Why Latin America matters

Ro Kyunghyun
(Operations team member of the
Latin America Solidarity Campaign Facebook page)

When I was living in the United States as an exchange student, I met a girl from Colombia during an “International Students’ Day” program in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This accidental encounter was the start of my interest in this land on the other corner of the globe called Latin America.

As our relationship progressed, we talked more about our lives and perspectives on Colombia and Korea. At the time, Colombia was just a country far away that was famous for its emeralds and coffee. I was just a student of science back then, specifically interested in the field of astrophysics. I literally did not know anything about the country of my lovely girlfriend, let alone the continent it was in.

As I learned more about this exotic land, I realized that Colombia was much more than just gems and coffee beans. It had suffered endless civil war between the government, including paramilitaries, and leftist guerilla groups like FARC and ELN. Because of this bloodshed, hundreds of thousands of Colombians had to leave their homes and become refugees. The guerillas effectively controlled almost 40 percent of the land, and they acted as a quasi-government in territories across the country.

What startled me most was the fact that this ongoing conflict was caused by ideological differences and intolerance, similar to what happened on the Korean Peninsula. This is why Colombia carries special meaning in my personal life.

My piqued interest led me to the library, where I craved more knowledge about the region. There, I studied not just Colombia but also Venezuela and Bolivia, and current affairs, social movements, in particular, the continent’s ubiquitous people’s revolts. As I became engrossed in my studies, I started to question what lied beneath these events. After reading more scholarly material, I concluded the causes did not just apply to just one nation but to the continent as a whole. That was the moment I realized Latin America was something I wanted to study.

Latin America is a region that has been exploited and suffered the most, incomparable to any other place on earth. And this trend hasn’t changed even after massive independence movements in the early 19th century. After learning about and delving into these historical facts, I had no choice but to make an about-face change in my point of view.

For example, Christopher Columbus, previously regarded as one of the greatest heroes of mankind, was in fact just an invader. He did not “discover” a new land in 1492, and the indigenous population’s drastic decline after his arrival was not just due to disease brought by the white men but rather mainly due to draconian exploitation and total dismemberment of indigenous society.

And even though Latin America adopted the notion and system of modern democracy from its Western mother countries, the very reason the region’s history afterward was stained by countless military dictatorships and Caudillo politics was not mainly because the people of Latin America were too inept to understand democracy or were negligent or lazy. It’s because Western powers wanted them to be dictatorships because it helped them maintain hegemony over the continent.

These opposite points of view become much clearer when looking at the facts. First, most Latin American nations haven’t had a non-white president throughout their history except the few cases of Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. Second, despite the seemingly diverse cultures and societies in Latin America, mainstream norms and lifestyles belong to the ruling white people, while people of color are often neglected and treated poorly.

But Latin America is much more than Caudillo politics, populism, military dictatorship, hyperinflation and socioeconomic disparity. As much as the continent has undergone chaos and disorder, it has also seen meaningful counterattacks from its own people trying to shake off the shackles which have held the whole region back in global politics and economics for a long time. These people’s revolts can be classified under three big waves.

The first wave is the “American spirit” of national heroes during the wars of independence against the Spanish empire in the early 19th century. This spirit is best represented by Simón Bolívar of Venezuela and José de San Martín of Argentina.

The second wave is anti-U.S. and perhaps a bit pro-USSR. These were policies and struggles led by revolutionary guerillas across the region and a few leftist governments in countries like Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua during the Cold War.

The third wave is the recent political upheaval in Latin America, also known as the “pink tide,” which is mainly attributed by neoliberal policies that have brought harmful consequences to the general public. Even with Latin America’s long history of invasion and suppression, there have been many cases of resistance as well.

Thus, despite Latin America’s tragedies and difficulties, it never succumbed to them. It continues to find solutions and alternatives. That is why Latin America matters and understanding it is crucial to all of us. However, after returning to Korea, I felt strongly that the depth of understanding and interest, or say “passion,” of Korean academic circles to the continent was less than it deserved. Perhaps this lack of passion resulted from the  geological distance or a Korean culture that teaches only to look and learn from countries better off. Above all, Latin American news transmitted here in Korea is mostly based on Western perspectives and voices. When I compared them to the facts I already know, it’s clear that these news are distorted and lacking objectivity.

This is why I decided to join a study session and translation group that delivers news on Latin America from the region’s own voices and points of view, to balance mainstream bias with with “transparent” information. It may be a small effort compared to the enormous flow of mainstream media, but I  hope that these small pebbles can multiply and eventually stop the huge flow of the mainstream.

** The Latin America Solidarity Campaign Facebook page’s operations team provides news every week on Latin America, delivering translated and summarized news from different sources that report with a progressive view. The page informs people of news on Latin America without mainstream media distortion. If you are interested in joining the team, check out the page at Latin America Solidarity Campaign Facebook page and message us on Facebook.

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