Monday, February 10, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "Indo-America" Rising?

The continent to our south, and I include in that the nations
of Central America as well, has endured a problematic
history since the incursion of European explorers and
conquistadores at the end of the fifteenth century.

The main European powers involved in the history of the
western hemisphere were the Spanish, Portuguese, French
and English. None of them were very admirable colonisers,
but the worst of them perhaps were the conquistadores of
the Spanish empire.

Particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the
Spanish imposed highly exploitive, cruel, and murderous
regimes throughout Central and South America, leaving
behind defective cultures of law and human rights.

The French, Portuguese and English empires, as I pointed
out, treated the hemisphere’s native peoples badly as well,
but they also mostly exited the continent by the very early
nineteenth century. The English particularly left behind a
culture of language, law, and governance that enabled the
United States and Canada to develop into major and
successful sites of then nascent industrial revolution and
democratic capitalism, and to become world powers.

In the U.S., the continent to its south is officially called
South America, but is often referred to as Latin America or
Hispanic America.  The latter two are misnomers since
there is nothing “Latin” about the culture, and more
than half the population, who live in the continent’s
largest nation, Brazil, speak Portuguese not Spanish.
As John Gunther pointed out in his 1941 classic Inside
Latin America, the Peruvian statesman Victor Hara de la
Torre had a better name for the continent --- “Indo-America.”
This term includes the dominant (though submerged)
peoples of the continent, the indigenous Inca, Aztec and
Mayan  and other Indians who had migrated (presumably
from Asia) to the Western Hemisphere long before it was
“discovered” and invaded by Europeans. This reality is
often ignored by North Americans and Europeans who have
forgotten the history that Spanish and Portuguese cultures
were forcibly and cruelly imposed on these native societies.
More recently, the Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz
described in his great work The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
how an alien Spanish culture was superimposed on the
native Mexicans, but that the Indian culture survives in the
modern Mexican character. 

The liberator of several South American nations was Simon
Bolivar, a revolutionary idealist who ousted the Spaniards
by the mid-nineteenth century, but who was unable to
consolidate his policies and ideas into successful regimes.
The nations he liberated, failing to industrialize and
otherwise modernize, soon lapsed into endless coups with
oligarchal regimes of caudillos and dictators.

After more than a half century now of catastrophic
governments, it has been forgotten that Argentina, the
southernmost South American nation, had been by far the
most successful society on the continent. This was probably
because Argentina had been settled by a much greater
variety of Europeans, not just Spaniards. With its large area,
and numerous natural resources, Argentina was at the outset
of the 20th century one of the ten most powerful economic
nations on earth. Buenos Aires, its capital, rivaled London,
Paris, Vienna and New York as a modern and vibrant urban

The disaster that befell Argentina, and the lack of political
evolution that infected the rest of Central and South America,
had many causes, but there is little question that the Spanish
oligarchal culture of suppression of native peoples, ruthless
exploitation of local resources, and predominance of military
power lingered long after Spain had been ejected from the

For a fascinating overview account of the national stories of each
South American country from the late nineteenth century through
the mid-twentieth century (up to the outset of World War II) the
reader might want to look at that now forgotten classic Inside 
Latin America by the great American journalist John Gunther in
1941 (an updated version, changing "Latin" to "South" was
published in 1967). Gunther’s account has an obvious bias to
American interests, but he performed a Herculean task by
interviewing virtually every major political and business figure,
young and old, in each South American, Central American and
Caribbean country (be they on the right or the left), and giving a
rather fair account of them, even of the then overt Nazi
sympathizers attempting to establish a significant “fifth column”
of pro-Axis sentiment throughout South America. (It needs to
be remembered, that many German, Italian and, yes, Japanese
immigrants had come to various parts of South America from the
late 1800s on, and many had risen to positions of significant
economic, political, military and cultural influence by 1940.)

President Franklin Roosevelt took a special interest in South
America, declaring a “Good Neighbor” policy (1933) as a
restatement of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) which had discouraged
European interference in hemispheric affairs.  (The name and
idea of this policy was originally made by Henry Clay in the
mid-nineteenth century.) This foreign policy intensified as
World War II approached, and as the Nazi regime in Germany
and the fascist regime in Italy attempted to arouse their emigre
communities in South America to take their side in the
approaching world conflict.

Thus, the Soviet communist empire’s attempt after World War II
to meddle in Cuba, Grenada and many South American societies
through local communist parties was only the next wave of
attempted outside exploitation of South America, and the
current attempts of Iran to establish itself in Venezuela and
the other South American totalitarian regimes in Bolivia,
Nicaragua, Bolivia, and elsewhere is the latest wave of this

The historical role of the United States has not been unblemished
either, with a history of large corporations treating nations
south of its borders as “banana republics,” and with frequent
U.S. government interference in South American local politics.

During the Cold War, the U.S. also took an active role (using its
Central Intelligence Agency) to subvert apparent communist
takeovers in Cuba, Guatemala and Chile. Most recently, the
Obama administration tried (unsuccessfully) to use its influence
to enable a leftist Honduran president to try to stage a coup
(2010) to remain in power.

The primary problem throughout South America is that extreme
poverty still affects large portions of its population, populist
demagoguery and military regimes still often prevail, and a true
middle class remains limited in its growth and political power.
The continent’s largest and potentially most prosperous nation,
Brazil, appears to be (at last) emerging from its history of
oligarchy, inflation, and lack of development. Argentina, a shadow
of its promise only a century before, remains mired in
neo-Peronism, a pseudo-populist will-o-wisp that has robbed
Argentina of its great potential for so long.

The first human settlers on South America were the native Indian
tribes of Incas, Mayans, Aztecs and others (who themselves had
probably emigrated from Asia long before). Although the Spanish
invaders brutally suppressed the peoples from Mexico to Chile,
the Europeans often intermarried with these native populations,
as well as brought slaves from Africa, and today much of South
America (especially in Brazil) is racially and ethnically much
more mixed than almost any other continent.

One of the saddest chronicles of Western civilization is the
five hundred year history of the chronic political failure of
“Indo-America” --- in spite of its notable contributions to world
literature, film, music, art and architecture. In the same time
frame, its northern hemispheric neighbor, the United States,
emerged as the world’s economic and military superpower ---
and champion of international freedom, human rights and
national self-determination.

Perhaps there is now renewed optimism that, led perhaps by
the prosperity and maturation of Brazil, Indo-America can
leave behind its chronic coups and dictators, and at last realize
Simon Bolivar’s dreams and aspirations for his long-suffering

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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