Latin America’s Problems:
Result of Violent History?
History plays a role in the problems of any nation, and for that matter in the lives of individual people. Does this mean that a country or person is fated to an inevitable future that is colored mostly by its past? To some degree the answer is yes, but to take any particular feature of a society’s past, namely violence in this instance, and thrust the whole burden of responsibility upon it may be irresponsible, in and of itself, in a sincere quest to ameliorate and ultimately eradicate the problematic issues that need to be resolved. If we do want to attribute the current state of affairs in Latin America to its violent history, we also need to understand the nature and genesis of that violence. Many countries, including the USA, achieved independence through wars and violence, but we do not cite our current problems on the American Revolution or the Civil War which was violence amongst our own people. The source of violence can be a key to understanding how the countries of Latin America and their people have not recovered from the nature of the violence they endured.
When wars are fought to expunge a common enemy there is a feeling of camaraderie and nationalism to have fought and won not only against a common enemy, but against the very evil represented by that enemy. This mindset unites people and solidifies belief systems, ethics, and morals so necessary to the success and continued success of civilizations and their governments. What happens, however, when the violence is perpetrated by the very institution that is supposed to be the bulwark of good, and when the violence is perpetrated by this institution against the very people that look to it for their protection?
Chasteen says that “ At the most basic level, conquest is always about exploitation.” (p.58). Although we do not always think of the process of religious conversion as conquest, perhaps we should give this careful consideration. Chasteen seems to agree with this as he goes on to say that “Most Spanish and Portugeuse people that came to the Americas in the early 1500s believed that spreading the “true religion”, even by force, was a good thing.” (p. 58). The kind of religion that the Catholic Church brought to the Americas in the early 1500s was a perfect example of non church/government separation. “To sin against Catholic teachings was, in many cases, a criminal offense.” (p.70). The Catholic Church did not merely have a religious presence in Latin America. They controlled it. Chasteen summarizes some of what Las Casas had to say about the control of
Catholicism. “The reason for the death and destruction of so many souls at Christian hands…was simple greed…” (p. 60). To further substantiate the demonstration of evil by the Catholic Church take a look at an excerpt from Brief account of the devastation of the Indies by Las Casas referred to by Chasteen as A brief account of the destruction of the Indies, (p. 61) a translational title difference of the same work: “ After the wars and the killings had ended, when usually there survived only some boys, some women, and children, these survivors were distributed among the Christians to be slaves. The repartimiento or distribution was made according to the rank and importance of the Christian to whom the Indians were allocated, one of them being given thirty, another forty, still another, one or two hundred, and besides the rank of the Christian there was also to be considered in what favor he stood with the tyrant they called Governor.
The pretext was that these allocated Indians were to be instructed in the articles of the Christian Faith. As if those Christians who were as a rule foolish and cruel and greedy and vicious could be caretakers of souls! And the care they took was to send the men to the mines to dig for gold, which is intolerable labor, and to send the women into the fields of the big ranches to hoe and till the land, work suitable for strong men. Nor to either the men or the women did they give any food except herbs and legumes, things of little substance. The milk in the breasts of the women with infants dried up and thus in a short while the infants perished. And since men and women were separated, there could be no marital relations. And the men died in the mines and the women died on the ranches from the same causes, exhaustion and hunger. And thus was depopulated that island which had been densely populated.”
Although these are blatant examples of destruction, Chasteen also cites a more insidious example the Church exercised, such as hegemony defined as “ the basic principle of social control in which a ruling class dominates others ideologically, with a minimum of physical force, by making its dominance seem natural and inevitable.” (p. 325). “Religion offers one of the clearest examples of cultural hegemony.” (p.69). Even more dangerous than outright exploitation, this creeps into the very fabric of the psyche of a people and carries over throughout generations. As Chasteen points out, “When they accept the principle of their own inferiority…they participate in their own subjugation.” (p.69). The subjugation continued through history as Caudillos, rich landowners, were “the party’s national leaders” (p. 124) in post colonial days. In the neo colonial period from 1880- 1930, (p. 180), Latin America was still subjugated, but instead by cultures that had brought “Progress” from other countries. The late 1800s saw “dicatorships or oligartchies.” (p.192).
During the time of the US overtake of Cuba in the early 1900s we see the incendiary racistattitudes prevail, as Teddy Roosevelt coins the term “dago” for Latins. (p. 201). Right up until the present day it appears that Latins have never risen above the station that was thrust upon them by the Church from the beginning.The book has opened my eyes to many injustices in Latin American history that I was unaware existed and has provided food for thought as to the reasons Latin Americans seem to be a problematic people. It is indeed, not the injustices in and of themselves, but the so called Christian perpetrators of such injustices that give the history and the present fate of Latin America such a fatalistic outlook and prognosis.
Despite all of this and probably because of the hegemony, it has happened without notice but it is interesting to note that …”Latin America has always been Catholic, but now the majority of the world’s Catholics are Latin American.” (p. 320). At the end of the book Chasteen asks what the future will bring. (p.321). He does not provide an answer but it makes one wonder if the subjugation can ever really end. Like a child abused by a parent over years and years of time, the Church ‘s abuse in the growing and formative years of Latin America have left scars that will last an eternity.
Chasteen, J.C. Born in blood and fire. A concise history of Latin America
De Las Casas, B. Brief account of the devastation of the Indies. (1542). Retrieved from
http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/02-las.html on November 26, 2006.