If Latin America Had Been a British Enterprise

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Si América Latina hubiese sido una empresa inglesa (Spanish)

If Latin America Had Been a British Enterprise

Jorge Majfud

In the process of conducting a recent study at the University of Georgia, a female student interviewed a young Colombian woman and tape recorded the interview.  The young woman commented on her experience in England and how  the British were interested in knowing the reality of Colombia.  After she detailed the problems that her country had, one Englishman observed the paradox that England, despite being smaller and possessing fewer natural resources, was much wealthier than Colombia.  His conclusion was cutting:  “If England had managed Colombia like a business, Colombians today would be much richer.”

The Colombian youth admitted her irritation, because the comment was intended to point out  just how incapable we are in Latin America.  The lucid maturity of the young Colombian woman was evident in the course of the interview, but in that moment she could not find the words to respond to the son of the old empire.  The heat of the moment, the audacity of those British kept her from remembering that in many respects Latin America had indeed been managed like a British enterprise and that, therefore, the idea was not only far from original but, also, was part of the reason that Latin America was so poor – with the caveat that poverty is a scarcity of capital and not of historical consciousness.

Agreed: three hundred years of monopolistic, retrograde and frequently cruel colonization has weighed heavily upon the Latin American continent, and consolidated in the spirit of our nations an oppositional psychology with respect to social and political legitimation (Alberto Montaner called that cultural trait “the suspicious original legitimacy of power”).  Following the Semi-independences of the 19th century, the “progress” of the British railroad system was not only a kind of gilded cage – in the words of Eduardo Galeano -, a strait-jacket for native Latin American development, but we can see something similar in Africa: in Mozambique, for example, a country that extends North-to-South, the roads cut across it from East-to-West.  The British Empire was thus able to extract the wealth of its central colonies by passing through the Portuguese colony.  In Latin America we can still see the networks of asphalt and steel flowing together toward the ports – old bastions of the Spanish colonies that native rebels contemplated with infinite rancor from the heights of the savage sierras, and which the large land owners saw as the maximum progress possible for countries that were backward by “nature.”

Obviously, these observations do not exempt us, the Latin Americans, from assuming our own responsibilities.  We are conditioned by an economic infrastructure, but not determined by it, just as an adult is not tied irremediably to the traumas of childhood.  Certainly we must confront these days other kinds of strait-jackets, conditioning imposed on us from outside and from within, by the inevitable thirst for dominance of world powers who refuse strategic change, on the one hand, and frequently by our own culture of immobility, on the other.  For the former it is necessary to lose our innocence; for the latter we need the courage to criticize ourselves, to change ourselves and to change the world.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

* Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer and professor of Latin American literature at the University of Georgia.

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