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
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
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. …