Monthly Archives: September 2019

Week Four: Independence Narratives, Past and Present

Another course I am currently undertaking relates to the concept of nationalism (in the context of modern Asia), and suggests that nationalism is only a recent trend born from decolonisation movements. Previously, I had only really associated decolonisation with that of South-East Asia and Africa in the mid-20th Century, which makes the context of Bolívar’s piece particularly interesting. What struck me most in his letter was his reference to Montesquieu writings that “it is harder… to release a nation from servitude than to enslave a free nation.” Retrospectively,  it is easy to say he was erroneous in this claim (given the history of decolonisation), however, in the context of 1815 Latin America, precedent was not in favour of liberation or independence.

After having completed the relevant readings for this week, I was particularly intrigued by the construction of identity in various independence narratives, especially with regard to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Of course, independence movements require mobilisation, which in turn itself requires a process of increasing consciousness and catalysing action. In nationalism, the way in which this  tends to be done is by strengthening the collective understanding of ‘us’ as well as ‘them’. In Bolívar’s letter, it is clear that ‘us’ refers to the aggrieved people of Latin America, having shared history and trauma. However, our perceptions of ourselves are also strengthened by our understandings of who we are not – the ‘other’ (in this case, “that unnatural stepmother – Spain”.

Again, in Martí’s ‘Our America‘, he draws the distinction between ‘us’; the inhabitants of the New World, and ‘them’; the inhabitants of the Old World (including the often-forgotten Indians that Bolívar himself made no allusion to) by alienating the Europeans, with their “puny arms, with bracelets and painted nails, the arms of Madrid or of Paris,” as well as the Americans who have enjoyed “four centuries of free practice”. His piece is very much a call to arms, and whilst at times frustrating to read, his voice is at others very beautiful, emotive, and provokes action. He makes an argument for a sort of ‘Latinisation’ of the elites and ruling officials in Latin America, and mythologises the shared history of Latin America (“A priest, a few lieutenants, and a woman built a republic in Mexico upon the shoulders of the Indians.”)

Following the sweep of decolonisation and after having thrown off their imperial chains, Latin America and the Global South have faced the new ‘threat’ of neoliberalism (at least according to Chávez). Neoliberalism of course refers to the international order wherein the cooperation and interdependence of states is desirable for net gain in an anarchic world system, and champions Capitalism and free-trade agreements in order for development to be realised. Whilst having its benefits, a significant downfall of neoliberalism is its western-centric nature as it suggests that the only viable system of state economics going forward is Capitalism, especially after Fukuyama’s suggestion that the “end of History” was heralded by the ‘triumph’ of Capitalism over Communism. By inciting the images of shared Latin American heroes such as Bolívar, as well as other leaders representing unity in the Global South such as Tito and Nasser, Chávez rejects this idea and instead urges other developing states of the G-15 to similarly turn from neoliberalism and Capitalism due to their shared history of exploitation (“The history of our countries tell us…”).


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Week Three: The Colonial Experience

Coming from a country with a colonial history myself and having studied development and international relations, I found this week particularly interesting as it allowed me to engage with colonial experiences from another perspective. Whilst I am extremely familiar with the history of colonialism in Australia (and British colonialism in the Commonwealth generally), I have not previously had exposure to the practice in other parts of the world.

In Australia, the colonial experience of the Indigenous was one of genocide through means of assimilation and integration; difference was not welcomed (also demonstrated in the White Australia Policy that was only fully deconstructed in 1973), and intermarriage between White colonisers and the Indigenous population was almost non-existent. In comparison, I was surprised to learn that intermarriage of the three primary ethnic groups in Latin America was not only observed, but also documented in Casta Paintings.

After engaging with the material this week, what struck me most was the recurrent trend I saw of a sort of desperation to catalogue difference. Indeed, Jon made mention of the Spanish desire to micromanage difference, and I think this speaks volumes not only about the sociology of colonisation in Latin America, but also the wider obsession of humans to classify and catalogue information in a way that makes sense of the boundless information in the world.

In the foreword of Catalina de Erauso’s memoir, Michele Stepto highlights the dangers of aligning Erauso and in the same category of the ‘other-ed’ victims of colonialism simply because she too had a degree of ‘other-ness’. The world is not binary, and the simple fact that she was an ‘other’ does not categorise her as ‘them’ in the ‘us vs. them’ narrative. As we retrospectively attempt to do justice to the histories of those whose experiences were left out of traditional, mainstream accounts, we must be wary of falling into the same trap as those who perpetuate the ‘us vs. them’ mindset. Whilst there does indeed exist a status quo, that is not to say that the stories and alignments of all those who exist outside it can be compiled into a second broad group (as that further incorrectly perpetuates the binary obsession) – the history of Latin America cannot be simplified into binary categorisations such as good vs. evil, coloniser vs. colonised, or status quo vs. the other.

Again, in the article about Casta Paintings, I saw the common thread of desperation to categorise all difference in an attempt to simplify information; ‘what would be the result if xyz happened…‘. As Jon mentioned, this clearly reveals deep-rooted cultural anxieties about identity as, after the melding of so many vastly differing cultures, it can be both difficult and unnerving to forge a new identity. People were faced with this decision of continuity or change, regardless of whether they were mestizos, mulattos, zambos, or even if they were the offspring of parents from the same ethnic group born into this brave new world. The categorisation of all of these possible permutations may have assisted in keeping at bay looming questions of ‘who are we?‘,  but also in a sense could have been a shout into the void of diversity.

Overall, as a region that can culturally be described as a mosaic, I think that the people of Latin America have had to (and still do) face many questions about boundaries. These questions revolve around concepts such as demarcation and blurring, but also to actions of transgression or transcendence, and the values we attach to such terms.





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Week One

Hey everyone! My name is Jessica and I’m an exchange student for this semester from the ANU in Australia. I’m super excited to be undertaking this course, however, I’ll be the first to admit that my blogging and web skills are sub-par at best, so please be patient with me!

Two favourites: (1) “The War on Drugs” by Diane Keyes and Michelle Nzioki, (2) “Venezuela: How We Got Here” by Ronnie Daney, Lourdes Kletas, Dorean Lotfazar, Katherine Poole.

“The War on Drugs” – Diane Keyes and Michelle Nzioki

As a big fan of the TV show Narcos, I really enjoyed this video as it discussed the drug trade in Latin America in an informative and easy to follow way, whilst also providing relevant background on the illegal industry in the past as well as present. I also really liked the personal anecdotes contained in the video as they added a personal dimension to the effects of the drug trade in Colombia. Furthermore, whist the War on Drugs has entered and passed various phases, it is interesting to see that there still remains a prominent problem with drugs in such parts of Latin America as Brazil (with regard to usage) and Mexico (regarding the trade itself and corruption of law enforcement).

“Venezuela: How We Got Here” – Ronnie Daney, Lourdes Kletas, Dorean Lotfazar, Katherine Poole

In recent years particularly, there has been an increase in international awareness of the significant and dire human rights crisis occurring in Venezuela, and the situation has only seemed to deteriorate over time. Whilst I was aware of the unrest in the country, this video provided a short and succinct overview of the situation. I found the structure of the video (as a timeline of sorts) particularly helpful in understanding the various stages of Venezuelan governance and factors that have contributed to its present-day turbulence. Ultimately, the video did a great job in presenting Venezuela as a victim of the all too common tale of power vacuums left after the death of authoritarian heads of state with personalistic leadership styles.

Two I Liked Least: (1) “Signs of Crisis in the Gilded Age” by Kaspars Reinis and Ryan Heazel, (2) “The Meeting of Two Worlds IV” by Thomas Seagrave, Daniel Fielburg, Jasmin Jhaj, Rick Cheng, and Christine Santa María.

“Signs of Crisis in the Gilded Age” – Kaspars Reinis and Ryan Heazel

Whilst in the category of videos I liked the least, I still enjoyed this video to an extent due to its strong thematic links to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As both a big fan of literature and a politics student, I have always found the intersection of these two particularly interesting, especially the way in which Márquez’s novel has become an allegory for Latin America’s struggle for modernity and the desire to create a utopia (and penchant for revolutionary change). However, I found this video very hard to follow as the structure wasn’t particularly chronological (and unfortunately, the sound quality was a little poor). I thought that the connections between the sections of the video were not adequately explained, which resulted in my having to rewind the video a few times.

“The Meeting of Two Worlds IV” – Thomas Seagrave, Daniel Fielburg, Jasmin Jhaj, Rick Cheng, and Christine Santa María

This choice was more so due to the lack of visual cues than anything else. Whilst I found the content interesting and easy to understand, the video contained very little images and videos to aid in my understanding of what was being said. However, despite these shortcomings, I still enjoyed the video. As an exchange student from Australia, my knowledge of Columbus’ voyage and his crew’s atrocious treatment of the Indigenous Peoples is particularly limited, so I found this video very informative and useful in understanding the turbulent history out of which today’s Latin America has emerged.

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Week Two: The Meeting of Two Worlds

Reading Questions

  1. What did you think of Columbus before you looked at his account?

As a student from Australia, my knowledge of Columbus is limited, however, having learned about the fall of the Aztecs due to the efforts of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, my impression of the Spanish in the ‘early days’ of what is considered ‘modern’ Latin America is overwhelmingly negative. Furthermore, from exposure to American media, my negative perception of Columbus has persisted, owing to the horrendous treatment of and atrocities committed against the indigenous Latin Americans during and well after colonisation, including genocide, enslavement, forced conversion to Catholicism, and the destruction of culture and society.

  1. How did your thoughts change after reading about events in his own words?

After reading Columbus’ first-hand account of the expedition, it is difficult to say that my opinion has changed significantly. Due to the fact that the account was written by Columbus himself for the King and Queen of Spain, it is easy to doubt its credibility. Indeed, Columbus may have (and most likely) intended to glorify and exaggerate his feats, and sell to the King and Queen the benefits of his expedition. In this account, Columbus painted himself as benevolent towards the Natives and refers to them paternalistically, however, I am doubtful that the Natives would have seen him in such a noble light as he himself had suggested. He also repeatedly refers to the natives as “cowards,” “faint-hearted,” and overall bad at fighting.

Thoughts on the Readings

What I found particularly interesting about the two readings was the drastically dissimilar ways in which both authors described the events that transpired, as well as the light they chose to portray them in, particularly with regard to (1) the pursuit of valuable resources, and (2) the way in which the Natives received the Spanish.

  • Pursuit of Valuable Resources

In Columbus’ account, he makes various references to particularly important resources, such as gold, precious stones, pine (for building ships), and fresh water. It is clear that he is attempting to sell the benefits of the land in his account to the King and Queen of Spain. As I continued to read the entries, I became increasingly aware of the significant references he makes to gold (a quick ctrl + f found over 40 references to gold). Indeed, finding a source of gold seemed to be a paramount objective of the expedition, and Columbus notes that he became angry at his men for not bargaining for a piece of gold they had seen in a dog’s nose.

Guaman Poma’s account, however, portrays the Spanish pursuit of gold in an overwhelmingly negative light, commenting on the all-consuming greed of the Spanish Captain Generals. Whilst I am also doubtful of the accuracy of his claims (especially regarding one where they apparently “could not eat for thinking of gold and silver”), it is clear that Guaman Poma was attempting to provide an alternative account of the conduct of the Spanish in Latin America following Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the region.

  • Relationship with the Natives

Another point of contention in the accounts that struck me was the overwhelmingly different ways Spanish treatment of the Natives was portrayed, as well as the relationship that the Spanish forged with the Natives. In Columbus’ account, he insists that the Natives were treated respectfully, and further suggests that the Natives received them warmly and were quick to tell others that they meant no harm and “were good people.” I severely doubt that was the case, and it is almost humorous to read Columbus’ inferences about the way in which the Natives perceived them. The account also details that six (or seven) Natives were taken by the crew for the purposes of teaching them Spanish and presenting them to the King and Queen. He writes as if he means them no harm; as if they are diplomatic guests, but goes on to refer to them as “prisoners” in later accounts – which I found rather jarring given his previous references to the Natives.

In contrast, Guaman Poma provides what seems to be a more historically accurate account of the events that took place and the state of the relationship between the Spanish and the Natives (or at least, more in line with the narrative I have become accustomed to). Rather than welcome the Spanish generously, Guaman Poma recounts that the Incan Atagualpa with the Spanish “did not have to make friendship, as he too was a great lord in his kingdom.” Additionally. whereas Columbus made the observation that the Natives “were people who would be more easily converted to our Holy Faith by love than by coercion,” Guaman Poma suggests that religious tensions between the two groups were far more severe. Indeed, the simple act of an Incan Atagualpa throwing the Bible onto the floor seemingly led to a massacre of the tribe due to the perceived disrespect of the Catholic religion.

Overall, I am still generally confused about the accuracy of both of the accounts, however, it is clear that this confusion regarding the true events that transpired following the Spanish ‘discovery’ of Latin America have contributed to the myth of Columbus and the character dichotomy of hero or villain.


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