Myths permeate our society. Storytellers exaggerate, embellish, and enlarge factual narratives in order to make them seem larger than life. Many of the tales we’re told as children are either half-truths or not even truths at all.
Marie Antoinette did not say “let them eat cake” when she heard that the French peasantry were starving due to a shortage of bread. George Washington did not have wooden teeth. Isaac Newton’s idea to investigate the principle of gravity was not inspired by an apple falling on his head. Christopher Columbus did not discover America.
Schoolchildren are taught that Christopher Columbus set out to discover America or that he wanted to prove that the world was round. He bravely headed westward after convincing the reluctant Queen Isabela of Spain to sell her jewelry to fund the voyage. Once he found the Americas and Caribbean, he treated the natives with dignity, respect, and civility. This narrative is completely mythical; the reality is terrifying.
Between 1492 and 1504, Christopher Columbus launched four trips to the New World. Upon landing in the Americas and Caribbean, Columbus seized native lands, enslaved the population, and conquered the land for the glory of imperial Spain. He did not see the natives as fellow human beings, but rather as objects to hold power over. Property rights were disregarded; human dignity was trodden on; the value of life was reduced to nothing. Soon after Columbus’ expeditions, historian Peter Martyr wrote, “… a ship without compass, chart, or guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola.” Clearly, the myth of a benevolent conquistador who acted out of compassion needs to be debunked.
Perhaps Columbus’ most enduring impact on Latin America lies in the establishment of Spain’s first colony, Hispaniola, located on the island that is now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. With the arrival of European colonizers, the indigenous people their political structure, religious traditions, and labor system. Spain, in particular, established a very stratified society with three main castes, the Criollos, Mestizos, and Indians. The colonial economic policy was one rooted in mercantilism which forbade the formation of industry in the colonies. Spanish commercial law prohibited colonies to trade with other countries and freedom of movement was strongly regulated. There was no such thing as free markets. The conquistador created an atmosphere of dependency and paternalism, where the common person was not empowered to develop her/his own system of governance and was subject to the control of a foreign leader.
The imperial legacy carried over through independence and into the twentieth century, where Latin America witnessed widespread corruption, political chaos, and economic instability. Democratic regimes were replaced by authoritarian governments which violated the basic rights of its citizens and committed violent acts involving genocide, disappearances, and religious and political persecution. In nations such as Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Bolivia, constitutional law was rejected and military leaders instituted reforms that met their own political agendas, while completely neglecting the well being of their populations.
The present Latin American political landscape is one characterized by uncertainty and instability. Authoritarian presidents, such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, limit individual freedom and economic opportunity in the lives of their citizens. Argentina, once one of the wealthiest nations on earth, experienced an economic collapse in the early twenty-first century that destabilized previous economic progress. Oil-rich Venezuela, with a strong record of economic success and democratic stability, was recently ranked in 174th place in the Frasier Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index. Colombia is paralyzed in an attempt to defeat drug-financed terrorist guerrillas. This is no myth; this is the truth facing Latin America today.
In Liberty for Latin America, Alvaro Vargas Llosa defines the five principles of oppression that have defined Latin America since the Columbian era, including corporatism, privilege, wealth transfer, state mercantilism, and political law. These practices have traditionally promoted state intervention in the economy and civil society, and centralized power in the hands of a select few. Christopher Columbus’s legacy has reinforced a history of statism in Latin America. Power does not lie in the individual but in a bureaucracy founded on exploitation, oppression, and centralized control.
Myths can be fun. They can inspire laughter and wonder. They can cause our imaginations to run wild; we can pretend to be lost in another time and place; we can dream. Truth, on the other hand, inspires passion and engagement. It gives meaning to the day-to-day. It calls for action.
It’s time to discredit Columbus’ status as a heroic figure. It’s time to understand Latin America’s complicated past and strive towards a free future. It’s time to get a reality check.