not a novelty. Guardiola-Rivera spends four hundred pages showing us that contrary to the popular image in the United States, Latin America has always been progressive, and in many ways more advanced than the rest of the world. But I still have my doubts. Although he is right in opposing generalist theories that belittle Latin America, the modern republics were often not as progressive as they might have seemed on paper: in many cases what was actually done differed from what was written. Still, the point is taken and I believe it’s a new and interesting one for most readers.

The title might as well have been, What Will Happen When Latin America Rules the World. In 2040 Hispanic populations will outnumber any other ethnic group in the United States; add that to the rest of Latin America and you have a massive geopolitical force. The question all of this raises, however, is, does this ethnic category -- created in the United States -- really encapsulate the interests of such a wide array of people, climates, geography and history?

The book written in 2009, and updated in 2010, is already in some ways outdated. Guardiola-Riveras's praise of Evo Morales for example is hard to swallow today. Most recently Amazonian indigenous groups have been protesting against Morales’s plans to build roads on a national reserve. The police cracked down on them so hard Morales had to publicly apologize. His statement in 2010 that bio-foods make you gay hardly makes his brand of populism seem any more appealing than rightist populism. The momentum of the “New New Latin American Left,” along with its influential figures like Hugo Chavez that seemed to be offering some alternative political path -- exactly the third option Slavoj Zizek alluded to in his Occupy Wall Street address -- now appear to be, mostly superficial. The picture now seems to reveal populist politicians donning the facade of change, but running into the same old problems their predecessors did.

The author was certainly spot on in his condemnation of the ecological consequences of the global economic system. La Nińa effect has once again sent heavy rainfall into parts of Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Hundreds of people have died and thousands are homeless, again. One wonders how long they'll be a world left to rule.