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Race, Boots and Nationalism

By Mario Vargas Llosa | El País

15.01.2006 | The recent European tour by Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, was a great media success. His dress and appearance, which appeared to have been programmed by a brilliant media consultant from New York and not from the Bolivian altiplano, has delighted the press and raised the enthusiasm of the dumb Left to an orgasmic pitch. I predict that the monk-style haircut of the new Bolivian president, his striped sweaters in every colour of the rainbow, his worn-out leather jackets, wrinkled jeans and the miner shoes will soon become the must-have fashion item for Western progressives. This is excellent news for Bolivian and Peruvian breeders of camelids and for manufacturers of sweaters made of alpaca, llama or vicuña wool in the Andean countries, who will see their exports grow.

What politicians and journalists have emphasised the most is that Evo Morales is the first indigenous person to occupy the Bolivian Presidency, which corrects the discriminatory and racist injustice of five centuries perpetrated by a tiny white minority against millions of Aymara and Quechua indians in Bolivia. This affirmation is a flagrant historical inaccuracy, as the Bolivian presidency has been occupied by a host of Bolivians with the humblest of origins, generally by sabre-rattlers who started off as soldiers and rose through the ranks in the army until they grabbed power by means of military insurrections; an endemic disease from which Bolivia did not recover until the second half of the twentieth century. For racists who are interested in this sort of statistics, I recommend reading "The Barbarian Caudillos", a splendid essay about the dictators who succeeded one after the other in the Bolivian presidency in the nineteenth century. It was written by Alcides Arguedas, an insightful historian and essayist who might be too frenchified and pessimistic for contemporary palates.

Not too long ago the notion that racism was a dangerous defect seemed to be axiomatic. It had to be fought against unremittingly, since the notions of pure race, or of inferior or superior races, had been proven to have apocalyptic consequences with Nazism. But, recently, and thanks to characters like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Peru's Humala family, racism has regained centre stage and a certain respectability. It has been fostered and blessed by an irresponsible segment of the Left and it has been turned into a value, a factor to determine a person's political correctness.

To approach the Latin American problem in racial terms, as those demagogues do, shows a senseless lack of responsibility. It is tantamount to trying to replace the prejudices of some Latin Americans, who think of themselves as white, against indians, by equally absurd prejudices of indians against whites. In Peru, Isaac Humala, father of two presidential candidates in next April's elections, one of whom is Lieutenant Colonel Ollanta, who has some possibility of being elected, has explained the organisation of Peruvian society according to race, which he would like either of his sons to apply. Peru would be a country where only copper-skinned Andeans would have Peruvian nationality. The rest, white, black or yellow, would only be "citizens" who would have a limited set of rights. If a Latin American "white" would have made such a proposal, he would have been crucified, and rightly so, by universal outrage. But because the person making this proposal is supposedly indian, his idea has been met with discreet irony or silent approval. I refer to Isaac Humala as supposedly indian because this is what his fellow villagers have determined him to be in the small village in Ayacucho from where his family came from before going to Lima. A sociologist recently went to the village to snoop around for Humala's Andean roots and she discovered that the family was considered to be the local "mistis", that is to say the whites, because they had property, cattle and were, and how could it be otherwise, exploiters of indians.

And strictly speaking, Evo Morales is also not indian, even if he was born to an indian family that was very poor and was a llama shepherd in his childhood. It is enough to hear him speak his good Spanish, with his emphatic r's and highland s's, with his astute modesty ("I am a bit scared, gentlemen, to find myself surrounded by so many journalists, please forgive me"), with his wise and studied ambiguities ("European capitalism is good, but US capitalism isn't") to understand that Mr Evo is an emblematic Latin American criollo, crafty and sharp like a squirrel, a climber, and a bit relentless, with vast experience in the manipulation of men and women acquired through his long stint as a coca grower and member of the trade union aristocracy.

Anyone who isn't blind and thick knows that, from the outset, in Latin America, the notions of "white" or "indian" (or "black" or "yellow") are cultural rather than racial. They are impregnated with an economic and social content. A Latin American whitens as he becomes richer or acquires power, whereas a poor person darkens and becomes a "cholo" or an indian as he descends the social pyramid. This indicates that racial prejudice, which has caused and still causes tremendous injustice, is also a social and economic prejudice by the privileged against the exploited and the marginalised.

Latin America is more and more, thankfully, a mestizo continent, culturally speaking. This mixing of the races has been slower in the Andean nations than in Mexico or Paraguay, but it has still advanced to the extent that to talk about "pure indians" or "pure whites" is a fallacy. This racial purity, if it does exists, is confined to minorities so insignificant they don't even make it into the statistics (in Peru, the only pure indians would be, according to biologists, a handful of tribes in Titicaca).

In any case, because of a fundamental reason of justice and equality, racial prejudices should be eradicated as an abject source of discrimination and violence, all of them, without exception, be it white anti-indian prejudice or indian prejudices against whites, blacks or asians. How extraordinary that this is something that has to be repeated and that a part of the Left wing, spurred on by commander Hugo Chávez, the coca grower Evo Morales or doctor Isaac Humala, is bestowing legitimacy on a renewed form of racism.

But not only race has become an ideological concept in these deviant times. Militarism has become another. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has recently given the highest praise to General Juan Velasco Alvarado, the dictator who ruled Peru between 1968 and 1975, whose policies, he has said, will be carried on in Peru by his protege, Ollanta Humala, if he were to win the election. General Velasco Alvarado overthrew the democratically elected government of Fernando Belaunde Terry and installed a left-wing military dictatorship that expropriated the media and put television channels and the newspapers in the hands of a gang of mercenaries recruited from left-wing sewers. He also nationalised land and a good share of industry, he jailed and deported his opponents and ended all forms of criticism and political oposition. His disastrous economic policies sunk Peru in a terrible crisis that hurt the poorest most, factory workers, peasants and the excluded. The country has still not recovered from the catastrophe that General Velasco and his military mafia wreaked in Peru. That is the model that Commander Chávez and his disciple Humala would like to see —with the complicity of the bedazzled voter — reinstalled in Peru and Latin America.

Besides being racist and militarist, these new barbarian caudillos brag about being nationalists. It could not be any other way. Nationalism is the culture of the ignorant, an ideological fiction that is constructed in as much an obtuse and primitive manner as racism (with which it is inevitably linked) and which turns belonging into a collectivist abstraction - the nation, a supreme value and the privileged credential of an individual. If there is one continent which has been ravaged by nationalism it is Latin America. This was the ideology in which caudillos disguised all the abuses and excesses and with which they bled us in internal or external wars, a pretext that was used to squander resources in weapons (thereby allowing large-scale corruption) and the principal obstacle to the economic and political integration of Latin American nations.

It seems almost impossible that after all that we've been through, there exists today a Left wing in Latin America that is willing to resurrect these monsters, race, the boot, and nationalism, as a panacea to all our problems. It is true that there is another Left, more responsible, more modern, represented by a Ricardo Lagos, or a Tabaré Vásquez or a Lula da Silva, that is clearly distinct from those living anachronisms that are Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and the Humala clan. Tragically, this part of the Left is much less influential than the one being spread throughout Latin America by the Venezuelan President, with his logorrhea and his petrodollars.

Translated by G.P



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