Jefferson saw Latin America dominated by priests and kings. Marie Aranas history is similarly dark and thats problematic
Writing in 1811, during the early rumblings of the Spanish American independence movements, Thomas Jefferson harboured little optimism about the great field of political experiment [that] is opening in our neighbourhood. He did not believe the people of South and Central America were capable of establishing successful republics.
I fear the degrading ignorance into which their priests & kings have sunk them, has disqualified them from the maintenance, or even knowledge of their rights, he wrote, predicting that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition.
Two centuries later, in Marie Aranas Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story, this harsh assessment appears to hold true. Setting herself the impossible task of trying to explain a hemisphere and its people, Arana organizes her book around these three tropes: the kings, bloodshed and priests that so dimmed Jeffersons view. To Arana, the legacies of these forces continue to cause suffering for millions.
The first section, Silver, focus on precious metals, moving between the Spanish conquistadors thirst for plata and the impoverished Peruvians of today who chip away in dangerous conditions for a pittance from foreign mining companies.
From there the book turns to Sword, or violence. There is no doubt Arana, who is Peruvian-American, cares deeply about Peru and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, but she does it no favours here, arguing that there is something inherent to Latin American people that propels them to embrace violence and strongman leaders. These chapters are a kaleidoscope of horror, as she vividly describes centuries of uprisings, dictatorships and civil wars.
The final section, Stone, examines faith and religion. The narrative goes back to pre-Columbian practices and examines the disruption wrought by Christianity, while also moving into the present to discuss rising Protestant evangelicalism and its challenge to Catholic dominance.
Arana should be lauded for presenting such a complex historical panorama but as she notes, her book does not pretend to be a definitive, comprehensive history. Her previous book was a biography of Simn Bolvar but Arana is also a novelist and memoirist. She brings poetic touches to her prose, though at points it veers into melodrama or cliche: irritatingly, the phrase since time immemorial crops up many times. Her energy and verve will no doubt attract many readers, yet there are some unresolved issues at the core of her argument.
The first problem is her positioning of Latin America as solely Hispanic. What about Brazil? Or Guyana? They share the continent, but not this story. When the French were preparing to invade Mexico in the 1860s, even they tried to paint themselves as Latin. The Philippines are also absent, despite some 300 years as a Spanish colony.
Arana argues that while there is a commonality a concrete character across Spanish America, there is no northern equivalent. For her, Latin America appears to stop at the Rio Grande. Given that Spain claimed and colonized parts of what became the United States from the early 1500s until the 19th century, this seems a narrow view.
All the Americas, including Canada, experienced a shared history after 1492: the arrival of Europeans, the destruction of indigenous communities, African slavery, political revolution, endemic violence, corruption and inequality. Certainly this varied in scope and degree but it is difficult to argue any sort of Hispanic exceptionalism in an entire hemisphere shaped by similar forces.
This leads to the second knot in Aranas argument. She says greed, violence and religion have uniquely shaped Spanish America. But they have affected much of the rest of the world. Such places can be found wherever European powers stepped ashore. The story Arana tells could apply to much of the postcolonial global south, from the Congo to India to Cambodia.