December 18, 1999

Latin America still battles ills of its colonial past

                  LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Even after five centuries, historian Juan Jose Vega
                  resents the Spanish conquistadors who tricked and killed Inca ruler
                  Atahualpa and shipped a fortune in Inca gold and silver back to Spain.

                  From Peru's Inca capital, Cuzco, to the seat of Aztec power in Mexico City,
                  Spanish colonizers grafted cathedrals onto the foundations of razed Indian
                  temples and superimposed Christianity on ancient religious beliefs.

                  "They tossed 10,000 years of accumulated culture from this land onto a
                  garbage heap. They told us that it was worthless and that they represented
                  humanity," Vega said of the Spanish plunderers, who made Peru the center
                  of Spain's South American empire.

                  At the turn of the millennium, many of the wounds from that brutal colonial
                  past have yet to heal. Latin Americans still contend with racism, authoritarian
                  regimes and a tradition of corruption and oppressive government red tape.

                  A legacy of racism by European-descended elites continues against Indian
                  and mixed-race majorities in countries like Mexico, Guatemala and the
                  Andean nations.

                  In Peru, soap operas feature fair-skinned stars, and blue-eyed, blond-haired
                  models are the norm in advertisements. Mixed-race women frequently resort
                  to bleached hair, makeup and plastic surgery to appear more "European."

                  Quechua-speaking Indians and people of mixed blood, who make up 80
                  percent of Peru's population, "have been infected with a tremendous
                  inferiority complex," said historian Maria Rostworowski.

                  Political power for Peru's Indian-descended majority remains elusive. The
                  number of Andean legislators has increased under President Alberto
                  Fujimori, a political outsider who is the son of Japanese immigrants, but most
                  have little influence and do not vote as a bloc.

                  In Guatemala, the heavily Mayan Indian population is still struggling for
                  national recognition after centuries of being forced to change indigenous
                  names and having Indian languages and traditional dress forbidden in

                  Mayan Indian leaders blamed poverty, weak political organization and
                  divisions left by 36 years of civil war for the defeat of a referendum in May
                  that would have granted them official recognition.

                  Ecuador's Indians, ignored in Congress and corporate board rooms,
                  regularly paralyze the nation's transportation system with roadblocks to
                  demand attention from officials.

                  Some 2 million Indians blocked all roads around Quito, Ecuador's capital,
                  for three days in 1990 -- in the biggest Indian demonstration in a half century
                  -- to protest their treatment by authorities and merchants.

                  Burgeoning democratic institutions in Latin America have sparked hope for
                  equal protection under the law. But centuries of authoritarian governments
                  have created a tolerance of heavy-handed leaders who trample democratic
                  checks and balances in the name of maintaining order.

                  "In general, democratic principles do not exist in Latin America," said
                  political scientist Fernando Rospigliosi. "There are deep-rooted authoritarian

                  Fujimori had broad support in 1992 when he suspended Peru's constitution
                  and abolished Congress in a bloodless "self-coup" backed by the military.
                  He accused legislators of blocking his efforts to defeat leftist guerrillas and
                  end economic chaos.

                  That same year, a Venezuelan paratrooper, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, made a
                  failed coup attempt against that country's democratically elected government,
                  accusing it and its predecessors of corruption and disregard for the needs of
                  the poor.

                  Today, after nine months as Venezuela's new president, Chavez is inspiring
                  comparisons to Fujimori.

                  With overwhelming public support, he has used his power to impose a
                  radical overhaul of the country's courts and legislature. He says his aims are
                  to reverse the steady decay of public institutions and re-establish order.

                  Another legacy of colonial administrators is a bureaucratic system that
                  encourages corruption while stifling free enterprise and hindering economic

                  "In Peru, we found out the time it takes to record a land title is about 17
                  years of red tape," said Hernando de Soto, an economist who studies land