Why are there ‘history wars’ in so many countries? What role does history have in social change?
In revolutionary Venezuela they are in the trenches over history. President Hugo Chavez has successfully harnessed the ‘21st century socialism’ project to Simon Bolivar’s 19th century anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggles, and the dream of social equality and Latin American unity. The privileged classes – only recently returning to a parliamentary role after their horror at losing political power 12 years ago – have launched a counter-attack with a volley of reactionary history books.
In Britain the notoriety of historian Niall Ferguson (the ‘poet-laureate of the American Empire’) stems not just from his assertion that the US should openly acknowledge its imperial role, but from his attempts to rehabilitate the British empire. As one sympathetic reader put it, Ferguson’s line basically is: ‘The Brits ran a good empire, and the US should pick up where they left off’. It is no coincidence that his writings appear in the wake of the appalling invasion of Afghanistan, and the search for excuses. Neo-colonialism mimics colonialism. Ferguson is hardly the only British pro-colonial historian, and he has faced opponents such as Mike Davis, and a number of fine Indian historians. Not that many British people read Indian historians.
Australia, for its part, celebrates its role in failed imperial invasions in lieu of any definitive struggle for independence. Its ‘history wars’ stem from a reaction to the emerging bloody history of indigenous struggles against colonialism. Writers such as Keith Windschuttle have tried to undermine what they call the ‘black-armband’ view of history. This struck a chord with fellow reactionaries in government.
So why is it important for reactionaries to bury the very idea that peoples fought for their independence or bravely resisted the seizure of their lands? Conversely, how has the Venezuelan vindication of 19th century independence struggles become so powerful?
Chavez draws on the anti-imperial and Latin American unity project of his country’s national hero, Simon Bolivar. The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is completing Bolivar’s mission, with strong themes of justice, equality, solidarity and a vindication of the social sector. Chavez, a political ‘outsider’, had outflanked a defunct two party, neoliberal system by making effective use of historical traditions.
He also links up the ‘second independence’ ideas of the great Cuban, Jose Marti. Both Bolivar and Marti foresaw the great threat of political and economic annexation from the United States, after Spain.
The Latin American dream, ever since, had been to rescue ‘Our America’ from the ‘giant to the north’. It is an anti-imperialist idea that still powerfully permeates all Latin American societies, regardless of their form of government. Addressing this, the US has tried to appropriate Marti’s legacy, using Radio and Television Marti, to transmit US government propaganda at Cuba.
With Venezuela, the private media monopolies are, of course, are in the front line. Steve Rendall of ‘Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’ says that the US media has relentlessly attacked Chavez with venom and misrepresentation (dictator, demagogue, caudillo, authoritarian, anti-Israeli) from 1998 to the present. Traditional methods persist, such as the use of paramilitaries and assassination plots, economic and diplomatic attacks, and the use of funded NGOs in international propaganda campaigns. Venezuela is now the great violator of ‘human rights’ – never mind the mass graves next door in US-occupied Colombia. But history must also be addressed, at least to counteract the ‘Chavez effect’.
‘Libros Marcados’, one of the new publishing houses in Venezuela, has its own interesting history. Jean Cleaux Duvergel pointed out that the idea was modelled on US programs to undermine the Cuban Revolution. He cites a declassified document from the US Embassy in Caracas, just before the failed April 2002 coup against President Chavez. This note describes ex-Cuban and former CIA paramilitary Carlos Alberto Montaner (now a columnist in Spain) meeting in Caracas with a group which included Pedro Carmona (then head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, and briefly crowned ‘President’ during the coup), columnist Fausto Masó (The National) and journalists including Marianella Salazar; Patricia Poleo; Marta Colomina; and Roberto Giusti (El Universal).
Plans developed at this meeting included installing Cuban counter-revolutionaries in Caracas, attempts to jointly discredit Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and stronger coordination of the private television channels with the opposition and the coup. In this context Montaner proposed ‘Libros Marcados’, with Fausto Masó as boss. The money would come from the US.
Masó as a columnist portrays Venezuela’s popular ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ as ‘dictatorship dressed up as democracy’, with no freedom of expression - never mind that he publishes in Venezuela every day and that (despite the gradual growth of public and community media) private television and newspapers still dominate. Libros Marcados’ main aim is to publish attacks on Chavez and the Bolivarian project. But deeper history has taken on a greater role.
‘Libros Marcados’ takes on the task of justifying the earlier neoliberal regimes (‘The Fourth Republic’), along with anti-communist horror stories (‘The Perverse Caribbean’), anti-Chavez novels (‘I The Kidnappable’ and ‘I Fell in Love with a Chavista’), reification of opposition figures (‘Borges the Tormentor’), general anti-left diatribes (‘The Suicide of the Left: from Che to Chavez’ and ‘Black Stories of a Red Decade’) and various anti-Chavez tracts (‘Chavez can be beaten’, ‘My Solution’ and ‘The President’s Funeral’). ‘Inconclusive memories’ by Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara and Roberto Giusti seeks to rehabilitate the image of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, after the Cardinal’s involvement in the 2002 coup.
The US-funded publisher doesn’t neglect the 19th century. ‘From Carabobo to Punto Fijo’ by ex-President Rafael Caldera, seeks to link a definitive 19th century military victory in the war of independence with the political compromise of 1958, which led to the moribund and elitist two party system - the ‘Fourth Republic’ of 1958-1998.
Deeper in Venezuelan history LM authors question the role of Bolivar and of independence itself. In Tulio Álvarez’s book ‘Thirteen Bicentenary Lies’ the very idea of Venezuelan independence is rejected as a latter day myth: ‘Independence was the result of a fraud brought about by [Bolivar’s] taking advantage of a power vacuum in Spain and an anarchic situation which reigned in Venezuela’. All those people who fought died for nothing, it seems, and slavery and colonialism meant nothing. A few other juicy items are added, Bolivar really died of syphilis, and it was a ‘lie’ that his sweetheart Manuelita was faithful. In Angel Rafael Lamarza’s book ‘19 of abril of 1810: the final act of faithfulness by the King of Spain’, Lamarza argues that the Venezuelan nation was never really born, and that the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ does not represent the culmination of an independence process.
Libros Marcados is not alone, of course. Under another label, Anthropologist Miguel Angel Perera in ‘The Indigenous Country of the Liberator’ questions the indigenous rights credentials of Bolivar and, through him, those of Chavez. Yet it was Chavez who set up Misión Guaicaipuro, to help build the rights of indigenous Venezuelans, who called on Latin Americans to not celebrate Columbus Day, and who has recognised a million hectares of constitutionally backed, inalienable indigenous land. Put simply, Chavez has led the strongest recognition of indigenous culture and land rights in South America since Chile’s Salvador Allende. Venezuela’s ‘Fourth Republic’, like neoliberal regimes everywhere, did nothing for indigenous peoples.
Latin American bookshops are full of reactionary tracts. One book on ‘Tyrannies’ places Adolf Hitler next to Fidel Castro on its cover, while ‘The Black Book of Communism’ cites a list of evil crimes; but no word about the US-backed dictatorships that dominated Latin America for most of the 20th century. Even a children’s dictionary in Chile, which has a brief chronology which claims that General Augusto Pinochet ‘ascended to power’ in 1973. And in Andres Oppenheimer’s ‘Enough of Histories: Latin America’s obsession with the past and the three keys to the future’, the Miami Herald journalist makes a cry for ‘liberal education’, and getting away from all that revolution stuff.
Indeed, what was all that revolution and independence stuff about? Does it matter? Well someone clearly does not want us to remember it. Maybe breaking with the big power is indeed a liberating and empowering experience. But doesn’t that make the ‘natives’ uppity and assertive?
Some asymmetries are apparent in the Latin American history wars. Cuba, to start with, which has had an explosion of books in recent years, provides strong subsidies. Most books and magazines on culture and history in Cuba (including translated and non-Cuban books) typically sell for between 20c and one dollar. In a couple of the government backed left publishing houses,
Venezuela has picked up this practice. Some books sell for just $1 to $4. By contrast, and despite the US funding, Libros Maracados titles sell for between $15 and $30. On top of being expensive, these right wing histories are poorly written, mostly coming from opposition columnists used to writing in short diatribes. According to Duvergel, the Libros Marcados sales have been poor, despite their prominence in many bookstores.
All this is a bit tricky for an Australian, with few reference points in resistance and independence. Yes there is Pemulwuy the warrior, and there is the Eureka Stockade. But Australian struggles have been fragmented, and there was never a combined independence struggle which could have helped shape a broader national identity, as in Latin America, or for that matter in Timor Leste.
Our history wars have been mainly about the British colony and its massacres of indigenous peoples in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is important ground in vindicating indigenous identity, in making indigenous people ‘visible’ and proud of having survived the horrors of dispossession and genocide. Nevertheless, even when there has been detailed recognition of some of this history (e.g. Keating in 1991, Rudd in 2007), it has been tokenistic and inconsequential.
Australia as a nation never experienced a combined struggle for independence, to expel the colonial or neo-colonial power, and to vindicate and empower the role of citizens in a republic. Our future options have been very limited – the minimalist republic, switching a monarch for a governor-general; changing the national anthem (back in the 1970s); perhaps some tokenistic constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples; and perhaps changing the flag. The idea of a constituent assembly to create a totally new constitution has had no place in public debate.
The result is that in ‘post-colonial’ Australia we have a two party government which fawns over the big power and commits us to wars and privatisations that are always immensely unpopular – yet a disempowered population sees no alternatives. Our MPs are puppets who simply go through the motions. Isn’t that why other peoples had independence struggles?