Leave tombs, statues and street names in peace!

Each generation has the right to revise history but not to wipe out the previous judgments of value.

I read in the Infobae news service that some Mapuche Indians in Argentina toppled a marble bust of José de San Martín and pelted it with bricks until they disfigured its face. It wasn’t plain hooliganism but what we would call today a symbolic crime generated by hatred. While they stoned the Liberator of Argentina, Chile and Perú, they angrily shouted (I don’t know why) “colonizer! colonizer!”

In the United States, statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee have been the object of a major controversy over the attempts made to topple them. Lee was a military engineer who led the Army of the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War (1861-1865), a hero decorated for his previous actions in the Mexican War, in which he fought together with Ulysses Grant, another bemedaled officer who later commanded the Union Army, appointed by Abraham Lincoln.

People accuse Lee of being a slave owner, which he was — but to a small degree, like most of the white Southerners in the 19th Century — although his enemies admit that he was a competent general and an austere and hard-work patriot who didn’t even agree on the secession of the rebel states.

In New York’s Central Park, a statue of Columbus is in danger. A couple of policemen guard it and protect it from ethnic rancor. Some people have threatened to blow it up. There are indigenous people who don’t forgive Don Cristóbal his finding of the American continent. What especially annoys them is the Eurocentric concept of “discovery.” And some Latin Americans are bitterly angry at the (presumed) Genoese navigator for “what he did to us” along with a handful of daring Spaniards more than 500 years ago.

Spaniards are not only victims of historic revisionism but also its perpetrators. There is an intense effort in that country to eradicate from street signs the names of Franquist military officers who won the Civil War (1936-1939), while some propose (seriously) to remove the body of Generalissimo Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, where he lies buried under a gigantic stone that honors his 40 years at the helm of the Spanish government.

Bolivian President René Barrientos Ortuño, with the relieved sympathy of almost his entire country, faced with the legal impossibility of trying Che Guevara and executing him at dawn for entering Bolivia to kill soldiers (given that the Penal Code did not authorize the death penalty), gave an extra-judicial order to liquidate Guevara. Big mistake, big crime. Far better it would have been to turn over the prisoner to the United States, as the CIA requested repeatedly and vainly through its agent Félix Ismael Rodríguez.

But that happened half a century ago, precisely in October 1967. Evo Morales, who, in one of his hilarious “Evo-rants,” denounced with great concern that his country had suffered the backhanded attacks of “the Empire,” has just vindicated Che’s figure and paid homage to the Argentine, shot dead after being captured in combat after his mini-invasion of Bolivia.

I remember a clever article (by Alfonso Ussía, I believe) some 30 years ago, when the Spanish authorities began to remove the names of Franquist officers from the streets. Ussía begged the authorities to stop the practice so as not to drive mailmen and taxi drivers crazy; he proposed instead that qualifying adjectives be added to the street nomenclature.

For example, Gen. Emilio Mola the Good, or the Bad, depending on people’s sense of humor at the time. The idea was not to remove the noun by which the boulevard was known for so many years, because its removal was a senseless way to create major urban confusion.

Ussía was right. Each generation has the right to revise history but not to wipe out the previous judgments of value. Preferably, the authorities should leave statues, tombs and street names alone and add new statues, tombs and names that are contrary to the old ones, because history is exactly that way — polyhedric — and it makes no sense to subject it to the seesaw of the times.

We know that Napoleon was either the beloved and genial emperor, or the cruel Corsican dwarf who destroyed his country with senseless adventures, depending on who examined his life history, but it is absurd to rewrite what happened, among other reasons because it depends on the observer’s perspective.

You probably know the much-quoted poem by Campoamor about nothing in life being either true or false (“it all depends on the glass through which you’re looking.”) Don Ramón was right.


Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Sunday October 29th, 2017

*The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author.*