Let’s Tear Down All Statues!

Every year, with the arrival of October 12th, in most of the Hispanic American countries, opposing positions emerge around the Spanish colonization, which began in 1492 and ended in the first half of the 19th century with the processes of independence. Ecuador is not an exception: while for some the existence of a so-called “black legend” has generated an imaginary of revenge, repudiation and hatred towards what was the Spanish Empire, for others it is a date that recalls more than 500 years of resistance by the native peoples, who have had to endure the plundering, suffering and submission to colonial and republican authority. 

On the occasion of the date, statues of different characters from the colonial era have been torn down or vandalized in different cities in Latin America and the United States. In the case of Ecuador, some groups of indigenous protesters and others calling themselves “Hispanists” found in the statue of Isabel the Catholic the ideal space to express their positions regarding the colonial period and introduce into public discussion the old debate about the Spanish presence in America.

But in a country like Ecuador, where throughout its history imaginaries of charismatic leaders have been created, based on supposed divine mandates or messianic inspirations, and whose authority is articulated around the figure of the “enlightened one”, the existence of monuments that recall those leaders is, without a doubt, harmful. A history plagued by the Schmittian distinction of “friend and enemy,” which reinforces the accounts of the goodness and sins of different leaders, distorts what has happened around these political processes and underscores the importance of understanding these processes as mechanisms for the search for power; as means to achieve specific ends.

The existence of a historical memory, which focuses on individuals and not on processes, prevents us from seeing that behind these idealized figures there were always other actors without whom their success would have been impossible. Such is the case of African Americans who, in the process of emancipation of the American republics, changed their lives for the possibility of leaving slavery. There are also the Indians, who with their work and despite the opposition of the landowning elites, helped build roads that allowed greater internal trade in the period known as “Garcianism” (1859-1875). Or the participation of a coastal elite in the expansion, with liberal ideas, which had its culmination in the revolution of June 5, 1895.

feeding the myths related to the country’s heroes does nothing more than reproduce the existence of omnipresent figures in history, perpetuating the logic of “beatification” or “demonization”.

In societies where politics is articulated around the cult of personality, and where populism is part of a political culture that is opposed to the institutions of liberal democracy, feeding the myths related to the country’s heroes does nothing more than reproduce the existence of omnipresent figures in history, perpetuating the logic of “beatification” or “demonization”. So much so that it is not surprising that the definition of the indigenous people as an “abject and miserable class” in the 1830 Constitution is still ignored (despite the fact that they have already “freed us from Iberian oppression”), or that 145 years after his death, Gabriel García Moreno is still considered a “martyr president”. Among other similar cases, some still consider that Eloy Alfaro Delgado (leader of the liberal revolution of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries) was the only builder of the railroad that linked the coast with the mountains (a work that began in 1873), and what is worse, that in the middle of the twenty-first century, former president Rafael Correa is considered the “successor” of the Alfaro’s liberal project.

If we want to revise history, let it be by deconstructing our “messiahs” and not by “whitewashing” violent processes of domination, as some groups are currently advocating, especially through social networks. Continuing to remember the leaders through a narrative that puts them above the rest of the mortals, will not change that imaginary that seeks the return of a “chosen one”, that “will save the country”. A democracy with strong institutions is needed, and to achieve it, it is not enough with an institutional design that allows its operation, but a political culture that favors it.

And, perhaps, one of the main challenges for Ecuadorian society is precisely to build that political culture that allows for a real understanding of the meaning of democracy. A democracy that recognizes the pluralism of worldviews, historical constructions and political positions, so necessary for a political balance that guarantees the full exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms. A political culture that favors political participation far from threats, violence and disrespect between opposing positions; that allows for greater inclusion and competition of historically excluded sectors, and thus, to move away from the authoritarian and totalitarian ghosts, which also feed on the warlords. That is why, not only should the statues of colonizers, colonized or of those who have governed us be pulled down; they should all be pulled down!

*Translation from Spanish by Ricardo Aceves

Photo by C. Matges at Foter.com / CC BY

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