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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 18 - Latin America


At sunset Martin Alonzo called out with great joy from his vessel that he saw land, and demanded of the Admiral a reward for his intelligence.  When he heard him declare this, the Admiral fell on his knees and returned thanks to God.  …  Those aboard the Nina ascended the rigging, and all declared they saw land.  …  At two o’clock in the morning, the land was discovered at two league’s distance.  The Admiral landed in a boat bearing the royal standard.  On shore they saw trees, very green, many streams of water, and diverse sorts of fruits.  …  The people are of a good size and stature, and handsomely found.  Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them.  They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them.  I saw no beasts on the island, nor any sort of animals save parrots.  …

I came to the Cape where we anchored today.  This is a beautiful place.  My eyes never tire of viewing such delightful verdure, and species so new and dissimilar to that of our country, which could be of great value as dyeing materials, medicine and spicery.  We experienced the most sweet and delightful odour from the flowers and trees.  …  

Every day I have been in these Indies, it has rained more or less.  The land is verdant, temperate, beautiful and fertile.  The fish are shaped like dories, blue, yellow, red, and every other colour.  Here also are whales.  Beasts we saw none, nor any creatures on land save parrots and lizards; but a boy told me he saw a large snake.  No sheep or goats were seen.

From the journal of Christopher Columbus, 1492

The immense empire of Brazil is divided into 20 provinces.  Its situation is highly favourable on account of the two mighty waterways, the Amazona and La Plata.  These link the sea trade with the vast interior of the continent.  First descriptions of the interior were by gold-greedy adventurers who sought out Dorado, - the fabulous land of gold and diamonds.  Several large mines are still worked by English companies, but agriculture is now considered to be a sounder basis of progress for the country.  The southern provinces are particularly well adapted for cattle breeding.

Sugar cane is vital to the region, introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  Pao Brazil dyewood is exported.  This is the product that gives the region its name.  Tobacco is another indigenous plant, held in high esteem by the Indian tribes.  The Pajeo or native priests besmoke their patients with big cigars – more than 2 feet long.  There is an excellent equivalent of Chinese tea called Herva Mate or conguoha, that grows well everywhere in the southern province.  Infusions are imbibed through a delicate little tube or bombilha.  This is the indispensable national beverage of the south, while the north has cacao or guarana instead.

Selected from :  Amazonia and Madiera Rivers, 

Notebook of an Explorer    Franz Keller   1835 - 1890

“You will find here the peaceful and generous native people who inhabited this land when the first Europeans arrived.  Most of them were annihilated by exploitation and the enslaved work they could not resist.    It has been estimated that the conquest and colonization of this hemisphere resulted in the death of 70 million natives, and the enslavement of 12 million Africans.  Much blood was shed, and many injustices perpetrated; a large part of which still remain after centuries of struggle and sacrifices under new forms of domination and exploitation.

I am mindful of your endeavours to have more justice in the world every time I hear my homeland slandered by those who worship no other god but gold.  Slanders in history have been used to justify the worst crimes against people, including the recent slaughters of 6 million Jews and 4 million Vietnamese.” [I assumed in the 4 million Castro included civilians killed by the bombing of Laos and the Cambodian border area. However, some of my Vietnamese colleagues were later to inform me that 4 million is in fact, the unofficial local estimate of casualties during the American war.  It was not possible during that conflict to count all civilian deaths.]

Dr Fidel Castro, in a speech to Pope John Paul II, January 1998

“Common features of the primate city landscape in South America, are the sections comprised of shanties, shacks, and makeshift huts inhabited by those who have no other shelter. Known as barriadas in Peru, ranchos in Venezuela, villas miserias in Argentina, or favelas in Brazil, these squatter settlements have been estimated to house as much as one-third of the urban population.”  (Butterworth and Chance, 1981).   Mexico City has some 4 million squatters, Calcutta has 2 million, and Rio de Janeiro has over 1 million. 

“In Rio -- this was in 1948 -- there were said to be three hundred thousand people living in favelas (urban hillside slums). Today there are nearer a million. You come on favelas in the most unexpected places. In Copacabana a few minutes walk from the hotels and the splendid white apartment houses and the wellkept magnificent beaches you find a whole hillside of favelas overlooking the lake and the Jockey Club. In the center of Rio a few steps from the Avenida Rio Branco on the hill back of one of the most fashionable churches you come suddenly into a tropical jungletown.”  (Dos Passos, 1963)

“They (street children) seem to be everywhere: begging in front of restaurants, peddling cigarettes in sidewalk cafes, shining shoes outside the train station, washing clothes in public fountains. Take a morning stroll on the elegant, black-and-white mosaic sidewalk that curves along Rio's Copacabana Beach and you'll smell them; dozens sleep under the palms there, and the beach serves as a toilet.”  (Brookes, 1991)

“. . the upper classes, and the political right-wing, in Brazil, view street children as a blemish on the urban landscape and a reminder that all is not well in the country. Unwanted and considered human waste, these ubiquitous tattered, mainly black children and adolescents evoke strong and contradictory emotions of fear, aversion, pity and anger in those who view their neighborhood streets, boulevards and squares as 'private places" under siege.”  (Scheper-Hughes and Hoffman, 1994) 

The huge continent of South America, the islands of the Caribbean, and the region of Central America, were all viewed as legitimate prey by the great maritime powers of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Spain was successful in colonizing most of the region, which it did in remarkably short time in the wake of its explorers and adventurers such as Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Hernando Cortez, who with a few hundred soldiers, conquered and plundered the great Aztec empire.  The Portuguese followed, and also to a lesser degree, did the Dutch, French and English.  Today it is United States ecomomic and military power that dictates what freedom and prosperity the peoples do or do not enjoy.

Scotland once attempted to invest in and develop a region of central America that could have become a trading centre similar to Singapore or Hong Kong, but with Scottish rather than English merchants controlling the business.   This was at the end of the 17th century when Scotland and England shared a common King, but remained separate kingdoms. The venture was known as the “Darien Scheme”, and it is sometimes dismissed as a sort of “South Sea Bubble”.  But it was nothing of the sort, and if allowed to proceed, could have developed into a profitable enterprise with long term political and economic benefits.  Its chief founder, a man of remarkable vision and imagination, who had founded the Bank of England, was William Paterson of Dumfries.  He envisaged a trading station on the Isthmus of Panama, that would be a conduit for growing trade between Europe and the Far East.  Darien, he declared, would be “the door of the seas; the key of the universe”; and affirmed the principle that “trade will increase trade; money will beget money”.  As others have noted, it was a Panama Canal project, 200 years ahead of its time.

Below: the Darien National Park today


Ships leaving Leith, Scotland, for Darien (fanciful 19th century sketch)

The venture was scuppered by London merchants, chiefly those of the East India Company, with the support of the crown.  They were terrified that their near monopoly of colonial trade with the east would be threatened, so they pulled every string possible to deny official recognition and support.   They blocked attempts to raise capital in London, and also on the Continent where Sir Paul Rycant, resident in Hamburg, spied on the efforts of the Darien directors and obstructed subscriptions to the project.  The whole sorry saga is well documented in a number of books, each with their own bias, depending on the authors’ English or Scottish viewpoint.  Spain’s hostility (encouraged by England’s ambassador to Spain) was another major factor, as it also wished to protect its near monopoly on trade with central and southern America.  The one friendly, supportive group the Scots had was the Indian leaders of the Darien peninsula tribes.  They included ‘captains’ Pedro, Diego, Andreas and Ambrosio.


the Darien peninsula area

Attacks by Spanish ships on the fledgling Darien settlement were largely (but not wholly) successful, due to a prohibition on assistance from England’s plantations in north America, facilitated by England’s Secretary of State, James Vernon, a man of considerable resolution and cunning.   The climate and remoteness of the Darien peninsula also added to the difficulties faced by the settlement, though that influence has probably been overstated as similar climate and conditions prevailed in parts of India, West Africa, and the Malay peninsula where English trade flourished.

The forces arrayed against the venture resulted in the destruction of the station and the death of many of the pioneers.  England had written the script and Spain completed the dirty work with King William’s blessing.  The cream of Scots merchants and civic leaders were involved in the Darien project.  Many knowledgeable Scots who were aware of the betrayal and interference, wondered why they maintained an allegiance to a Dutch King sitting on the English throne, lacking both understanding of and sympathy with, Scotland’s aspirations.  In addition to a wave of national fervour, the Scots had poured into the scheme, all the money the small country could spare.  Among the pioneers who perished there were two men from my locality, Alexander Kinnaird, Laird of Culbin, an early Jacobite and his son William.   Many hundreds of similar brave and enterprising Scots died with them.  Scotland was bankrupted and shown in a most brutal way that it dare not assert an economic independence.  Forty-five years later, in even more brutal fashion, it was made clear to Scotland that it could not assert political independence either.  Seven years after the end of Darien, the Act of Union with England was signed, a scenario that King William and his advisers probably had in mind all along.


 William Paterson, Darien visionary, and founder of the Bank of England

Professor Paul Scott, in his book The Union of 1707 : Why and How, says that the Darien affair gave the English government an added reason to seek to abolish the Scottish  Parliament which had shown it could take initiatives damaging to English trade.  England also wanted to secure its northern border during the prolonged wars with France.  By offering, or appearing to offer the Darien shareholders some compensation, Scottish support for the Union could be bought.  On the Scots side, English hostility to Scottish economic development, increased distrust of their powerful southern neighbour.

Scottish involvement in the Americas thereafter became insignificant, except for the contribution of individuals within Canada and the United States.  So Scots adventure in South America is now pictured quaintly in Daniel Defoe’s account of the experiences of Robinson Crusoe.   The book is based on the factual experience of a Scottish seaman from Lower Largo in Fife, Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 1721), who was voluntarily marooned on one of the islands of Juan Fernandez 400 miles off the southern coast of what is now Chile. [There are actually three islands in the Juan Fernandez archipelago; - Masatierra or ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as it is now known, the only one of the three that is inhabited; - tiny Santa Clara island; - and Masafuera or isla ‘Alejandro Selkirk’ which is where its namesake was a castaway.  It is slightly larger than Masatierra, with an area of 50 km2 (i.e. about 6 miles by 3 miles), and has the highest point of the the 3 isles, Los Inocentes, which rises to 1,319 metres.  Ships from Chile sailing to Easter Island, often call at the archipelago en route.] Just four years after the end of the Darien venture, on his own initiative, Selkirk wisely left the unseaworthy privateer ship Cinque Ports in 1704 (which sank later).  The ship was under the command of Captain William Dampier, a noted mapmaker and greedy privateer, who was an incompetent and irresponsible seaman. [Dampier was later to be charged by his crew with “cowardice, brutality and drunkenness”, and lost his office as a result.  He died a pauper, in 1715.]

Selkirk’s experiences on the island, though harsh, were not too different from the somewhat glamourised account by Defoe.  He was rescued in 1709 by another British privateer, the Duke, having eluded capture by two Spanish ships that called at the island.   He acquired a ship of his own and eventually made it back home, married, and later became a lieutenant in the navy, dying at sea of fever in 1721.  I read Defoe’s book with interest as a boy, and later when serving 3 years in the Zambesi valley, I found Cowper’s poem ‘On the Solitude of Alexander Selkirk’, to be a remarkably accurate and poignant expression of isolation which can also be experienced when one is in a distant land and among people of a totally alien culture to one’s own. 


Statue of Alexander Selkirk (Robinson Crusoe) at his birthplace in Largo, Fife, Scotland

Interestingly, Brian Keenan, in the account of his years as a hostage prisoner of Islamic militants in Beirut, refers to a degree of comfort he drew from Defoe’s book. While identifying with the castaway’s situation, he tried to retell the whole story in his mind from the perspective of Man Friday who would have regarded elements of the white man’s ideas and behaviour as part lunatic, part comical.


Juan Fernandez Islands where Selkirk spent 5 years

Once when we were operating on the west coast for prawns and fish, my father was approached about the possibility of taking his vessel to Venezuela or Guyana to engage in shrimp trawling for a U.S. company.  The enormous shrimp industry was in its infancy at that time.  A businessman who had flown across the Atlantic, had asked my father to stay ashore and discuss the possibility for a day, so we fished under the command of the mate that trip.  During the day, as deckhands, we joked about what it would be like to work in warm seas and off palm-fringed beaches.  As things transpired, nothing came of the idea though my father was not opposed to it in principle.   The American, Morgan by name, chatted to us in the cabin that evening, then made his way to Prestwick airport for the flight home.   I recall that just before we nodded off to sleep that night in our bunks, the drone of an aircraft was heard passing high overhead.  As it died away, the engineer, with a touch of dry humour and a hint of skepticism, murmured, “good-bye, Morgan”.   As far as I recall, apart from one brief letter, we did not hear from him again.

The first true Latin American I came to know closely was one of the finest examples of those colourful persons.  Milton Lopez, the Chief Fisheries Officer of Costa Rica, was a student of mine in an international class I taught for a year in 1972 – 73.  He was mature, frank, thoughtful, and perceptive.  We had many interesting discussions on the fisheries of that beautiful central American state which has both Caribbean and Pacific coasts.  Milton also educated me on the politics and culture of the Latin American countries and societies.  After his return to Costa Rica, Lopez was seriously injured in a car crash, and spent a long time on crutches, but eventually made a full recovery.

A second fine friend from the region was Hector Lupin of Argentina, who served in the Fish Technology Division of FAO’s Fishery Department in Rome, Italy.  Our families became quite close, and we were kindly gifted with a sliver ‘maté’ tea container which we still treasure.   Maté is a kind of tea made with herbs, that is drunk by gauchos and shepherds all over the southern grasslands of Argentina and Chile.  The tea is shared communally, and is drunk through a filter via a pipe of silver or lesser material.  Hector was a kind and gentle person, and during the Falklands war he came to me quite concerned, and asked for reassurance that the conflict would not become an issue between us.  I was only too glad to provide that assurance, to which he responded, “yes David, just imagine, - General Galtieri and Mrs Thatcher, - why should we get upset over those two awful characters” !

A third friend and colleague from Latin America was from Chile.  Ramon Buzeta had been a supporter of Salvador Allende when a young scientist working for his country’s fishery research organization.  He told me of the brutal treatment and torture he had to endure at the hands of Pinochet’s ruthless police and soldiers, following the military coup that was supported by the CIA and the US Government.  Fortunately Ramon survived and was accepted as a political asylum seeker by Norway.  From there he got work with the United Nations Agencies, and eventually with the South China Sea Programme where we were colleagues for 2 years. The evil side of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet has been well documented, and the revelations of dreadfully brutal torture by that regime continue to shock the world. But that never discouraged politicians like Reagan and Thatcher from treating him like a hero and affording his regime every protection.  One only has to look at the way the World Bank shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into Pinochet’s Chile after it had given Allende the cold shoulder, to see how our much-vaunted democratic institutions serve the rich and powerful at the expense of justice for the poor. 


General Augusto Pinochet of Chile

Let me relate a small tale about Pinochet as an aside to these memories.  The Chilean Ambassador in the Philippines served his President faithfully, and would call Ramon Buzeta from time to time, to ‘talk’.  Buzeta’s dissident past was never mentioned, but was alluded to as the Ambassador let him know that they were keeping their eye on him, and any chance of him being allowed to return to his homeland would depend on how the regime regarded him.  This message was conveyed politely and diplomatically, but with the sinister smile of a bully.  (As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, - ‘that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ !)   Well, to the ambassador’s delight, one of the first formal foreign trips that was organized for Pinochet, was an official visit to the Philippines.  Plans were completed, and the Ambassador was to glow in the reflected light of his President as he began to be recognized and accepted on the world’s stage.

Things went oddly and unexpectedly wrong at the last minute, as sometimes happened in the Philippines.  While Pinochet was aboard his plane flying across the Pacific, word was received from the Philippine Foreign Ministry that the visit was off.  It was cancelled at the last moment.  No satisfactory explanation was provided, - at least not in public.  So the unlucky Ambassador had to call his President and tell him to turn his plane round and head back to Chile with the whole delegation.  The General was furious.  The ambassador was recalled immediately to report in person to Pinochet for the events that caused him such public embarrassment.  Before flying back, the ambassador and his wife pleaded tearfully to Ramon and Jenny for sympathy and understanding.  They tried to say that they had never been part of the brutal side of the regime, and had always acted in good conscience and considerately of others.   Well, as history has told us repeatedly, these brutal regimes eventually consume their own children.  Those who served ogres like Stalin, and Pol Pot, and other despots, got no consideration or mercy from them in the end.  What became of the unfortunate ambassador and his family I do not know, but I daresay his career ended prematurely.

Ramon’s experiences shed light on the behaviour of right wing military regimes in South and Central America, and on United States complicity in horrific treatment of dissidents and of peasant communities whose only crime was to seek economic justice and a future for them and their children.  A powerful trinity once controlled many of the region’s countries.  It was composed of the military, of big business (and often of drug dealers), and right wing politicians.  It has always been a mystery to me how America has consistently viewed such regimes with favour, while Castro’s Cuba has been vilified for half a century. 

I listened with care to the speeches made by Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul 2, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to the island state in January 1998.  Castro gave an eloquent description of the suffering of his people at the hands of a dictatorial regime, and of the failure of the Catholic Church to stand up against the injustice.  The great pope, true to his conservative instincts, was unmoved, and made no concessions to Fidel’s case for a socialist government to right those wrongs.   John Paul 2, who truly had a genuine concern for the poor, had no time for the liberation theology developed by priests like Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay, who sought to present Christ as the political liberator of oppressed peoples. 


Fidel Castro

A dear New Zealand colleague of mine who went on to work for the ADB and the World Bank, told me that when serving in Panama as a young volunteer, he lived with a group of Roman Catholic priests, since suitable accommodation was limited in the particular area.  Most of the priests were of ‘liberal theology’ persuasion.  They had deep personal concern for the poverty and injustice suffered by the local people.  Some even took up arms occasionally to assist small militias who tried to defend their communities from the army and from the land grabbers.  So, despite opposition from the Vatican, liberation theology is still being practiced by elements of the Catholic Church.

At the risk of trying my readers’ patience, I will mention one more Latin American friend and colleague.  This one was from Colombia.   Teresa Salazar was an enthusiastic and imaginative development economist with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation located in Vienna.  We worked together on a number of integrated development programmes and projects for fishery, agricultural and industrial sectors in Africa and the Pacific.  I mention Teresa mainly to raise the problem of the narcotic trade in the Americas.  Her brother was Minister of Justice in Colombia for a period, and received so many death threats from the drug barons, that he sought to prosecute, he had to send his family abroad for their protection.   Teresa described to me what it meant for any official in her country to take a stand against the perpetrators of that evil industry.

When one studies the drug problem deeply, it is disturbing to learn how callously major governments can collude with the narcotics trade mafia, and can even get involved in the production and sale of drugs to raise money illicitly and/or avoid problems of budgetary controls.  The Central Intelligence Agency has long been suspected of ‘being in bed’ with drug dealers, as has parts of the FBI at times.   Drug smuggling routes have been utilized by the CIA to ship money and arms when legitimate routes were not possible or could have been open to detection.  The most glaring example was that of Colonel Oliver North [It would appear that Colonel North was somehow involved in the capture of Terry Waite who was held hostage by extremist elements in Lebanon for 5 years.  Waite has hinted at this betrayal, but the only public indication was at a brief meeting after his release, when Waite declared to North, “I wanted to say this to you in person, - I forgive you”.   No explanation, was given, but the guilty look on North’s face said it all.   The US hostage, David Jacobsen, who gave Colonel North thanks and credit for his own release, nevertheless had serious doubts about North’s activities and their part in Terry Waite’s abduction and imprisonment.  These are expressed in his book, My Life as a Hostage.] who sold weapons to Iran to get funds for ‘contras’ fighting the democratically elected government of Nicaragua.  Though Congress had expressly forbidden aid to contras, (and sale of weapons to Iran), this activity was undertaken with the encouragement of William Casey, then Head of the CIA, and (unless we are totally naïve), with President Reagan fully aware but clinging to ‘deniability’ as willful ignorance is sometimes termed.

The CIA and the contras also collaborated with mafia elements and drug traders to increase their power and income.  Similarly the IRA in Northern Ireland, financed much of its murderous work with drug money, as to a lesser extent did some of the loyalist paramilitaries.  My Thai friends who lived through the period of the Vietnam war, including some who worked in intelligence gathering, tell me that the U.S. military was deeply involved with the war lords of the “golden triangle”, both for strategic advantages, and to tap sources of finance that did not have to be reported, and could not be traced.

To be fair, not only western security services and military have used the drug trade for their own purposes.  Bulgaria was for some time involved in the international narcotic trade.  President Todor Zhivkov’s state security organization, the KDS, was a leading player in the black market for the deadly white powder.  They used two front organizations through which the trade was conducted, first Kintex, then later Globus.  President Zhikov was challenged directly about the illegal business by that strange post-war figure from the world of press, trade and politics in East Europe, Britain and Israel, - Robert Maxwell.

The removal of President Manuel Noriega of Panama by the USA through a mini invasion had other elements to it than his involvement in drugs.  Apparently he had always been part of that business, yet was on the CIA payroll and was entertained in Washington by the then CIA Head, George Bush senior.  Noriega fell out of favour for other reasons.  A US Government web site states that he ‘was going to become a dictator’ !  Well, that was rarely a problem to the US in Latin America, Africa or Asia.  The real reasons for Noriega’s removal have been kept quiet.  But he was replaced by a more pliant government leader on 20th December 1989 who permitted continued US influence over the territory.  David Harris, in his 2001 book Shooting the Moon, declared that Noriega was the only one of all the rulers, dictators, warlords and juntas around the world, that the USA in 225 years went after with an unprovoked invasion.  The President was taken to America for trial and imprisonment for violations of U.S. law committed on his own native turf.

Had that military operation been directed against a country where the government had committed mass murder, torture, or serious human rights crimes, like Pinochet’s Chile, Sroessner’s Paraguay, Somosa’s Nicaragua, Papa Doc’s Haiti, or D’Aubuisson’s El Salvador, the world might have understood, but Panama was guilty of none of that.  It simply dared to defy the demands of a handful of corporate executives, and powerful politicians.  Panama had insisted that the Canal Treaty be honoured.  It had also explored the possibility of building a new canal with Japanese finance and engineering expertise.  Yet for these efforts of national sovereign policy it was to be invaded and taken over. 

From a U.S. perspective the invasion of Panama, and CIA interference in South American states, is based on the Monroe Doctrine declared by President James Monroe in 1823.  This defined America’s “Manifest Destiny” which asserted that the United States had special rights over all the hemisphere.  It has been used as justification of the displacement of the Red Indian peoples and the theft of their tribal lands, as well as the invasion of several of the USA’s southern neighbour countries.  Admittedly, Noriega was guilty of many things, as was Saddam Hussein in more recent times, but neither was a threat to America.  Noriega’s predecessor, General Omar Torrijos Herrera, who was a committed pro-poor reforming President, was killed in a plane crash in 1981.  The novelist Graham Greene claims that a bomb had been planted in the plane.

It was Milton Lopez who first drew my attention to an underlying identity problem that explains some aspects of the behaviour of his people who are mostly of mixed descent.  There is something in the psyche of Latin Americans, opined Lopez, that makes them want to be like their conquistador father, and that despises their Indian mother.  A colleague of his, attending the same college course, Luis Cuciero from Urugauy, put the racial tensions more bluntly, for the societies of the east coast of South America.  He described a kind of  social caste system based on colour, he said; with people of whitest skin being most highly regarded, and conversely with black skinned persons.   Neither Milton nor Luis displayed any prejudice whatsoever, I hasten to add, and they mixed well with the students we had from Africa.  The same was true for the one black member of the class from South America, the Director of Fisheries from Trinidad, who was a most cheerful and sociable addition to our interesting group.

I was to make two trips to Mexico, the first in 1966 and the second in 1978.  Later, in 1998, I went to Bolivia for a month, and it is from those two countries only that I have direct personal impressions of that huge continent and its dear people. 

Mexico covers an area of nearly 2 million square kilometers, and has long marine coasts on both the Caribbean (Gulf of Mexico) and the Pacific.  It borders the United States to the north, and both Belize and Guatemala to the south.  It had a Mayan civilization for centuries, from around 550 to 950 AD.  The Mayans built the many large pyramids that remain today in the Yucatan peninsula.  The Aztec empire ruled the region from the 14th century, its most famous king being Montezuma II, 1502 -1520.  The Aztec empire and civilization was ended abruptly by Herman Cortez and his 700 men in 1519 – 1521.


Map of Central America


Maya pyramid, Yucatan, Mexico

The country remained under Spain till it achieved independence in 1810.  At that time much of what is now Texas, was held by Mexico.  This included the Spanish mission of San Antonio de Valero, a Catholic station from 1724 to 1793 when it was secularized.  The Spanish military took it over and called it Alamo (cottonwood) after their home town Alamo de Parras.  From 1800 to 1810 the fort was variously occupied by Spanish, rebel and Mexican soldiers.  Mexico had permitted Americans to settle in Texas and to own land, provided they became Catholic.  But such immigration was stopped in 1830.  In 1835 the Alamo was taken over by a group of Texan volunteers led by Ben Milam.  They were then besieged in February 1836 by General Antonio Lopez with a large force of Santa Anna’s army.  Within a month the 200 defenders were overwhelmed.  Among those who died in the siege were the commander William Travis, and the frontiersmen, Davey Crocket and Jim Bowie.  America was to recover the Alamo and take possession of the area later, finally incorporating Texas into the United States in 1870.


Port of Vera Cruz, Mexico

California was also part of Mexico for a period.  It had been visited and tentatively explored by Spaniards from the 16th century.  During the 18th century a large number of Catholic missions were established.  Following Mexico’s independence from Spain, California (named after a mystical Queen Califia of the Amazons), became a province of Mexico and remained so for 25 years from 1821 to 1846.  A fascinating glimpse of California when a part of Mexico is found in Two Years Before the Mast, the factual record of Richard Henry Dana’s voyage to that coast, in the Boston brig Pilgrim, 1834.  The Pilgrim collected a cargo of dried cow hides from trading stations that later became Monteray, San Pedro, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara.  Dana sailed back to Boston in 1836 on another ship, and wrote his book shortly after.   Control of California passed to the U.S. following the American – Mexican war of 1846 – 1848.  The gold rush of 1848-49 added to the urgency of formalizing U.S. rule, so in 1850 it became the 31st State of the Union. 


Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast

From 1864 Mexico was briefly under French domination, the ‘emperor’ Maximilian [Ferdinand Maximilian, although appointed by the French Emperor Napoleon III, was actually an Austrian Archduke, and brother of the last great Emperor of Austro-Hungary, Francis Joseph, or Franz Josef.  Maximilian was well meaning but naïve, with all the limited vision of European aristocracy.  Tragically his life was ended by firing squad in 1867.] seeking to establish and maintain control of the territory.  This was ended by the great Don Benito Juarez who became President in 1867.   He is known as ‘Mexico’s Lincoln’, and though the two never met, they held each other in high regard.  Of pure Indian stock, Juarez was educated at a Franciscan seminary.  But preferring law to religion, he graduated in that field in 1834, and became a champion of workers’ and Indians’ rights.  He became active politically and helped to overthrow the despotic and incompetent Santa Anna.  He served as Governor of Oaxaca until his organization of resistance to Emperor Maximilian, after whose ouster, he became President of Mexico.  He died in 1872.

Mexico suffered a violent social revolution from 1910 to 1917 when a new constitution was drafted and accepted.   The revolution, led by colourful but tough characters like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, involved much bloodshed.  It is believed to this day that the memory of that revolution remains a restraint on the excesses of the wealthy, the politicians, and the military in Mexico. 


Emperor Maximilian, a tragic imposition on Mexico by France and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and on the right, - Don Benito Juarez, President of Mexico who refused to accept the colonial master from Europe.

My first visit to that fascinating country was to the Gulf ports of Vera Cruz and Alvarado.  I was making a study tour in the summer of 1968, of the shrimp industry in the southern US States and Mexico.  It is probably different now, but I recall stopping over in Houston, Texas to get a visa.  The taxi ride into Houston and back to the airport, cost me more than I had to pay for all my meals and hotel rooms in Mexico !   Vera Cruz was then a rural town that conformed to many of our Hollywood caricatures of the country.  A few miles up the coast lay the beautiful new pilot port of Alvarado, which was most impressive.  But the flight from the capital city to the coast and back, was a hair-raising experience as the old Douglas DC-3 aircraft flew up and down the escarpment in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Mexico had two main fisheries to prosecute.  One was the shrimp trawl fishery in the Gulf, and the other was the oceanic tuna fishery in the Pacific.  The latter was a source of friction between Mexico and the USA for many years.  When the UN Law of the Sea of 1972, authorized each sovereign state to claim fishing rights over an EEZ zone extending 200 miles to sea, Mexico and most other maritime nations did so.  But the USA for long opposed that element of international law and refused to sign up to UNCLOS [The UNCLOS law of the sea establishing 200 mile EEZs, was passed in 1982, and most maritime states signed up to it within a very short time.  The USA was one of the few that held back.  President Clinton signed the agreement in 1994, but the Senate failed to pass it due to opposition by some Republican Senators.] as it was called, largely due to pressure from America’s powerful tuna industry based in San Diego, California.  This resulted in several confrontations at sea between US tuna boats and the Mexican navy.   In the end it was the US tuna industry that lost out.  It was dealt a death blow, not by the Mexican navy, but by school kids in the States who advised their mothers to buy only those cans of tuna that had “dolphin safe” labels.  As the San Diego fleet was a major culprit in the capture and death of dolphins in its purse seine nets, it was the tuna it produced that was effectively boycotted on the market. 

The shrimp industry which was the focus of my first visit, had developed into a major income earner as shrimp became an extremely popular food dish.  Although shrimp boats took considerable quantities of fish, most of it was then dumped over the side.  Al the freezing capacity and refrigerated storage on the trawlers was needed for the more valuable shrimp.  As an American shrimp trawlerman told me “we long ago got out of the fish business and are now in the dollar business”.

All over the world, shrimp trawl fleets pose a problem because of the ‘discards’, the fish dumped overboard, which amount in volume to about 2 to 3 times the weight of shrimp landed.  Dayton Lee Alverson who I met in 1969 when he headed the US BCF / NMFS Pacific Fishery Office in Seattle, later made a study of the global extent of fish discards, together with J.G.Pope of lowestoft, and others, and found it to amount to, on average, 27 million tons of fish each year.  This represents a huge financial and resource loss, and involves a considerable negative impact on the marine environment.  To date, no satisfactory solution has been accepted or implemented to end the practice of discarding, although I and many other fishery specialists have proposed a number of actions. 

The second visit, 11 years later, took me to the plush surrounds of Cancun on the south-east coast, for the Latin American Fisheries Symposium.  I was there at the invitation of the Mexican Government and was given a seat at the conference next to the Minister of Fisheries from China.  There was considerable resistance at the conference to the neo-colonial attitudes of Spain, France, Britain and the USA who felt they had a right to muscle in on the continent’s fish resource, and to dominate in matters of equipment and technology choice.  Opposition was also growing to the fish meal industry which was supported by Norwegian investments [Norwegian interest in fish meal production in South America, has related mainly to the enormous stock of anchovy found off Peru, and which has been the world’s main source of fish meal and fish oil for the past 50 years and more.  One of the Kon Tiki (1947) expedition members, Herman Watzinger, stayed on in Peru to manage a fish meal operation for a period.  I worked for him later after he became FAO’s Director of Fisheries.].  My paper advocated national control of national EEZ waters, development and protection of small scale fisheries, reductions in industrial fishing, and investment in less energy-expensive and less capital-expensive systems. 

Though opposed by delegates from France and Britain, my suggestions were all accepted by the conference, led by Peru, the chair country of that session.  I was surprised by the attitudes of the western country representatives at that conference.  Spain behaved as if it was still in colonial power over Latin America, and the Scandinavian fish meal industry representatives were totally unaware of the resentment directed at that hungry monster that consumed millions of tons of otherwise edible and nutritious fish.  Neither Europe nor the USA showed any understanding of the poorer countries’ need for appropriate technology and less energy expensive systems.  I had earlier warned the young professionals among the Mexican conveners that my paper would be somewhat radical.  They smiled, and declared that I was not even half as radical as they were!

My visit to Bolivia came us a surprise.  Though welcoming the opportunity to work in that magnificent land-locked country extending from the high Andes mountains down to the Amazon valley, I had never regarded it as a ‘fishing’ country.  But Bolivia has extensive wild fisheries and fish farming, in Lake Titicaca, in the waters of the central plateau, and in the many tributary rivers of the great Amazon.  Bolivia borders Brazil to the north-east, Peru to the north-west, and Chile, Paraguay and Argentina to the south.

Much of Bolivia’s history is rather sad and violent.  It broke with Spain in 1825, under Simon Solivar, but over the next 170 years suffered some 200 coups and counter coups.  For much of that period the country was ruled by dictatorial right wing military regimes.  Some of the leaders displayed a remarkable degree of stupidity and incompetence.  As a consequence, through ill-managed conflicts with its neighbours, Bolivia lost huge chunks of its territory to Chile, Brazil and Paraguay.   I was fortunate to arrive in the country during the start of its current phase of more democratic and socially responsible government. 


Lake Titicaca in the Andes between Peru and Bolivia

The highland region around Titicaca, is populated mainly by Indian peoples with their distinctive dress and their use of llamas and donkeys.  It resembles the highlands of Scotland, being somewhat bleak, cold and rainy, and in its main starch crop, potato, of which there are scores of varieties, many of which Europeans have neither seen nor tasted.  The local housing is poor, often of mud brick, and resembling the poor houses of the west of Scotland and Ireland in the last century.  The climate on the Altiplano is mostly cold and wet.  Towering above are the snow-capped Andes mountains, but due to global warming, much of their ice cap is melting, perhaps never to be restored in our lifetime.


People and boats by Titicaca lake


With street vendors in La Paz

Altitude sickness can be experienced on the high plateau or anywhere above 12,000 to 15,000 feet (3,600 to 4,500 metres).  I was surprised that Bolivians also suffered from it.  A party from the Amazon basin we took to a short course at the aquaculture research centre on lake Titicaca, was affected.  Symptoms varied from light-headedness and headaches, to shortage of breath and stomach upsets.  The normal cure there is a brew of the herbal tea, maté de coca, which contains a bit of coca leaf.  I found it to be surprisingly effective. The capital city, La Paz, the highest capital in the world, has a magnificent location, and is an attractive, friendly place to reside in.  The people are friendly and helpful, with for the most part, a simple, honest, peasant attitude to life.  Whether in the market, the cafes, or the shops, one is impressed by the basic honesty of the people who insist on giving you the correct price and the precise change, for the transaction.  The students and young professionals I met, were eager to contribute to their country’s development, and most helpful to me as a foreign consultant.

With a much smaller population, and few big cities, Bolivia has less of the social problems that bedevil the larger countries like Brazil and Argentina.  The indian peoples of the high plateau are mostly poor and have to struggle against the elements to survive in those altitudes.  The more fertile lowlands are heavily wooded but suffer from excessive logging and cattle ranching which may not be the ideal form of land use there.

Down in the Amazon valley, there is an extensive network of tributary rivers which support travel and communications, and a substantial fishery.  The surrounding land is used for cattle ranching, cereal crops and forestry.   Like much of the Amazon valley, the region is under threat from excessive logging, inappropriate or unsustainable agriculture, and competition for use and control of water resources.  But the Bolivian people are well aware of these dangers, and are seeking to find ways of ensuring sustainable development.  I was impressed by the private University, Instituto de Estudios Amazonicos de Riberalta led by its founder and President, Said Zeitum Lopez, that was designing its whole curriculum and research programmes on the theme of long term sustainability and social equity in resource utilization.  

Che Guevara

Although he was born in Argentina, and came to prominence in Cuba, the political figure that is best known in Bolivia, is that of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.  He is admired or disliked depending on ones political perspective, but when I was there, his picture adorned the walls of the city and the University, and the Tee shirts of many of the students.  Following the end of military rule, the people openly embraced Guevara’s memory, partly I guess as an expression of new-found political freedom, and partly as a sign of their desire for social justice.  Surprisingly Che was in Bolivia for just two brief periods, 1952, and 1966 – 67, when he attempted to organize and lead communist guerillas there.  His short life ended there at the early age of 39.

Born in 1928 in Argentina, of mixed Spanish and Irish stock (his great grandfather was a Patrick Lynch from Ireland), he graduated as a doctor in Buenos Aires in 1953.  As a student he traveled around the region on motorcycle, and saw first hand the hardships of poor peasants under regimes that cared chiefly for the powerful and the landowners.  He became active in Marxist groups in the continent, and was briefly in Bolivia supporting agitators there in 1952.  In Guatemala the following year he assisted the leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz.

It was in Mexico in 1954, where Che first met Fidel Castro who was trying to organize the overthrow of the Cuban Dictator, Fulgencio Batista.  He joined Fidel’s ill-organised rebels, who sailed to Cuba from Vera Cruz, and started the uprising in 1956.  Despite a near disastrous beginning, the revolution finally succeeded in 1959 when Batista was overthrown and Castro became President.

Guevara was first appointed to the Cuban National Bank in 1959, and became Minister for Industry in 1961.   He gradually became disillusioned with Soviet Communism, and his criticism of Soviet bureaucracy distanced him from Fidel.   In 1965 he left Cuba to work with the short-lived Lumumbu government in the Congo.  He openly criticized the Soviet Union then, and embraced the Chinese version of Marxism.  While in the Congo he was assisted briefly by Laurent Kabila, whom he considered insignificant, but of whom the world was to hear more, some 30 years later.

In 1966 Guevara moved back to Latin America to start a revolution in Bolivia.  The effort was short-lived and probably doomed from the start due to opposition from both the USA and the Soviet Union.  In Cuba the following year Kosygin criticized Che before Castro for working against legitimate communist parties.  By ‘legitimate’ Kosygin meant pro-Moscow parties.  This explains why the Bolivian Communist Party gave no support to Guevara.  President Rene Barrientos, with CIA support, ordered the army to hunt him down.  His ragged band of guerrillas were located near La Higuera at Alto Seco and Valle Serrano where he was eventually captured and shot by government soldiers, and his remains dismembered.  His death was a bit of a mystery for some years, but his body was eventually found in Vallegrande.  He was buried with honours in Cuba in Santa Clara, Las Villas, the location of a battle he led and won against Batista’s forces.

Che’s fame grew after his death, with his image achieving iconic stature among leftist student groups.   Gradually as Bolivians came to enjoy some political freedom, he came to be regarded by the public there as a national hero.   In hindsight, despite his courage and idealism, Guevara was a prisoner of a Marxist ideology that could never have worked.   Today, apart from brave little Cuba, and perhaps emerging Venezuela, there is no socialist regime in all of Latin America.


Che Guevarra, the ill-fated Latin revolutionary

Flying over Bolivia from Sucre to Santa Cruz, we passed over Vallegrande where Guevara was killed.  My young colleagues from the University pointed out the area to me, and spoke of Che with a degree of admiration and sympathy.  No doubt they each had family members of past generations, who had suffered injustices under the various dictators.

The romancing of Che Guevara’s memory was to continue in some unusual ways.  A photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 1961, and numerous black and white impressions of the same, acquired iconic status and was widely used to decorate T-shirts and posters for many years.  When Andrew Lloyd Webber produced his famous musical, Evita, he wrote Guevara into the script as the narrator, though Che had had next to no contact with the woman.

Today the great continent of South America and the region of Central America, faces many problems.  The aspirations of the rural poor are still being trampled on by the rich and powerful, in the form of the logging companies, the oil corporations, the drug barons, and the right wing militias.  The urban poor face dangers and difficulties no less severe.  And there is one group in the urban poor that merit special concern.  I refer to the thousands of homeless or unsupervised children left to struggle for survival in the streets of Buenos Aires, Rio De Janiero, Bogota, and other cities of the region.  Although I have had no direct contact with street kids, I have a number of friends who have worked hard to bring them some relief, care, food and medical help, in Latin America and elsewhere.  We will consider their plight briefly as we complete our impressions of that part of the world.  Street Children [The term "street children" was first used by Henry Mayhew in 1851 when writing London Labour and the London Poor, althoughit came into general use only after the United Nations year of the child in 1979. Before this street children were referredto as homeless, abandoned, or runaways.] are an urban problem which has its roots in rural poverty, neglect and the enforced, even violent displacement of large numbers of people from the land.  This problem is accentuated by the fact that the urban population is becoming younger. By the year 2020 there may be 300 million urban minors in Latin cities, 30% of whom will be extremely poor. 78% of the Brazilian population live in cities and towns.  The persistent poverty, rapid industrialisation and the burgeoning of urban shanty towns (favelas), generate massive social and economic upheaval. Profound poverty means family disintegration, violence and break-up become more prevalent. Unemployment rose by 7.6% in the month to January 2000, the largest increase since 1984.  Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world with a population of approximately 166 million people. The disparity between the rich and the poor in Brazilian society is one of the largest in the world. The richest 1% of Brazil's population control 50% of its income. The poorest 50% of society have to live on just 10% of the country's wealth.  It is small wonder then that Brazil may have the world’s largest population of street people, - up to 8 million children and young persons.

The term street children refers to children for whom the street more than their family has become their real home. It includes children who might not necessarily be homeless or without families, but who live in situations where there is no protection, supervision, or direction from responsible adults. While street children receive national and international public attention, that attention has been focused largely on the social, economic and health problems of the children -- poverty, lack of education, AIDS, prostitution, and substance abuse.  Street children also make up a large proportion of the children who enter criminal justice systems and are committed finally to correctional institutions (prisons) that are euphemistically called schools, often without due process. Few advocates speak up for these children, and few street children have family members or concerned individuals willing and able to intervene on their behalf.


An urban slum in Rio de Janiero

Published research indicates that compared with home based children, street based children are less likelyto come from a home headed by their father and less likely tohave access to running water or toilet facilities; their parentsare more likely to be unemployed, illiterate, less cooperative,and less mutually caring with higher levels of violence. Nevertheless,it should be borne in mind that most children from poor and dysfunctional families remain at home.  Similarly, as I have always noticed in S.E. Asia, despite the many hundreds of girls from poor backgrounds who end up in the vile prostitution trade, there are millions of young women from poverty-stricken backgrounds, who never resort to that immoral and soul-destroying way of life.

Death and Violence on the Streets

Human Rights Watch has reported that police violence against street children is pervasive, and impunity is the norm. The failure of law enforcement bodies to promptly and effectively investigate and prosecute cases of abuse against street children allows the violence to continue. Establishing police accountability is further hampered by the fact that street children often have no recourse but to complain directly to police about police abuses. The threat of police reprisals against them serves as a serious deterrent to any child coming forward to testify or make a complaint against an officer. In Guatemala, where the organization Casa Alianza has been particularly active and has filed approximately 300 criminal complaints on behalf of street children, only a handful have resulted in prosecutions. Clearly, even where there are advocates willing and able to assist street children in seeking justice, police accountability and an end to the abuses will not be achieved without the commitment of governments.

In Latin America many people in the judiciary, the police, the media, business, and society at large believe that street childrenare a group of irredeemable delinquents who represent a moralthreat to a civilised society---a threat that must be exorcised.The most frightening manifestation of this view is the emergenceof "death squads": self proclaimed vigilantes, many of whom are involved with security firms and the police and seek to solvethe problem by elimination.

In Brazil, a pioneering study set up by the National Movement of Street Children recorded 457 murders of street childrenbetween March and August 1989. The state juvenile court recentlyreported that an average of three street children are killed everyday in the state of Rio de Janeiro. On 23 July 1993 a vigilantegroup openly fired on a group of 50 street children sleeping inthe Candelaria district of Rio de Janeiro. Seven children andone adult were killed and many others injured. Of the eight defendants originally accused, just two have been imprisoned; a further twohave been tried and released. Amnesty International has estimatedthat 90% of the killings of children in Brazil go unpunished.

Backed by citizen groups and commercial establishments, death squads have become more and more violent in their goal to "clean-up" the streets and "guarantee public safety".  It is estimated by child care agencies that up to 5 or 6 children a day are assassinated on Rio's streets.  Children have been executed and some mutilated almost beyond recognition.

4,611 Street Children were murdered between 1988-1990. In 1993, eight children and adolescents were killed in a shooting near the Candeleria church in Rio.   Between 1993-96 juvenile court statistics showed over 3 000  11 to 17 year olds met with violent deaths in Rio. The majority believed to have been murdered by death squads, the police or other types of gangs. In Sao Paulo, for example, 20% of homicides committed by the police were against minors in the first months of 1999.  The Rio de Janeiro State Legislature found that drug gangs now account for roughly half the child murders in Rio.  The death squads have been met with little opposition from ordinary people who feel threatened by gangs of children. The police also fear the children who are becoming knowledgeable witnesses to their own criminal activities in the drug and prostitution business.


Street children in Brazil

Current efforts [Most of the information in this section, and the preceding two pages, is taken from internet web sites on the issue of street children, the phenomena, the causes, the needs, and the different means used to address the problem.] to address the plight of street children:

The correctional approach views street children as a matter for juvenile justice organizations. This correctional vision seems to dominate the thinking of much of the public and criminal justice authorities. The result is that thousands of street children are housed in institutions. In Brazil, the National Foundation for Child Welfare operates twenty treatment centers and "reform" schools for abandoned and delinquent youth. Conditions in these facilities have been described as both crowded and abusive. However, some changes appear to be underway, involving the substitution of correctional initiatives with community-based treatment alternatives.

The rehabilitative approach has been gaining momentum throughout Latin America. This perspective holds that street children are not delinquents as much as they are victims of poverty, child abuse and neglect, and untenable living conditions. Because street children are seen as having been harmed by their environments, hundreds of church and voluntary programs have been organized in their behalf. These typically provide housing, drug detoxification, education, and/or work programs. The programs benefit a limited number of youths, but are unable to address the needs of the millions of boys and girls who continue to call the streets their home.

Because the institutional capacities and resources of virtually all programs are limited and unable to accommodate the overwhelming majority street children, services are also provided through a variety of outreach strategies. In São Paulo, for example, the Catholic Church supports young lay workers who provide educational, counseling, and advocacy services to children in a street setting. In addition to teaching basic hygiene, literacy, and business skills, the general program approach is to instill self-reliance and empowerment so that children will find solutions to their problems.

The preventive approach attempts to address the fundamental and underlying problem of childhood poverty. In this regard, UNICEF is conducting educational campaigns to alert policy makers to the causes of children moving to the streets. In addition to policy advocacy, UNICEF provides technical assistance and support for promising local efforts. Those receiving UNICEF's focused attention are of two types: 1) programs which provide daytime activities, schooling, jobs, and other alternatives to street work for high risk children; and 2) efforts focusing on the prevention of family disintegration--cooperative day care centers, family planning clinics, small business services, and community kitchens.

The most comprehensive effort on behalf of Brazilian street youth is the National Movement for Street Children (MNMMR), a nationwide coalition of street children and adult educators founded in 1985 (Raphael and Berkman, 1992). MNMMR initiatives focus on shifting the management of street children away from the criminal justice system, codifying the rights of children into law, and structuring innovative approaches for providing education and training for youths directly on the streets where they live. MNMMR projects are targeting an estimated 80,000 youths, the great majority of whom work on the city streets and live in nearby favelas, with the remainder are actually living on the streets.


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