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Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power

“The empire on which the sun never sets”

This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America was pushed by its thirst for economic prowess, and was facilitated by demands that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.

RequerimientoBefore creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.

II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism 

The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism.  However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.

BARTSCH_4830005

Papal bulls served as the moral justification for colonization since the Spanish Empire had little in the law books over the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples.

III. The Ultimate Victor 

Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.

The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.

Note: This was written before the election of Nicolás Maduro. 


The election of 1998 was one of righteous importance to Venezuelans. Within the shadow International Monetary Fund and under its watchful eye, Venezuela had seen ten of its banks [1] collapse in the years prior, its Bolivar currency degenerate [2], and inflation run rampant [3]. Violent outbreaks plagued the city bounds and immediate countryside, sparked by Hugo Chavez’s failed coup attempt of 1992. During the 90s presidency of Rafael Caldera, the socioeconomic inequality of Venezuela reached its frustration and ultimate climax. Tipping over, it found its ultimate solution, by popular vote, through Hugo Chavez’s victory in December of 1998 – and with it, puntofijismo, the three-party system that held Venezuela by the handles since 1958, fell to Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Anti-imperialism and hostility towards Western influence has been commonplace since the Bolivarian Revolution.

Anti-imperialism and hostility towards Western influence has been commonplace since the Bolivarian Revolution.

In many ways, the importance of Hugo Chavez’s first election victory extends beyond his left-leaning economic policies.  It represented a significant shift in Venezuelan politics, and the rest of Latin America, against the Washington Consensus that was taking capital away from Venezuelan hands for decades. More broadly, it captured a struggle within a more pressing grander narrative that included centuries of Western economic infiltration and exploitation since the colonial era. The emergence of leftist movements in Latin America after Chavez’s rise to power, called the ”pink tide,” symbolized a crucial break from what was once the normality of Latin American economic dependence. This critical change owes its thanks to the richness of Venezuelan resources, particularly oil. The oil card that Venezuela possesses is a keen one in international politics and it enabled Chavez to raise Venezuela from its former subservient position in comparison to Western economies. Currently, oil stands as the stronghold of economic power among modern nations and it grants Venezuela a necessary springboard with which it can bring its country, and the rest of Latin America, to prominence.

Chavismo leaves much to be desired.

However, in all its oil wealth, this treasure has created a dubious contradiction in the institutions that control Venezuela. Chavez’s legacy will surely leave some form of his political ideology, chavismo, as the engine of Venezuelan politics, but also remaining will be the programs and structures that he helped expand through nationalized oil revenues. Many of these are not transparent. The uncertain nature of the Venezuelan future resembles a double-sided sword. On the one hand, public ownership of the oil industry has allowed for Chavez’s reformist positions for social justice to take root. Venezuela’s poverty rate, unemployment rate, and infant mortality rate have all decreased significantly [4] and the country now boasts the lowest level of income inequality in Latin America [5]. On the other hand, despite these gains, homicide rates have increased multifold [6] and institutional corruption has remained frighteningly high regardless of Chavez’s party platform of “anti-corruption” [7]. A mixed bag of success, Hugo Chavez has managed to pursue some forms of social justice and alternate institutions – such as the radical democratic experiments of communal councils (consejos comunales) – while still working alongside the dishonest power structures that existed before the Bolivarian revolution. It is this dangerous relationship that might reverse the moderate gains made for the working poor in Venezuela, now that Chavez has passed away. Such corruption has the ability to spiral into the backdoor privatization and foreign meddling that was seen in the crisis prior to 1998.

It is this uncertainty that calls into question the longevity of Chavez’s policies and chavismo. The prediction of what will become of Venezuela’s leftist movements is a difficult one.  There are relatively two major paths that could very well be taken, one clearly more preferable than the other. Venezuela could continue to pursue its expansionary social programs, using the power of oil politics, while in the meantime working to stamp out the fraudulent institutions that have been a staple in the Venezuelan experience since colonial times. Contrarily, it could also succumb to Western finance and right-wing movements that caused the economic collapse of the 1990s, impoverishing the majority while enriching the coffers of the higher castes of Venezuela. During his presidency, Hugo Chavez managed to take some crooked middle route by granting the state economy some room to pursue its corrupt practices while also responding to popular support through governmental programs and the socialization of private profits. However, this route is unsustainable. Unless the fraudulent and cyclical problems of Venezuela are addressed, its institutions will continue to hollow until its message of social justice becomes all but meaningless.

Thus, the burden lies on the working people of Venezuela to actively support and accept, as a basic right, the human necessities that were only recently granted to them. The ideology of chavismo should not be a temporary one, given it brought popular democracy to a largely undemocratic system, but it requires persistent vigilance against the reactionary powers that seek to destroy it and return Venezuela back to economic madness. Thereby, it is in the hands of the Venezuelans themselves to remain passionate enough to prevent a reversion to pre-Chavez policies. However, as to if they will actually do so with enough potency, that is really anybody’s guess.

Chavez-inspired murals are scattered about in Venezuelan cities.

Chavez-inspired murals are scattered about in Venezuelan cities.

The United States is often credited with reaching global economic status with free trade; that laissez faire capitalism and open trade with all nations brought us to modernity.

In actuality though, protectionism was vital in establishing American economic dominance and hegemony. The American System first promulgated by Henry Clay was critical of the British variant of economic thought and advocated high tariffs, a central bank, and federal subsidization of internal improvements (i.e canals, schooling, roads) amongst other things. It was built on Hamiltonian principles and the infant industry argument – that smaller industries must be protected from larger foreign competitors because they do not have the monetary means to compete.

Usually this put regional interests at end and created a bitter American divide – the North wanted high tariffs and subsidization and the South wanted complete free trade to be able to sell its goods (predominately cotton) to Britain and other foreign markets. It was one of the main causes of the Civil War; the clash of economic ideologies. South’s dependence on foreign markets was so strong that it firmly believed it could fully sustain itself without the North’s industry. The “King Cotton”ideology was used as a slogan to convince Southern public opinion; Southern legislatures promoted the message that since Britain’s and France’s dependence on Southern cotton for their textile mills was so strong, they would be forced to aid them in their struggle of secession. As the Union began blocking Southern seaports, this rallying call proved to be unfounded – foreign markets just found elsewhere to purchase cotton. The British Empire turned back to its colonies for cotton markets. India increased its cotton production by 700% and Egypt did likewise. The South was severely crippled and took many decades to recover. In addition, their laissez faire ideology was downgraded. The Republican (former Whig) American System became the dominant school of economic thought.

Average tariffs percentages were at their highest from 1865 – 1900; when the United States underwent its second Industrial Revolution. Despite the predictions of the powers of Europe, who believed the American Experiment would never recuperate from the Civil War, the United States underwent the one of the greatest economic growth periods in its history and established itself as a great power and then ultimately, much later, as a superpower. The Gilded Age ensued, which was arguable one of the most corporate-concentrated periods of power in U.S history; where the pervading ideology was that the wealthy were the “best of society” and the poor “did not work hard enough.” It was this concept that gave rise to the illusion of the American Dream and dissuaded the working class from mobilizing, in some respects. It worked in the interests of the wealthy most definitely.

 

But aside from that, in looking at today’s economic situation; why are we imposing free trade on other developing nations if we did not prosper from it ourselves when we were emerging as a power? The IMF and its associate organizations parade around promoting free trade and pressuring other nations to open to foreign capital only to further fill the pockets of the Western ruling class, and further impoverishing those not in high positions of power.

 

In South America, locals have been exploited for over a century by foreign ownership of land. Many of the legislatures have been complicit with the policies of the United States and the West and allowed for large corporate entities to buy out land; usually unused and to save for “later use.” Is this the benefit of free trade? The disproportionate ownership of global assets by Western powers? To make matters worse, a failure to allow foreign capital can have disastrous consequences. Many Latin American countries had coups staged, usually led by American interests, to halt any redistributing of land to the peasants. It is apparent that the First World depends on the Third World’s impoverished state to maintain their hegemony and economic superiority; they want these impoverished nations to remain dependent on their capital and investment. Well-calculated and planned underdevelopment, as its called.

 

But it seems that the leftist streak in Latin America may be changing this, hopefully soon. Some Latin American countries have already enacted legislation to redistribute unused private land to the poor, such as Hugo Chavez’s Plan Zamora in Venezuela. As of now, much of Latin American land remains in the hands of foreign investors. In Uruguay, the 2000 census showed that 17 percent of its arable land was foreign-owned, but it is predicted to be 20 to 30 percent today.  In Brazil, the Brazilian Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform estimates that 4.5 million hectares are owned by foreigners – but this figure is low and it may be twice as large, according to government officials. Argentinian authorities place its national estimates at 17 million hectares, about 10 percent of Argentinian territory, and about half of all arable land.
Moreover, sometimes when the land is returned back to “local hands” they’re heavily concentrated. The Landless Worker’s Movement in Brazil estimates, according to 1996 census records, that just 3% of the populations owns two-thirds of all arable land in Brazil. This only disempowers the majority and furthers economic inequality. According to World Development Indicators [2000] 10% of the population owns 47.6% of the wealth in Brazil. A study done by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Institute of Applied Economic Research or IPEA) paints a even grimer picture “…in São Paulo the wealthiest 10% had 73.4% of while in Rio they retained 62.9% and in Salvador 67%.” A product of unequal land distribution caused by free trade and neo-colonialism, it seems.
The moral of the story; modern free trade is not fair trade. Business clusters that congregate around areas of high GDP are inherently exploitative of poorer regions, taking their land disproportionately. The last things these emerging nations want is foreign capital owning their assets and preventing them from prospering. This forced underdevelopment is imposed through laissez faire legislation, and kept in place by multiple transnational organizations that preach the same ideology. It is dangerous to the self-determination of peoples and their long-term prosperity. It is exploitative by nature, but it seems that some free market fundamentalists just cannot abandon their distorted dream. And then their obscurities are imposed on the rest of us, with disastrous global economic consequences.

More info on the land crisis of Latin American can be found here and here. Statistics and general info on Brazil’s widening wealth gap and poverty crisis can be found here.
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