Monday, November 20, 2006

Latin America is preparing to settle accounts with its white settler elite

Richard Gott:

The recent explosion of indigenous protest in Latin America, culminating in the election this year of Evo Morales, an Aymara indian, as president of Bolivia, has highlighted the precarious position of the white-settler elite that has dominated the continent for so many centuries. Although the term "white settler" is familiar in the history of most European colonies, and comes with a pejorative ring, the whites in Latin America (as in the US) are not usually described in this way, and never use the expression themselves. No Spanish or Portuguese word exists that can adequately translate the English term.

Latin America is traditionally seen as a continent set apart from colonial projects elsewhere, the outcome of its long experience of settlement since the 16th century. Yet it truly belongs in the history of the global expansion of white-settler populations from Europe in the more recent period. Today's elites are largely the product of the immigrant European culture that has developed during the two centuries since independence.

The characteristics of the European empires' white-settler states in the 19th and 20th centuries are well known. The settlers expropriated the land and evicted or exterminated the existing population; they exploited the surviving indigenous labour force on the land; they secured for themselves a European standard of living; and they treated the surviving indigenous peoples with extreme prejudice, drafting laws to ensure they remained largely without rights, as second- or third-class citizens.

Latin America shares these characteristics of "settler colonialism", an evocative term used in discussions about the British empire. Together with the Caribbean and the US, it has a further characteristic not shared by Europe's colonies elsewhere: the legacy of a non-indigenous slave class. Although slavery had been abolished in much of the world by the 1830s, the practice continued in Latin America (and the US) for several decades. The white settlers were unique in oppressing two different groups, seizing the land of the indigenous peoples and appropriating the labour of their imported slaves.

A feature of all "settler colonialist" societies has been the ingrained racist fear and hatred of the settlers, who are permanently alarmed by the presence of an expropriated underclass. Yet the race hatred of Latin America's settlers has only had a minor part in our customary understanding of the continent's history and society. Even politicians and historians on the left have preferred to discuss class rather than race.

In Venezuela, elections in December will produce another win for Hugo Chávez, a man of black and Indian origin. Much of the virulent dislike shown towards him by the opposition has been clearly motivated by race hatred, and similar hatred was aroused the 1970s towards Salvador Allende in Chile and Juan Perón in Argentina. Allende's unforgivable crime, in the eyes of the white-settler elite, was to mobilise the rotos, the "broken ones" - the patronising and derisory name given to the vast Chilean underclass. The indigenous origins of the rotos were obvious at Allende's political demonstrations. Dressed in Indian clothes, their affinity with their indigenous neighbours would have been apparent. The same could be said of the cabezas negras - "black heads" - who came out to support Perón.

This unexplored parallel has become more apparent as indigenous organisations have come to the fore, arousing the whites' ancient fears. A settler spokesman, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian-now-Spanish novelist, has accused the indigenous movements of generating "social and political disorder", echoing the cry of 19th-century racist intellectuals such as Colonel Domingo Sarmiento of Argentina, who warned of a choice between "civilisation and barbarism".

The Wind from the South— Anti-White Populism


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