The Ancestors of English-speaking Americans were living in wattle huts and trying unsuccessfully to fend off the armed Scandinavian migration. Iberia, later called Hispania, was a much coveted colonial post among aspirant consuls-in-the-making, its climate warm and welcoming, its fields fertile, and the commerce of its ports, Barcelona and Valencia, humming. This peace was interrupted by the Vandals and then by the Muslim invaders, who occupied various parts of Spain for about seven hundred years.
Then two things happened. In 1492 the last Muslim stronghold, Grenada, was taken. Spain was the result of the slow union of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, accomplished as the war against Islam became increasingly successful. Spain’s Atlantic trade challenged the Hansa and her Mediterranean commerce rivaled Genoa and Venice. In that fateful year Isabella, Queen of Castile from 1474 until her death in 1504, supported and financed the journey of the mystical, able Genoese Christopher Columbus that led to the opening of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. Her reforms and those she made with her husband had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista and for ordering conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects. Their national existence won by a long, bloody struggle, perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella were inspired by a Poland-like nationalism; being occupied by the Russians and the Third Reich has a clarifying power. Isabella, granted together with her husband the title “the Catholic” by Pope Alexander VI, was recognized as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1974. Perhaps some day she will be considered a saint. Meanwhile the president of the Catholic University covers the murals depicting Columbus’ voyage, preferring perhaps an America in which the Aztecs are unimpeded in their penchant for sacrificing maidens and ravaging their neighbors.
Before Roanoke, before Jamestown, before Plymouth, the Spanish had organized an empire that included the Caribbean islands, the west coast of North America—yes, Virginia, Mexico is in North America—from what would be Oregon to the Terra Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, including ultimately the distant Pacific Islands named for Phillip II. It is satisfyingly hyperbolic but also true that there was grand opera in Lima before Jamestown was envisioned.
It is hardly surprising that Henry VII was anxious to marry his heir Arthur to Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, or that after the death of Arthur, only six months married, Henry hastened to negotiate Catherine’s marriage to his second son Henry, despite the difficulty involved in dispensing the bond of consanguinity that existed between Henry and Catherine due to her previous marriage to Arthur. From the attempt of Henry to have his marriage to Catherine annulled would grow the Black Legend, Spanish Leyenda Negra, a term indicating an unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards, accusing them of cruelty and intolerance, prevalent in the pre-modern works of many non-Spanish, and especially Protestant, historians. “Bloody” Mary and her failed marriage to Phillip II is part of that story, the lynchpin of which is the attempt of Phillip in May 1588 to invade England and unseat the heretic Elizabeth. It was this event which snuffed out the last Catholic resistance, ushered in violent persecution of Catholics, and, I think, made nationalism an essential part of the English national religion. A proud people do not take kindly to the attempt, however unsuccessful, to invade their country and change their government. Overlooked is the Treaty of Nonesuch, under which Elizabeth had offered support to the rebels in the Spanish Netherlands.
The voyage of Columbus ultimately unleashed a three-way race among the great European powers to claim territory in the New World. Spain had a head start, and a state of war existed between Spain and England. Elizabeth never financed an expedition to the New World, but she licensed privateers who preyed upon the Spanish ships bearing gold back to Spain. Sir Francis Drake, famous for his circumnavigation of the globe, the most famous of the privateers, claimed California for England and attacked St. Augustine in 1586. Relations between England, and Americans, the English surrogates and Spain would remain anxious, erupting into armed hostility as English-speaking settlers brought the lightly settled Spanish frontier in North America under pressure. Spain’s last-minute entry into the French and Indian War on the side of France cost it Florida, which the British acquired through the first Treaty of Paris in 1763. After twenty years of British rule, however, Florida was returned to Spain as part of the second Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution in 1783. In 1819 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams achieved a diplomatic coup with the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty, which officially put Florida into U.S. hands at no cost beyond the U.S. assumption of some $5 million of claims by U.S. citizens against Spain. Formal U.S. occupation began in 1821, and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, was appointed military governor. Louisiana was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain from 1763 to 1801 that consisted of territory west of the Mississippi River basin, plus New Orleans. Spain acquired the territory from France. It was sometimes known as Spanish Louisiana. The district was retroceded to France, under the terms of the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso and the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1802 only to be acquired by Jefferson from the cash-strapped Napoleon in 1803.
In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain. Meanwhile, Anglo settlers kept pushing west, and in 1836 the Republic of Texas was founded in the face of Mexican territorial claims. This dispute was settled, supposedly, by the Mexican War of 1846–1848, which took American troops to California, Santa Fe, and finally to Mexico City. In Mexico it is called the American Intervention of 1846. Meanwhile there was the French-Austrian attempt of 1864–67 to make Mexico a monarchy and an empire, narrowly defeated. The war of 1846 was the curtain-raiser to the Spanish-American War, when, with doubtful justification Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines were annexed from a weak Spanish monarchy, a project promoted by a subtle anti-Catholic propaganda. In 1903 the United States built the Panama Canal on land acquired by purchase.
Since Henry’s rejection of Catherine of Aragon, since the Spanish Armada, relations between Spain and England have intermittently been stiff. Things were not helped by the English acquisition in perpetuity of Gibraltar under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which now seems to the Spanish an unjust humiliation. More recently there was the mystery of Franco, who either quashed a duly elected liberal government with savage violence, or prevented Spain’s becoming a socialist tyranny and Russian client state. What is forgotten, because we are more ignorant of Spanish cultural history than of the history of France and Italy, is Vasquez, El Greco, and Cervantes. Also often neglected are great moderns: Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia, Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel Unamuno.
For five centuries relations between Anglos and Hispanics have been complicated by religion, of which relation the black legend is the pathology. Spanish Catholicism is the Inquisition, the enslaving of conscience to superstition, given which representation, the freeing of territory into American influence and possession is right and just. But at the heart of the distanced relationship is the fact that so many Hispanics don’t do like folks do. Well, some do: the business elites, and maybe Costa Rica and Chili. But there is too much disparity between rich and poor, too much violence and disorder. This is partly due to the fact that Latin America was not really settled by Europeans; there were two few Spaniards; partly due to the fact that the Spanish regime while not barbaric or anti-Christian lacked any meaningful element of consent or participation. There was no Magna Carta. Some of the reasons for this would include the apparent inability of post-feudal colonial culture to support the idea of any degree of transcendent lawfulness. Remembering that for corruption to be damaging it does not have to be universal, it would seem that what one often finds is the survival of a degenerate, lawless bastard feudalism in which the strong man and his clientelia are the government. As one politician put it, “For my friends anything; for my enemies the law.” In this environment it’s to some degree every man for himself. At the top the rich will build a gated and guarded compound. At the very bottom one might join a gang. In the middle one muddles through, remembering that the police may or may not be your friend; they are taking care of themselves too. This creates an environment in which investment is hard to find because it is never quite secure. When there is no job there is trafficking in drugs, or smuggling. And there is always Socialism and Revolution. What makes a public political culture. Religion surely, but more importantly legal tradition, and still more importantly an incorruptible judicial system. As in Chicago, the police may charge but the case will never come to trial.
Ukraine has some of the most exceptional farmland on the planet. But the country is totally broke. 150 years ago, Hong Kong was a tiny village of illiterate fisherman. 50 years ago in Singapore they used to defecate in the streets. Twenty-five years ago Estonia was still part of the crumbling Soviet Union. None of those places has any resources to speak of. But they’ve become among the wealthiest in the world. What’s the difference between Hong Kong and Ukraine? Singapore and Venezuela? Estonia and Nicaragua? Wealthy nations do have some common characteristics. Wealthy nations have a culture that values hard work. Knowledge. Productivity. Innovation. Risk-taking. Saving. Self-reliance. It’s not that people in poor countries don’t work hard. Far from it.” But there is no culture that supports these values. Poverty is in large measure the failure of public political culture.
Perhaps Protestant critics are right. Perhaps it’s their religion. It is true that Catholicism in health considers neatness and industry a bit downstream from some higher values. But persistent, even failed, Catholicism, hasn’t quite made mainland Spain or France or Italy an economic-political wasteland, although parts of Italy are marginal. The trash cannot be dealt with in Sicily and the Milanese consider Neapolitans a lesser breed.
One way to look at the problem of poverty in Latin American is to think of their pattern as predictive of where we may be headed as the political culture becomes Godless. It is important to remember that while Argentina may still have Roman Catholicism in its constitution, Mexico is officially, and in the 1920s viciously, anti-clerical. Not everybody in El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico is poor. If you are well placed, you go to a (probably) religious high school and you may get out of Mexico for university. There is probably a pious picture of Msgr. Escriva somewhere in the house. On the other hand there are the cardboard villages, the untreated disease, and always the shrine to Archbishop Oscar Romero. And if these are persistent you come to the United States. Deep in your consciousness there lies the conviction that Texas and Arizona and California belong to you.