Looking Back - Latin America's Burden the Columbus Celebration Should Have Been a Chance to Learn from the Past and Build a Better Future; Instead, It's an Intellectual Romp

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MOST Latin Americans view the fifth centennial of the original North Atlantic cruise of Adm. Christopher Columbus with indifference. If asked, they may reply with a smile that possibly will try to hide ignorance of the original feat. Functional literacy, despite numbers from the Organization of American States or the United Nations, is frankly a rarity.

Yes, the names will sound familiar. Even the dates. But the concept of exploring, mapping, and politically dominating a newly found land is likely to remain obscure outside the elite capable of understanding the momentous event of 1492. Still, the history of the colonization of the American continent has episodes to please all - and, simultaneously, events capable of infuriating even the insensitive.

An anniversary such as this year's could have been a wonderful opportunity for sober analysis of the present fruits of Columbus's historic singlemindedness. But not much of that is happening in Latin America. Instead, its intelligentsia prefers to engage in Byzantine arguments regarding what the Spanish, and by extension the Europeans, wrought.

It is as if the years had not gone by and we were still in 16th-century Spain engaging in burning rhetoric that attempts to settle definitively the issue of whether women should be treated like children or vice versa.

Not surprisingly, the main focus of attention nowadays is whether Columbus's travail ended in the discovery of a new world or merely in an encounter between equal worlds.

Another issue is no less Byzantine: Would the native cultures have flourished, unmolested, toward a better world had Columbus given up on his dream?

A motley crowd of socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites, and others eager to find new causes, has quickly grabbed this second issue and lost no time in exploiting its political possibilities.

Nowhere are the feelings of Latin Americans more mixed than in this area. On the one hand, they are proud of their Spanish or European heritage. But at the same time, they want the outside world to know they consider only the Indian as their true culture.

The result? A reversion to what amounts to a lay fundamentalism, with Indian languages and social organization as the paradigms.

Needless to say, the modernization and democratization ostensibly sought by Latin American societies tends in a different direction. It is not in the Nahuatl language where Mexico will find solace for the toils of its masses - nor Peru in the Quechua, nor Paraguay in the Guarani.

It is in open markets, in increased quality and productivity of work, in acceptance of principles of individual responsibility that a potentially prosperous future lies.

The appeal to return to Latin America's true roots suffers from terminal contradiction. It is an unabashed call to turn the clock back to idyllic times, but it issues from a political left that promises government along "scientific" principles. Science and traditional, tribal society don't mix.

Why is the left so attracted to this call backward? Because the repudiation of things European means a denigration of liberal democracy, long considered outdated by the left and allegedly about to be superseded by "scientific" socialism. It also means an indirect indictment of the free market, the Protestant work ethic, and, of course, the morality of the profit margin contained in the prices of goods and services. …


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