Columbus toppled: Latin-America indigenous rise up after 5 centuries
mark at tlio.org.uk
Fri Oct 12 13:58:26 BST 2007
Columbus toppled as indigenous people rise up after five centuries
Rory Carroll in Caracas and Lola Almudevar in Sucre
Friday October 12, 2007
Explorer's reputation is victim of region's pink tide of leftwing
He had been sailing west for five weeks and sensed he was close when
at 2am on October 12, with nothing but stars and moon to illuminate
the waves, it was spotted: a dark lump ahead. Land. Christopher
Columbus had reached the New World.
At sunrise he took a small boat and armed men to shore and planted a
royal standard. With a solemn oath he took possession of the
territory for the king and queen of Spain. Natives emerged from the
trees and watched from a distance, puzzled. It was 1492.
More than five centuries later the anniversary of that event resounds
with an ominous clang. Millions of people in central and South
America lament that encounter in the Bahamas as the beginning of
their ancestors' annihilation.
The indigenous inhabitants lost everything to the invaders: gold,
land, freedom, culture, until there was almost nothing left. Disease
and slaughter wiped most of them out. "It was a calamity," said Mark
Horton, an archaeologist and Columbus expert at the University of
Now, however, a counter-attack is under way. After centuries as
underdogs, indigenous people are rising up - peacefully - to seize
political power and assert their heritage.
The so-called pink tide of leftwing governments has surged on the
back of indigenous movements intent on dismantling the region's
eurocentric legacy - starting with Columbus.
Across the Andes the explorer once feted as a hero by the
Europeanised elite is having his story rewritten, his statue toppled
and his name turned to mud. Leading the assault is Venezuela's
president, Hugo Chávez.
"They taught us to admire Christopher Columbus," he said during a
recent televised address, his tone incredulous, while flicking
through a 1970s school textbook. "In Europe they still speak of the
'discovery' of America and want us to celebrate the day."
Instead Mr Chávez has renamed October 12 "indigenous resistance day"
and mounted a campaign against colonial residue. Textbooks are to be
revised under a curriculum that will stress the opposition to Spanish
conquest as doomed but heroic.
This week the president, who boasts of having an indigenous
grandmother, renamed the cable car system which soars over Caracas,
the capital, as Warairarepano, which means big mountain in an
indigenous coastal tongue.
"For Chávez this is a natural cause because of his philosophy about
the mistreatment of the downtrodden and the need for redress," said
Larry Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs thinktank.
City authorities confirmed this week that a bronze Columbus statue
which activists toppled from a Caracas plaza three years ago will
remain under wraps. Repairs were almost complete but it would not
return to its plinth because the site had been renamed: Avenue
Columbus is now Avenue Indigenous Resistance. The statue is expected
to go to a museum.
In contrast, a statue of María Lionza, a legendary indigenous queen
who is the subject of a thriving cult, has been prominently restored.
Last night thousands of devotees made their way to the holy mountain
of Sorte for an annual festival which honours her and an indigenous
chief and black slave killed by the Spanish.
Scholars tend to assign Columbus a walk-on part in history as the one
who opened the New World door but had little role in the bloody
aftermath. "He was part of a process that was inevitable, of Europe
coming into contact with the wider world," said Dr Horton. "It's
mistaken to see him as a totem of the bad guys. He actually wasn't
It has been a rollercoaster reputation. A dispute with Spain's king
and queen landed Columbus in chains and disgrace. The Victorians
rehabilitated him as an inspiration for their own explorers, a
valiant image which largely endures in the west. Spain hopes DNA
analysis will prove he came from Castille, while Italy hopes to
confirm he was Genoese.
The 500th anniversary in 1992 prompted debate in the US about whether
he should be recast as a villain but the controversy petered out,
leaving the navigator a bruised but still revered figure. US
schoolchildren get the day off on what remains Columbus Day.
In South America, however, radical leftwing governments in Bolivia,
Ecuador and Venezuela are busy overturning what they see as his
legacy: centuries of domination by Spaniards and their descendants,
pale-skinned elites who continued oppressing darker compatriots even
after the continent gained independence.
"Even now they conceive us as animals, as dogs. That has got to
change, which is what we are fighting for - to be recognised as equal
citizens with equal rights," said Wilber Flores, a congressman and
president of Bolivia's indigenous parliament.
In Venezuela Mr Chávez enshrined indigenous rights in a new
constitution and made the country's 35 tribes visible through state-
funded TV stations which broadcast from regions barely known to city-
In Ecuador President Rafael Correa, who often wears traditional dress
and speaks in Quechua, has rallied indigenous voters behind his
effort to "reinvent" the country along socialist lines.
President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia's first
indigenous leader, has also fused indigenous rights with a socialist
agenda hostile to Washington. He regards the US as the latest
manifestation of a predatory colonialism that started in 1492. Last
month it voted against a United Nations declaration on indigenous
Mr Morales has accused the US of raiding Bolivia's natural resources
and persecuting coca farmers as cocaine producers when in fact they
are cultivating a plant that has had other, innocent, uses since the
He will mark the anniversary of Columbus's landing with a visit to
the coca growing region of Chapare, which is playing host to a summit
of indigenous people from across Latin America.
In an interview with the Guardian the Bolivian leader suggested the
rapacious intruders who crossed an ocean thirsting for riches, and
those who later invented capitalism, should have been studying, not
conquering, the natives.
"Indigenous communities know how to live in harmony with mother earth
and that is the difference between us and Europe and the United
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