Latin America

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but I’m told that a Governor of Texas, when it was suggested Spanish be one of the state’s official languages, asserted: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for me.’ When you think about it, the rabbi known to history as Jesus of Nazareth would be more likely to understand Spanish ( if he had some knowledge of Latin in Roman-occupied Judea) than the later Germanic derivative governors of Texas attempt to speak.

But that is not the point I want to make. The point is that Texas was a Hispanic community longer than it has been an Anglophone one. And the process of returning to the Hispanic roots of its modern history is shared with a large part of the southern and western United States. (The question of its pre-modern history of indigenous people is another matter.)

The first American I ever met was the Hispanic husband of a great-aunt who had gone south from Quebec. The first words I heard spoken on American soil were Spanish. Some airport officials at JFK were speaking their native language. The first meal I ate was a Mexican dish. This is not a series of chances, but a pattern of experience that has to be considered. The notion of the Americas divided into a Latin south and an English-language north belies the presence of major cities throughout North America whose cultural identity is Spanish (increasingly) or French. There is a monoglot majority for whom this is problematic, but any account of North America has to take this on board. It is not new. It is not a matter of recent immigration. The presence of these other cultures has a duration to be measured in centuries.

It is important especially for the British to understand that the USA is not a larger, newer version of these islands. It’s different. It’s foreign. Much of it is familiar from popular culture. Much it is superficially similar. Below the surface lies a continent of differences. Of course, once Americans attune their ears to an accent they associate with Masterpiece Theater, they can understand us. But there are areas of confusion. We may be more accustomed to hearing them, but we still have to translate what we hear. The translation necessary to read American society includes an understanding that somewhere south of Oregon begins another America that goes down all the way down to end of the earth.

The presumption that Latin America begins at Rio Grande is a myth perpetrated by the WASP ascendancy governing the North American continent. It is a myth the British media easily accepts. Attention has been given generously to the condition of African Americans. The narrative of the struggle for Civil Rights is firmly embedded in the liberal mind. The oratory and the songs are familiar. It is a struggle told in the English language. The heroism of Cesar Chavez, a contemporary of Martin Luther King, is rarely mentioned. Mention the California grape-pickers, and the likely response is The Grapes of Wrath. The mass movement led by Chavez was hardly known and is now barely remembered. Who cares about Latinos?

Events in the early Nineties produced a familiar litany when everyone cited the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Apartheid as evidence of a new spirit of democracy in the world. There was a third part of the equation, a presence that is never acknowledged – the wave of progressive democracy, the genuine article, that began to sweep, and continues its course, in Latin America. I have found that mention of it in Britain always produces surprise and interest. Why wasn’t this better known? The answer was that although events were reported here and there they weren’t given much attention. Who reads a small item on page 16? There has been little commentary in popular journalism to give regular explanation and a sense of cohesion. Who is there now to offer witness in accessible places to a general public? This question could have been asked any time for half a century. There are a few reliable commentators, led by Richard Gott, but there are not many.

There has been V.S. Naipaul, of course, dismissing at tedious length The Argentine in toto, Borges included. ‘He lives in a world of dreams.’ (Such a world is very crowded.) If attention is turning towards Brazil in preparation for 2016, it is attention to international sporting events. Rio will show its international face. How far behind the surface anyone will go is another matter. Perhaps the last time the British media paid sustained attention to South America was in 1981 over the disputed Malvinas. It is a continent with only marginal British influence in its history. The imperial interests have been from elsewhere. Thatcher’s bizarre post-imperial tea at Fortnum’s with Pinochet was not serious politics, but a moral aberration unrelated to contemporary events unfolding both in Chile and Britain.

Latin America has much to offer the world. It often surprises those alert to its history and culture. This has been a problem for the Atlanticists of Great Britain, for whom the Atlantic Ocean unites, rather than divides, and for whom there appear to be only two sovereign territories if their claims are to be taken literally. A phrase beloved of popular journalism, ‘on both sides of the Atlantic’, never refers to Spain and Mexico, or Angola and Cuba. The Monroe Doctrine is tacitly accepted as a given. .

The Monroe Doctrine, which has no legitimacy in international law, has made of the Americas a ‘sphere of influence’ where no authority exists. Central America and the Caribbean do not form Uncle Sam’s backyard. They are not Uncle Sam’s anything beyond a geographic proximity with defined legal boundaries. But WASP hegemony has led to many mistakes and disasters that have authored a violation of respect that a great continent seeks to regain.

A good place to begin an understanding is Neruda’s The Heights of Machu Pichu (sic – Neruda got the spelling wrong. But he got everything else just about right.) In that great poem a continent is epitomized in the discovered ruin, at once forbidding and compelling. It is remote and, at the time of the poem’s composition, barely known. Today it is familiar. But the sense of otherness, of a venture into the heart of things, is as possible now as it was then. A symbol may have a life independent of reasoned interpretations.

And so too with Guevara. Mention of Che is inevitable. To the West he is the emblematic figure whose style predicated the revolt of a generation. The image, from Alberto Korda’s photograph, is ubiquitous, if only as a trivial accessory. In Cuba Che remains a revered figure, a revolutionary genius, whose tomb is a shrine. But the significance of Ernesto Guevara has not been lost in the West. What we have seen in recent years is a revaluation of the life behind the image. Films, and the books on which they were based, have turned attention back to the extraordinary career that begin with a journey of discovery from his native Argentine to Florida.

The Motorcycle Diaries provide a vivid account of an awakening of consciousness as two young men progress through a continent. They went in search of adventure. They found the reality of poverty and ignorance and deprivation. They also found faith and hope. Latin America is indelibly religious. To the modern Western mind, sceptical and doubtful, this may seem an impediment. When dictators use religion, as they often do, or when religious leaders dictate, as they often do, the deeper meaning of transcendent belief can be lost in repression and orthodoxy. In an Andean village Che witnessed a ceremony that marked him as deeply as the working conditions of miners. Latin America is not simply a place on the map. It is a condition of being. It is a way of living. It has a heart and a soul.

Che was able to see Latin America as a whole, rather than an amalgam of separate countries. They shared common problems. They needed a common solution. The nature of the situation was continental. One nation alone could not find its way out of the problems without recognizing a common, supranational identity. It is the vision of Simon Bolivar translated into modern terms.

Che returned from his journey an internationalist. Later, practising as a doctor, he was to witness the power of the United States in Guatemala where a reforming government was ruthlessly overthrown at the behest of the United Fruit Company. That experience made him a socialist. A meeting with the Castro brothers in Mexican exile made him a revolutionary. The revolution made him a heroic leader whose influence survives his early death, a death that gave him immortality, the eternally young idealist whose achievements outlived him.

How far his influence depended on his death is difficult to say. We do not know how he would have reacted to the Prague Spring of 1968. A failure of judgement there would have seen his stature diminish even where it was forgiven. (This, surely, was the case with Fidel.) Shortly before his death Che raged against the unimaginative bureaucracies of Eastern Europe. But Che Guevara admired the Soviet Union, for all its failings. It may be said in his defence that the worst failings of the Soviet system have been avoided by revolutionary Cuba. Communism, Eric Hobsbawm observed, means something very different in Latin America.

It means carnival and poetry as well as resistance and reconstruction. It means expressing the most creative elements of the culture. It means imagining different realities from the uniform model of bland conformity imposed by corporate power. Consumer culture can absorb anything. It is its mission to do so. Encompassing everything means accepting what cannot be eradicated. And by this process Che Guevara becomes a T-shirt. The defeat would be accomplished except for the lingering influence which can be neither destroyed nor factored in. Within the background of the transformation of Latin America is sequestered, not the image, but the idea which is Che’s legacy.

‘The process will never be complete,’ Che wrote in 1965. Far from seeking to construct a utopia, the revolution is a perpetual refinement of imperfect mechanisms. Today, and perhaps yesterday also, we may see Marxism as too limiting a mechanism. There are other ways of defining the process of change. Liberation Theology is a case in point. Stressing the ‘preferential option for the poor’, religion becomes not a matter of private practice, but an active force in society. The dynamic of history is perceived as revelation. The experience of God is mediated through meeting the needs and wishes of the oppressed.

One thing is clear: the mere fact of holding elections will not meet the urgent needs of society. To the Western liberal democracy is the end rather than the means. There are, in any case, other ways of defining and experiencing democracy than through the Jeffersonian model of debate among enlightened citizens in coffee house or counting house. For the poor their only capital is their labour and their talents. Elections where any citizen can run for office (like Cuba), or where there are several parties and an anti-government media (like Venezuela) may be considered as democracies, especially where there is a culture of participation not confined to the needs of the market. Dismissing this polity as dictatorship is counter-intuitive. The process of evaluating and defining the course of a society’s development is indeed a task never to be completed. Condemning societies for not being perfect is not serious political comment. It is prejudice of a markedly trite kind.

The democracies of the North (with their evident imperfections) have reason to fear, and therefore to diminish the influence of, the South. At one time it could be dismissed as a collection of cruel dictatorships in a remote and backward culture. This ignored the role of interventionist US governments with no serious policy beyond ensuring a supply of cheaply-produced commodities. The reality was predation. Pious aspirations for ‘progress’ were betrayed by Cold War pathologies which failed to address the needs of actual and undeniable conditions. It was a continent in search of a comprehensive resolution of its perpetual crises. Latin America was ill-served by the reductive image of the South as an exotic playground where sultry senoritas tangoed and moustached men muttered, ‘Manana.’

Today’s realties are ignored. There are experiments in social development that transcend the conventions of liberal democracy by supplementing representation with radical initiatives. Root problems need root solutions. Of this we hear little. What we hear of, when we hear anything, is a vague reference to ‘change’. Change in this context means mobile phones and internet access, rather than farming co-operatives and eco-projects. The two possibilities are not incompatible. They work best as complements. The liberal observer stresses only the wishes of the isolated individual (sitting at a computer). The radical observer stresses the generous strengths of the citizen contributing to a living environment. The liberal sees the world as Seattle (Microsoft, Starbucks, The Gap). This world of consumerism takes no account of the needs and wishes of others. The radical identity of Latin America resists absorption into material modernity. Techniques of communication may improve lives when the conversation is worth hearing.

Geoffrey Heptonstall 

Image: Mike Lesser


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