Haciendas and free farmers
Why do things work better in the north? Consciously or not, that’s a question that many Latin American people ask themselves. Regardless of which country you are from, starting at the Bravo river and heading south —through the Pacific coast and the Antilles, crossing over the Ávila, descending through the Andes and all the way to the Patagonia— it seems that we have one thing in common: our apparent failure or lag when we compare ourselves with our brothers in the north.
Although failure on what? Anyone can argue that we have more beauty queens, more soccer World Cup champions, more rhythm when dancing. Anyone could say that what they are lacking, we possess, and viceversa; that we complement each other. Anyone could think that failure is relative and subjective, it depends on how you look at it and who says so. But at the end of the day, if we look at ourselves seriously in the mirror, the failing or lagging feeling is still there: why is emigration mostly a one-way street from south to north?
When I was a kid nobody really explained to me why we had to study history. It was simply one more subject to get through, dates I had to memorize for an exam. But the curiosity that arose from that earlier question —why do things work better in the north?— led me inevitably to history. I propose to look at it as a series of facts: to understand where we are today, we need to comprehend where we came from yesterday.
We the people that inhabit the American continent have a birthdate in common. Or to be more precise: our societies of today that solidify themselves in reason and development have the same birthdate. I’m referring to the era of American’s discovery, that moment when Columbus ran into this immense body of land, the surprising result of the crazy experiment of finding a new sea route to the East Indies. And even though all who live in the south and north of America have the same birthdate, we do not share the same mother. Columbus and therefore Spain (and Portugal) ran into only part of the continent, more towards the south; and other people coming from England landed more towards the north. That is the beginning of our history as societies of the American continent.
Towards the south people showed up with swords and crucifixes wanting to extend the kingdom of the Spanish crown; towards the north people descended from the Mayflower looking for virgen lands to begin a new project. Towards the south arrived people who established haciendas; towards the north people declared themselves free farmers. That’s where the difference between south and north begins: in the mind of the colonizers, in the attitude and the intentions of the ones who arrived at the new continent.
The colonizers who entered through the Antilles and expanded throughout Latin America came in with a general mission: to supply Europe of gold, silver and food. The ruling classes of the colonial Latin American society never saw the internal economic development as a priority. There was simply a ‘port economy’: our production centers were not connected among themselves, but rather had the connection point in a market overseas. They built feudal and noble societies where the work was done by slaves. They figured out a way to have an abundant body of obedient labor workers: the slavery of the indigenous people and also the mass transplant of African slaves. In that sense they were men full of leisure, with disparagement towards equality, they created a big regime caste where all cultures were mixed together. The conquest of the new world in the south was as religious as it was of military kind, Spain had just finished a war against the Muslims and continued the Christian expansion on this side of the Atlantic. Summed up: colonizers came to strengthen traditions, not to try new things.
The pilgrims that arrived to what’s known today as New England came practically escaping from their kingdom, looking for a new world. They dropped anchor in a place with little importance from an economic point of view, there were no new or different natural resources in New England. They were not European colonial agents for the accumulation of wealth, they did not cross the ocean to exploit the limited labor force in the north. Rather, they came to the service of their own work and the development of their new land. They founded colonies of settlement, which served as an outlet for the army of European peasants and artisans — free workers — who could find no place in the old continent. They had an appraisal for work and merit based on achievement, not a membership to privileged groups. They were explorers looking for new space for a life they deemed as better.
This is the way facts started to develop and interrelate to one another until today. A mental seed is planted, given the cultural circumstances in each side north and south, and then history unfolds itself. The printing press arrived and the idea of independent republics started spreading. One nation was consecrated in the north first, and then several nations in the south. The Hispanic American republics are to be born traumatized, divided, weak, unstable; in contrast to the vigor, unity, and political health of the United States, which had been half a century ahead in that experiment of independent living. I do not presume to sum up two or three centuries of history in one paragraph, the intention is to showcase the importance of the onset of each pole.
An exemplary case of this contrast of forms of life between south and north happens precisely within the United States: the American Civil War. We speak of morbid slavery:
This difference is key to understand the success of the North American society, and the relative failure of the Hispanic American society. It’s no accident that the southern region of the USA, where Anglo-Saxon settlers established a slave society, like the Spanish in Latin America; where the European instead of being a free farmer dedicated himself to give himself cheers and to supervise slave labor, had evolved in many ways in a manner similar to Latin American society, and had failed in much the same way, until the civil war in which the South was defeated and “annexed” by the North.
A writer of the time says: “When Southerners see the burgeoning cities of New England, they exclaim: it is we who have paid for all this”. In the mythology thus cultivated, the North prospered because the South was stagnant, and vice versa. And the South went to war in 1860 firmly convinced that by breaking the dependency that bound it to the North, it would not only flourish magically, but the hated Yankees would suffer an economic collapse at once, being deprived of the source of raw materials and of the market for its manufactures, represented by the South.
The effectiveness of certain attitudes and skills goes beyond the language spoken or the hemisphere in which one lives.
What’s the reason for such anti-North Americanism that part of our Latin American society exhibits? To be sure and to leave no room for doubt: imperialism and the exploitation of weak countries by strong countries is no myth. It is a plot that has been seen throughout the universal history. What’s false is that the strong countries have obtained their power following the submission of the weak. Imperialism as the reason for our failure can not be: it is a consequence, not the cause.
It is natural to react against the attack of the strong to the weak. It is human to think initially that the fault of our failure is deposited in something external. In a way it seems like we are a deeply childish society, and that only when we acknowledge our faults and adopt the necessary attitude can we continue to grow. To believe that there is no future is simply lack of imagination.