Keynote speech at the Conference on Land and Freedom, of The Caribbean Studies Program, University of Toronto
October 31, 2009
"Es importante no olvidar que uno ha olvidado."
("It is important not to forget that one has forgotten")
F. Baez, 31
I come to talk about some horrific things that have befallen Latin American and Caribbean people, but I also will talk about some extraordinary things that are making our America the most hope-filled region, a beacon for the planet’s future.
Today is the last day of the month of October – the month in which many countries celebrate "Columbus Day", the day supposedly Europeans "discovered" the misnamed continent of America, and tonight is Halloween when tradition says that spirits of the dead may roam.
What would the spirits of our America say if we indeed could see and hear them?
I dare to answer for them: that Columbus was a mass murderer, an unrelenting racist, who carried out one of the most complete and extensive genocides in history upon the original peoples of our America. Their spirits would tell us all the cruelties that these barbaric Europeans perpetuated upon them.
During the II World War, the German Nazi government carried out a deliberate and organized genocide against Jewish people in Europe and it included eliminating all sorts of "misfits" such as mentally ill people, homosexuals and indeed, any dissenter to their empire. It is good that even now, 64 years afterwards, the memory of that holocaust is kept alive so the world may not forget that state terrorism, that horrific genocide. An estimate of six million has been calculated died in the Nazi concentration camps. We must never forget.
However, an even greater genocide against the indigenous peoples of this continent is "controversial" or denied, instead of outwardly repudiated. It was that "civilized" European massacred other "civilized" Europeans that was found so shocking about the Nazi atrocities. Not so when those massacred are dark people from beyond. Centuries before the Nazi, there was this other genocide, one that has been largely forgotten, hidden behind a masquerade called "progress" or "civilization".
The period of Conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean – roughly between 1492-1570- was an organized, deliberate, physical elimination of entire peoples through brutal torture and death. It included their enslavement "for their own good" , the suppression of their culture, history, and languages. They systematically destroyed their original records, the learning, the music, the theatre, and dance of the original peoples throughout the vast region. In other words, it was also a cultural genocide. As the brilliant Latin American scholar Fernando Baezi
demonstrates, it is this destruction of our history that lies at the heart of the contradictions, the dependency and the exploitations that continues today in Latin America and the Caribbean: a continent that has been robbed of much more than just its rich resources, its peoples have been denied its collective memory and true identity.
Let us remember some of that history because, in fact, it continues to impact us to this day: the pillaging of our America, the racism with which our peoples have been and are regarded, the misery under which many are still living, has persisted through Conquest, Colonialism and post-colonialism to this, the era of global capitalism.
That same Columbus, whose name is celebrated in streets, schools, monuments, even an entire country, personally led the massacre against the Taina (Arawak) people of Haiti with a few cavalry, 200 foot soldiers and trained dogs.
A very small number of Europeans during the Conquest were able to exterminate an indigenous population of between 70 to 100 million people. None of the genocide of the 20th century can compare to this carnage, not Hitler, not Stalin, indeed, one cannot think of any historical genocide of this magnitude.
Their cultures have been lost.
At the beginning of the 16th Century, the indigenous people represented 99% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean, today they represent only 30%. In the countries that have the greatest percentage of indigenous peoples (Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia and Ecuador) they count no higher than 27%. There are 770 distinct indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean but not one group has more than 5, 000 members. They are among the poorest of the poor, excluded, marginalized, suffering misery, and hounded by landowners, miners, and multinational companies that covet their lands and resources. The history of our America is the history of land and freedom – the struggle to defend one and to exert the other.
Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, today México City, was a marvel of urban design – much more sophisticated, better planned, healthier and as beautiful as any in Europe. Its destruction and pillage at the hands of Hernán Cortéz was monumental; it was the first great looting in our America. The genocide of the Mexican people was unbelievable, unprecedented: the 25 million inhabitants that Techochtitlán had in 1500 was reduced to one million between 1519 and 1605: that is a 96% decrease of the indigenous population. Tenochtitlán was not destroyed as an "unintended" consequence of war – as the historian Hugh Thomas asserts: " its destruction was a deliberate tactic, deliberately and carefully, methodically carried out, with all the energy of a European war without thinking that they were ruining a work of art..."vii
Fernando Báez points out that today one cannot imagine building a Christian church on top of the pyramids of Egypt or Stonhenge – yet that is what happened in Tenochtitlán: today one can see México’s cathedral that was deliberately built on the ruins of the great Aztec temples. This is a key example of the cultural looting, the destruction of a culture and all its artifacts, symbols and history. México of course, in the 19th century went on to lose half of its land to another empire, the USA.viii
The destruction of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, the largest in South America that extended from Colombia to Chile and Argentina, followed the same pattern as Tenochtitlán’s. Francisco Pizarro, carried out the conquest of the Incas through butchery and treachery. It is documented that he invited the best Inca warriors and their wise men to visit him and callously poisoned their drinks with arsenic.ix
Lope de Aguirre, another sanguinary conqueror, one of the great destroyers of indigenous cultures, went thorough eastern Venezuela leaving such a wake of murder and destruction that his name is still synonymous with all that is vile about the Conquest. He was obviously insane, as in the end he killed his own companions and his only daughter. One can speculate that perhaps the blood lust of all these barbaric men of conquest was a sign of their madness. The great nation of the Caribes in Venezuela, who ferociously defended its land and freedom, was laid waste by men such as these.
As for the Mayas, in southern México and Central America, they like the Aztec and Incas, were great builders and had records of their knowledge and an accurate solar calendar. Fray Diego de Landa (1524-79) wrote what the conquerors did to the Mayas :" They carried out unbelievable cruelties, they cut off their noses, arms and legs, they cut off women’s breasts , tied pumpkins full of rocks on their feet and threw them into deep lagoons; they beat the children with sticks when they did not walk fast enough and if they got sick they cut off their heads…The Spaniards excused themselves by saying that they could not subjugate so many people unless they filled them with fear of terrible punishments. " However, religious fanatism led this same Landa, in 1562 to authorize the killing of 4,000 Mayans from Mérida, because they refused to stop adoring their idols.x
The ancient Spanish sought gold in our lands. One historian of the time said they "were like hungry swine lusting after gold". Seventy years after Columbus landed, the Spanish Monarchs – Isabel and Ferdinand -had obtained more than 185,000 kilos of gold and 16 million kilos of silver. This fortune was the fruit of the slave work of indigenous peoples and African people. It is estimated that 15 million Africans were kidnapped and transported to the Latin America and the Caribbean – w