1492: The First Invasion of Globalization

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Heinz Dieterich

Excerpted from Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization, Ocean Press, 1999 [October 1989 and March 1992]

QUESTION: 1992 is the 500th anniversary of  Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Official celebrations speak of the “fifth centenary of the discovery of America” and of the “meeting of two cultures.” Are these appropriate ways to refer to this event?

CHOMSKY: There’s no doubt that there was a meeting of two worlds. But the phrase “discovery of America” is obviously inaccurate. What they discovered was an America that had been discovered thousands of years before by its inhabitants. Thus, what took place was the invasion of America — an invasion by a very alien culture.

QUESTION: So, indigenous peoples are correct when they refer to it as the “conquest” or the “invasion”?

CHOMSKY: Obviously. One can discover an uninhabited area, but not one in which people live. If I travel to Mexico, I can’t write an article entitled “The Discovery of Mexico.”

QUESTION: Is October 12, 1492, a date that should be celebrated? [This is commonly accepted as the date of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas].

CHOMSKY: Well, I do think that people should pay attention to it; it is an extremely important date in modern history. In fact, there are few events in modern history that have had such formidable implications. In statistical terms alone — which don’t often say much about reality — a century and a half after the conquest almost 100 million human beings had disappeared.

It is difficult to think of comparable events in human history. The effects of the conquest did, of course, dramatically change the Western hemisphere and, as a result, Western civilization. Thus, it is undoubtedly a very important turning point in world history. Nevertheless, “celebrate” is a strange word. I don’t think that we would “celebrate” Hitler’s coming to power, for example, even if we certainly do pay attention to it.

QUESTION: When Columbus reached the Western hemisphere, he called the inhabitants “Indians” because he thought he was in the Indies. Five hundred years after this geographical error was clarified, these people are still being called “Indians.” Why?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think that this reflects the general contempt for indigenous peoples. If they didn’t really have any right to be where they were, it also would have mattered little what they were called. The conquerors equally could have called the animals that they found here by the wrong name and no one would have been overly troubled by it.

The situation varied throughout the continent. So, for example, in areas where the English settled or where English is spoken today, the unwritten law in force in England was imposed. According to English law, the inhabitants of these lands didn’t have a right to them because they where hunter-gatherers rather than a sedentary people. This was completely false. And many other falsifications of events took place in order to render them compatible with the law. Up until the 1970s, for example, distinguished anthropologists informed us that we should reject archeological and documentary evidence which clearly showed that these were sedentary peoples and, by their own standards, relatively advanced civilizations. On the contrary, we were to pretend that they were hunter-gatherers and that, therefore, there were few people, maybe a million north of the Rio Grande, instead of 10 million or more, which was the real figure.

And if the question is asked why for centuries these falsifications were made, the answer is, basically, that it was a matter of establishing the principle that the people who lived there had no rights over the land, given that they simply traveled across it in order to hunt, and so on. Therefore, there was no moral or legal problem in taking their land for the use of the Europeans. As far as the peoples involved are concerned, if they had no right to the land, it did not matter who they were, or whether they came from India or some other place.

As a result of events that took place in the 1960s, there has been a kind of cultural change in the last 20 years. Most of what happened in the 1960s was extremely healthy and significant. It became possible, for the first time, to face the questions about what had been done to the native American population. This produced a degree of consciousness about the racist nature of our willingness to continue to use terms such as “Indians,” as if who they were was of no importance.

QUESTION: What is the appropriate way for people in the solidarity movements to approach 1992?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think that the approach of the solidarity movements should be, above all, to honestly face up to the events and to have a clear understanding of them. And, to take advantage of the occasion so that the events relating to the European invasion of the Western hemisphere and the consequences of what took place become known, including the situation and treatment of the indigenous people — all those massacres and the oppression of the indigenous peoples that began in 1492 and continues to this day. All one needs to do is look at what is taking place in Guatemala, or in the reservations of western United States, or throughout the hemisphere to realize that persecution and repression continue under our noses, frequently in brutal form.

Gaining an understanding of what these last 500 years have meant is not simply a matter of becoming aware of history, it is a question of becoming aware of current processes. I think that the solidarity movement should attempt to reach, for itself and for others, an understanding of these events and attempt to establish a base from which it can understand them honestly and humanely for the first time.

QUESTION: After 1492, the peoples of Latin America were integrated into the world system, as dependents. Have they managed to recover their autonomy? CHOMSKY: No. The relationship between the invaders and the indigenous population differs from place to place in America. In some areas, the indigenous people were integrated in some form and in others they were simply eliminated or displaced, or put into reservations. Relations vary, but the end result of all this is that the majority of the hemisphere still finds itself subjugated.

For reasons that have to do with world history, the English-speaking parts became dominant world powers, particularly the United States, which is the first truly global power in history. Latin America has been subordinated to the Western imperial powers and their violence. And this continues. It continues in the foreign debt crisis, in the threats of intervention, in the highly distorted forms of development, in the frequently extreme social backwardness of many areas that have great cultural wealth. These are all phenomena that have developed in the course of international relations and they have, for various reasons, led to a highly dependent, subjugated and oppressive situation for the majority of the continent.

1992 should also lead us, and perhaps it will, to consider the current form of domination in the international sphere. It doesn’t have all the forms of traditional colonialism, but it manifests other features that should be unacceptable to any honest person. Frequently, it has terrible consequences. It should suffice to look at events in Central America during the past decade to see how serious these effects can be.

QUESTION: In light of the mistreatment suffered by the indigenous people of the United States, how can you explain President Reagan becoming defender of the indigenous Miskitu people of Nicaragua?

CHOMSKY: Remember that Reagan — and not only him but the whole of the U.S. ideological apparatus — defended, or pretended to defend them, and appeared very annoyed by what was happening to them. At the same time, Reagan and the people around him applauded what was happening in Guatemala. Not only did he defend it, he applauded and rallied support for it. In 1982, Reagan explained that the dictator Rios Montt [1982-83] was a man dedicated to democracy and we heard similar things from [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1981-85)] Jeane Kirkpatrick, and the rest of that gang.

During that whole period, [U.S. Secretary of State (1982-89)] George Shultz, [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (1981-85); Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (1985-89)] Elliot Abrams, Reagan allies and many others defended and supported events in Guatemala, and never seriously protested about what was happening there. Meanwhile, they acted like they were preoccupied with the fate of the Miskitus. The Miskitus were mistreated, but nevertheless found themselves among the best treated indigenous groups in the hemisphere. If the obviously very legitimate demands they made in relation to their autonomy from the Sandinista government had taken place in any country to the north of Nicaragua, these people would have simply been massacred (had ridicule of their demands not been sufficient).

Reagan and the State Department talk of the barbaric and inhumane treatment of the Miskitus (possibly several dozen of them had died in conflict with the Sandinistas). But at the same time, some 70,000 or 80,000 people were massacred in the Guatemalan high plateau by the armed forces, who were supported by the United States and defended by Ronald Reagan as very good and honest people who cared about democracy. To this day, it’s still claimed that the Guatemalan military were unjustly accused. If we take a look at the treatment of the native peoples of the United States, then the treatment of the Miskitus appears very respectful by comparison. In fact, if any group of native Americans in the United States expressed similar demands for autonomy, and ridicule was insufficient to neutralize them, then they would simply be annihilated. That is why no one can consider this to be anything more than the most extraordinary of hypocrisies by the U.S. government.

QUESTION: Historically, the native peoples of the United States have occupied the lowest place in the scale of social and ethnic status in their country. Has this situation changed in recent times?

CHOMSKY: Yes, it has changed. I clearly remember when I was a child the favorite game for young people was “Cowboys and Indians.” You went to the forest and pretended that there were “Indians.” It was like going hunting, like hunting animals. Popular culture back then emphasized the concept of the “Indian” as a treacherous savage, or perhaps, a noble savage, who led a primitive life before achieving the higher level of civilization of the Europeans. Well, this has certainly changed, that is, the vulgar racism that existed until the 1960s has changed. And this, again, was a result of the impact of the 1960s and the significant improvement of cultural and moral standards that took place during that time. On the other hand, native Americans are still treated abominably. If you want an example of this, look at Ward Churchill’s excellent book Agents of Repression, which deals with the war by the FBI against the American Indian Movement. This is a very concrete example and, what’s more, it concerns recent events, events that took place in the 1960s.

QUESTION: So, native Americans continue to be at the bottom of the racial prejudice scale?

CHOMSKY: Yes, by many standards they occupy the lowest point and, in fact, they are virtually considered nonexistent.

QUESTION: Some have proposed bringing the statue of Columbus from Barcelona to New York to “marry” it to the Statue of Liberty as part of the 1992 celebrations. What do you think of this idea?

CHOMSKY: Columbus was one of the main specialists in genocide during that period. Also, and leaving aside for a moment his abominable practices, the symbolism is offensive because his voyages to the Western hemisphere began a period in which a population of tens of millions was, essentially, annihilated. To call this liberty goes far beyond anything George Orwell could ever have imagined.

QUESTION: Carlos Fuentes was asked in Santiago de Chile what he thought about the great statue of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. His answer was: “I hoped for more statues of Cortés in Mexico so that we could rid ourselves of the complex of having been colonized.” This answer seems very strange to me. What do you think about it?

CHOMSKY: Well, I also think it is a strange answer. I can’t understand it. I’d like to ask him what it means to him. But it is very strange. When he said that “we” were colonized, who was he talking about? Who was colonized? Was he colonized by Spain? In the same way that the United States was colonized by England? He is a descendant of the conquerors. The indigenous population was overwhelmingly eliminated. And he is saying that we should honor the murderers? I don’t quite understand it.

QUESTION: I think he is talking about the people who are protesting against the Fifth Centenary celebrations, because here they say that the people who protest against these celebrations have a complex: they can’t get past what took place 500 years ago. I think that’s more or less the meaning.

CHOMSKY: What happened 500 years ago is, of course, still happening now. The main theme of the last 500 years of human history, and this hasn’t changed, is what today is called the North-South conflict, essentially the European conquest of the world. If he wants to forget this, he wants to forget reality. If the “complex” is recognizing the reality in which we live, then yes, I understand, because one of the principal tasks of intellectuals has always been to get past this “complex,” but I would not have expected it from him.

QUESTION: Many apologists for the Fifth Centenary celebrations say that the Spanish brought civilization with them — and, in particular, “the marvelous language of Cervantes” — and insinuate that due to this incomparable language it was all worth it, in spite of some atrocities taking place.

CHOMSKY: I don’t know the Nazi period well enough to know if someone said that the Germans took the marvelous language of Goethe to the ghettos of Warsaw, but if this was the case, then it would be a comparable statement.

QUESTION: A similar statement has been made by people who say “while there were sorrows, they are compensated for by the coming of the Christian faith.”

CHOMSKY: I can give you the same analogy. The Germans took Christian faith to the ghettos of Warsaw.

QUESTION: For 150 years, the people who have lived in this part of the continent have considered themselves citizens of Latin America. When the Spanish introduced a lot of money because of the Fifth Centenary, many journalists and intellectuals discovered that this is “Ibero-America.” How can a bit of money make such a change possible after 150 years?

CHOMSKY: The answer is in the question. People have a price, some will sell themselves for five cents, others will ask a million dollars.

QUESTION: We are building a “Monument to the victims of the European invasion of 1492” in the Spanish city of Puerto Real, together with the city’s council and independent Spanish groups. The famous Ecuadorian artist Osvaldo Guyasamin is designing it. The socialist government of Felipe González tried to silence this. And now they are distributing a letter to the citizens of Puerto Real with the aim of collecting signatures in order to dismiss the mayor. They justify this campaign by claiming that the monument is a monument to hatred and not to reconciliation. What is your opinion of this?

CHOMSKY: The conquerors don’t want the truth to be known — not only that Spain conquered large parts of the Western hemisphere, but also that they benefited from it, and still do. As I have said, the oft-mentioned North-South conflict, the European conquest of the world, continues. Right now, Latin America is being subjugated. The social and economic structural adjustment is only a modern phase of the massacres of indigenous people.

QUESTION: This is because an innocent action like the building of a monument…

CHOMSKY: There’s nothing “innocent” about it. Anything that generates consciousness and understanding among the poor people of the world is not innocent.

QUESTION: It’s dangerous?

CHOMSKY: Very dangerous, that’s understood.

QUESTION: So we are a dangerous species?

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. That’s why they sent the prophets into the desert thousands of years ago.