Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story by Marie Arana
Simon & Schuster; 477 pp.; $30
When North Americans think of Latin America, we are inclined to conjure up images of the alluring beaches of Mexico and Brazil, the ancient marvels of Uxmal and Machu Picchu, or if we follow the news, the collapse of Venezuela, fires in the Amazon, or violence at our southern border. Such impressions—seldom, brief, and woefully incomplete—speak to our tendency to ignore Latin America despite its proximity and importance to the United States.
Marie Arana offers a long-overdue and persuasive corrective to this tendency in Silver, Sword & Stone: The Three Crucibles of The Latin American Story. A Peruvian-American who served as editor of The Washington Post’s Book World and is now a scholar at the Library of Congress, Arana has written widely of the continent in both fiction and nonfiction, most recently an award-winning biography of Simón Bolívar.
Silver, Sword & Stone “does not pretend to be a definitive, comprehensive history,” she writes. “Rather, it is meant to cast light on the legacy of the Latin American people and on three elements of our past that may suggest something about our future.” Thus, she looks at the continent’s last thousand years through the prism of silver, representing the search for precious metals, sword, the ever-present violence, and stone, the role of organized religion.
The Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs prized gold and silver not for their value but for ceremonial purposes. That changed when the Spanish arrived. Violence soon followed as the Spanish struck down indigenous leaders and enslaved their subjects to work in dangerous mines, often with fatal results. Catholic priests, who followed in the wake of the conquistadors, largely ignored the suffering of the native peoples while seeking to convert them to Christianity.
So it went over the course of a millennium, with each of the three “crucibles,” as the title has it, evolving and recurring with increasing intensity up to the present day. The business of mining, Arana observes, “has gone a long way to redefine progress, boost economies, lift [some] people out of poverty and touch every aspect of the social fabric.” But it has likewise left others destitute, including miners compelled to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions to eke out a living to support families, as well as, sadly, “flocks of child prostitutes.” The great bulk of the mining profits flee overseas to foreign bankers and investors in an outward flow of revenue that leaves little to improve the lives of the native people. The revenue, Arana writes in her typically expressive way, “lingers briefly—enough for a beer at the cantina or a fly-bitten shank of goat to hang from the roof beam—and then it goes out: Away. Over there.”
Similarly, violence has persisted and even grown over the centuries, from native warriors using crude stone tools as weapons to today’s gang youths wielding kitchen knives. Arana reminds us that the 10 most dangerous cities in the world are all in Latin America. “Little wonder,” she says, “that the United States has seen a flood of desperate immigrants fleeing Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Fear is the engine that drives Latin Americans north.”
Much of the violence came from abroad, and Arana doesn’t spare the United States, her adopted country, for its role in providing funds, arms, military training, and encouragement to right-wing dictators in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and others. Together these countries organized Operation Condor, a secret campaign of official violence that first took shape during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1960s and ’70s to subdue local political opposition to the strongmen in charge.
The United States became a “natural partner” in what these countries billed as an anticommunist effort, but which secretly resulted in the mass extermination of thousands of innocent civilians. In supporting Operation Condor, the United States became complicit in atrocities in an area of the world for which American leadership had little use. “Latin America doesn’t matter,” President Nixon told his advisors in 1973. “People don’t give a shit about the place.” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed, saying “what happens in the south has no importance.” That same year, Arana writes, “Kissinger received concrete evidence of the massacres,” but “stated that ‘however unpleasant’ these circumstances might be, the overall situation was beneficial to the United States.” As he told the Argentine foreign minister as the killing was happening, “We want you to succeed.”
The story of the past hundred-plus years is replete with other examples of U.S. intervention in Latin America, most notably in the early 20th century when, during the nation’s brief flirtation with colonialism, it encouraged the people of Panama to separate from Colombia and allow the United States to build a canal. Curiously, Arana gives the episode only passing attention. President Theodore Roosevelt, who contributed to the chaos in Colombia by encouraging its revolutionaries, got what he had long sought: “exclusive control, in perpetuity, over the Canal Zone.” While it may not have been the most violent of interventions, it arguably had the most lasting effect by diminishing respect for the United States and seriously undermining its ability to engage Latin America on fundamental issues like democracy and human rights. This latter point caused President Carter (for whom I was working at the time) to take the politically damaging step of proposing—successfully—to return control of the canal to the Panamanians.
Arana concludes her journey through her crucibles with an examination of religion in Latin American life, beginning with the Incas and Aztecs. She makes it clear that organized religion has played “a crucial role” from the beginning, continuing beyond the arrival of Catholic priests 500 years ago. Throughout, she writes, “faith has been a weapon of coercion as well as an instrument of social cohesion.” Latin America remains “adamantly Catholic,” home to some 40 percent of the pope’s global flock.
Silver, Sword & Stone is an impressive combination of scholarship and journalism; Arana’s deep research is enhanced by her insightful interviews with people throughout the continent. Perhaps the most notable of these is Xavier Albó, a “bright-eyed,” idealistic young Jesuit novice who arrived in Bolivia in 1952 having pledged to serve his country of origin, Spain, as well as the Church. Once there, he was drawn to the plight of native people and struggled, in Arana’s words, “to fathom the contours of indigenous faith in its pure, aboriginal form,” including human sacrifice. He also strained to understand the dynamics and injustices of this new world. “Europe was growing rich on the backs of dead Indians, the commerce of black flesh,” Arana writes, “and an ever-expanding demand for silver and gold.” Over a lifetime of serving and observing, Xavier grappled with the question of who he was there to serve. Seeking an answer to the question caused him to add a degree of activism to his ministry. He helped organize both farmers and workers, sought to remind natives of their language, their history, and their cultural traditions, and created “by sheer will and improvisation,” schools for the young and forums on ethnic pride, peace, and human rights. In a sense, Xavier’s transformation culminated in 1977, when he and his best friend and fellow priest, Lucho, took part in a hunger strike organized by the wives of men jailed for insisting on better conditions in the mines. As one of the most prominent leaders of the workers’ rights movement, Lucho was kidnapped, tortured, and killed. (The episode was, it later became clear, the work of the U.S.-backed Operation Condor.) “Xavier was never quite the same after that,” Arana writes.
Arana succeeds at weaving a multilayered tapestry of the people and themes that, over the past thousand years, have shaped Latin America into the complex but hugely compelling place it is today. The interspersing of those themes and times can make her book seem like a literary version of three-dimensional chess, except that at some point chess comes to an end; in Latin America the themes are constantly recurring—again, and again, and again.
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