Contemporary American Voices from the Caribbean and Mexico:

Man at the Crossroads

Man [Humanity] at the Crossroads, Diego Rivera, Mexico, 1934. Fresco, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, from the Diego Rivera Web Museum.

How do we judge our culture through the eyes of another?

"By 1898 the United States had emerged as an industrial, financial and naval power. It surpassed Great Britain as the worlds leading manufacturing state. Giant US banks and corporations invested heavily overseas....The war with Spain in 1898 established the US as a full-fledged imperial power."

p. 527.

Select three examples of imperialism and describe their importance for the settling and continued existence of western influence in in the Caribbean & Mesoamerica.

The United States and Mexico

Diaz, Juno, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


Imperialism is the filthy word of contemporary politics

Junot Diaz, The Dominican Republic.

"It's never the changes we want that change everything."

"But the fukú ain't just ancient history, a ghost story from the past with no power to scare. In my parent's day the fukú was real as shit, something your everyday person could believe in. Everybody knew someone who had been eaten by a fukú, just like everybody knew somebody who worked up in the Palacio."

"Our then dictator-for-life Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. No one knows whether Trujillo was the Curse's servant or its master, . . . but it was clear he and it had an understanding, that them two was tight

"anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú that was most powerful.

"a boulder would fall out of a clear sky and squash you,"

pp. 2-3.

"No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we have all been in the shit ever since."

p. 1.

Oscar's story

"It was really a Golden Age for Oscar, one that reached its apotheosis in the fall of his seventh year when he had two little girlfriends, at the same time, his first and only ménage a trois."

Oscar's mother's story

"Bright lights zoom through you like photon torpedoes, like comets. You don't know how or why you know this thing but you know it cannot be doubted. It is exhilarating. For as long as you've been alive you've had bruja ways, . . . "

"She was my Old World Dominican mother and I was her only daughter, the one she had raised up herself with the help of nobody, which meant it was her duty to keep me crushed under her heel."

The life that existed beyond Paterson, beyond my family, beyond Spanish.

You don't know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around. . . ."

The islands described.

"Then, like now, Santo Domingo was to popóla what Switzerland was to chocolate. And there was something about the binding, selling, and degradation of women that brought out the best in our Gangster. . . .By the time he was twenty-two he was operating his own string of brothels in and around the capital, owned houses and cars in three countries."

Narcissus image:

"Narcissus stroking that pool of his, murmuring. Guapa, guapa, over and over again--"

p. 127


"A loneliness that obliterated all memory" Hypatia (Beli) felt upon learning she carried the Gangster's baby boy and that he is married to Trujillo's sister, and has no intent of marrying her.

p. 148.

"Beli is brutally beaten by goons of Trujillo's family and left in a cane field for dead, the climax of the book.

"mazed" in the "endlessness of the cane field" on the outskirts of the city. A tie to Paz

p. 151.

"Everybody, he shook his head, misapprehends me." Oscar to his college roommate Yunior.

p. 189.

After his attempted suicide Oscar tells Yunior: "l'm going to be Dominican Tolkein, he said."

p. 192.

"But you know exactly what kind of world we live in. lt ain't no fucking Middle earth."

p. 194.

"Nothing more exhiliarting than saving yourself by the simple act of waking."

p. 201.

"The Cabral's were, you might have guessed memebers o f the Fortunate People."

p. 213.

His friends in Mexico would have grabbed their rifles and taken to the interior but he was his father's son in more ways than he liked to admit His father and educated man who had always resisted sending his son to Mexico but who always played ball with Trujillo. When in 1937, the army had started murdering all the Haitians, his father had allowed them to use his horses, and when he didn't get any of them back he didn't say nothing to Trujillo. Just chalked it up as the cost of doing business. . . . . Hated himself to his core for his mendacity, but what else could he have done?"

p. 231.

"No matter what you believe: in February 1946, Abelard was officially convicted of all charges and sentenced to eighteen years. Eighteen years!

"The charge? Slander and gross calumny against the Person of the President."

"Nigger , please: there were no papers, no civil rights groups, no opposition parties; there was only Trujillo."

"Only later, during his last days, would he actually remember one of those dreams. An old man was standing before him in a ruined bailey, holding up a book for him to read, The old man had a mask on. It took a while for Oscar's eyes to focus, but then he saw that the book was blank."

The book is blank. Those were the words La Inca's servant heard him say just before he [Oscar] broke through the plane of unconsciousness and into the universe of the Real."

History is the study of time, or chronological thinking, on the human imagination. For Paz it is a Labyrinth, Metaphorically speaking: Time may be thought of as a maze from which there is no return and in which we are devoured in the end by our own illusions.

Imperialism is just one such communal illusion and for us the question is:

"How is imperialism devouring us and our closest neighbors?"

The USA legacy in the Caribbean and Mexico:


Octavio Paz, (1953) Two kinds of imperial authority Mexican and northern

"I think that every time a society finds itself in a crisis it instinctively turns its eyes toward its origins and looks there for a sign. Colonial American society was a free egalitarian, but exclusive. Faithful to its origins in both in its domestic and foreign policies alike, the United States has always ignored the 'others.' Today the United States faces very powerful enemies, but the mortal danger comes from within...."

p. 376

The state as expressed in Mexico is an all consuming "Philanthropic Ogre," capable of pursuing one goal of modernization, while being all along something quite different. The liberal ideal of the corporate state, for example. Or as Paz argues "The state is Capital, Work and Party --A secular Trinity." In which "Ideology today occupies the place that once belonged to theology and religion."

"Naturally the most substantial reality is the multiple power of the United States: a power that is economic, social, technical, scientific and military, all at one and the same time. The might of the United States becomes a fascination--that is, it inspires a contradictory feeling of attraction and repulsion."

p. 385.


Jamaica Kincaid, Post Colonial Imperialism


Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism


Keen and Haynes, A History of Latin America, 7th Edition.

"In the postwar era, four factors determined the United States-Latin American relations:


OAS: Organization of American States

Pan American Union

Cuban Missile Crisis

"Quiet Imperialism" of the Good Neighbor policy

"By the end of the war (WW II): Argentina accounted for 16 percent of US investment in Latin America, Chile 16 percent, Brazil 13 percent, and Peru 4 percent. For the first time, South America accounted for over half of the total US investment in Latin America."


Return of Gunboat Diplomacy, 1981-

"the US decision to intervene militarily or to refrain from interventions revealed traditional US open-door objectives, perhaps most concisely articulated by John Hay in 1898, 'a fair field no favor'."

Grenada Invasion 10-25-1983


Haiti, occupied 1915-1934, dependence on "coffee exports was reinforced"

Papa Doc Duvalier placed in control by US in 1957


Panamanian Invasion, December 1989, narcotraficante, but violated the United Nation's charter

despite Noriega's thirty year affiliation with the CIA.

24 US soldiers died, and from 516 to three or four thousand Panamanians.

90% of Panamanian population of 2,200,000 is mulatto, mestizos or black.

"Once again, the US policy had rescued propertied elites and preserved open markets for trade and investment."


Latin American impact of the "neo liberalism of the Open Door and Gunboat Diplomacy:

US policies, "helped increase the number of people in poverty by 39 percent in the course of the 1980s. By the late 1990...poverty had risen from 31.5% to of the people in 1989 to 38%...accompanied by [only] modest economic growth."



maquiladoras (are US owned companies operating south of the Mexican border without the same labor, health and environmental regulations of manufacturers in the US) employed workers along the US/Mexican border but caused wages to fall in Mexico while poverty rates increased from 34% to 60% from 1984-1994.

In the initial five years of the Clinton administration, it was estimated 210,000 jobs in the US were lost to Mexico as a consequence of NAFTA. The argument against was that there were no jobs created in the US or Canada.


Eduardo Galeano referred to the impact of NAFTA & GATT on Mexico as having created "a kingdom of impunity" for environmental polluters, making Latin America and the Caribbean, the "garbage dump of the north."



protection of Occidental Petroleum's pipeline and continued militarization of US aid efforts against Colombian guerillas.


"Latin America appeared to be in revolt...But one thing was indisputable: they challenged a US foreign policy that had historically prized property rights and free markets over human rights and democratic freedoms."


The Comedians

Graham Greene, UK novelist, (1904-1991 )

characters | poverty | criticism of modernity

"Insurgents are not always Communists until you make them so."

p. 272

Memorials erected in London compared to Mr. Jones's memorial in the Dominican Republic

"point of no return" is a motif to apply to all works of art about the Caribbean

"Medea" as cargo ship of the Royal Netherlands Steamship line

Concern for Communist insurgents expressed by Secret Police Captain, pp. 146-147

Characters as caricatures of Caribbean personalities:

Mr. Smith, a vegetarian, Wisconsin progressive who is an American politician who ran on the reform ticket for President, William Abel Smith. He represents the zeal underneath the antipoverty sentiments fueling the new imperialism of freeing people from the tyranny of colonial social, economic, and political conventions.

Mr. Jones, A major, of the British army who had seen combat allegedly in Burma, during World War II, he represents the foot soldier in the old colonial order. He is committed to liberation, but we don't ever know that, until he dies at the end helping insurrectionists flee Haiti. He is partially East Indian and a British subject.

Mrs. Smith, an American woman from Wisconsin the narrator describes her as "I think she disliked mysteries; she wanted all ingredients of the human comedy marked as precisely as one of Mr. Baxter's drugs...." (p. 36.) "She might have been a mother comforting her child among strangers."

Dr. Magiot, a Haitian physician and opponent of the Duvalier regime. Represents the intellectuals, or "intelligentsia" drawn, or forced to admire Marxism and Pan-Africanism, he is killed by the "Tontons Macoute" who "are full of men more evil than Concasseur." He represents the Creole intelligentsia, the educated classes of West Indian professionals who seek to make a difference.

Msr. Concasseur, the chief of the Haitian Military Police, reviled as the "Tontons Macoute", antagonist. He represents the mechanisms, or "machinery (see Paz), of repression." The interrogator "he missed nothing through those dark glasses."

Mr. Henri Philipot, the insurrectionist, poet and romantic, son of Dr. Philipot, he may well be the Haitian hero of the story.

Dr. Philipot previous Secretary for Social Welfare, tracked down by the Tontons Macoute, and who committed suicide in Mr. Brown's mother's hotel, the Trianon. So, when Brown arrives back in Haiti, he finds the dead body beside his hotel pool.

Martha Pineda, wife of a diplomat, Luis Pineda, who has been carrying on an affair with Mr. Brown for years. The Pineda's give diplomatic asylum to Mr. Jones.

Angel, the son of a Latin-American diplomat Luis Pineda and Martha, a French woman, of whom the narrator, Mr. Brown says, "her son, the unbearable child who helped to keep us apart. He was too fat for his age... he made claims -- claims all the time on his mother's exclusive attention. He seemed to draw the tenderness out of our relationship, as he drew a liquid center from a sweet."

Joseph, servant of Mr. Brown, his last employee, bartender and assistant manager,"for Joseph was a good Catholic as well as a good Voodooist." p. 53

Mr. Brown, the narrator, "a cuckolder of a South American diplomat," owner of a Hotel in Port-au-Prince

"When I was a boy, the fathers of the Visitation had told me that one test of a belief was this: that a man was ready to die for it."

"We were the only boat, and yet the shed was full: porters, taxi-drivers who hadn't had a fare in weeks, police... and beggars, beggars everywhere. They seeped through every chink like water in the rainy season. A man without legs sat under the customs counter like a rabbit in a hutch, miming in silence."

p. 43

"... but the corpse in the pool seemed to turn our preoccupations into a comedy."

"Far up the mountains beyond Kenscoff a drum beat, marking the spot of a voodoo tonelle. It was not often one heard the drums now under Papa Doc's rule....a mad doctor had ... come to power and filled out nights with discords of violence instead of jazz."

(pp. 58-60)

Brown and Henri Philipot exchange opinions:

"If only we had white mercenaries..."

We Haitians haven't fought for forty years except with knives and broken bottles....We have mountains as high as those in Cuba

'But not forests, I said 'to hide in. Your peasants have destroyed those.'

'we held out for a long time against the American Marines, all the same,' he said bitterly."

"Dr. Magiot's letter, reveals to Mr. Brown that the physician had been his mother's lover.

"I only ask you to remember....Do you remember...?

Yet I have grown to dislike the word Marxist. It is used so often to describe only a particular economic plan -- in certain cases and in certain times, here in Haiti, in Cuba, in Vietnam, in India. But Communism, my friend, is more than Marxism, just as Catholicism --remember I was born a Catholic too-- is more than the Roman Curia [central executives -- inner circle]. There is a mystique as well as a politique. We are humanists, you and I. You won't admit it, perhaps, but you are the son of your mother and you once took the dangerous journey which we all have to take before the end. Catholics and Communists have created great crime, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society and been indifferent"

In the wild world in which we live in not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same face under another (different) mask?"

p. 286.

Greene's critique of modernity is:

"I had felt myself not merely incapable of love -- many are...but even of guilt."


"How strangely one must appear to other people."


The United States and Mexico

Two siblings of one parentage divided by history, and mutual suspicion born of greed, war and ignorance.

Mexico United States
older: Renaissance & Reformation Post Reformation and no Renaissance
Christian: Catholic & Indigenous Christian: Protestant millenarianism
Spanish, African & Indian British, German, & African.
liberation theology, 20th century the social gospel movement 1880s-1920s
first modern revolution in 1910 pre-modern republic, 18th century revolution in 1776
democratic ideal of oligarchic state liberal ideal of the corporate state


Mexico, 1978.

"Liberals used to think that the 'civil society' would flourish thanks to the development of free enterprise, and the function of the state would correspondingly be reduced until it was merely supervising humanity's spontaneous evolution. Marxists more optimistically thought the century that saw the rise of socialism would also see a withering away of the state."

Octavio Paz, The Philanthropic Ogre, Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 379.


Are there lasting lessons?

There is a deep sadness in US and Latin American relations, not merely for what we have done there to others, and not only for what we have done to our own country in undermining other sovereign nations, but in our continuing ignorance of and thoughtless domination of our neighboring peoples.

We have lost dignity and apparently ceased to even care about the integrity of our democratic values and the constitutional safeguards once professed by Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson that had been an inspiration to reformers around the world.

Our Good Neighbor policy of Franklin Roosevelt was shredded by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon to leave behind a legacy of intimidation, subversion, and dependence. The irony of our new foreign policy in the unstable Latin American nations we invested in or subverted was to draw their excess populations to the United States in record numbers.

Currently the people's of Latin descent are the fastest growing population of any ethnic identity in the United States, assuring a large Spanish speaking plurality in the coming decades.

There is more here than a loss of self respect, or passing up an opportunity to correct our mistakes, more than an emptiness of rhetoric, for we have squandered our neighbor's hospitality and belittled their heritage all the while stealing their wealth and blaming them for our shortcomings.

There is much we can learn from:

There is in Latin America and the Caribbean treasure trove of civilization in which we may invest, but that will take time and modesty. The question that remains is this: do we have the modesty and the time to save out neighbor's home and estate?

March 12, 2008.

Du Bois | Kincaid | Paz | Mintz | Diaz | Wade Davis | Keen