By Stan Santos
In 1492, Columbus stumbles on an island civilization, calling the Lucayan, Taino and Arawak “Indians.” Their number is estimated to be around 300,000. Fifty years later, not two generations had been born when there would be only 500 survivors. Historians of the period believe the indigenous populations of the Americas to be around 50 million.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes tells Moctezuma II, emperor of Tenochtitlan, “We Spaniards suffer from a terrible sickness that can only be cured by gold.” Thus begins the tragic history of the conquest of Tenochtitlan in which, according to the Florentine Codex, 240,000 Aztec inhabitants would perish. At that time, the indigenous population of Mexico numbered 25 million; 50 years later, there would only be 1.2 million.
One hundred years later, of the 50 million original people of the Americas, there would be barely eight million, defining the greatest genocide in history.
The Sacking of a Continent
From 1545 to 1558, the great mines of Zacatecas and Guanajuato were discovered. By 1660, 185,000 kilos of gold and 16 million kilos of silver had arrived at the Port of Seville, Spain. Five billion dollars is one estimate of the amount extracted from the lands and mountains of Mexico between 1670 and 1809, accelerating the development of mercantile capitalist development in Europe.
In the 1700s, Portuguese colonists used slave labor to extract the precious metals from Potosi, Zacatecas and Ouro Pret, Brazil. They took the nitrate from the Chilean pampas, the rubber from the Amazon, sugar from the northeast of Brazil, the bark and pitch of the quebracho trees from the Argentine forests and a lake of petroleum from the subsurface of Marcaibo, Venezuela.
The conquest saved Spain from bankruptcy due to exhaustive wars against invading Moors. It also saved European populations from extreme hunger. The Americas were home to natural foods that did not exist in Europe such as beans, avocados, chilis, chocolate, corn, potatoes, papayas, peanuts, pineapples, tomatoes and vanilla.
While these foods began to appear in the fields and markets of Europe, on the Pacific coast of the Americas, the Spanish destroyed or abandoned enormous fields of corn, yuca, beans, peanuts and sweet potatoes. They let the desert devour huge expanses of land that the Incas had cultivated, along with their intricate irrigation systems.
Suddenly, the fertile lands of America, with its cornucopia of foods unknown to Europe, became a plantation restricted to the cultivation of products limited to European consumption: sugar, tobacco, coffee and cotton. And the original peoples of these lands become starving peons, enslaved by foreign markets.
And the Ox Cart Keeps Rolling
Since then, the history of Latin America stays the course. Generations of Latin American workers are born to work in industries controlled for the enrichment of European and U.S. corporations. But they do not allow the products of these industries to compete in the U.S. economy; they are limited to distribution only in Latin America.
This unequal treatment of products fabricated by the hands of Latin American craftspeople continues until the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.
Despite efforts by the U.S. labor movement, Colombia remains the country with the highest number of murders of labor leaders. From 1986 to 2010, more than 2,800 unionists were murdered with 90% of the cases unresolved. The Human Rights Watch 2016 World Report states that from 2011 to 2015, 121 trade unionists were killed.
Then Came the Wars
Between 1910 and 1920, during the Mexican Revolution, more than 1.5 million on both sides would die in the struggle for “Land and Liberty.” Central America suffered a series of civil wars and acts of foreign intervention in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
1926: More than 2,300 U.S. soldiers intervene in Nicaragua to fight the rebel forces of the nationalist hero, Augusto Sandino. Massive counter insurgency operations would continue for more than 60 years. The case of Guatemala was the worst, with more than 200,000 dead and “disappeared,” the majority from indigenous peoples.
1919: Zapata is killed in an ambush as is Pancho Villa in 1923 to halt his political aspirations. In 1934, Sandino attends peace talks and is assassinated by Anastacio Somoza, whose regime would remain in power for 45 years. In 1954, the Guatemalan military forced President Jacobo Arbenz into exile. He would reportedly commit suicide in Mexico.
1970: In one year, U.S. corporations Anaconda Copper Mining and Kennecott Copper extract more than 150 million metric tons of copper from Chile. In 1973, after the nationalization of the copper mines, U.S. corporations, the CIA and Chilean fascists overthrow and assassinate President Salvador Allende. General Augusto Pinochet, an open admirer of Hitler’s Third Reich, takes power and provides copper to U.S. corporations and refuge to Nazi officers.
During the same period, various African leaders were objects of coups by European and U.S. powers. In 1961, they assassinated Patrice Lamumba, popular leader of the Congo. In 1973, Amilcar Cabral is killed resisting Portuguese colonial power.
1994: Haiti holds its first democratic elections despite winning independence from France in 1801. Popular priest Jean- Bertrand Aristide wins office but is subsequently removed via a coup d’état and exiled. The people demand his return and he is restored, but again is removed and barred from political office. He would never return to power, and Haiti becomes the principal trafficking venue in the Caribbean. The Haitian people continue to suffer tropical storms, hurricanes, earthquakes and cholera, without the support of a democratic government.
2009: A brutal U.S.-backed coup removes progressive Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya from office. In 2016, environmentalist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres presents Hillary Clinton’s book where she takes credit for the role of the U.S. State Department in assuring that Zelaya does not return to power. Caceres is murdered in her home, following threats against her life from the Honduran military.
The Middle East is in flames because of the development of the gasoline combustion engine in the 1800s. Wars rage, claiming the lives of anyone who opposes foreign intervention along with millions of civilians dismissed as “collateral damage.”
There are more than 30 million children and young adults under the age of 20 in Latin America and the Caribbean. The number of children living in the streets is impossible to ascertain; estimates are 8 million–20 million. Each minute, a child dies from illness or hunger.
In his introduction to The Open Veins of Latin America, author Eduardo Galeano states that “Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European—or later United States—capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power. Everything, the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources.
“Production methods and class structure have been successively determined from outside for each area by meshing it into the universal gearbox of capitalism. To each area has been assigned a function, always for the benefit of the foreign metropolis of the moment, and the endless chain of dependency has been endlessly extended.
“Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others—the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poisons.”
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at ssantos@cwa9408. org.