Commentary: Latin America's unhealthy obsession with the past

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

This year's 200th anniversary of the independence of several Latin American countries has unleashed a wave of necrophilia: Several nations are literally unearthing the corpses of their independence heroes amid a growing fixation with the past.

Is the region's obsession with history — visible in everything from best-selling books to daily discussions on popular TV talk shows — a healthy way to promote national pride? Or is it a cultural disease that is often distracting countries from the urgent task of focusing on the future, becoming more competitive and reducing poverty?

Those will be among the pressing regional questions debated Tuesday and Wednesday during The Miami Herald/World Bank's Americas Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Recent news reports have provided lots of fodder to trigger the discussion.

In recent weeks, several Latin American heads of state have presided over lavish ceremonies of exhumation of their countries' independence heroes. The nationally televised procedures were aimed at conducting new probes into the national heroes' deaths or to move their remains into newer, more lavish mausoleums.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez paralyzed the country recently to unearth the remains of liberator Simon Bolivar after which he announced -- visibly moved -- that he had seen a boot and the "perfect denture" of the national hero inside the tomb.

Chavez ordered the exhumation to investigate the causes of Bolivar's death, which he has said occurred "under mysterious circumstances" and may have been caused by "the oligarchy." Bolivar died on Dec. 17, 1830, in the Colombian city of Santa Marta, and virtually all historians agree that he died of tuberculosis.

Not satisfied with the exhumation of Bolivar's remains, the Venezuelan government announced Aug. 29 that -- as part of the same investigation -- forensic experts would unearth the remains of two sisters of Bolivar. Vice President Elias Jaua said forensic experts would extract one tooth from each of the women's remains, to examine their DNA and make sure that all of the Bolivar family remains are authentic.

Many in Venezuela poked fun at Chavez's obsession with Bolivar's remains. A joke making the rounds in opposition circles after the televised spectacle said that "rather than showing Venezuelans the remains of Bolivar, Chavez showed Bolivar the remains of Venezuela."

Chavez has gone farther than most of his fellow leaders in focusing on the past: he routinely addresses the nation in front of a huge image of Bolivar, has called on Venezuelan children to replace toys of Superman and Batman with those of Venezuela's independence hero, and has even changed the name of his country to "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela."

But Chavez is far from alone in his fixation with the past. Consider:

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon led a 1,600-troop military convoy along Mexico City's Reforma Avenue in May to transfer the remains of independence heroes Miguel Hidalgo, Jose Maria Morelos and 10 others from the tomb where they had been resting since 1925 to a scientific laboratory at the National Museum of History.

A group of scientists will examine the remains of the independence heroes and make sure they are well preserved, before they are moved to the National Palace "so that all Mexicans can offer them proper homage to them in this anniversary of the fatherland," Calderon said. The public showing of the remains is scheduled for later this year.

In Central America, several presidents are squabbling over the remains of regional independence hero Francisco Morazan, which are resting in El Salvador. Last year, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya asked his Salvadoran counterpart to deliver Morazan's remains to Honduras, for their burial in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

El Salvador rejected the idea, while there were reports that Costa Rica could also demand Morazan's remains amid a growing controversy in the region over where they should rest. Trouble is, General Morazan was born in 1792 in Honduras, was executed in 1842 in Costa Rica, and, in accordance with his will, was buried in El Salvador, historians say.

Salvadoran press reports say there were serious discussions among the various Central American countries to temporarily lend Morazan's remains to one another for a few months at a time. The proposal, which some characterized as necrophilic tourism, drew strong objections from Salvadoran intellectuals.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa had earlier spent much of his time on a national campaign to transfer the remains of independence hero Jose Eloy Alfaro from Guayaquil to a new mausoleum he ordered to be built in the city of Montecristi. But Alfaro's descendants objected to the move, unleashing a national debate over where Alfaro should be buried. Finally, a Solomonic decision was reached: part of Alfaro's ashes would remain in Guayaquil, and the other part would be moved to Montecristi. "This will end the confrontations," the government announced triumphantly.

In Argentina, former President Nestor Kirchner had earlier ordered to move the remains of former President Juan Domingo Peron, who died in 1974, to a new mausoleum 30 miles outside Buenos Aires.

The casket with Peron's remains was taken to its new resting peace by an official caravan, and the ceremony turned into chaos as opposing fractions of Peronist supporters engaged in fistfights. As soon as the headlines about the fight faded from the front pages, a new controversy erupted over whether the remains of Peron's wife -- Evita -- shouldn't be moved as well to the new mausoleum to rest with him.

The Uruguayan government sent a bill to Congress last year to move the remains of independence hero Jose Artigas to a new mausoleum, arguing that the existing one was built in 1977 by a military dictatorship. There were massive protests in support and against the project, which still remains in discussion.

While one can make a valid claim that Latin American countries are young republics that need to solidify their national character, and that celebrating their history is a good way of doing that, it is also true that using the writings of 19th century independence fighters as guidelines for 21st century government policies can often be absurd.

We are living in a different world. Bolivar, probably a great man in his time, died in 1830. That was 40 years before the invention of the telephone, and 150 years before the start of the Internet. Argentina's Peron died in 1974, a decade before the start of the Internet. Many of the region's historical figures' inward-looking credos made sense during their time, but can lead Latin America to a dangerous economic isolationism at a time when China, India and many other major developing powers are inserting themselves at full speed in the global economy, and reducing poverty at record speeds.

Without forgetting their past, Latin American countries should look more to the future. Instead of spending so much time on their fallen independence heroes, countries should spend more time debating why only 1.9 percent of all the world's investments in research and development are going to Latin America, or why there is no single Latin American university in the most prestigious ranking of the world's 100 best higher education institutions, or why a small Asian nation such as South Korea produces 80,000 international patents a year, while all Latin American countries combined produce fewer than 1,200.

Latin America should look a little bit less back, and take advantage of its good economic winds to look ahead. It's time for the region to move on, and focus on the quality of its education, science and technology!


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

Related stories from McClatchy DC