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”.
Latin America’s settler elites after independence were obsessed with all things European. They travelled to Europe in search of political models, ignoring their own countries beyond the capital cities, and excluding the majority from their nation-building project. Along with their imported liberal ideology came the racialist ideas common among settlers elsewhere in Europe’s colonial world. This racist outlook led to the downgrading and non-recognition of the black population, and, in many countries, to the physical extermination of indigenous peoples. In their place came millions of fresh settlers from Europe.
Yet for a brief moment during the anti-colonial revolts of the 19th century, radical voices took up the Indian cause. A revolutionary junta in Buenos Aires in 1810 declared that Indians and Spaniards were equal. The Indian past was celebrated as the common heritage of all Americans, and children dressed as Indians sang at popular festivals. Guns cast in the city were christened in honour of Tupac Amaru and Mangoré, famous leaders of Indian resistance. In Cuba, early independence movements recalled the name of Hatuey, the 16th-century cacique, and devised a flag with an Indian woman entwined with a tobacco leaf. Independence supporters in Chile evoked the Araucanian rebels of earlier centuries and used Arauco symbols on their flags. Independence in Brazil in 1822 brought similar displays, with the white elite rejoicing in its Indian ancestry and suggesting that Tupi, spoken by many Indians, might replace Portuguese as the official language.
The radicals’ inclusive agenda sought to incorporate the Indian majority into settler society. Yet almost immediately this strain of progressive thought disappears from the record. Political leaders who sought to be friendly with the indigenous peoples were replaced by those anxious to participate in the global campaign to exterminate indigenous peoples. The British had already embarked on that task in Australia and South Africa, and the French took part after 1830 when they invaded Algeria.
Latin America soon joined in. The purposeful extermination of indigenous peoples in the 19th century may well have been on a larger scale than anything attempted by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the earlier colonial period. Millions of Indians died because of a lack of immunity to European diseases, yet the early colonists needed the Indians to grow food and to provide labourers. They did not have the same economic necessity to make the land free from Indians that would provoke the extermination campaigns on other continents in the same era. The true Latin American holocaust occurred in the 19th century.
The slaughter of Indians made more land available for settlement, and between 1870 and 1914 five million Europeans migrated to Brazil and Argentina. In many countries the immigration campaigns continued well into the 20th century, sustaining the hegemonic white-settler culture that has lasted to this day.
Yet change is at last on the agenda. Recent election results have been described, with some truth, as a move to the left, since several new governments have revived progressive themes from the 1960s. Yet from a longer perspective these developments look more like a repudiation of Latin America’s white-settler culture, and a revival of that radical tradition of inclusion attempted two centuries ago. The outline of a fresh struggle, with a final settling of accounts, can now be discerned.
This article is based on the third annual SLAS lecture, given to the Society for Latin American Studies in October. Richard Gott is the author of Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press)