Thursday, December 07, 2006

THE MYTHS OF ARGENTINE HISTORY I

Snowball´s readers may remember that last time I was in Argentina, I attempted a brief history of this wonderful country. At the time I gave the caveat that this brief history was based largely on the Lonely Planet guidebooks, so this time I will go into rather more depth to see how its early history might impact on present-day Argentina. There is a feeling here, as elsewhere, that history has been depoliticized and filled with mythical clichés of grand liberators and evil despots. Felipe Pigna, in his excellent The Myths of Argentine History, writes:

This particular historical and political pedagogy has resulted in the idea that history and politics is what "the others" do, and that the common people lack the courage, the skills, the ability and - ultimately - the bravery to make history. During the last dictatorship, ideas such as these prompted many to shrug off every victim of abduction or murder committed by state forces with the phrase "Well, they must have been up to something." In a country whose history has largely been one of dictatorships or bogus democracies, political commitment is hardly ever regarded in a positive light.

The dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s caused many people to literally lose the identity (via "disappearances"). Perhaps something similar is still happening to the Argentinian identity. As Pigna states, "power offers no truce and never forgives those who oppose it, knowing as well that if nobody opposes it, everything will be much worse."

*

America was discovered in 1492. At least, this is what orthodox history will have you believe. Of course, such a theory depends on the idea that the continent did not exist before Europeans got there : this is synonymous with the idea that colonial victims are merely primitive people waiting for great men to discover their lands and convert them into civilised people.

Actually, in sailing west European explorers never banked on reaching America. They did not even realise it existed. The reason for sailing west was to find Asia. The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century meant that moving east from Europe for commerce or exploration was more difficult. Routes through Turkey were blocked to Westerners by the Ottomans, who invaded Constantinople in 1453. To reach Asia, the Europeans had to cross the Atlantic. Enter Christopher Columbus.

Columbus, no Galileo he, had a particular vision of the world as being shaped like a woman´s breast, and this is what led him to create a plan to sail west to reach China. He set sail in 1493, and on 13 October (not the 12th as is usually claimed) he and his crew of 33 hit what they believed to be Asia.

Subsequent accounts have, as ever, portrayed the native people of this "Asia" (actually Latin America) as being primitive, blackguardly and sexually immoral. Polygamy was, they said, commonplace, and every marriage was preceded by the men of the area sampling the bride. Women walked around naked, and this inevitably provoked the men into nefarious ways. The truth is that the Mayas were highly civilised, with an impressive artistic and scientific culture. It is they who had discovered the 365-day solar calendar. Columbus liked the natives at first, though only because he felt their gentle, moral and jocular nature would make them good servants. Almost immediately, the natives were enslaved and made to dig for gold. Such was Spain´s desperation to extract gold from the colonised land that any native who failed to find a nugget of gold was tortured. The Mexican historian Carlo Cipolla describes the scene:

The gold appropriated by the conquerors was exclusively the product of robbery, looting and booties. The drawback to every parasitical activity is that it can´t go on forever. Sooner or later, depending on the reserves of treasure or the efficiency of the despoilers, the victims are bereft of all their goods and the thieves have nothing left to steal.

It is interesting to note how contemporary and subsequent generations of conservative commentators attempted to justify this exploitation. The needs of capital, they said, required that Spain expand in order to compete with its European rivals. No doubt we have all heard this line of reasoning recently to justify Western drives for oil. The bourgeois sine qua non of "private property" is the key here. Gold (and, currently, oil) enables the purchase of provate property - except, of course, that this depends on the resource in question being a priori public property. This was not the case in 15th century Latin America, just as it is not the case today.

*

In September 1493, Columbus launched his second invasion of Latin America. He had returned to Spain with a fleet full of slaves - the beginning of the evil of slavery, which cost Africa 30m people between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. On this second invasion, Columbus met heavy resistance. A contemporary anti-imperial campaigner, Bartolomé de las Casas, describes why:

The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances started massacring (the Indians) and committing all sorts of cruelties. They would storm their villages and neither young nor old, nor women pregnant, or delivered, they would shrink from disembowelling. They would set up grill broilers of stakes on forks, over which they would barbecue their captives. And this is why the Indians began looking around for ways to expel the Christians from their lands and strongholds.

Chief Caonabó was one of the resistance leaders. After Christopher Columbus´s brother Bartholomew, had invaded Caonabó´s village and enslaved its inhabitants, he and his wife prepared their troops and invaded imperial settlements for a full two years, becoming a feared leader among Europeans. Such violence helped the Europeans to portray the native as barbarians, but we should note that Caonabó and his tribe had led a peaceful life before the Spanish arrived. It was only after several years of Spanish tyranny that they turned to violence. There are parallels here with the Nazi portrayal of Jews as filthy, subhuman creatures and justifying this view with pictures of Jews in poverty which the Nazis had themselves created. Another native chieftain, Hathuci, refused to covert to Christianity and was told that all non-believers would face eternal damnation. "Do Spaniards go to Heaven?" he asked his captors. On being told that they do, Hathuci replied, "Then I´d rather go to hell."

Columbus died in 1506, but not before two further invasions (to Venezuela, Jamaica, Honduras and Costa Rica).

*

In May 2006, some people commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus´s death. So how do his activities have an impact on today´s Argentina?

Well, firstly an ambiguous relationship between Argentina (and other Latin American countries) and Spain remains. Pigna points out that irony of the mid 70s, when Spain became a democracy once again and Argentina slipped into a military dictatorship:

History had decreed that just when Argentina was entering its darkest night Spain would recover its freedom, its poetry, its vitality, after forty years of obscurantism under a regime that bethought itself the heir of the imperial and conquering Spain of yore.

In modern-day Argentina, the imperial pattern continues. Slavery and torture are long gone, but economic inequality remains, caused by the neoliberal economic model. In the 1990s, during the Presidency of the little-missed Carlos Menem, business remained in the hands of the few, and profits were quickly exported abroad to the American and Spanish companies who had expropriated them. During the 90s, for every 1 dollar of profit that Spanish companies made in Argentina, only 20 cents was invested back into Argentina. "Dollars poured into Madrid," says Pigna, "just as gold and silver had done in the old colonial days. Once again South America was feeding the Motherland which had exhibited its opulence while hiding the corpses of the Potosi miners that made it possible, and now looked away from the misery of a continent that was once again making her rich."

*

After the death of Columbus, the Spanish crown needed a new imperial figurehead. They went for Magellan, a nobleman from the rival imperial power of Portugal. He entered Southern Argentina in 1520. In 1526, the first Spanish settlement in Argentina was founded at the intersection of the Paraná and Carcaraiá rivers. We see here a further example of the past being constructed to justify the present. The Spanish borrowed a story from Greek mythology that two natives had fallen in love with Lucía, the wife of an invader who had been killed. The story suggests that one of the natives had raped Lucía, leading to the two of them being killed. Historians now agree that this story is utter fiction.

In 1533, Spain benefitted from the looting of Peru, which earned the "Motherland" much-needed reference. (Considering the fate of all colonised nations in South America was similar in the days of Empire, we might remember here Ernesto Guevara´s suggestion that the Latin American continent should find a common identity as mestizos.) Peruvian gold was especially crucial to the 16th century Spanish economy, since Spain had lost much of its American revenue in the so-called Wars of Religion between European Catholics and Protestants. As always with conflicts which purport to be religious, these had little to do with faith, and more to do with expansionist rivalries. But Spain´s losses meant that further expansion in the Americas became necessary ; such are the demands of capital, which pays little heed to spiritual or human interests.

Enter Don Pedro de Mendoza.

*

Mendoza left Spain on 24 August 1535 and reached what is now Buenos Aires early the following year. As in earlier expeditions, the Spanish treated this land as public property : a kind of tabula rasa, open for European exploitation. In fact, the land belonged to the Querandíes tribe, a group of hunters and farmers who had developed a complex and stable social system. At first, the Querandíes welcomed the Spanish with open arms, but the Europeans soon took advantage. Ulrico Schmidl, who oversaw the 1535 expedition, describes the Indians´reaction:

The said Querandi Indians fight with bows and darts shaped like short spears with a flint edge. They also whirl a long cord with a stone ball tied to its end, such as the lead ones which in Germany are used. The horse´s or deer´s legs hit by this ball are entangled by the cord, making them stumble and fall, and with such a ball they also caused the death of our captain and hidalgos, and our infantrymen with the aforementioned darts have been killed as well.

The Spanish invasion had radically disrupted the social system which the Querandíes had enjoyed, and which had served them so well. The consequence was a new city which failed to function. Mass poverty and starvation followed, and Mendoza himself died at sea in June 1537. The conservative 18th century Argentine ideologue Dean Funes said of him, "Mendoza´s age-long credit has been due more to the goods of fortune than those of nature. When the former abandoned him, the hero vanished as well, and only his weaknesses were left. Without any genius, talent or valor worthy of the name, and even worse, prey to that pettiness of passions that soil the reputations of the ultimate people of earth, he had not been born for great exploits."

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