Julian Moreno / AFP via Getty Images
The campaign to remove Confederate statues and other symbols of white supremacy in the United States resonated in Latin America, where protesters destroyed monuments to European colonizers who brutalized indigenous peoples.
The last target was a statue of Sebastian de Bellacazar, a Spanish conquistador. He founded the Colombian cities of Popayan and Cali in 1537 while leading a military campaign that killed and enslaved thousands of Misac natives.
After authorities thwarted two previous attempts to remove the statue, located on the outskirts of Popayan, Misak leaders sent protest lures into the city center on September 16th, drawing the attention of police. Meanwhile, a small group of Misak approached the monument, used it with ropes to lower it, then hit it with stones, separating the head from the torso.
“The time has come to get rid of these statues all over America,” said Jesus Maria Aranda, Misac’s leader, who noted that de Bellacazar’s statue was built on the sacred religious site of Misac. “The conquistadors have done so much damage to the indigenous people.”
The demolition of statues during the political turmoil in Latin America is nothing new.
In Nicaragua, monuments to the 20th-century Somoza dictatorship, which lasted more than four decades, were destroyed after Sandinista rebels seized power in 1979. In Venezuela last year, protesters destroyed a bust of the late President Hugo Chavez, who launched a socialist revolution. , which provoked the worst economic crisis in the country.
But more often, protesters are focusing on images of Christopher Columbus and other European researchers who first landed in America in the late 15th century. During anti-government rallies in Chile last year, protesters in Mapuche removed an image of Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, who created the Chilean capital, Santiago, but is now widely condemned for waging war against Mapuche.
All said, about 60 statues in Chile were damaged or destroyed during the protests, according to the National Monuments Council. Such actions are considered criminal vandalism, but they have not stopped. Last month, protesters in the Chilean city of Lumaco attacked the bust of Cornelio Saavedra, an army officer who led attacks on Mapuche in the 1800s. They pulled him out and threw him into a river.
“Every time these groups encounter this kind of public monument, they are obviously forced to relive their condition as victims of colonialism and violence,” said Arlene Tickner, an American who teaches international relations at Rosario University in Bogota.
In Mexico City, city council member Teresa Ramos wants all traces of the conquistadors erased. She called for the removal of the statues of Columbus and Hernan Cortes, which conquered the Aztec Empire in the 1500s, and demanded that the streets honoring their memory be renamed.
In the same vein, President Andres Manuel López Obrador sent a letter last year to the Vatican and the Spanish government asking for a formal apology for human rights abuses committed during the conquest.
“There were massacres … The so-called conquest was carried out with a sword and a cross. They built churches on top of [Indigenous] temples, “Lopez Obrador said in a speech last year in front of the ruins of an ancient indigenous city in Tabasco.” The time has come to reconcile, but first they must ask for forgiveness. “
Spain flatly refused. During a trip to Mexico in 2016, Pope Francis had already asked the indigenous people for forgiveness for the way they had been treated. However, his words clearly failed to belittle Lopez Obrador, who was elected president two years later.
Tickner notes that the protesters in Latin America were inspired by their American counterparts, who, after the assassination of George Floyd in May, expanded their efforts to remove monuments to Confederates and slaveholders.
“Looking at the whole discussion in the United States about historical monuments that justify colonizers and racists, this slowly but surely seems to be affecting the debate in different parts of Latin America,” Tickner said.
In Colombia, the statue of de Bellacazar has long been a moot point.
It was built in 1939 in Popayan, the capital of the western Colombian state of Cauca, which has a large indigenous population. In addition to the bitterness of centuries of abuse, Misak and other local groups claim that agribusiness has occupied their traditional territory. In an attempt to reclaim these lands, they often clashed with government troops.
“The removal of the statue may seem like a minor episode, but it shows how dramatic the situation in Cauca has become,” said Bogota political analyst Ariel Avila. “The pressure continues to build, to build and to build.”
But there has already been a reaction, with Carmen Vazquez, Colombia’s culture minister, accusing Misac of “violent action” against the nation’s cultural heritage.
Rodolfo Segovia, president of the Colombian Academy of History, described the statue of de Bellacazar as a relic from a previous era and said it “should be interpreted that way”. Instead of tearing it down, he says, a better solution would be to place a monument to Misak next to the conquistador.
While inspecting the ruins of the statue, Popayan Mayor Juan Carlos Lopez said its destruction would not change the region’s tragic past.
“We will restore this statue and put it back on its pedestal,” he promised. “It’s part of our story – a story we can’t erase.”