Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Feast of the Goat

Racism is not an American invention, nor is it limited to America.

I have been reading The Feast of the Goat, which is a Nobel Prize winning novel about the downfall of Rafael Trujillo, who was the dictator of the Dominican Republic for 30 years or so.  It is a piece of history that most Americans don't learn - or if they did, quickly forgot.  It seems that no one really cares about the plight of people in small, third-world countries, other than the people suffering in them.

Trujillo was initially an ally of the United States, but crossed a line when his death squads started murdering dissidents in other countries, including in New York City.   He was assassinated by a group that was at least helped, if not directed, by the CIA.

As brutal Latin American dictators go, he was one of the worst, torturing and murdering many of his opponents.   But the crime he was most famous for was the slaughter of tens of thousands of Haitian sugar cane cutters in what was known as the Parsley Massacre.  Their crime?  Being Hatian, or more precisely, being black.

It always puzzled me why one island, Hispaniola, was divided into two countries, The Dominican Republic, and Haiti.  And the reasons are cultural and racial.  The Dominican Republic looks toward Spain for its influence, as it was once a former colony.  Haiti is dominated by the Creole, and looks more towards France and Africa for its influences, and in fact was formed when slaves revolted.  One side of Hispaniola is white, the other black (by and large) and Trujillo slaughtered the Haitians to keep them from "incursions" into the Dominican Republic.  It was racism, pure and simple.

It is an interesting history and I am just starting to delve into this book, which is well-written.   But what struck me, was this was another example of how racism isn't just some American invention.  I had been raised to think, based on our history books and the news reports, that racism was some American characteristic - and indeed today, this is still being taught, more than ever before.  The so-called 1619 project, which won a Pulitzer prize, sort of drives home this point - that the success of America was in part at least, derived from the labor of slaves.

And much heat and little light is being made about this and "critical race theory" and as to how much of American greatness derives from slavery and how much not.   My personal opinion?  It is important, but doesn't describe the whole story.   Immigrants in the North - including my ancestors - never owned slaves and were exploited (not nearly as badly, of course) in factories, mines, and other places where raw labor was required.   The old joke about the building of the Erie Canal, for example, was, "Q:What do you need to build a canal?  A: An Irishman and a shovel" - which can be taken as a racist slur against the Irish, or a testament to their strength and endurance under hardship.

As I noted in an earlier posting, I inadvertently insulted a friend of mine (and I tend to do that a lot, being human) when I mentioned that he had a face like a Mayan God.  I thought I was complimenting him, but being Costa Rican, he took this as an insult, as if I was calling him the N-word.  Turns out, there is a hugely complicated racial identity issue in many, if not most, Latin America countries. My Cuban friend is the same way - insisting that he is of 100% Spanish descent, without a drop of African or Indian blood - and for all I know, he may be right.  But for the life of me, I don't care.   It matters to him, though.

Throughout Latin and South America (and the Caribbean) the same is true - and indigenous and darker-skinned people are routinely exploited or treated badly.  Turns out, we don't have the Patent on Racism.  This is not to say we are innocent of it, or indeed, we didn't have a hand in many of these coups, coup attempts, assassinations and whatnot - many of which were driven by or used racism as a pretext.  Of course, our opponents and competitors in the world are just as guilty of using racial divides to drive politics.  One reason Fidel Castro came into power, was that he promised the darker-skinned Cubans they would be treated equally.  And he kept his promise, mostly by making everyone in Cuba poorer.

Race does drive politics - in America, and worldwide. The good news is, I think, that over the last century, we have made real progress in terms of race relations and we at least talk about these things, rather than bury them.  And recent events seem to suggest that further progress is being made.  Today, a statue of General Robert E. Lee comes down in Charlottesville.  Perhaps a symbolic, meaningless gesture to political correctness. Or perhaps the erection of that statue, years ago, was a symbolic meaningful gesture designed to send a message, in an era were blacks were routinely lynched to "keep them in line" much as Trujillo slaughtered thousands to "send a message" to Haitians.

Of course, in recent days, we have heard of yet another assassination, this time on the Haitian side of the island.  And in coming months and years, maybe we will understand who is behind this latest grab for power and what it means.  In the meantime, not many people in America will really care much, other than to object to US troops being sent to yet another unstable part of the world to restore order that never existed in the first place.