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Imagining Eden

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From the Winter 2015/16 Issue "Latin America On Life Support?"

By Ángel Gurría-Quintana 

When European explorers first caught sight of the land they would soon call the New World, they thought they had glimpsed the Garden of Eden. A breathless Christopher Columbus claimed in 1493 to have seen from his ship a river on South America’s mainland that, in its abundance and teeming wildlife, could only have been flowing from the earthly paradise.

A 17th century judge and historian born in Tucumán, Argentina, went out of his way to prove that the biblical garden was watered by the Amazon, Orinoco, Plata, and Magdalena rivers. Close to a century later, a Portuguese priest was executed for declaring that paradise was located in the highlands of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. An American philosopher traveling through Brazil in the 19th century claimed to have discovered “the original seat of the Garden of Eden.”

The myth of the biblical garden has been persistent in the history of Latin America. Part wishful thinking, part acknowledgement of seemingly boundless resources, it has often manifested itself in dramatic interventions that embody the original covenant between man and nature—from Charles Thay’s estate in the Argentine pampa to Roberto Burle Marx’s garden outside Rio de Janeiro and Edward James’ Mexican folly in Xilitla.

There is a much smaller garden at the headquarters of the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the Chilean capital, Santiago. At its center is a large boulder, commemorating the woman whose love of nature inspired the garden—Lulu Pali, my green-fingered grandmother. Her husband, the Mexican diplomat Carlos Quintana, was ECLAC’s fourth executive secretary between 1967-1972.

At the time, ECLAC was still under the sway of influential Argentine economist Raúl Prebitsch, my grandfather’s predecessor. Under Prebitsch, often referred to as Latin America’s John Maynard Keynes, the Commission had become an advocate for the region’s economic integration. 

I grew up in Mexico, years after my grandparents’ stint in Chile, hearing stories about their time in Santiago. Photographs of one of my grandfather’s meetings with Cuba’s Fidel Castro hung on the wall. We laughed as he quoted memorable putdowns employed by Brazilian diplomats. His favorite was, “Você tem razão, mas pouca, e a pouca que tem não vale nada,” which can be loosely translated as: “You’re right, but only a little, and that little is worth nothing.”

His career seemed to embody the ideal of the region’s unity—a unity of inheritance, temperament, cause, and (except Brazil) of language. It was an ideal rooted in Simón Bolívar and Andrés Bello’s Pan-American project in the 19th century and which found echoes in Ernesto Che Guevara’s notions of Latin American solidarity in the 1960s. It suggested a shared sense of Latin American identity.

Foreign media often discuss Latin America as if what applies to Tijuana, Mexico, can also be said about Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. With time, I have found the idea of a common Latin American identity increasingly difficult to assert. This is partly because hard economic realities have diluted earlier pan-American rhetoric, but also because I am more sensitive to cultural nuances. Without wishing to indulge in what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small difference,” these days I am more inclined to notice—and celebrate—the variety among Latin American cultures.

Beyond a shared past of colonization and immigration, the ideal of a Latin American identity has always been elusive—not least for Mexico (“so far from God, so close to the United States,” in the famous formulation often attributed to Porfirio Díaz, the former Mexican president), a country habitually accused of turning its back on its southern brethren in favor of a closer affiliation with its more affluent neighbor to the north.

Brazil, the region’s giant, is not only isolated linguistically, but persists in conducting geopolitical business in its own way, often abstaining from membership of international consortia in which it won’t be the leading stakeholder.

Trade, so often invoked as the key to transcending national barriers and protectionist instincts, has in practice led to the creation of sometimes competing trade blocs. From the creation of the highly politicized Mercosur to Mexico’s membership of the North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA) or, more recently, the establishment of the Pacific Alliance, commerce has pulled the continent’s members in different directions. 

The result is that, as a whole, Latin American nations continue to export less to their immediate neighbors than their counterparts do elsewhere on the world. In 2013, according to one report, intra-regional trade accounted for only 27 percent of total commerce in South and Central America. Intra-European trade at the time comprised 63 percent of the area’s commercial activity; in Asia, the figure was 52 percent.

Nor has the snake been banished from the garden. Colombia and Nicaragua continue to fight it out at The Hague in a disagreement over territorial waters. Bolivia and Chile have yet to resume full diplomatic relations following a breakdown over Bolivia’s aspiration to secure access to the Pacific Ocean. Guyana and Venezuela have been skirmishing at their border, while Colombia and Venezuela have barely managed to avoid escalation in a recent frontier dispute after the deportation of thousands of Colombians living near in Venezuela’s border region. 

Though such examples of international quarrels are on a relatively minor scale, the same cannot be said about domestic discord. For every good news story—successful peace negotiations between the Colombian government and rebels, for instance—there are many more ghastly cases of internal strife: Witness the dismal death toll in Mexico’s war on drugs (over 60,000 dead and more than 26,000 disappeared between 2006 and 2012 alone) or the gang violence escalating to the level of a civil war in El Salvador and Honduras.

When analysts make the case for a unifying theme running across the region, they almost inevitably identify the lowest common denominator. In Latin America these days, one of the lowest common denominators is inequality. Another is a complete lack of trust in public institutions.

The latest Latinobarómetro survey suggests that only 34 percent of those polled across Latin America think they can trust the state. Political parties are trusted least of all in Latin America—less, even, than the often maligned police or army. Family, church, and neighbors enjoy the highest levels of trust, but only 16 percent of respondents said they could “trust most people.” Inflation and unemployment may be rampant, but the biggest concern for most people is crime.  In 12 out of the 17 countries surveyed, crime topped the list of people’s concerns.   

Might there be a silver lining? Might widespread lack of trust in established political institutions result in a growing clamor for more accountability? A benign interpretation of the growing number of cases of corruption making headlines in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, or Mexico is that their judiciaries are no longer resigned to toothlessness and that their populations are mobilizing against business as usual.

There are other promising signs. Last year, at the time of the second swearing-in as Chile’s president, a photograph showed Michelle Bachelet flanked by her Argentine and Brazilian counterparts—both women. In the ungovernable world of Internet memes, the image was juxtaposed to one taken decades earlier, showing their infamous predecessors—Generals Augusto Pinochet, Jorge Rafael Videla, and Emílio Garrastazu Médici. The photo revelled not only in the triumph of civilian rule over military dictatorship but also in the achievements of three women in one of the world’s least egalitarian regions.

In the biblical tale, humans’ expulsion from Eden came after eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. In the far-from-Edenic garden that is today’s Latin America, knowledge and education may offer a means of closer collaboration.

Investment in science by Latin American countries, though still lagging behind others with similar sized economies, is steadily increasing. The Brazilian government is hoping to expand its ambitious researcher mobility program, Science Without Borders, to its Latin American neighbors. The governments of Chile and Colombia have been active in forging research collaborations in the region. Meanwhile, the government of Ecuador has recently established a new national university dedicated to teacher training, with many of its senior leaders and faculty hailing from across the continent.

The once prevalent ideals of Latin American integration may be a thing of the past. But in this narrow sense, at least, taking a bite from the apple may be a path leading toward—rather than out of—the long-imagined garden. 

*****

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Ángel Gurría-Quintana is a Mexican historian, journalist, and literary translator based in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

[Photo courtesy of Ulf Jenninger]

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