Elias Lawless

Exploring Christopher Columbus Day

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:

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Guatemalan Youth Rewrite History

La Violencia is a term employed by some Guatemalans to describe one of the Western hemisphere's bloodiest civil conflicts in the modern era -- a 36-year-long period stretching until 1996, when the state army launched a violent campaign against alleged guerrilla sympathisers, wiping entire villages off the map. More than 200,000 people -- most of them civilians -- were killed or have disappeared.

A United Nations-led commission calculates that 93 percent of the "human rights violations and acts of violence" during this time span were perpetrated by the Guatemalan government. They document at least 626 massacres committed by state forces against Mayan communities during this period which, coupled with findings that 83.3 percent of La Violencia`s victims were Maya, contributes to an increasing awareness within Guatemala and worldwide that the extraordinarily brutal, government-led campaign indeed constitutes genocide.

Despite the ongoing failure of Guatemalan courts to move forward with legal cases seeking to charge former state authorities for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide -- left in limbo since an initial filing in 2000 -- a sudden glimmer of hope along the judicial front has recently emerged.

On July 7, by declaring the right to "universal jurisdiction" in the interest of human rights, a Spanish judge issued international arrest orders for ex-dictators, military leaders and other government officials responsible for the genocide. Among those named is past president Efraìn Rios Mòntt (1982-1983), who not only ruled over perhaps the most gruesome chapter of La Violencia but even now remains a political heavyweight within Guatemala, having served as president of the National Congress as recently as 2004.

In addition to their plans to exterminate the Maya, who make up about half of the population of Guatemala, the intellectual authors of the genocide also attempted to eliminate political opponents -- many of whom resided in the nation's universities. The University of San Carlos, for example, transformed into a hotbed of subversive activity to challenge the state-led violence. In 1980 alone, at least 127 members of the San Carlos academic community -- mostly students, but faculty and administrators as well -- were either killed or have disappeared.

Today, members of H.I.J.O.S. -- Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence) -- represent a new front of radical Guatemalan youth intent on battling the executors, cheerleaders and benefactors of La Violencia (as well of those who continue to exercise similar state repression and order similar forced disappearances to squash social movements, while similarly enjoying impunity for their crimes).

HIJOS -- largely comprised of youth whose family members were killed or disappeared during La Violencia -- first surged to the public light a mere 30 months after the Guatemalan state, under mounting international pressure, inked a finalizing ceasefire agreement with an organization of surviving guerrillas. On June 30, 1999 -- the perennial holiday within Guatemala termed Army Day -- at a public celebration honoring generals from the genocide in the company of the nation's commander-in-chief, HIJOS shocked onlookers by disrupting the commemoration with screams demanding justice.

HIJOS' omnipresent anti-impunity street art, along with its organizing against Guatemala's ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and various other programs, has triggered the attention of state authorities and other powerful forces within Guatemala. On Jan. 8 of last year, HIJOS' office was raided; personal agendas, organizational archives, computers, a megaphone and paint were stolen, while other objects of value were left behind. Several months later on May 12 -- one day after three other Guatemalan social justice groups were raided -- HIJOS' office was targeted a second time. Again, numerous photographs and a laptop were taken, while more costly items were untouched.

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