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Exploring Christopher Columbus Day

Opinion: How might a federal holiday relate to U.S. support for Guatemala`s bid at the U.N. Security Council?
 
 
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Today, youth across the nation are told by our government that Christopher Columbus merits honor and celebration.

Historically, recognition of Columbus Day has reflected a bipartisan consensus: It was Democrat Franklin Roosevelt who first suggested in 1934 that all states adopt Oct. 12 as Columbus Day; in 1971, under Republican Richard Nixon, the second Monday of October officially became established as a federal holiday to honor the explorer.

To "discover" more about the man behind the day off, last year, on the eve of the nationwide break from school, I headed to my university library to learn about Christopher Columbus and the days following Oct. 12, 1492.

My findings were horrific:

* Two days following Columbus' arrival in the Bahamas, he recorded in his personal log, "These people are very unskilled in arms … with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished." This first impression would prove ominous.

* In November 1493, on a return trip to Hispaniola, Columbus ordered the enslavement of six indigenous women for the purpose of allowing his crew to rape them.

* In February 1495, Columbus rounded up 1,500 Arawak women, men and children, and imprisoned them. He then selected the 500 of them that he deemed the most marketable and shipped them to Spain. Only 300 arrived alive in Seville.

* In 1498, documents indicate that Columbus enslaved another 600 Carib people.

* By the decade's end, it appears that Columbus had kidnapped at least 1,400 indigenous people to send back to the Spanish slave markets.

Additionally, Harvard historian and Pulitzer Prize laureate Samuel Eliot Morison writes, "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide," and "the natives were reduced to a species of slavery or serfdom and declined in numbers catastrophically."

Given the realities of Columbus' campaigns of mass murder and enslavement, why do we commemorate this man ever, much less every year?

It is clear that we are not lauding his skills as a sailor, considering that history teaches us his so-called "discovery" was purely accidental. What do we care that some man from Genoa sailing on behalf of Spain landed in the already inhabited Bahamas? And how does that involve ordinary students within the United States, who overwhelmingly speak English as their primary language (and not Spanish nor Italian)?

Perhaps if Columbus Day were a somber, yearly reminder of our nation's origins, which spurred us to reflect upon our responsibility to undo these oppressive traditions, the day would be beneficial. But as it stands, by seemingly rewarding youth with a day off from school to praise the man who in many ways initiated and still embodies the mass murder of indigenous peoples, Columbus Day instead serves to reinforce these abhorrent crimes.

If we cannot recognize enormous acts of brutality committed half a millennium ago, (but, in fact, actually celebrate their chief perpetrator) then what implications does this carry for acts of brutality committed more recently?

One week after Columbus Day, elections within the United Nations will determine Argentina's replacement for the Latin American seat on the Security Council -- and the United States' current lobbying campaign may yield some sort of indication.

Rather than admonish Guatemala for failing to prosecute its past dictators and military brass for upwards of 600 massacres committed against the indigenous Maya, the United States is pushing hard for Guatemala's appointment to the Security Council. Their efforts have paid off, as many in the European Union and Central America appear to have been won over by the superpower's diverse means of persuasion.

It seems that for the United States government, publicly esteeming those who carried out, or continue to leave unpunished, a heinous genocide (many of whom remain remarkably powerful within the Guatemalan state), encompasses more than a once-a-year affair.

But can the United States' annual lauding of Columbus really be plausibly linked to its cheerleading for Guatemala? Ward Churchill, an educator at the University of Colorado, argues:

"Very high on the list of those expressions of nonindigenous sensibility which contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians are the annual Columbus Day celebration, events in which it is boldly asserted that the process, events, and circumstances described above are, at best, either acceptable or unimportant. … Undeniably, the situation of American Indians will not -- in fact cannot -- change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped."

Venezuela, Guatemala's competitor for the Security Council spot, decided in 2002 to do just that -- transforming Columbus Day into el Dìa de Resistencia Indigena or Indigenous Resistance Day, to instead celebrate native peoples and "the spirit of dialogue between civilizations, peace and justice." Interestingly, Venezuela's principal pitch for its bid at the Security Council is to counteract what many view as the imperialist tendencies of the United States (those tendencies exemplified in Columbus, the hemisphere's pioneering imperialist).

Meanwhile, one must seriously question Guatemala's suitability for the Security Council given its troubles with, well, security. Following a visit three months ago, Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, labeled Guatemala as "one of the most violent countries in the region … where impunity is the rule for past violations, it should come as no surprise that it also prevails for current crimes." Indeed, Le Monde Diplomatique reports that an estimated 97 percent of all current murders within Guatemala go unpunished. Not so comforting for a nation that boasted around 15 murders a day last year, a rate that appears to be on the rise this year.

Granted, the United States sees in Guatemala a lackey that will vote as the United States dictates throughout its two-year tenure on the Security Council. Fears of Venezuela aside, how can the Bush administration overlook both Guatemala's glaring lack of qualifications for the job, and, more specifically, the repulsive reality of a recent, still-unpunished genocide?

Today, a major piece to that answer may float festively down the streets of New York City, imbedded in mobs of cheering spectators, famous faces and inflated cartoon celebrities -- televised globally to millions but contemplated, much less mentioned out loud, by very few.

Elias Lawless currently lives in Guatemala.