From Latin America

Charles Darwin – 5 Rare Facts About the Galapagos Island's Most Famous Visitor

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on August 5, 2010

Charles Darwin is legendary as the biologist who published the famous work “Origin of the Species” that continues to stir controversy 150 years after its publication. Many know about his voyage to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador which formed the basis of his theories, but how many of the facts below do you know?

Darwin wasn’t the only evolutionary theorist on the block
Shaken to his theological core by the implication of his theory of evolution and concerned about the response to his findings, Darwin sat on his research for two decades after reaching his conclusions. In the late 1850s he was shaken out of his self inflicted paralysis with the discovery that another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had come up with a similar theory. Darwin was motivated into action, and finished Origin of the Species in time for a joint presentation of his and Wallace’s work at the Linnean Society in London in July 1858. Darwin was credited with the theory as his version was deemed to be more complete.

Darwin has his own award
Several forms of the Darwin Award exist, all with the tongue-in-cheek intention of honoring people who “…ensure the long-term survival of the human race by removing themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion," according to Wendy Nothcutt, author of the Darwin Award book series. Wendy permits award applications based on 4 categories; Inability to Reproduce (nominee must be rendered dead or sterile), Excellence (astoundingly stupid judgement), Self-selection (cause of one’s demise), Maturity (capable of sound judgement) and Veracity (ability to be verified as a genuine event). Glorious examples include using a lighter to illuminate a fuel tank to make sure it contains nothing flammable and juggling active hand grenades. It’s not often that tragedy meets comedy and science, but when it happens, it’s beautiful.

Darwin got a mountain for his 25th birthday
Most of us make do with socks from Auntie, but not Charles Darwin. On Feburary 12th, 1834 whilst rounding the bottom of the American continent, Captain Fitzroy was feeling generous. The Captain of the Beagle, the ship which carried Darwin on his research expedition, he named the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego “Mount Darwin”.

Darwin married his cousin
A scientist to the core, Darwin tackled every problem with a logical approach. This included marriage, for which he made a long list of pros and cons. The greatest con potentially seen by many is that the marriage was to his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. However, this didn’t cloud the conclusions of logic, and Darwin signed off his musings with the statement “Marry – Marry – Marry Q.E.D.”. Thus the father of the concept of importance in genetic variation left the mark of his ironic decision on the pages of history…

Darwin had no sea legs
Darwin was sick to his stomach for the majority of his time at sea, a circumnavigation of the globe that took about 5 years. This could explain why he spent so much time on land and catalogued so thoroughly the flora and fauna of the incredible diversity in the Galapagos Islands and other destinations on his voyage.

An interesting character, Darwin is still the inspiration for many with the publication of his theory in the face of huge public opposition, and many follow in his footsteps to the Galapagos Islands. It seems that even for a theologian settling down for a quiet life as Darwin almost once became, a trip around the world to see wonderful and exotic places can have the same life-changing effect as for visitors to the Galapagos Islands 200 years later.

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America


Peru Culture And History – The Moche Civilization

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on July 29, 2010

Around the time of Christ when the northern Peruvian Cupisnique culture was in decline the Moche civilization began to gather pace. These two civilizations merged together over this time period and retained the name of the Moche, after the river of the same name in Northern Peru which flows down into the Pacific Ocean.

The Structure of Moche Society
The important nucleus of the population consisted of the members of the upper classes which included priests, warriors and other influential people who lived near the main temples and ceremonial pyramids. Bordering these central areas were the middle classes who were mostly artisans and around these were the lower classes of the Moche civilization. The working class people were anyone from fishermen and farmers to servants, slaves and beggars. The warriors, priests and other important people belonging to the upper classes were highly respected by the rest of the population and were the decision makers in this society.

Handicrafts of the Moche
Ceramics left over from the Moche civilization provide most of the information that is known about them today. Common subjects painted onto their ceramics included clothing, musical instruments, tools and jewelry. Ceramics also depict some of the complicated weaving techniques that were well developed by the Moche but natural decay and environmental conditions have destroyed most of the textiles that the Moche created. The Moche were also skilled in metalwork and often used gold, silver and copper to make ornaments and jewelry.

The Cradle of Moche Civilization
The northern coast of Peru was chosen as the homeland of the Moche, an area which is a harsh, very dry desert. They settled primarily in the lower valleys of the nearby Andes near to the Moche and Chicama rivers, both of which are dry for much of the year. Eventually the Moche civilization would extend from the Piura River in northern Peru to the Huarmey River much further south with their capital Chan Chan founded in the Moche valley itself. Their livelihood was based around fishing in the Pacific Ocean and farming in the irrigated desert fields, which when flooded in the rainy season would benefit from a deposit of rich silt that yielded tremendous crops.

Moche Religion and Culture
Because the Moche had plenty of free time in their lives they developed an extremely organized religion. This is now known by examining their pottery which shows complicated religious practices, ceremonial sacrifices and also many scenes of warfare. The Moche civilization revered, honored and obeyed their priests and warriors. These people were often very rich as we can see from images on the ceramics, having very fine jewelry and clothing. Located near to the Moche capital, Chan Chan, are two mud brick pyramids with flat tops, the Huaca del Sol or Pyramid of the Sun and the Huaca de la Luna or Pyramid of the Moon which were used for many of their religious rites and ceremonies deemed important to these people.

Decoding the Evolution of Moche Civilization
Examination of pottery design is the principle means by which Moche history has been decoded and historians have be able to divide the development into five phases. The first phase of pottery art is seen as peaceful and simple with some painting of clay mixed with water which is known as slip painting. In the second and third phases the pottery are more complex and detailed with fine-line drawing evolving from the slip painting style. Pottery from the fourth stage shows motifs that are more definite and complicated as the art becomes more sophisticated. The fifth and final stage shows increasingly complex designs with intricate patterns as well as being more ritualistic and war-like, indicating advances and changes in the culture.

We are still uncertain as to the fate of the Moche and do not know what happened to put an end to them, other than the civilization seemed to have collapsed and was succeeded by the very aggressive and dominant Huari culture. Visitors to northern Peru on a vacation package or tour will be able to marvel at some of the treasures left by the Moche and leave with an understanding of an ancient an complex culture that is still, in many ways, shrouded in mystery.

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America

United Fruit Company in Guatemala – US Invasion For a Bunch of Bananas

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on May 10, 2010

Many people are aware of the 'Banana Republics' in the bad old days of Latin America; countries in which international corporations had so much power and influence that the government would be a puppet for foreign corporate interests.  In 1954 the United States Army invaded Guatemala after what many believed was a decision made by a United States corporation; a key player behind one of the biggest Banana Republics in Central America.

One of the key culprits in meddling with Latin American government affairs in the first half of the 20th century was United Fruit Company.  They were a US corporation founded in 1899 off the back of a railroad venture in Costa Rica.  An important part of United Fruit Company's strategy was to gain control of the distribution of banana growing land.  It did this through convincing governments that reserve land was needed to protect against the possibility of crop destruction from natural disasters or diseases.  Because such huge percentages of land were owned by United Fruit Company, land ownership legislation was often breached and concessions were required from the government.  This lead to political involvement, even though United Fruit Company was a foreign corporation operating overseas. 

United Fruit Company
The 'Banana Republics' that grew from these situations often saw strong investment in infrastructure from corporations like United Fruit Company.  Railroads, ports and transportation systems were put in place, and extensive employment was created.  United Fruit Company also established many schools in the countries in which it operated.  However, the Company often left vast tracts of land uncultivated and worked hard to block infrastructure development beyond its own operations, establishing its own network as a strong monopoly.  Employment under United Fruit Company also wasn't much fun, testament to the extensive and often violent strikes that took place amongst its workforce over issues such as rates of pay and working conditions.

By the 1950's, things were looking promising for Guatemala.  The dictator Jorge Ubico had been overthrown in 1944 and two administrations of democratically elected Presidents were leading Guatemala forwards.  The President from the second administration, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, was reforming the country extensively, including the permission of free expression, legalized unions, diverse political parties and basic socioeconomic reforms.  One of these was a land reform aimed at reducing the suffering of the rural poor by redistributing unused land.  The basis of this reform was that all such land would be purchased by the Government at the same value declared on the owners tax forms.  The property could then be sold back to peasant cooperatives at low rates.  Arbenz started by setting a strong personal example, selling his own land under the scheme.

Arbenz' land reform was ruffling a few feathers in United Fruit Company boardrooms.  Of their 550,000 acres owned in Guatemala, 85% was uncultivated, which meant that the Company would lose a lot of leverage in Guatemala.  Through the US Government, United Fruit Company asked for greater compensation than what was being offered by the Guatemalan Government.

The US invasion of Guatemala
In 1954, United Fruit Company's concerns were removed.  United States fears of Communism taking root in Central America by a "domino effect"  starting from Guatemala had caused the CIA to take action.  Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas invaded from Honduras, overthrowing Guzman's administration.  His forces were supported by US military troops, and trained, organized and equipped by the CIA through their covert program "PB Success".

Various arguments exist as to the level of involvement of United Fruit Company in the decision made by the US government to sponsor an invasion of a democratically elected government.  Some historians point out that the land reforms had led to internal Guatemalan plotting against Arbenz from early 1954, and an overthrowing of the government was inevitable with or without US intervention.  However, when you consider that the Director of the CIA at the time of Operation PB Success was Allan Dulles, a former President of United Fruit Company, and a board member at the time, evidence starts to build up in favour of corporate interests manipulating the US Government and international politics.

The aftermath

Following the coup, things went downhill fast for Guatemala.  The country was plunged into 40 years of bloody civil war with a death toll up an estimated 150,000 victims.  Despite the benefits of the nullified land reforms, things didn't go so well for United Fruit Company either.  Stock value and profit margins declined and it was forced to sell off the last of its Guatemalan holdings in 1972.

Nothing changes

This fairly tragic tale of a country on the path to democratic reform thrown back decades by foreign commercial interests sets a cautionary note for the future.  It's also fairly sobering to know that things haven't changed as much as we'd like, 60 years after the US invasion of Guatemala.  In 2007, a large fruit company, Chiquita Brands International, was fined $25 million for for having paid “protection money” to the AUC, a right wing para-military organization in Colombia who are on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. AUC "protection activities" included assassinating union leaders and threatening independent farmers to sell their land to Chiquita.  Currently, Chiquita are being sued for having paid money to the FARC, a left wing group also on the United States’ terrorist list for similar services, also in Colombia. Who are Chiquita Brands International?  They were created from a renaming in 1984 of United Brands.  One of the companies merged in 1970 to form United Brands was…United Fruit Company. 

It seems that old habits die hard.

Che Guevara; How Much do You Really Know?

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on April 23, 2010

A good friend of mine from Argentina has a great Che Guevara t-shirt. Beneath the iconic image of the revolutionary in bold letters are the words “No se quien era, pero es la moda”; I don’t know who he was, but it’s fashionable.

El Che has become the personification of rebellion and counter-culture, and you can find the world-famous photograph “Guerriero Heroico” printed on everything from posters to bikinis. Guevara no doubt would have despised the rampant consumerism built around his image having passionately pursued communist principles for most of his adult life.

We’ve all seen the photo, some have watched the movie and a few have even got the t-shirt, but how many of the following facts did you know about Ernesto Guevara?

1)Foreign Che
Despite being instrumental in the Cuban revolution and possessing saint-like status amongst the Cuban population, Mr. Guevara was actually born in Rosario, Argentina. In reference to Che’s “restless” nature, his father declared “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels”, putting him about as far away from Cuban roots as a cup of Starbucks coffee. When you add to the mix that the word Che comes from Argentinian slang meaning ‘pal’ or ‘dude’, you’ll wonder why you ever thought our man was ever Cuban.

2) Wheezy Che
Far from superhuman status, Guevara suffered from acute episodes of crippling asthma. In childhood, his fits were so frequent and violent that his family were forced to move from the damp coastal climate of San Isidro to the dry mountain region near Cordoba. His problems didn’t stop him from being an athlete, enjoying swimming, soccer, golf and rugby. His asthma frequently incapacitated him on famous travels, documented in the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, and involvement in active conflict in Latin America and Africa.

3) Freebie Che
Upon capture in Bolivia, Che was reputed to have shouted, “I am Che Guevara, and I am worth more alive than dead!”

He probably knew something we didn’t, because Albert Korda, the photographer of the classic “Guerrillero Heroico” shot, never made a cent in royalties from his picture. Snapped at a memorial service, Albert was proud of the picture and hung it on his wall where it stayed until an Italian journalist asked if he could have it. Korda obliged, and the journalist dutifully used the image on a poster after Guevara’s death, setting in motion the phenomenal popularity that the photograph would eventually achieve.

4) Sober Che
Alert Korda actually received $50,000 (which he donated to charity) as a result of a successful lawsuit with a British advertising agency who used Guevara’s image to sell their vodka. He presumably saw this as the last straw following 40 years of happy-go-lucky abuse of his image because El Che was a teetotaler; despite famously chugging on cigars for most of his life, he never touched a drink.

5) No-votes Che
Before we get all frothy about revolutionary spirit and the romance of rebellion, lets not forget that if we knew the full story about life under Guevara’s administration, we probably wouldn’t be voting him into a following term in office; during his tenure as Minister of Industry Cuba was forced to begin food rationing.

Don’t expect much in the way of kissing babies and soft policies from Candidate Che either; he stood out from his peers fighting Castro’s cause in Cuba and was quickly promoted to comandante, where he enforced a zero tolerance policy toward deserters by sending execution squads to hunt them down. This was just a warm up for Guevara, and when he got into power he was appointed head of La Cabana, a court in which he played judge, jury and executioner to purge Cuba of loyalists of the previous administration. Historians estimate that he did away with as many as 2000 people, and his activities earned him the cheery name of The Butcher of La Cabana.

Love him or hate him, Ernesto Guevara’s face isn’t going anywhere; he’ll be around on merchandise for a few years yet. It’s always difficult to form opinions about a man how became famous as an image, a ghost associated with whatever people wanted to use him for, but hopefully these facts will have blown away a bit of the Cuban cigar smoke.