The Past Hurts But Does Not Condemn
The Fragments of the Latin American Union
In Latin America, in the absence of a social revolution at the moment of national independence there were plenty of rebellions and political revolts. Less frequently these were popular rebellions and almost never were they ideological revolutions that shook the traditional structures, as was the case with the North American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. Instead, internal struggles abounded, before and after the birth of the new Republics.
A half century later, in 1866, the Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo would make a dramatic diagnosis: “freedom and fatherland in Latin America are the sheep’s clothing with which the wolf disguises himself.” When the republics were not at war they enjoyed the peace of the oppressors. Even though slavery had been abolished in the new republics, it existed de facto and was almost as brutal as in the giant to the north. Class violence was also racial violence: the indigenous continued to be marginalized and exploited. “This has been the peace of the jail cell,” conclued Montalvo. The indian, deformed by this physical and moral violence, would receive the most brutal physical punishments but “when they give him the whip, trembling on the ground, he gets up thanking his tormenter: May God reward you, sir.” Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Eligenio M. Hostos in 1870 would already lament that “there is still no South American Confederation.” On the contrary, he only saw disunion and new empires oppressing and threatening: “An empire [Germany] can still move deliberately against Mexico! Another empire [Great Britain/Brazil] can still wreck Paraguay with impunity!”
But the monolithic admiration for central Europe, like that of Sarmiento, also begins to fall apart at the end of the 19th century: “Europe is no happier, and has nothing to throw in our face with regard to calamities and misfortunes” (Montalvo). “The most civilized nations—Montalvo continues—, those whose intelligence has reached the sky itself and whose practices walk in step with morality, do not renounce war: their breasts are always burning, their jealous hearts leap with the drive for extermination.” The Paraguay massacre results from muscular reasoning within the continent, and another American empire of the period is no exception to this way of seeing: “Brazil trades in human flesh, buying and selling slaves, in order to bow to its adversary and provide its share of the rationale.” The old accusation of imperial Spain is now launched against the other colonialist forces of the period. France and England – and by extension Germany and Russia – are seen as hypocrites in their discourse: “the one has armies for subjugating the world, and only in this way believes in peace; the other extends itself over the seas, takes control of the straits, dominates the most important fortresses on earth, and only in this way believes in peace.” In 1883, he also points out the ethical contradictions of the United States, “where the customs counteract the laws; where the latter call the blacks to the Senate, and the former drive them out of the restaurants.” (Montalvo himself avoids passing through the United States on his trip to Europe out of “fear of being treated like a Brazilian, and that resentment might instill hatred in my breast,” since “in the most democratic country in the world it is necessary to be thoroughly blonde in order to be a legitimate person.”)
Nonetheless, even though practice always tends to contradict ethical principles—it is not by accident that the most basic moral laws are always prohibitions—the unstoppable wave of humanist utopia continued to be imposed step by step, like the principal of union in equality, or the “fusion of the races in one civilization.” The same Iberoamerican history is understood in this universal process “to unite all the races in labor, in liberty, in equality and in justice.” When the union is achieved, “then the continent will be called Colombia” (Hostos). For José Martí as well, history was directed inevitably toward union. In “La América” (1883) he foresaw a “new accommodation of the national forces of the world, always in movement, and now accelerated, the necessary and majestic grouping of all the members of the American national family.” From the utopia of the union of nations, project of European humanism, it comes to be a Latin American commonplace: the fusion of the races in a kind of perfect mestizaje. The empires of Europe and the United States rejected for such a project, the New World would be “the oven where all the races must be melted, where they are being melted” (Hostos). In 1891, an optimistic Martí writes in New York that in Cuba “there is no race hatred because there are no races” even though this more of an aspiration than a reality. During the period advertisements were still published in the daily newspapers selling slaves alongside horses and other domesticated animals.
In any case, this relationship between oppressors and oppressed can not be reduced to Europeans and Amerindians. The indigenous people of the Andes, for example, also had spent their days scratching at the earth in search of gold to pay tribute to those sent by the Inca and numerous Mesoamerican tribes had to suffer the oppression of an empire like the Aztec. During most of the life of the Iberoamerican republics, the abuse of class, race and sex was part of the organization of society. International logic is reproduced in the domestic dynamic. To put it in the words of the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas in 1909, “when a boss has two or more pongos [unsalaried worker], he keeps one and rents out the others, as if it were simply a matter of a horse or a dog, with the small difference that the dog and the horse are lodged in a wood hut or in a stable and both are fed; the pongo is left to sleep in the doorway and to feed on scraps.” Meanwhile the soldiers would take the indians by the hair and beating them with their sabres carry them off to clean the barracks or would steal their sheep in order to maintain an army troop as it passed through. In the face of these realities, utopian humanists seemed like frauds. Frantz Tamayo, in 1910 declares, “imagine for a moment the Roman empire or the British empire having national altruism as it foundation and as its ideal. […] Altuism! Truth! Justice! Who practices these with Bolivia? Speak of altruism in England, the country of wise conquest, and in the United States, the country of the voracious monopolies!” According to Angel Rama (1982), modernization was also exercised principally “through a rigid hierarchical system.” That is to say, it was a process similar to that of the Conquest and the Independence. In order to legitimate the system, “an aristocratic pattern was applied which has been the most vigorous shaper of Latin American cultures throughout their history.”
Was our history really any different from these calamities during the military dictatorships of the end of the 20th century? Now, does this mean that we are condemned by a past that repeats itself periodically as if it were the a novelty each time?
Let us respond with a different problem. The popular psychoanalytic tradition of the 20th century made us believe that the individual is always, in some way and in some degree, hostage to a past. Less rooted in popular consciousness, the French existentialists reacted by proposing that in reality we are condemned to be free. That is, in each moment we have to choose, there is no other way. In my opinion, both dimensions are possible in a human being: on the one hand we are conditioned by a past but not determined by it. But if we pay paranoid tribute to that past believing that all of our present and our future is owed to those traumas, we are reproducing a cultural illness: “I am unhappy because my parents are to blame.” Or, “I can’t be happy because my husband oppressed me.” But where is the sense of freedom and of responsibility? Why is it not better to say that “I have not been happy or I have these problems because, above all, I myself have not taken responsibility for my problems”? Thus arises the idea of the passive victim and instead of fighting in a principled way against evils like machismo one turns to the crutch in order to justify why this woman or that other one has been unhappy. “Am I sick? The fault is with the machismo of this society.” Etc.
Perhaps it goes without saying that being human is neither only biology nor only psychology: we are constructed by a history, the history of humanity that creates us as subjects. The individual—the nation—can recognize the influence of context and of their history and at the same time their own freedom as potential which, no matter how minimal and conditioned it might be, is capable of radically changing the course of a life. Which is to say, an individual, a nation that would reject outright any representation of itself as a victim, as a potted plant or as a flag that waves in the wind.
Translated by Bruce Campbell