The question of separation in Latin America

by Jacques Lafouge,
Vice-president of la Libre Pensée (France)
Tuesday 10 June 2008
by  cilalp_france
popularity : 1%

When I travel in the USA or in Canada, I really do not have any feeling of strangeness. Of course the landscapes, cities and some habits are different from those in Europe, but Men, their appearance, their behavior, the political institutions are not fundamentally different from those we know. We know that they are democratic regimes where Human Rights are implemented, even if sometimes some abuse occurs which is soon denounced.

On the other hand, as soon as you cross the Rio Grande, you get into another world where your usual standards which are usually respected take a different shade.

I have been traveling in South America for nearly 40 years, and I have visited all the countries of the continent except Paraguay. I lived 8 years in Ecuador and I have never been able to get rid of the feeling that it is a different world from Europe and North America.

Where does this feeling come from?

We live on an archetype that was imposed on us.

Firstly it is mainly due to the image conveyed by the travel agencies and the like, which shows South America as if it were a land of well-being where life would be easy. Mexico, for instance would be peopled by men with moustaches, wearing ponchos and large hats and having a nap in the shade under a cactus. What does it matter if the Indian is practically beardless, if his poncho is most certainly a sarape and if cactuses offer very little shade and if poverty does not encourage laziness? We live on an archetype that was imposed on us.

We were practically imposed the idea that tropical countries are Sea, Sex and Sun. If beaches and palm-trees are present indeed between the Tropics and beyond, they are just hiding another reality which is often made of poverty, war, pollution, lack of safety and corruption.

At a different scale, we are not free from those evils but we can denounce them and find a remedy.

Secondly, South America is not one. The Caribbean, Brazil, the South Cone, the Andean States, Mexico and Central America are not alike. Each set of countries has its own features though with some variation; national feelings are often exacerbated. My South American friends often tell me: «How did you, Europeans, manage to get united, with such a troubled history, while we are unable to do so ?» And they add, sarcastically: « Indeed, language is the only thing that separates us! »

The second point is the population.

When the Spaniards first, then the other Europeans, came to America, they did not find an empty continent. As it appears, they were one hundred million of people at the time, rather unevenly scattered. Brilliant civilizations were born: Mayas, Teotihuacán, Chavín de Huantar, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Incas, and Chibchas.

Some of them were still at the Stone Age; others used soft metals such as gold, silver or copper. They knew bronze and they could braze gold and platinum, which Europeans were unable to do at the time. .

They did not know the private ownership of the land.

Some had very cruel religions, such as the Aztecs, others had no defined deities and were at the stage of shamanism. It is worth noticing that shamanism has perfectly withstood Christianity and is still alive in a number of daily events.

Lastly, those peoples had high and strict ethics. If Man owed a lot or everything to the State, the State in turn was to assist him in case of famine, hence the Inca State granaries, in case of disease, old age or scarcity, as a concept of reciprocity between individuals and between individuals and the State. The State granted the land according to the needs of each family, the citizen paid his taxes in kind as currency was largely unknown, and in case of difficulty, the State took care of the citizen

Among the Incas, ethics could all be summed up in a few words : “Ama Shua, Ama Llulla, Ama Killa, which means: No lies, No theft, No idleness.” That summed up Man’s duties towards himself, towards the others and towards the State.

The third point deals with the Conquest.

Lope de Vega wrote: « Under the disguise of religion, they went to seek gold and silver from the hidden treasure ». The continent was plundered with all the violence that greed can inspire.

Meanwhile the wars and the biological shock, i.e. the upsurge of diseases which were unknown before such as measles, smallpox, flu, decimated the native population which dropped to about ten million people.

A cultural genocide was added to this physical genocide.

The Roman Catholic Church came in the Conquistadores’ baggage. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had accompanied the Reconquest of Spain, forced the Jews and the Muslims to convert to Christianity, and hunted down heresy. According to its own words, it found a harvest of souls in America. The priest started to baptize with all their might, destroying temples, burning ancient manuscripts which they regarded as satanic, forcing the children to denounce their parents who secretly practiced the ancient cults.

Shamelessly, the Roman Catholic Church became rich and took an active part in the plundering, rapes and oppression. As a State religion, it was a genuine force of oppression.

The fourth point is the end of the colonial era.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, Latin America got rid of the colonial yoke. Although the liberation from the colonial power occurred, there was no de-colonization.

Broadly speaking, the Creoles, i.e. the Spaniards who settled in America a very long time ago, who were an elite but were denied political power expelled the Spaniards of European origin who were the other elite but they had the political power.

At a time when the United States had already separated, since their birth, civil power from religion, when France had tried to do so in 1789 and 1795, things remained the same in Latin America.

Bolivar, the emblematic hero of this Liberation, wrote in 1825 : “I shall protect religion until my death.”

In 1828: “We must affirm that religion is one of the strongest barriers that can oppose the flood of anarchic passions and this belief leads me to recommend the highest friendship and concord with the archbishop”.

In 1830: “Let my last will be to recommend to you to protect the holy religion that we profess, the deep source of the blessings from heaven.”

To be just, there are also a few texts in which Bolivar argues that civil law should be separated from religious law, the latter being superior. In 1836: “Precepts and holy dogmas are useful, luminous and metaphysically evident; we should profess all of them, but this is a moral, not a political, duty.”

The white elite of Latin America did not think of separating the Roman Catholic Church from the State. As for the native masses, they were despised by the colonizers and kept in poverty and ignorance by the political power as well as the religious power. For instance, in Ecuador, serfdom was only abolished in 1964.

After this brief summary, what is the situation now ?

As it was said before, the Catholic Church and religious orders, particularly the Jesuits, have accumulated lands and buildings which were bequeathed to them. They had missions and owned slaves.

Can we say that this situation is continuing ?

Broadly speaking, there are different shades according to the States – some of them having reduced the properties of the Church through nationalization or auction.

We cannot be sure that the Roman Catholic Church had any regret – certainly little regret, maybe not much. This is due to the development of the religious situation in Latin America. In a situation of quasi monopoly for a long time, it is now facing two kinds of competition.

The Evangelical Churches, which have large funding, have attacked the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church sometimes successfully and their followers are more and more numerous in practically every country, including the Amazon Rainforest. This means that the Catholic message is losing ground whereas the Evangelists’ message is perhaps more in tune with the current spiritual needs of some of the peoples. However, some of the religious practices of those new missionaries are sometimes rejected by the concerned population.

On the other hand, an increase of shamanist practices is observed, as those practices are regarded by the natives as a return to the sources also corresponding to the political evolution of countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, for instance.

When I had a house built in Quito, I was asked whether I wanted the foundations of the house blessed by a shaman. In the same manner, when I left this country someone proposed that a shaman do a “limpia”, a purifying ceremony for my journey. Finally, I once met a native physician who practiced our western medicine with the help of a shaman to make diagnosis and write prescriptions.

What’s the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church, confronted with those dangers ?

Firstly, they minimize the past. In Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI says : “Catholicism was not imposed on the native peoples.” And he blames “the aggressive proselytism of the sects.” Which Hugo Chavez commented: “How can he tell that they came to evangelize without any form of imposition, while they were carrying harquebus ?”

Secondly they are developing Opus Dei, the discreet and active branch of Catholic propaganda. Finally, they are trying to take things in hand again concerning the education of the white or half-caste elite. Down the road of my house in Quito, there is the Intisana College which belongs to Opus Dei, where young generations of future managers of the nation are educated.

In 2007, the 5th Assembly of Latin American Bishops declared: “We want to encourage the training of Christian politicians and lawmakers so that they contribute to the building of a just and fraternal society, according to the principles of the Church.”

On the other hand, they practice a clever policy of presence. When in 2000 a revolution in Ecuador ended Jamil Mahuad’s presidency, the revolutionaries appeared at the balcony of the presidential palace, with the bishop of Cuenca, considered as a progressive. As the situation changed during the night, the archbishop of Quito, considered as a reactionary, was standing at the balcony the following morning.

Therefore, one can hardly consider that there is a separation, as we understand it.

The most emblematic example could be that of Mexico in the years 1924-1928, although it was more anti-religious policy than separation.

There were a few trials, but their scopes were limited.

If we refer to present, and without mentioning the special situation of Cuba, we can take two current examples.

A Native American was elected at the recent presidential elections in the Republic of Ecuador. Personally, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the closest assistant of the President and I asked him the question of introducing secularism and therefore separation of religions and the State in the new Constitution which is currently being drawn up.

The answer was that there will be only a “soft” reference to God, but no separation.

The case of Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela is more interesting. As everywhere else, the Catholic Church has an untouchable historical legitimacy. It has always had a religious monopoly as the established religion and benefited of material and financial assistance.

However, Hugo Chavez’ politics displeased both the conservative opposition and the Catholic Church; that led to a coup d’état in 2002. The new power immediately received the support of the Church, with Cardinal Velasco, an Opus Dei Member, who signed the decree of recognition of the new junta.

After a couple of days, the popular pressure put Hugo Chavez back to power, and rumors say that he could have been supported by some “protestant sects”. Whatever the case, the political balance which supported the Church disappeared and we are heading towards a religious freedom which could favor the Evangelist movements and is more in tune with the current wishes of some part of the population.

However, the Church, concluding that the new worshippers are more observant than the Catholics, is adapting its rites in the form of a charismatic revival or “pentecostization”, with miracles and transformation of religious offices into shows.

In the current situation, it is unlikely that Latin America should go toward a clear separation of Religions and the State.

The Church defends its positions with the strength born of desperation in order to remain as close as possible to the political power in order to keep the privileges that it is benefiting from this situation. Indeed, it is under the attacks of its rivals, but it is resisting to them by keeping a leading position, particularly in Higher Education. Opus Dei is its powerful support and it is trying to adapt its practices to fashion.

In addition, is the political class willing to change its politics towards the churches? During the dictatorships, the power received the support of the Roman Catholic Church. Didn’t we see Pope John Paul II and Pinochet side by side at the balcony of La Modena ? Recent elections brought to power more progressive teams, as it appears, but the political and economical problems, which they have to address, perhaps do not incite them to embark on a policy of separation which could worsen the problems.

Let’s not lose hope, for all that. In 2006, the Ecuadorian Freemasons published a 350 page book titled “Laicismo vivo – From Parishioner to Citizen.”

It means that the humanist, secular and republican ideal still exists and makes progress. It is up to us to develop it.


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