From Wasteland to Promised Land

2. Latin American Colonialism and its Legacy of Bondage

ust as the Hebrews in Egypt toiled beneath the yoke of Pharaoh and his taskmasters, so did the peoples of Latin America for centuries endure bondage to colonial rulers.

And just as remnants of the slave mentality persisted among the Hebrews in the wilderness, so does the legacy of colonial attitudes and institutions persist in Latin America today.

The image of Christ dying in passive agony on the cross, and the image of the Blessed Virgin as a dolorous woman in mourning and pierced by a sword, are common in popular Latin American Catholicism. They speak of centuries of impotence under Spanish and other foreign masters. Even today many practicing Roman Catholics approach carnival as a temporary relief from suffering -- a reality that was present yesterday and will be here tomorrow, always. In this sense, carnival is escapism -- for a few days. Then real life continues.

The origins of this suffering are clearly to be found in the aristocratic system imposed by papal bull and the armed might of Spain and Portugal, a system that relegated the indigenous Indian population to a life of slavery, at best. In Inter Caeteris, Pope Alexander VI designated King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella "lords and masters" of the New World. Thus were the treasure stores of gold and silver, and later coffee and beef, thrown open -- to a well-defined elite.

The encomienda was the basic instrument used by the Spanish empire for settling Latin America. This was a grant of Indians to an encomendero who assumed the obligation, in principle, of Christianizing and civilizing them. The Indians, "in exchange", were required to provide labor and tribute to Spain. We look back upon this epoch as a period of brutal and cynical "pacification" of the indigenous people by conquering exploiters. But it is important to recognize that the encomenderos who were charged with "Christianizing" the natives took their jobs seriously enough to allow the clergy to move in and do their evangelical works without interference. It may be tempting, now, to view those early missionaries as merely cynical agents of colonial expansionism -- but in fact, it could not have been so. The enduring pervasive influence of the Catholic Church in Latin America attests to the success of those missionaries on the front lines. Had they not been motivated by a sincere Christian faith, they could not have left such an indelible mark on an entirely different culture.

However, religious works cannot avoid their political context (an insight of the liberation theologians). Although in theory the encomienda was not a grant of land, in practice many of the encomienderos were also granted mercedes, or legal title to vast tracts that gave rise to the late estates. After the encomienda system was abolished, this control of land allowed the economic exploitation of the natives to continue.

Two types of large landed estates survive to this day from the colonial period: the hacienda (or fazenda, in Portuguese), raising cattle and a diversity of crops for local use or sale; and the plantation, raising a single exportable crop. Initially, Indians were given as slaves to the landholders. Later, the "freed" natives were tied to the landowners through debts brought on by a subsistence wage system. The shortage of good land off the estate made it easy for the landlord to attract or coerce labor onto his estate.

This pattern continues today with an underclass largely descended from the Indian and African slaves, along with other dispossessed groups. The haciendas and plantations are noted for their inefficient husbandry. Landowners face few social or economic pressures to become good managers, and often live in the cities leaving the estates to be run by overseers. Consequently, the landowners often do not make large profits, but that is not their objective. Their primary concern is the maintenance of the two paramount features of the status quo, which go hand in hand. First, labor is very cheap, because workers have no alternative place to employ themselves, even though massive tracts of good land are held nearly idle by the land barons. Second, the cost of holding on to huge estates -- i.e., the taxes charged by the public for the privilege of retaining possession -- are low or effectively nonexistent. Strong incentives for good stewardship are as absent as the landlords.

There is also little incentive to productivity; most of the population has no share in the fruits of the land or the profits of the estates. The colonial system of land tenure discourages the creation of capital, with most of the surplus from the land going to purchase luxury goods that are produced at the expense of more useful manufacture or more often are imported, thereby straining the country's balance of payments. The situation in the cities is no better for the poor. who are drawn there by word of mouth, radio, television and films that present the cities as if they are the Promised Land. Of course, the image is false. So many landless folk seeking employment in the cities have turned them into places of great degradation. Urban land monopoly and speculation create tremendous housing difficulties for the poor. For example, in 1950, 36% of Brazil's people lived in cities, in 1988, 75% do so. Thus, the city of Sao Paulo has grown from ca. 2.2 million in 1950 to ca. 17 million in less than forty years. Of these, we are told that one third are favelados, landless urban squatters, and over 2.5 million are street children.

Indeed, the primary purpose of holding vast amounts of land, as Andre Gunder Frank writes in On Capitalist Underdevelopment, "is not to use it but to prevent its use by others. These others, denied access to the primary resource, necessarily fall under the domination of the few who do control it. And then they are exploited in all conceivable ways, typically through low wages."