On (Neo)Colonial Genocide

On (Neo)Colonial Genocide

Despite the publication of the MMIWG Report and its findings of an ongoing “race-based genocide” against Canada’s First Nations, issues of indigenous genocide and (neo)colonial oppression have remained side-lined from political discourse in the rest of the American continent. In fact, the situation has arguably worsened: at the same time as Canada protested the unmarked graves of hundreds of indigenous children in Christian churches all over the country, white Peruvian criollo (i.e. Latin of European descent) elites engaged in a racist campaign to fraudulently annul hundreds of thousands of rural and indigenous votes to prevent Pedro Castillo, an indigenous man himself, from assuming the Presidency of Peru. In fact, in recent antidemocratic demonstrations against Castillo, Peruvian Hispanistas (those who vindicate Spain as the “civiliser” of pre-Columbian America and see independence as a step backwards) marched the streets of Lima wielding the Cross of Burgundy, a symbol of Spanish colonial domination over Peru. Not long before that, during the Bolivian political crisis of 2019, criollos burned whipalas, an indigenous flag widely used in the Southern Andes to represent the Aymara peoples.

Discussions of colonial genocide in the Americas tend to focus on the “long ago”. As evidenced by Mexico’s 2019 demand that Spain apologises for the Conquista, the evils of colonialism are perceived as the wounds of the distant past; the struggle between the Spanish colonial empire and the American colonies they systematically oppressed and enslaved. And yet, as the Canadian experience shows, these evils did not magically stop with independence. The legacy of Spanish colonialism continued long after, imposed not by Spain, but by criollo republican elites, against the Indigenous, Black, Asian and Pacific Islander populations that were oppressed to sustain the new and independent Latin American sovereign states.

Indeed, traditional Latin American mythologies tell the story of independence from the perspective of the local criollo elites. In this tradition, independence put a stop to Spanish oppression and allowed the Peruvians, Argentineans, Mexicans, etc. to reach their full potential as sovereign nations participating in the club of “civilised states”. This is, however, an overly simplified celebratory narrative. Within the Spanish American ecosystem, independence was a cause most associated with the emerging peripheral ports – Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Valparaíso – that would benefit from eliminating trade restrictions and preferential treatment to Spaniards, not the Royalist bastions of Mexico and Peru, where the elites secured their wealth through the exploitation of indigenous populations held in servitude. For these elites, independence was not so much an objective, but a begrudging concession they would eventuallycome to tolerate, only after their social and economic privileges were guaranteed. This is why, while  Argentina declared its independence in 1816 and Venezuela in 1810, it would take a whole extra decade for Peru to declare and win its independence (in 1821), at the hands of the Argentinean and Venezuelan armies – not the Peruvian one. In fact, fearing that the removal of Spanish domination would lead to an indigenous rebellion that would upend the established social order and remove their privileges, Peruvian criollos systematically opposed indigenous-led reformist and independentist efforts, such as the Tupac Amaru Rebellion of 1780 and the Pumacahua Rebellion of 1815.

International law played a significant role in justifying and perpetuating these structures of (neo)colonial oppression, beyond independence. As is widely known, the 19th century was the heyday of the so-called “standard of civilisation”. As described by Pitts, the preponderant narrative for explaining the emergence of sovereign states was fully Eurocentric:

“That story said that international law had its origins within Europe, above all between sovereign European states that viewed each other as free and equal. It saw a decisive moment in the Westphalia treaties, which, it said, above all set out to protect states’ independence from intervention by outsiders. And, it concluded, this essentially European system gradually came to incorporate other states as they reached the appropriate ‘standard of civilization’, or, as more recent language would have it, as they entered the state system or decolonized and became independent”. 

In order to stake their claim to “civilization”, the newly independent criollo republics of Latin America sought to contribute to the formation of this international law of civilized states through strategic interventions that used their historic and cultural ties to Spain as a form of ethnic pedigree. While these interventions are usually seen in a positive light, frequently referenced as the Latin American contribution to the progressive development of international law, we might do well not to forget whose interests were being represented by them. The Uti Possidetis principle, for instance, often described as the cornerstone of Latin America’s contribution to international law, did little to nothing to account for indigenous peoples. In some cases, like that of the Yanomami people, their territory ended up divided, subjected to the regulations of two different “sovereign nations”; Brazil and Venezuela. In other cases, the sovereigntist underpinnings of Uti Possidetis (“one shall continue to possess such as one does possess”) created perverse incentives for criollo republics to “occupy”, “populate” and “develop” indigenous land. These mythologised genocides such as Chile’s “Pacification of the Araucania”, Argentina’s “Conquest of the Desert”, and Brazil’s “Occupation of the Amazon”, have become almost national epics, hiding the effective displacement, even extermination, of indigenous communities.

These processes were only possible because of criollo Latin American attempts at participating in the “standard of civilization”. This is, in essence, what Pérez Godoy complains about when he stresses the need to abandon views that “reduc[e] the history of international law to a Völkerrechtsgeschichte der Opfer” – a History of international law of victims. “Postcolonial scholarship”, he argues, “usually places the South American legal space as part of the history of the abusers”. According to him, “nineteenth-century South American republics are studied with respect to the topic of the ‘unequal treaties’ that were forced on them by imperial powers under the legitimation of the ‘standard of civilization’, with international law appearing mainly as Medium der Befreiung in a decolonization context”. Instead, he asks, “might not the South American states also have used the corpus of ius gentium europaeum to wage their wars and justify their own expansionist pretences in the region?” The answer to his question, viewed from the eyes of indigenous peoples, is of course a resounding, categorical, yes. And with such an answer, it is only proper that South American republics be required to account for the actions of their own agency, not just as victims of European colonialism, but also as perpetuators of (neo-colonial) injustice themselves – injustices that, as with the Canadian example, continue to this day.

In order to start this process of reckoning, however, it is important to properly understand Spanish colonialism in the Americas. One common misunderstanding coming from the English-speaking world is the belief that colonialism had a single blueprint: White European settlers persecuting, assimilating and displacing indigenous peoples in order to replace them. This may be true for the experiences of the United States, Canada, Australia and some South American contexts, like the Chilean Araucania, the Argentinean Patagonia or the Peruvian, Brazilian and Colombian Amazonian regions. It is not, however, the experience of the Andes, where indigenous peoples were not “replaced” so much as systematically oppressed and kept in Feudal servitude. Indeed, after independence, wealthy, white landowners known as gamonales controlled vast swathes of Andean farm and cattle land, effectively becoming the political authorities within their own feuds. Indigenous peoples living in these lands received no salary, were educated in schools set up by the landowners, and were policed by the landowners’ own private security forces. In Peru, for instance, this feudal system of exploitation continued until 1968 (yes, 1968) when it was abolished by a military dictatorship. And even after securing their political freedom, Peruvian indigenous communities have continued to live in economic hardship, unable to properly benefit from the wealth created through the exploitation of their lands.  

The underlying premises of this Feudal system were fundamentally the same as those of the standard of civilization. The gamonales believed they were “civilising” an otherwise primitive people that would drag the country backwards if not properly “guided”by the “superior” white classes. These condescending views continue to fester the essence of the criollo psyche.

Take, for example, the case of Mario Vargas Llosa – a Peruvian Nobel-prize-winner, Spanish Marquise, and a paradigmatic example of a Latin American criollo. In 1983, Vargas Llosa was appointed chairman of the Uchuraccay Commission – a fact-finding mission set up by the Peruvian Government to understand the reasons behind the killing of 8 journalists in the small indigenous village of Uchuraccay.

At the time, the government was negligently unaware of the systematic violence the indigenous communities of Peru were facing. The Shining Path organization had just begun its terror campaign against the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Andes. Incensed by unprepared armed forces, these communities were encouraged to fight the Shining Path with their own means and methods, which made them mistake the group of urban-looking journalists for (equally urban-looking) Shining Path members, executing them. For the Vargas Llosa Commission, however, there was a more fundamental explanation than the intervention of security forces. The Commission’s Report (as quoted by the Peruvian Truth Commission) stated:

“That there is a real country fully separated from the official country is, of course, the quintessential Peruvian problem. That we have men that participate in the 20th century co-existing with men such as the villagersof Uchuraccay and all the Iquichan communities, who live in the 19th century, not to say the 17th century. This enormous distance between these two Perus is behind the tragedy that we just investigated”.

This idea of the indigenous as a backwards other is a cancerous notion that never really left the criollo republics’ understanding of the Andes. This, in fact, is what made Evo Morales’ presidency so dangerous for the Latin elites – his desire to subvert this social order and empower Bolivia’s indigenous communities. And whatever his (many) flaws and failings, at least in this respect, he (thankfully) succeeded. The same is happening in Peru, with the election of Pedro Castillo, as noted above.

Beyond the Andes, Amazonian native peoples were described by the Spanish conquistadors as “savages” and “cannibals”. As Espinosa points out:

“The accusation of cannibalism clearly shows the complex relation between the ‘civilisers’ and the construction of an ‘other’. (…) [T]he colonizers project their own violence and their own fears on to the ‘other’ that is classified as dangerous and violent, and that therefore must be pacified, controlled or eliminated. This way, the conquistador not only tries to legitimise his dominion as conquistador, but also justify the use of violence as a central part of its civilising task”.

As with the Andes, however, these racist structures, born out of the standard of civilisation doctrine, continued beyond independence, into republican times. For republican leaders, the Amazon’s riches were wasted on “primitive” and “barbarian” natives. Early republican projects focused on the occupation and exploitation of Amazonian land, through military means if necessary. The process of “occupation” of the Amazon continued well into the 20th century, particularly after the discovery of the rubber tree and the so-called “Rubber Boom” of 1880-1912. 

Keeping with the Peruvian example, in 1981, Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde – another paradigmatic criollo – gave an interview where he noted it was “absurd to think that places that have sixty or eighty thousand hectares are reserved for 20 or 30 families of native population. These families live a primitive life, and our objective is to concentrate them in land adequate for permanent farming”. Twenty years earlier, in 1964, Belaunde himself had overseen the Napalm bombardment of the Matsé people in retaliation for their attack on a prospecting commission seeking to build a highway in their land. Contemporaneous newspaper coverage framed the issue as a “territorial dispute between civilization and barbarism”. Violent confrontations with Amazonian indigenous peoples have continued to this day, with the latest example being the Bagua Massacre of 2009.

Perhaps, therefore, the experience in Canada might serve as inspiration for similar commissions of inquiry in the rest of the Continent. For far too long, the idea of indigenous genocide has been hidden in the “long ago” of history. The systematic violation of indigenous rights in the Americas is rather an ongoing situation, involving both European empires and Latin American republics. It is time we treat it as such. 

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International Human Rights Law, Latin & South America, Public International Law
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