HistoryBits: The Americas

HistoryBits: The Americas

Bits and Pieces of History

Meso-America


Power/Aztec/Downfall

It might seem that the ferocious gods of the Aztecs should have assured success against all enemies foreign and domestic. But not even these dreadful and bloodthirsty deities could have anticipated the horror that would soon visit them from across the seas. The initial contact between Old World and New proved to be an ill-fated exchange, as Conquistadors laid waste to entire civilizations with demons loosed from Pandora’s Box, and the migration of corn from the Americas to Africa was responsible for a huge increase in food supply and population, which caused the slave trade to flourish. Whether in terms of disease, firearms, or some other trans-cultural calamity, the consequences of the first encounters between civilizations have seldom proved to be other than tragic and uncommonly lethal.

Power/Inca/Imperial Success

The Incan Empire was well fed, well connected, and well administered. New crops and fertilizers produced surpluses that supported a large army and class of priests and other such administrative muckamucks. But in the final analysis, the state was built on the back of the forced labor of the 8 million or so of its conquered subjects, whose backs remained broken thanks to their deportation to faraway places where they would be made to rely upon Cuzco’s protection from their resentful and less than willing hosts. The Incan network of stone-paved roads, irrigation systems, dams, canals, terraces that wound through the Andes became a monument to their skills as master builders, and their rudimentary social welfare schemes that provided, in bad times, for grain and disaster relief, a testament to their odd mix of compassion and callousness.

Culture/Aztec/Sun Calendar

The Aztecs, like the Egyptians, proved to be builders of monuments to their own perishability. All that they had accomplished—as exemplified by their sun-based cosmogony, their cities and monuments, and their theocratic order—came to naught. As the ruler of ruins in Shelley’s poem exclaimed, “’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”/Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Notwithstanding the ultimate futility of it all, the Aztecs once ruled a state as vast as any outside Asia at the time, lords and masters of all that lay between the thirteen heavens and nine hells. In the end, only the crumbling remains of their blood-soaked pyramids—upon which tens of thousands were sacrificed to propitiate the deities that populated their world-view, remained in the wake of Cortes, who ushered in that holocaust of disease that would reduce the Amerindian population from some 115 million to just several million, thus creating the “pristine wilderness” that the Pilgrims would find a hundred years later. The eerie similarity of the Aztec ruins to those of Egypt have led some to speculate on a possible link between the two civilizations. And why not? It was only quite recently that we learned something of the dimensions of our ignorance of truly ancient civilizations, when archaeologists determined that the Sphinx was more on the order of 25,000 years old, rather than the 5,000 years previously thought. Weren’t we supposed to be shaking our spears at mastodons back then?

Society/Diet

Everything means something… which is perhaps why we are what we eat. While modern man–being the all-business alpha-creature that he is–stuffs himself on the run with fast pap and franken-foods, traditional man understood that in the absence of a recognizable connection between what he put into his mouth and the sacred earth that sustained him, he was in danger of losing the psychic moorings that fastened him to reality.

Society/Maya

The Maya, like the Egyptians, proved to be builders of monuments to their own perishability. All that they had accomplished—by way of their written language, a calendar, and an understanding of mathematics more advanced than European math in 12th century—came to naught. As the ruler of ruins in Shelley’s poem exclaimed, “’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”/Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Notwithstanding the ultimate futility of it all, the Mayans once ruled a state more vast than any outside Asia at the time, lords and masters of all that lay between their thirteen heavens and nine hells. In the end, only their gigantic basalt heads remained to greet Cortes, who ushered in that holocaust of disease that would reduce the Amerindian population from some 115 million to just several million, thus creating the “pristine wilderness” that the Pilgrims would find a hundred years later. The eerie similarity of the Mayan ruins to those of Egypt have led some to speculate on a possible link between the two civilizations. And why not? It was only quite recently that we learned something of the dimensions of our ignorance of truly ancient civilizations, when archaeologists determined that the Sphinx was more on the order of 25,000 years old, rather than the 5,000 years previously thought. Weren’t we supposed to be shaking our spears at mastodons back then?

Society/Olmec

The artistic and relatively peaceable Olmecs—renderers of stone heads, jade jewelry, and a written language, no less!–were probably never meant to be. Perhaps in an ideal world (or after-world) where man’s creative propensities are not upended and deranged by the lust for power, territory, and wealth, there’s a place for such people. But with wolves like the Aztecs waiting in the wings, the Olmecs never stood a chance. Ironically, where the Olmecs commemorated their relationship with God in sculpture, the Aztecs denominated it in the blood of sacrificial victims—creeds that reflected a very different understanding of the forces that governed human existence.

Latin America


Culture/Literature/One Hundred Years of Solitude

I must admit that it took some time for Marquez’ book to become anything close to a favorite of mine. Why? I suppose that my previous experience with Latin American writers left me uncomfortable with the chaotic nature of their social and political landscapes, and I’m someone whose literary tastes run more toward depth and introspection, and which shy away from superficial chaos. It always struck me as a wretchedly impoverished world of desperate passions, oppressed by landlocked admirals and besieged by mustachioed revolutionaries. These and a thousand other associations lurk in one’s mental attic whenever one entreats the lore and literature of some faraway land and its people. But, such as they are, these are things that, if overcome and embraced, can enrich your life, and if not, can leave you no less impoverished. In this case, I’m glad I took the leap; One Hundred Years of Solitude has left me much the wealthier for the effort. Myth is essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature. As myth, A Hundred Years of Solitude portrays the cultural and psychological underpinnings of the Latin American experience with a continent whose political passions and social entanglements are as fevered and surreal as the surrounding swampland and jungles. In short, the book seems to me to be a fabulously rich vein of the raw material that fuels the Latin American psyche, and one that affords a richly gratifying romp in its most lurid dimensions.

Culture/Literature/Sister Juana de la Cruz

While the bishops may not have governed in the sense that civil governors did, the Church exercised cultural dominion. Flush with the combative spirit that guided their struggle against the Moors, the missionaries served as the foot soldiers of God, anxious to add the heathen populations of Central and South American to the church’s fold, and the imprint of the Church was prominent in the baroque architecture, artwork, and the civic affairs of the towns in the new territories. While politics is the will of the people, culture is their soul, and the Church was in the business of recruiting souls, after all. For an upstart like Sister Juana to come along and light a secular lamp that burned brighter than the fathers’ Holy Truth was unconscionable, and bound to invite condemnation. But then, would Sister Juana’s literary repute have flourished half as well without the fertilizer of official repression?

Culture/Music

The legacy of slavery brought forth both the worst and best in people, and some of the very best of all that included the hot-blooded rhythms that formed the centerpiece of modern Latin American popular culture. Hard times notwithstanding, the generations that descended from slavery grew like crazy… socially, culturally, and creatively. After all, it’s the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Economy/Hacienda

It must have shocked and amazed the peninsulare colonials to realize that the hacienda system could function at least as well with the humane treatment of its workers as with their customary brutalization. But that just goes to show that the returns to be realized from investing in people far outstrip those to be made from simply exploiting them—and that’s a history lesson that modern America could well stand to learn with respect to its own social and economic underclass.

Economy/Peonage

Peons weren’t given much, of course, but one thing they were given all the wanted of (where it was available) was coca leaf. I must say, the use of coca in the peonage system strikes me as a perversely ingenious twist on an already perverse institution… serving the dual purpose of fostering addiction and dependency on the part of the peon, and providing him with the stimulation to cut yet more cane.

Economy/Economic Underdevelopment

Where does one begin?! With the chicken or the egg? Did the legacy of Spanish colonialism and mercantilism leave Latin America chronically dependent upon the outside world for the import of goods and services that it was never encouraged to produce on its own? Did that it turn translate into its modern-day dependence upon foreign capital for domestic investment? Or do we go back even farther to the crippling legacy of the landed estates that left much of the Indian population in serfdom and most of the land in the hands of a few wealthy families? The gulf between the European upper crust and the seething masses of criollos and mestizos remains as gaping and unbridgeable as ever. But from eggs come chickens, which in the fullness of time come home to roost… in the form of myriad social pathologies.

Power/Carlos III

Carlos III offered a pretty good example of the fact that the exertion of power and glory in this world is a zero-sum proposition: that for every surge of imperial grandeur, there is, in the fullness of time, an equal and opposite reaction in the form of “blowback.” Carlos ranked among the most enlightened monarchs of the 18th century for his reform to Spanish holdings in the Indies, revitalization of trade, the military, and the colonial system of tax collection, and for the new broom that he vigorously applied to the stagnation and corruption of colonial government. But these reforms obtained a perversely different result with the Indian population, whose increase only served to fuel a massive expansion of serfdom, and the free trade that Carlos ushered in only hurt domestic producers, as the flow of silver flowed freely… back into the coffers of Madrid. But was it blowback we were discussing? The undoing of all the old constraints on trade, manufactures, and trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas also served to stimulate a spirit of criticism and inquiry among the criollo urbanites that reflected the heady brew of European liberalism that was on the front burner back home. And seeing the successful American revolt against the British and the French Revolution that followed, these same criollos believed they perceived similarities that would ultimately compel their own rebellion from Madrid. Our thanks to Carlos, then, for having greased the skids.

Power/Caudillos

Chaos attracts caudillos like blood attracts sharks; radical politics are the handmaiden of despair. As for the chaos, where does one begin?! With the chicken or the egg? Did the legacy of Spanish colonialism and mercantilism leave Latin America chronically dependent upon the outside world for the import of goods and services that it was never encouraged to produce on its own? Did that it turn translate into its modern-day dependence upon foreign capital for domestic investment? Or do we go back even farther to the crippling legacy of the landed estates that left much of the Indian population in serfdom and most of the land in the hands of a few wealthy families? The gulf between the European upper crust and the seething masses of criollos and mestizos remains as gaping and unbridgeable as ever. But from eggs there arise chickens, which in the fullness of time come home to roost, in the form of myriad social pathologies: the stuff of chaos and caudillos.

Power/Simon Bolivar

The story of Simon Bolivar reminds us that empires, no matter how mighty, eventually go away. Consider the British in North America, the Spanish in Latin America, the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

Power/Spanish Dominance

Spain’s discovery of gold and silver in the New World enabled it to dominate not only its colonial economies, but Europe as well—but that’s another story. Every element of the colonial economy served the end of mining bullion. The haciendas existed to grow food for the mining communities, and handicraft industries were established to serve the same market. Sugar and indigo only happened as an afterthought; the disease brought by the conquistadors had wiped out so much of the indigenous labor force, and there wasn’t the labor available to make those crops work on a commercial scale. But once the Spanish and Portuguese got onto the idea of importing slave labor from Africa to work the plantations, different story. As you can see, the Spanish—talented bunch that they were—believed they were able to remedy their own pathologies with a greater evil. However, there is a fundamental moral law in the universe that has to do with balance: what goes around comes around. To make a long story short, the bullion that the Spanish plundered from the New World and sent ‘round to Mother Spain sparked an inflationary spiral that contributed greatly to the eventual demise of Spain’s empire.

Religion/Church

While the bishops may not have governed in the sense that civil governors did, the Church exercised cultural dominion. Flush with the combative spirit that guided their struggle against the Moors, the missionaries served as the foot soldiers of God, anxious to add the heathen populations of Central and South American to the church’s fold, and the imprint of the Church was prominent in the baroque architecture, artwork, and the civic affairs of the towns in the new territories. While politics is the will of the people, culture is their soul, and the Church was in the business of recruiting souls, after all.

Argentina


Power/Juan Manuel de Rosas

The regime of Juan Manuel de Rosas was a political dinosaur typical of the Jurassic-era caudillo that tyrannized Latin American politics until recently. What’s astonishing here is that notwithstanding all the bullion that Spain sucked out of the New World, it was never enough to keep the whole show stuck together, and the Spanish Empire, like all other empires, eventually had to go the way of the dinosaurs. At such an enormous distance from Mother Spain, its Latin American colonies would inevitably fashion their own political and social culture, as they did along the lines that gave rise to their peninsulare upper crust, their caudillo strongmen, and their seething masses of mixed-blood criollos and mestizos (and eventually to the Brazilian system of no fewer than 134 categories of race–a legacy of slavery and a truly staggering new dimension of social snobbery). But however byzantine this racially-striated and politically-tortured culture, it emerged as the New World’s own, altogether distinct from its Old World heritage. Consider also the British in North America, the French in Indochina and North Africa, and the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

Power/Juan Peron

The progressive social and trade policies put forth by Juan Peron could have established Argentina as the nation of the future (as it was once regarded early in the 20th century). While immigrants from Europe brought their dreams of freedom and abundance to a land that was unimaginably fruitful, those dreams were soon co-opted by Latin America’s omnipresent caudillos—strongmen, whose concept of fiscal probity and political freedom were roughly analogous to what military music is to music and what military justice is to justice.

Power/Jose de San Martin

Jose de San Martin was, in a sense, merely a facilitator of the inevitable. What’s astonishing here is that notwithstanding all the bullion that Spain sucked out of the New World, it was never enough to keep the whole show stuck together, and the Spanish Empire, like all other empires, eventually had to go the way of the dinosaurs. At such an enormous distance from Mother Spain, its Latin American colonies would inevitably fashion their own political and social culture, as they did along the lines that gave rise to their peninsulare upper crust, their caudillo strongmen, and their seething masses of mixed-blood criollos and mestizos (and eventually to the Brazilian system of no fewer than 134 categories of race–a legacy of slavery and a truly staggering new dimension of social snobbery). But however byzantine this racially-striated and politically-tortured culture, it emerged as the New World’s own, altogether distinct from its Old World heritage. Consider also the British in North America, the French in Indochina and North Africa, and the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

Brazil


Society/Race

For those who are inclined to see the world in terms of black and white, the Brazilian system of 134 categories of race (yet another facet of the legacy of slavery) presents a truly staggering dimension of bigotry. If this is an indication of the lengths to which we go in differentiating amongst each other, I find the “truism” that civilization is a cooperative endeavor to be utterly incomprehensible.

Power/Slavery

The death knell for tens of millions of Africans sounded with the discovery that the hothouse climate of Brazil fostered ideal growing conditions for sugar—a crop that grew only marginally in Africa. The only thing missing was the labor to work the plantations, since the reason there wasn’t enough manpower to be found in the New World was that about 95% of the some 115 million pre-contact inhabitants of the Americas had been wiped out by the smallpox brought by the conquistadors (which is why a “pristine wilderness” awaited the arrival of the Pilgrims a hundred years later). Slavery provided the ugly but unavoidable answer.

Chile


Society/Social Security Model

While I am instinctively drawn to the idea of people being accountable for their own outcomes (including retirement), I’m also mindful of the dismal experience that most individual investors have had in the stock market. It seems to me that if investors lose their shirts in the market, the government will still have to support them on welfare… which might actually prove to be more costly (in many ways) than cutting them a monthly pension check.

Colombia


Power/Colombia Plan

The Colombia Plan reminds me of LBJ’s plan to buy off Ho Chi Minh and his guerrillas with a TVA-type project for the Mekong River–sounds like the makings of a huge financial and political boondoggle. Much as we detest the Shining Path and such, we should keep in mind that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and I’m reasonably certain that the governments they seek to overthrow are no paragons of virtue either. Perhaps we should just let Latin America find its own way to political maturity, on its own time and on its own terms; at least that way, it’ll stick to the wall when it comes. As for the drug trade… if we can’t beat ’em, maybe we should join ’em. Knowing that whoever wants the stuff will find a way to get it, maybe we should consider legalizing it. If the government makes and sells what the market wants, it would accomplish several objectives that have so far eluded us: a) it would put the dealers and the desperadoes out of business overnight, and drug-related crime would become non-existent; b) it would facilitate contact with users who have hit bottom and want help; c) it would fill government coffers to the brim; d) everything above the cost of producing the goods could be invested in substance abuse education and rehabilitation; and e) knowing that nobody’s going to stop them from using it, people just might become more accountable for their own actions. With our government already subsidizing the production of tobacco, I personally find no moral dilemma in this course of action.

Cuba


Power/Castro

America’s troubled relationship with Cuba goes back to the days when we tried to buy the place from Spain—it’s colonial overlord—to accommodate what many thought would be an extension of the South’s “peculiar institution.” Having inherited stewardship of the island from Spain in the wake of the Spanish-American War, America sponsored a string of unsavory regimes that, while favorable to American investment, turned a blind eye to the yawning social and economic inequities and political corruption that oppressed the citizenry. Mr. Castro parlayed popular dissatisfaction into a revolution that nationalized American corporate interests, and relations galloped downhill from there. Cuba offers an especially compelling study in the implications of our policy of Manifest Destiny, which made the case for our right to judge and instruct other peoples, and all the revolutions abroad that had gone wrong only confirmed the racial or cultural inferiority of the revolutionaries, and underlined their need for American tutelage. We saw the objects of our civilizing mission as either half-breed brutes, a perception that could be used to justify contemptuous aloofness or predatory aggressiveness; as feminized, inviting us to either court them or save them; or as infantile, in which case our tutelage and stern discipline ranked as a parental obligation. Teddy Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America had become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch.

Power/Fidelismo

The containment of the Soviet Union and its avowed determination to spread the doctrine of revolution spoke straight to the heart of America’s mortal dread of revolution. That may seem odd, given America’s own revolutionary legacy, but America has never been able to accept the fact that other societies must attain political maturity in their own ways. Democracy is inevitable in any event; while only six nations were democracies by the end of World War II, now more than 120 are, and as the world becomes ever more interconnected and its people more wealthy, better educated, and more sophisticated, they will demand nothing less than the right to self-determination and fulfillment. But unless the Cubans and the rest of the world are able to get there on their own terms, it will only work against us. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam, to the brink of nuclear holocaust in Cuba, and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a pyrrhic victory after all.

El Salvador


Power/Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero’s career offers an excellent example—one that we’ve seen with Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu and India’s Mahatma Gandhi—of the power of moral example and protest in the face of political, social, and economic oppression. Romero had his work cut out for him: it’s as if not just the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made camp in Latin America, but an entire army of nightmares. Take your pick of pathologies: civil war, a murderous thug-ocracy, the strongman tradition of caudillos throughout the continent—and throw in poverty, and the racism implicit in the unbridgeable gulf between the European upper crust and the seething masses of criollos and mestizos… and you have some sense of the basket case that is much of modern Latin America. In the absence of money and so many other resources, the moral courage of men like Oscar Romero remains the best weapon against the despair that threatens to overwhelm the continent.

Haiti


Power/Toussaint L’Ouverture

It’s a cruel irony that Haiti, the first New World colony to gain independence (thanks in large part to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s efforts), now ranks among the world’s nations that are worst oppressed by poverty and political instability. Given the beating that Toussaint and his stalwarts inflicted on Spain and France–the world’s greatest empires at the time–the uprising in San Domingo (and the empires’ response) anticipated by some two hundred years the nasty business of the U.S. experience in Vietnam.

Mexico


Culture/Catholicism/Our Lady of Guadalupe

The ardent devotion of Latinos to the saints and icons of the Catholic Church—and to the Church itself—reminds us of so many Old World traditions that have been reinvigorated and improved in their passage to the New World: pizza isn’t the only thing that benefited from a change of scene. I’m quite sure that Our Lady would smile at how the fortunes of the Catholic Church—once in tatters from Europe’s wars of religion—came alive in the hands of a new congregation with a renewed taste for old virtues.

Economy/NAFTA

One of the ironies of NAFTA is that many of the jobs that the United States lost to Mexico were then lost by Mexico to China! Money is the acid test of just about everything, and in this case, the acid sizzled right down through to the very lowest-cost denominator: China.

Power/Manuel Hidalgo

What’s astonishing here is that notwithstanding all the bullion that Spain sucked out of the New World, it was never enough, and Manuel Hidalgo’s little vineyard still represented enough of a threat to Spain’s economic empire to occasion a major-league stink… and ultimately cause the loss of the empire! In truth, empires, no matter how mighty, must eventually go away. Consider the British in North America, the Spanish in Latin America, the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

Power/Benito Juarez

After a lifetime spent on dealing with the likes of Santa Ana, the British, the French, and Mexico’s finances, it’s no surprise that Benito Juarez died from apoplexy–any one of those alone would have had most men being measured for a straitjacket.

Power/Revolt against Spain

What’s astonishing here is that notwithstanding all the bullion that Spain sucked out of the New World, it was never enough–much as Napoleon, with all of his power, couldn’t stop himself from going that one fatal step further and installing his brother on the throne of Spain. In truth, empires, no matter how mighty, must eventually go away. Consider the British in North America, the Spanish in Latin America, the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

Peru


Power/Francisco Garcia Calderon

The aftershocks of Latin America’s wars of liberation from Spain might well have rumbled along through to the present day but for their skillful mediation by Francisco Garcia Calderon. Having survived its neighbors, will Peru be able to survive the predations of the big multinational energy firms as they vie for its wealth of natural gas? Calderon must be turning in his grave at the prospect of this new generation of wolves at the door of the nation whose very identity he helped to forge.

Venezuela


Power/Chavez

One would have though that a man of Mr. Bush’s moral and intellectual stature (such as it is) and a buffoon like Hugo Chavez would have lots in common and become best of friends. But history teaches us that there’s only room for one Maximum Macaw in the pecking order of the international power curve. Mr. Bush has deemed Mr. Chavez’ antics to ill accord with his blueprint for the New World Order, and has seen to it that our relations with Latin America are going the way of what remains of America’s global image.


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