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Challenging the Yanqui

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Bernardo: Una Biografía de Bernardo O’Higgins, by Alfredo Sepúlveda, Vergara/Ediciones B Chile SA, 570 pp, 15,000 Chilean pesos (€20.12), ISBN: 978-9563040302

The news from Latin America gets better and better, a great relief after the decades of terror, gloom and savage foreign intervention through which the region lived during the twentieth century.

The prices of oil, natural gas, soya, wheat, copper and iron ore are filling national treasuries to overflowing as foreign investors queue outside presidential palaces for permission to invest their shareholders’ money on the pampas, down the mines or in the oilfields. Mendicants no more, the region’s leaders are getting their confidence back: indeed they have seldom seen their importance more widely appreciated. The leaders of the bigger countries, Lula of Brazil or Chávez of Venezuela, revel in their new international status and delight in the task of reshaping their societies so that hunger and illiteracy are banished and progress is made on closing the gap between the vast majority of paupers and the tiny minority whose families have lived at their ease for generations, if not centuries.

Lula governs a country which, in the Wall Street jargon, has, with Russia, India and China, become one of the BRICs, the quartet whose fortunes warrant the attention of European and US investors. These investors, themselves perhaps unfamiliar with São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, have in recent months been comforted by the verdict of the US ratings agencies which assure nervous but eager fund managers that the securities issued by the Brazilian government are of “investment grade”. More attentive investors may also have realised that the Brazilians themselves have gone shopping – through a brewing conglomerate they run in Belgium they now own, among other brands, Budweiser, beloved in baseball stadiums from New York to San Diego.

For his part, Hugo Chávez reminds the world that he has changed the official name of his country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, after Simón Bolívar, the man who freed Venezuela from Spanish domination in the early nineteenth century. In particular he reminds those who buy Venezuelan oil that the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries was a Venezuelan invention and they would do well not to forget it. OPEC was created on September 14th, 1960 on the initiative of Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, at the time Venezuelan minister of mines and hydrocarbons. Venezuela’s present governor of OPEC, Iván Orellana, says that oil is too important a commodity to be sold like oranges:

The importance of OPEC today is determinate. It is an actor that must be taken into consideration for the formation of oil prices … OPEC definitely has to be reckoned with.

Orellana, a chemical engineer with degrees from the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, from Oxford and Salamanca, rubs salt in Western wounds by recalling what the New York Times wrote a fortnight after OPEC came into being:

A cartel was born in Iraq, but lacking any importance. Even if the Soviet Union were to join this cartel, it would only last one or two years, at most. Afterwards, everything will return back to normal.

When its new offshore oilfields start production, Brazil may well join OPEC; Ecuador, which left the organisation in 1992, rejoined last year.

Through OPEC and Petrocaribe, and in partnership with Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl in Havana, Chávez has the money to subsidise the price of oil delivered to the small and vulnerable economies of the Caribbean. He can sell cut-price energy to the poor of the eastern United States. Cuba and Venezuela offer – and have been delivering in vast numbers – eye treatment for residents of any state in the Americas, from the South Pole to the North, in what is called Operación Milagro (Operation Miracle). Patients have free transport to wherever the operation takes place and can take a friend. The charge for the whole package is precisely nothing.

The latest figures from Evo Morales’s government, whose own coffers are fuller than they have been in living memory, show that the joint health campaign with the Cubans and Venezuelans in Bolivia – population nine million – delivered 145,069 free eye operations in 2007 and 64,408 in the first half of 2008. Eighteen permanent eye hospitals have been established in Bolivia. They must be running out of people to operate on.

Supported by Venezuelan cash, the Cubans have been delivering general health care from Guatemala to the former British colony of Dominica and from Bolivia to Pakistan. The two countries have harvested enormous diplomatic benefits thereby. “It is difficult for a government to criticise Cuba when we are providing doctors and medicines,” a happy Cuban ambassador murmured to me earlier this year.

For their part in Operación Milagro alone Chávez and the Castro brothers will make their mark in the history of Latin America. They have spent their money too on literacy campaigns which do their best to teach all Latins to read and write. By the end of the year everyone in Bolivia, one of the world’s poorest countries, should have been brought up to that level. They are part of a new generation which embraces not just Lula and the Bolivian leader, Evo Morales, but also Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Cristina de Kirchner and her husband, Néstor, who preceded her in the presidency of Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. The latest arrival is Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, a former diocesan bishop who took office as president in Asunción on August 15th.

Meanwhile Washington’s influence is in eclipse. US support for dictatorial regimes – the Brazilian generals, the Argentine generals, the Uruguayan generals, the Ecuadorean generals, Pinochet, Stroessner, Somoza, Trujillo, Banzer and others of their ilk – will not easily be forgotten, not to mention the illegal invasion of Iraq. Perhaps somewhat unwisely, the US Navy’s fourth fleet, re-established in 2008 in Caribbean and Latin American waters, has publicised support for public health as one of its missions. The navy’s website says that between April and June the USS Boxer visited El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru – combined populations 48 million – where the crew performed 127 eye operations.

The publication in Chile last year by the journalist Alfredo Sepúlveda of a new and simply written narrative biography of Bernardo O’Higgins, the man who led the Chileans out of the Spanish empire two centuries ago, offers a useful opportunity to compare the ideals and techniques of the agents of change in today’s generation with those of then. They could hardly be more different. The liberators of two hundred years ago had as their sole aim to move out of the commercial and financial shadow of Spain and to trade wherever in the world they liked. It was not their ambition to bring a new life to the indigenous people, the Maya, Aztecs, Incas and Guaranís, who were immediately enslaved on the arrival of the Europeans in the years after 1492. Nor were there any plans for sharing more fairly the use of land, which in many places was concentrated in the hands of the descendants of those who came over with Columbus. Democracy was no more observed in newly independent Latin America than in the newly independent United States or in the crusty monarchies and principalities of the Old World. Indeed slavery was thrown off in Europe and its West Indian colonies before that happened in South America: it was maintained in Brazil till 1889.

Bernardo Riquelme, as Bernardo O’Higgins was first known, is seen as the principal strategist of Chilean independence from Spain. He was born the first of three children whom his mother, Isabel Riquelme, was to have by three different fathers. Isabel’s mother had died young and her father was Simón Riquelme, the easygoing mayor of the southern town of Chillán, where the Spaniards were still fighting – and where Europeans would continue for decades more to fight – the indigenous peoples for control of a fertile land of fields and woods along the river Bío-Bío. This was the empire’s hottest frontier of all.

In December 1777, Ambrosio O’Higgins, then in his mid-fifties, newly promoted to colonel and the most powerful man in southern Chile, arrived at San Bartolomé, Simón Riquelme’s estate, which he fancied as his headquarters for the region. There he met the eighteen-year-old Isabel, small and slim with deep blue eyes. Bernardo was born on August 20th, 1778. Tradition has it, says Sepúlveda, that Colonel O’Higgins promised to marry Isabel. In the event he didn’t and in fact took what steps he could to distance himself from his illegitimate son. Simón had Isabel married off rapidly, baby Bernardo was sent away and she was not to see him for another twenty years.

Ambrosio O’Higgins, a self-made man whose red face earned him the nickname “The Shrimp” behind his back, would have been an exceptional individual in any society. Born of impecunious parents around 1720 in Co Sligo, possibly at Ballynary on Lough Arrow, he was sent off to Cadiz and continued to South America, where he scraped a living as an itinerant trader. He returned to Cadiz in 1760 and 1761, where he obtained Spanish citizenship and sailed back as a draftsman/engineer with an Irish friend, John Garland, an architect or builder, finding work fortifying a dangerous frontier. Another government job involved the setting up of a chain of refuges for travellers crossing the Andes at heights of more than 3,800 metres between Argentina and Chile, in the shadow of America’s highest mountain.

In 1770 he was appointed a captain in the cavalry in southern Chile. As he turned fifty he finally began to make his mark. On September 7th, 1777, shortly before his arrival in Chillán, viceroy Amat in Lima promoted him to colonel. He soon rose to be brigadier, and in 1786 he became intendente, or mayor, of Concepción. In 1789 was promoted to major-general and soon afterwards became the president or leading official in Chile. In 1792 he was created Marquis of Osorno. He was made lieutenant-general in 1794, and in the next year became viceroy of Peru, an astonishing position for a foreign-born subject to obtain in the Spanish empire. When war broke out between England and Spain in 1797, he strengthened the fortifications of Callao, the port of Lima, from which for decades the silver of the Andes had been sent back to Spain. He died in Lima in 1801.

Meanwhile his son had been passed from pillar to post – according to the scanty records – sustained by irregular sums, but no letters, from his father the viceroy. He travelled to Spain, before being sent to a Catholic tutor at Richmond on the outskirts of London for perhaps four years. There where he met Charlotte Eeles, who was perhaps his first love. In 1798 he left Richmond and found lodgings with the chaplain of the Neapolitan legation in York Street in the West End.

His father’s silence hurt him deeply, as a surviving letter shows:

Most beloved father of my soul and my greatest provider,

I hope that Your Excellency excuses so free a term as I use, though I doubt if I should use it or not to Your Excellency … Though I have written to you on different occasions fortune has never favoured me with a reply … Do not think that I complain, for in the first place it would be for me too great a liberty without any right and, in the second, I know that Your Excellency has so far provided all that is needed for my education.

London was home at this time to a swarm of Latin American exiles, buzzing with the chumminess of freemasonry and seeking backing from the British for their various plans to free themselves from Spanish rule. Bernardo had the chance to meet and get acquainted with many of them, including the most notable, the Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda. In such circumstances it is not to be wondered at that Bernardo decided to throw in his lot with those who were actively seeking to undermine and overthrow the government whose faithful servant his distant father remained. In April 1799 he set out on a secret mission for Miranda, taking instructions for an opposition group in Spain who belonged to the Grand American Meeting, soon to become known as the Lodge of Rational Gentlemen and later the Logia Lautaro, the main Masonic group seeking to end Spanish rule in the Western Hemisphere.

Bernardo’s circumstances were suddenly transformed with the death, in Lima in 1801, of the viceroy. Ambrosio left him everything, principally 20,000 hectares of land in Chile and 3,000 head of cattle. The lonely young man in his early twenties had become a millionaire landowner with enough money to launch himself into politics and, if he so desired, assemble his own armed force. By September 1802, after a voyage of more than seven weeks, he was back in Chile. He met his mother and half-sister Rosa and began to sign himself for the first time Bernardo O’Higgins de Riquelme. He did not need to hide his antecedents any longer.

From then until Spanish authority over Chile was swept away sixteen years later O’Higgins was much more of a soldier than a ruler, seeking to throw out the Spaniards while preserving colonial society. At some moments the “patriots”, seeking independence and commanded by O’Higgins and San Martín, seemed to have an edge over the royalists. But the fortunes of war were capable of changing very rapidly. After the patriots were scattered at the battle of Rancagua in 1814, the Army of Liberation, its followers and its pack animals, had no alternative but to flee over the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina. The task they faced was no less daunting than Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC; indeed the heights were much greater. As they tramped eastward, those who were able to squeeze into them were grateful for the huts Ambrosio and Garland had set up on the mountain track years before. After their leaders regrouped and reinforced them in the city of Mendoza, the army had to march back.

The end of the war of independence came after O’Higgins’s Argentine friend and ally, José de San Martin, crushed the king’s army on the battlefield of Maipo a few miles outside Santiago, in March 1818. Then the two took their forces north to push the Spaniards out of Peru, seat of the viceroyalty. The leading politicians in Chile named O’Higgins supreme director in 1817 even before the last battle with the Spanish troops had been won, though his authority was constantly undermined and he was soon obliged to quit.

After being finally forced from power by the establishment in January 1823 he sailed away on HMS Fly, a British corvette, north to Peru, where he was to die almost a quarter of a century later in 1846. O’Higgins had lost power and was also somewhat at a loss about what to do with the rest of his life. He thought of going off alone to Ireland: he had never forgotten his Irish connection and, though it is unlikely that he ever visited the country, he was still in touch with Tomás O’Higgins, a cousin who lived in Santiago. But his sister Rosa vetoed the idea, protesting that she and their mother would die if they were to lose him again. He abandoned the plan but still could not get Ireland out of his mind and discussed with a friend the idea of bringing Irish country people to work at his rather abandoned estate in southern Chile. But that too came to nothing.

What neither O’Higgins nor any other of the leaders of the Latin American movements for independence from Spain wanted was any fundamental change in their countries’ societies. The rights of the indigenes, who in many places made up the majority of the population, were ignored. The son of a colonial governor who had spent years protecting and extending the grip of European settlers on land they were seizing from its traditional owners, O’Higgins devoted his efforts to strengthening the position of these settlers, even, as we have seen, to the extent of thinking of reinforcing them with immigrants from Ireland. He was no more nor less than the Ian Smith of his day, with Chile as his Southern Rhodesia.

In the years following O’Higgins’s departure from Chile the idea of attracting the Irish lived on and in 1848 an entrepreneur called Dow floated the idea of bring over no less than 10,000 Irish people to settle in a specific area where they could be protected from the hostile natives. The Chilean landlords, however, were not so sure since the settlers “could not reasonably be installed between the Bío-Bío and the Toltén Rivers since that area is not yet pacified”. Nevertheless many immigrants from Germany did arrive. (There were so many around Valdivia that the town is still irreverently referred to as “Faldifia”.) In 1966, on a holiday at Puerto Varas beside Lake Llanquihue in southern Chile, our family, obvious foreign visitors, was greeted cheerily with the question, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”, while the local school was prominently labelled “Deutsche Schule”. Two descendants of Swiss immigrants have been elected to the presidency of Chile, Eduardo Frei Montalva in 1964 and his son, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, in 1994.

Unsurprisingly, many indigenes, whom Chileans collectively refer to as mapuches, do not feel that even today the land question is closed and blood has been spilled on the topic in recent years. Today’s leaders, even when they claim to do so for the political advantage they feel it will bring them, do not however follow in the footsteps of O’Higgins, San Martín or Bolívar. Their ideas are infinitely more realistic and progressive than those of their nineteenth century predecessors, and especially with regard to the indigenous peoples.

The differences are manifest. Hugo Chávez is no son of a viceroy like O’Higgins. His was a humble family and his physical features which mark him out as having the blood of an indigene are obvious. (His political opponents feel they are gaining an advantage over him when they point this out.) His political appeal is to the majority and his programme of “21st century socialism” is aimed at diverting the state’s oil revenues from the middle classes, who were the principal beneficiaries of the governments which preceded him in power, to that majority of the population who lost out in previous oil booms and were condemned to live in poverty in the midst of the wealth of their more fortunate fellow citizens.

Evo Morales of Bolivia is even closer to Latin America’s indigenous roots. Born in the village of Isallavi in the department of Oruro in October 1959, he was one of seven children – four of whom died before their second birthday – born to Dionisio, and his wife, María. As Evo arrived María suffered a haemorrhage, which the local woman was able to staunch with the use of coca leaves and other herbs.

At a freezing 4,000 metres above sea level, Isallavi had no services – no electric light, no running water or drainage, no doctor and no road. The telephone was a thing he had heard of as a boy but had never seen. The family house, made of mud and straw, measured 32 square metres, and that included a store for potatoes and maize. The family had a couple of pigs and sheep. In the shadow of the snow-covered Andes, their potato crops were constantly hit by atrocious weather. Comfort was taken from the bottle. Evo chewed the orange peel and banana skins dropped by passengers in buses passing through his village. One of his dreams as a young boy was to ride himself on one of those inter-city buses and throw the peel of his own orange out of the window as he ate it in his seat.

When he was four or five the family went off to the fields of neighbouring Argentina, where the adults cut sugar cane in the sun. He remembers he made a little money selling ice cream to the thirsty labourers. Back in Bolivia he got some schooling, loving football, learning to play the trumpet, and eventually pulling together his own group, the Imperial Royals. During his obligatory military service he, like the rest of those of the Aymara race, was the object of racial humiliation. This is the man who in August called a “recall referendum”, where he won a 14-point higher share of the vote – 67.76 per cent – than when he won the presidency in December 2005. As he is besieged with the racial hostility of Bolivia’s rich right wing, quietly backed by Western governments, it is a certainty that he will continue to press ahead with changes to society and racial politics in his country.

In September this year Morales faced another round of violence from the right-wing civic leaders in some Bolivian towns. At Cobija, in the northern department of Pando, at least sixteen farmers were killed on their way to a pro-government demonstration. Morales, who had been conciliatory, finally had to adopt the hard line his supporters had been long calling for. He declared the US ambassador person non grata, received a unanimous vote of support from South American presidents meeting in Santiago and arrested the governor of Pando. Thereupon the right wing buckled.

Born in 1945 the seventh of eight children, Lula was from a similarly indigent family in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil. It was not long before his mother, Eurídice, known as Dona Lindú, piled him and his siblings in the back of a lorry bound for distant São Paulo, where his father had fled with one of her good-looking young cousins. Like Morales, he and a brother started selling ice cream and got into the way of shining shoes before he went to work in a factory and started an ascent up the ladder of the trade union movement.

The latest member of the confraternity of new Latin American leaders has, like the existing members, little in common with the viceroy’s son. Yet Fernando Lugo, who took office as president of Paraguay on August 15th, arrived in office by a novel route. Until 2006 he was the bishop of the poor diocese of San Pedro Apóstol del Ycuamandiyú, where he supported the agricultural labourers and led demonstrations against the government formed by a party which was to be in power – again with the blessing of Western governments – uninterruptedly for 61 years. He also did his best for the indigenous Guaraní people and was and remains a supporter and admirer of liberation theologians.

After much manoeuvring Bishop Lugo persuaded Pope Benedict XVI to allow him to surrender his episcopal standing a month before he took office. At a time when Marxism-Leninism, which in any case had attracted relatively few adepts in Latin America, is looking increasingly anaemic, Lugo’s presidency may herald a rebirth of radical non-Marxist ideas in the region.

Alfredo Sepúlveda’s book will give people who are interested in Latin America, especially those on this island, much to ponder on and for that he must be thanked. Yet it is sad that neither he not his publishers took the trouble to provide an index.


Hugh O'Shaughnessy has been writing and broadcasting on Latin America and the Caribbean for 46 years for the Financial Times, the Observer, The Irish Times, the BBC and other media.

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