A New World? Are the Americas Returning to Old Problems?

13 September 2019

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Sep 12 2019 (IPS)

When I in 1980 first arrived in America it was a new world to me. I went from New York to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and like so many visitors and migrants before me I was overwhelmed by both familiar and strange impressions. Familiar due to books I had read and movies I had seen, strange since I encountered unexpected things and new because both I and several of those I met compared themselves to the “old world”, i.e. Euroasia and parts of Africa.

A sense of uniqueness, admiration for an assumed freshness and difference, can be discerned in the writing of several American writers. Particularly during the 19th century we encounter ideas about wide horizons and an urge to experience and subdue what was assumed to be a wilderness with hidden riches and alluring possibilities. A “Wild West” epitomized in Horace Greeley´s 1865 phrase “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” An abundance of examples of exuberant feelings may be found in Walt Whitman´s poetry:

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, a varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the
Pioneers! O pioneers! 1

In the southern hemisphere, Walt Whitman has his equivalent in Pablo Neruda, who in a poem likened ”his” continent to a beloved woman:

When I look at the shape of America on the map,
my love, it is you I see:
the heights of copper on your head, your slender waist,
with throbbing rivers, sweet hills and meadows
and in the cold of the south your feet in its geography of duplicated gold.
Love, when I touch you not only have my hands explored your delight
but boughs and lands, fruits and water,
the springtime that I love, the desert moon, the breast of the wild dove,
the smoothness of stones worn away by the waters of the seas or the rivers
and the red thickness of the bush where thirst and hunger lie in wait.
And thus my spacious country welcomes me, little America, in your body. 2

However, it is easy to forget that this ”new” and eagerly coveted world was old as well. People coming from Asia settled there between 42,000 and 17,000 years ago. The last wave of migrants before the Europeans came were the Inuit who around 3500 BCE settled in the Arctic areas of North America. Nevertheless, these original settlers suffered drastic changes, their traditional way of life was crushed and transformed by a steady stream of Eurasian and African peoples. Migrants, slaves, and conquerors arrived in the ”new world”, settled and multiplied while the indigenous population plummeted. The newcomers did not only bring with them their culture but also diseases – influenza, pneumonic plagues, typhus, measles, cholera, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, pertussis, and smallpox, killing millions. It is assumed that 90 percent of the indigenous population in the hardest-hit areas died. This was one of the greatest human catastrophes in history, far exceeding The Black Death, which during five years in the mid-fourteen century killed up to one-third of the inhabitants of Europe and Asia. On top of this disaster came repression, expulsion, genocide, and enslavement of the natives. Nevertheless, new ideas and cultural expressions grew out of this cataclysm, cultures mingled and gave rise to something new.

Accordingly, the Americas and the Caribbean do in a certain sense remain a ”new world”, a habitat that has undergone transformations more drastic and profound than those that befell most societies in the ”old world”. The vibrant counter-culture of North America, the magic realism of Latin American authors, revolutionary and radical movements, pedagogy of the oppressed and liberation theology, all accompanied by stirring music mixing rhythms and tunes from all over the world. A mighty wave of cultural inspiration moving from south to north, from east to west. In distant Sweden I and my friends became inspired by such cultural contributions brought to us by movies, books, and records, but not only us, they also reached people from the entire ”third world”, Africa, south and southeast Asia, who in their turn contributed to the emergence of a youthful, radical and global culture.

I still felt this enthusiasm when I, due to various jobs and commitments, traveled back and forth across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The countries I visited still carried unhealed wounds of colonialism, plutocracy, and racism and LAC remains the most unequal region in the world, where injustices undermine the economic potential and wellbeing of its population. Nevertheless, in those days most nations appeared to recuperate from years of dictatorial repression and unpopular foreign interventions. Welfare programs, democracy, and social justice appeared to be on the rise. I even assumed that a new wave of inspiring change could come from the north, from a USA that no longer tried to hinder the development of true democracy south of its border:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way.
Democracy is coming to the USA. 3

But alas, people of the USA has chosen the narcissistic plutocrat Donald J. Trump as their president and ”when America sneezes the whole world catches cold” 4 To me the Americas no longer appear to be particularily ”new”, instead they seem to be stuck in bygone times, or are caught by a nostalgia for times that were even worse than they are now.

Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala continoue to suffer from crime and corruption. In January, Guatemala recently expelled a UN-backed anti-corruption commission investigating the affairs of its president Jimmy Morales. Despite Trump’s tough stance on migration, domestic instability and violence in Central American countries are likely to continue to force people to leave their homes. In Nicaragua, a power-drunk and former revolutionary leader, Daniel Ortega, claims that ”thieves” and ”coup-mongers” are creating unrest and sends journalists and protesters to jail. Violent street fighting have caused several hundred deaths thousands more have fled to neighboring Costa Rica. In 1918, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez became the first person to lead Cuba outside the Castro family, which had been in power for more than six decades. However, Cubans are still waiting for democracy while Bermudez and his ministers declare that a new course is not likely to be set, having as their motto ”we are continuity”. The powerful and violent drug cartels of Colombia and Mexico are far from being subdued. Mexico’s new government has repeatedly assured the world about its commitment to combat druglords and rampant violence, but corruption remains endemic in Mexican society, reducing foreign investment and wiping out jobs from small and medium-sized businesses. 5

In Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro blames his country´s inflation rate of 10 million percent on an ”imperialist conspiracy” while hundreds of thousands Venezuelans are fleeing from home and country after a persistent struggle to find food and medicine. Many are arriving in neighboring Colombia, where in spite of positive reporting, drug lords and militias continue to thrive. In Brazil, the newly elected Jair Bolsonaro almost immediately issued a series of executive orders impinging the rights of minorities. Bolsonaro has been praising Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the most notorious torturer during General Ernesto Geisel´s dictatorship (1974-1979) and it appears as if he is considering oppressive military dictatorships of bygone days to have been beneficial for all, declaring he wants to ”make America great again. I want to make Brazil great, Paraguay great, Bolivia great, Uruguay — all of our countries.” 6 Evo Morales who since 2006 has led Bolivia is trying to continue his hold on power. He recently asked Bolivia´s Supreme Court to nullify the results of a 2016 referendum which rejected his bid to run for a fourth term and forced it to scrap limits for every political office in the country. Argentina´s former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who in spite of being embroiled in a myriad of ongoing corruption investigations remains popular with voters is expected to be President Mauricio Macri’s main competitor for the presidency in the October elections.

Maybe the Americas is not a new world after all. Like so many nations in the ”old world”, worrisome numbers of their leaders and voters seem to be stuck in an absurd nostalgia for a non-existent golden age of bygone eras.

1 From Pioneers! O Pioneers! in Birds of Passage (1881).
2 From Pequeña América in Los versos del Capitán (1952), translated by Donald D. Walsh.
3 From Leonard Cohen´s Democracy on his 1992 album The Future.
4 It was actually the Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859) who once stated this about France.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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