Oppression of the indigenous peoples essay

Latin American History

For the first two generations of Latin America’s radicals, liberals and democrats, the legacy of the colonial past was a terrible burden that their countries had to overcome in order to achieve progress and social and economic development. That legacy included absolutism, arbitrary rule, aristocracy, feudalism, slavery, oppression of the indigenous peoples, lack of public education and the overwhelming power of the Catholic Church, backed by the state. Almost all of them, including Francisco Bilbao, Jose Mora, Andres Bello and Jose Lastarria hoped for a break with the past, either through gradual reform or revolutionary upheaval, and they often placed great emphasis on the need for a secular system of public education. Their basic assumption was that feudalism should be replaced with free market/free trade capitalism, although as early as the 1840s the most advanced thinkers were already becoming familiar with the new socialist ideas in Europe. On the other hand, some liberals like Domingo Sarimento were concerned with the level of ignorance and superstition among the common people, and hence had an al most conservative suspicion of democracy. Almost all of them wished to limit the secular political and economic power of the Catholic Church, eliminate its state support and reduce or abolish its control over education, even if they did not want to eliminate religion entirely.

Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator, was one liberal revolutionary who had doubts about democracy, even though he disliked being a dictator as well and correctly thought that it set a bad precedent. In addressing the Angostura Conference in 1819, he raised the point that many of his liberal successors would repeat, to the effect that Spanish colonialism’s legacy of ignorance and corruption had left Latin America poorly prepared for self-government. In most of the world, humanity was still in a condition little better than slavery, and even countries that had revolutions kept slipping back into the old despotism. Democracies often failed to survive for very long because the masses had an ingrained “habit of domination” (Bolivar 7). Indeed, the Spanish culture of despotism, domination and feudalism would remain in place for many years, as Bolivar knew all too well. Bolivar also distrusted the North American model of federalism, which he thought would lead to continual secessions, fragmentations and civil wars, and insisted on “one indivisible and centralized republic” (Bolivar 9). While equality under the law was the correct policy, he also reminded his audience that not all individuals had equal talents, intelligence and virtues and that “nature makes men unequal in ability, temperament, strengths, and character” (Bolivar 10). He recommended that the legislature closely study the British constitution, and provide for a hereditary Senate and a lifetime executive, who powers would be limited by law and balanced by the popularly-elected legislative branch. He denied that the proposed Senate would devolve into another aristocracy but rather would become “an office for which candidates must be prepared,” like the judiciary (Bolivar 13). Bolivar was the type of classical liberal (or republican) possessed of a strong distrust of human nature and of the lack of virtue among the common people, who was also skeptical about the survivability of democracies. In this, he had much in common with the founders of the United States, who also thought that “from absolute liberty one always descends to absolute power” (Bolivar 17).

In Mexico and many of Latin American countries after independence, the liberal democratic tradition was particularly weak, and throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries authoritarian rule was the norm. One of the few Mexican liberals was Jose Maria Luis Mora, a disciple of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, who favored public education and a federal constitution for Mexico. He opposed state-supported religion and argued that churches should be financed by the voluntary contributions of their members, and called for an education system based on more modern, practical subjects like science, commerce and agriculture. He was not a Jacobin or a radical calling for the abolition of all religion, but agreed that the Catholic Church had far too much temporal wealth and political power. Forced into exile by Mexico’s authoritarian rulers, he lived out the rest of his life in Europe. Mora believed that “with neither religion nor worship, it is impossible to have society or morality among civilized people” (Mora 38). Nevertheless, the church had been a purely spiritual organization before Constantine politicized it and made it part of the Roman state, and it should return to that earlier tradition. It had no right to demand funds from the state since “the goal of civil government is to maintain social order, not to protect this or that religion” (Mora 43). Priests who relied on voluntary donations would be more ethical and committed to their calling, and more likely to serve the poor and the peasants rather than congregating in Mexico City.

Until his overthrow in 1852, the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina made a mockery of the liberal and democratic traditions of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era, but his regime did not go unopposed. Domingo Faustino Sarimento was a self-educated admirer of Benjamin Franklin and Horace Mann, who spent time exiled in Chile for his democratic ideals. After the demise of Rojas, however, he returned to his political career in Argentina and eventually became president in 1868-74. Esteban Echeverria was educated in Paris where he was influenced by romanticism, utopian socialism and the Young Europe movements. Forced to flee to Uruguay from the Rojas regime, he founded the Young Argentina movement in 1838, calling for the overthrow of the dictator and the establishment of a democratic government. He died in 1851, a year before the overthrow of Rojas, although the Argentine (and Latin American) tradition of the caudillo that Rojas represented survived well into the 20th Century — and beyond.

In “The Socialist Doctrine of the Association of May” (1846), Echeverria envisioned a liberal, democratic Argentina in which all persons were equal under the law. Taxes would be proportionate to wealth, monopolies abolished, public office opened to all qualified candidates, the burdens of military service shared equally by all classes, public education and freedom of conscience for all, and state-supported religion eliminated (Echeverria 154-55). Democracy meant the final abolition of the feudal and reactionary institutions inherited from Spain: superstition, irrationalism, aristocracy, archaic traditions and guilds. All human beings would have the same individual rights of life, liberty and property, with no special privileges for the clergy and upper classes. Democratic government would lead “to the leveling of conditions, to the equality of the classes” (Echeverria 169).

In “Facundo, or Civilization and Barbarism” (1844), Sarimento blamed the condition of Argentina under Rojas on the predominance of the ‘barbarous’ countryside and the gauchos over the enlightened, educated elites in the cities, especially Buenos Aires. This was the only city that had real contact with the intellectual and political currents of the outside world, and alone had “the advantages of foreign trade” (Sarimento 128). Enlightenment and modernity had not penetrated into the provinces, which remained backward, isolated and devoid of civilized activities. Rojas was associated with these cowboys on the plains, and their tendencies toward Asiatic despotism, and the “predominance of brute force” (Sarimento 130). He also regarded the indigenous people as inherently lazy and ignorant, incapable of progress or improvement. His greatest hope was that Argentina would attract more German and British immigrants, who he regarded as clean, ambitious and industrious. Again and again, though Sarimento returns to the point that cities are the centers of progress, culture, order and liberty, while the pampas produce only brutal, violent, superstitious men like Rojas, who make good soldiers but poor statesmen. While the cowboys were strong, self-confident and even arrogant, “the life of the country…has developed the gaucho’s physical abilities but none of his intellectual ones” (Sarimento 135). Since Rojas was so hostile to culture, intellectuals, trade and commerce, under his rule the cities had decayed into villages, trade and industry ground to a halt and immigrants avoided Argentina. Rojas executed anyone who dared to oppose him, including priests and professors, while his regime destroyed public education, personal liberty and freedom of the press (Sarimento 141).

Chilean intellectuals like Andres Bello, Jose Victorino Lastarria anf Francisco Bilbao also made a major contribution to liberal democratic thought in Latin America, particularly in their opposition to clerical and conservative regimes in the own country. Bello was born in Venezuela, where he received a classical education and became Simon Bolivar’s favorite teacher. He was influenced by Adam Smith, James Mill and other liberal thinkers from the English and Scottish Enlightenment. He became world famous for his writings on international law, and was less critical of the Spanish colonial influence on Latin America than his student Lastarria, who served as dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities at the university. With Francisco Bilbao, Lastarria was party of the Young Chile Generation of 1842 and the Society of Equality. Like Bilbao, he also spent time in exile because of his democratic views.

When Bello was installed as rector of the University of Chile in 1843, he gave an address praising the liberal, humanistic spirit of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Modernity and progress began when the “intellectual heritage of Greece and Rome” was “reclaimed by the human spirit after a long era of darkness” (Bello 53). After one thousand years of feudalism, science, morality and politics began to advance again, proving that humanistic learning and cultivated minds were essential for the progress and happiness of society. Although Bello strongly supported the provision of primary and elementary education to the lower classes, he did not believe it possible to educate the masses without first training an educated elite, because “where science and letters do not exist, elementary instruction cannot be suitably carried out” (Bello 56). Without enlightened teachers, clergy and public officials trained in universities, there would be no progress, economic development, improved public health, industry and agriculture. He also argued that Lastarria was too critical of the Spanish legacy even though he agreed that the conquest had been brutal and its crimes should not be ignored “just because they might not seem to honor the memory of Chile’s founders.” Although the Spanish had “abused their power, oppressed, offended humanity,” their actions were no worse than those of other powerful empires in their mistreatment of the weak (Bello 66). Moreover, even though the weak always appealed for justice, they would be just as oppressive if they had the power.

Spain had plundered the Americas for gold and silver, but left its own economy and industry weakened in the process. It had hobbled science, philosophy and creativity, but no worse than other despotisms in history like the Roman Empire. In the Americas, the indigenous peoples were destroyed, and Bello believed that in the end they were bound to disappear and leave “no more traces than a few words adapted in the foreign languages and scattered monuments” (Bello 70). Nor did Spain leave any democratic or republican traditions in its American colonies, and these were very slow to take root, so that “Americans were much better prepared for political emancipation than for the liberty of the domestic hearth” (Bello 72). Not even Bolivar could escape the tradition of authoritarianism and dictatorship.

Lastarria’s liberal philosophy held that history was always made by individuals, exercising their God-given free will and moral choice. Humanity has the capacity for perfection in spite of the crimes and follies of history, in which “liberty and justice maintain a perpetual struggle with despotism and iniquity and almost always succumb to the repeated blows of these adversaries” (Lastarria 78). All men in public positions had the duty to learn from the failed dogmas, errors and crimes of the past, in order to encourage further progress and prevent regression. Lastarria did not believe the early conquest history of Chile offered many lessons to modern, liberal intellectuals since a “barbarian people” fought to destroy their foreign oppressors” followed by “three centuries of a gloomy existence lacking movement” (Lastarria 81). Yet the revolution was the beginning of progress and the escape from despotism, bringing freedom from Spanish oppression whose main goal was to obtain as much wealth as possible with a minimum of effort. Spain imposed a feudal system in commerce and agriculture and transplanted “all the vices of its absurd system of government” to the colonies (Lastarria 82). Its rulers did not even do this in a planned and coordinated fashion, but only through a system of confused edicts from the absolute monarchs and the Council of the Indies, and a plethora of exclusive charters and privileges that should all be swept away. Their only real purpose was “to keep America blindly dependent on Spain, to extract from its possessions all possible profits” (Lastarria 85). They enslaved the indigenous in mines and plantations, blocked all trade with foreign countries, blocked the development of commerce, industry and transportation, and kept most of the population in ignorance without access to education or books. Even the very limited education system that Spain permitted was “a monument to imbecility” (Lastarria 86). Persons born in Spain controlled all the major civil and ecclesiastical offices, even if they were totally unqualified, while most of its civil servants were petty despots interested only in profiting as much as possible from their positions. High taxes and corruption were the norm and corruption was rampant, with officialdom completely unanswerable to the people.

Francisco Bilbao was another member of the younger post-revolutionary generation in Latin America who demanded a radical break with the legacy of the colonial period, and with the Catholic Church. Like other members of this generation, he studied in Europe and imbibed revolutionary romantic ideals, but he also visited Africa to investigate colonialism and the slave trade first hand. He returned to Chile after participating in the 1848 revolutions, and founded the Society of Equality in opposition to the conservative, Catholic government in Chile. After the regime declared this Society illegal, Bilbao led a revolt in 1851 and was then forced to flee the country. In Peru, the continued his opposition to the conservative, Catholic Church party there and again fled to Europe in 1855. Two years later, he was in Argentina, again supporting the liberal cause and lost his position as a newspaper editor. Bilbao is a fine example of the Latin American revolutionary tradition that knew no borders, and battled constantly against repressive church and state authorities in any country where he happened to find himself. In “Chilean Sociability” (1844), he pilloried his conservative opponents with merciless satire, writing “Our past is Spain. Spain is the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were made up, in soul and body, of Catholicism and feudalism” (Bilbao 104). Indeed, because of its isolation, Spain offered the purest ideal of the feudal state and mentality, and stood as a bulwark against freedom, innovation, novelty and rational thought. It was a society of prayers, incense, rigid prohibitions and taboos, corporal punishment, and a Latin-scholastic education system that was hardly aware that the earth moved around the sun. Its economic system was based on tithes, monopolies and closed trade, such that no liberal middle class existed to lead a revolution there, unlike Britain and France. Spain transplanted this system to Latin America, where feudal landowners acted like petty monarchs on their domains, lording over their serfs, slaves and peons. Only the French Revolution opened a new era of reason and progress, “greater, more majestic, worthy of God’s being, of man’s being, who appreciated recognizing absolute liberty of thought” (Bilbao 109). Bilbao’s real revolution was against the entire Spanish colonial legacy, including religion, the Inquisition, the Jesuits and feudalism, and exalted individual freedom and equality, science and reason. Yet in Chile and other Latin American nations, the Catholic reactionary and counterrevolutionary remained powerful as well, with centralized, authoritarian power, ‘monastic’ education and state-supported religion. For Bilbao, this was “a despotic organization that had been built on top of the defeated republicanism” (Bilbao 117).

Given this new influence of romantic and social democratic ideas in the 1830s and 1840s, Bilbao and his generation were becoming more radical than the classical liberals and republicans like Bolivar and Mora. In fact, in their distrust of democracy and the common people — and of human nature in general — their version of liberalism would increasingly come to seem more conservative as the 19th Century wore on. Certainly all of Latin America’s liberals, radicals and revolutionaries were well are that the Spanish colonial legacy was not propitious for the development of democracy or even capitalism, although by the 1840s they were already beginning to express doubt about the laissez faire/free trade ideas of Smith, Mill, Bentham and Ricardo. Latin America’s colonial legacy seemed to have stunted the growth of the middle class, commerce and industry in any case, although all liberals, radicals and reformers understood that the abolition of feudalism and aristocracy were as essential as limited the powers of the Catholic Church. As it turned out, of course, the feudal, authoritarian traditions proved more durable than Bolivar and his successors had predicted, and the frustrations of liberals and democrats with the slow pace of change and progress was already quite clear even in the 1840s.


Bello, Andres. “Speech Delivered at the Installation of the University of Chile, September 17, 1843” in Humphrey, Ted and Janet Burke (Eds). Nineteenth-Century Nation Building and the Latin American Intellectual Tradition. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007: 53-62.

Bello, Andres. “Response to Lastarria on the Influence of the Conquest” (1844) in Humphrey and Burke, 62-73.

Bilbao, Francisco. “Chilean Sociability” (1844) in Humphrey and Burke, 104-23.

Bolivar, Simon. “Address to the Angostura Congress, February 15, 1819” In Humphrey and Burke, 3-22.

Echeverria, Esteban. “The Socialist Doctrine of the Association of May” (1846), in Humphrey and Burke, 150-72.

Lastarria, Jose Victorino, “Investigation Regarding the Social Influence of the Conquest and the Spanish Colonial System in Chile” (1844) in Humphrey and Burke, 76-91.

Mora, Jose Maria Luis. “On Ecclesiastical Wealth” in Humphrey and Burke, 38-50.

Sarimento, Domingo Faustino. “Facundo, or Civilization and Barbarism” (1845), in Humphrey and Burke, 126-47.

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