MOST Latin Americans view the fifth centennial of the original North Atlantic cruise of Adm. Christopher Columbus with indifference. If asked, they may reply with a smile that possibly will try to hide ignorance of the original feat. Functional literacy, despite numbers from the Organization of American States or the United Nations, is frankly a rarity.
Yes, the names will sound familiar. Even the dates. But the concept of exploring, mapping, and politically dominating a newly found land is likely to remain obscure outside the elite capable of understanding the momentous event of 1492. Still, the history of the colonization of the American continent has episodes to please all - and, simultaneously, events capable of infuriating even the insensitive.
An anniversary such as this year's could have been a wonderful opportunity for sober analysis of the present fruits of Columbus's historic singlemindedness. But not much of that is happening in Latin America. Instead, its intelligentsia prefers to engage in Byzantine arguments regarding what the Spanish, and by extension the Europeans, wrought.
It is as if the years had not gone by and we were still in 16th-century Spain engaging in burning rhetoric that attempts to settle definitively the issue of whether women should be treated like children or vice versa.
Not surprisingly, the main focus of attention nowadays is whether Columbus's travail ended in the discovery of a new world or merely in an encounter between equal worlds.
Another issue is no less Byzantine: Would the native cultures have flourished, unmolested, toward a better world had Columbus given up on his dream?
A motley crowd of socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites, and others eager to find new causes, has quickly grabbed this second issue and lost no time in exploiting its political possibilities.
Nowhere are the feelings of Latin Americans more mixed than in this area. On the one hand, they are proud of their Spanish or European heritage. But at the same time, they want the outside world to know they consider only the Indian as their true culture.
The result? A reversion to what amounts to a lay fundamentalism, with Indian languages and social organization as the paradigms.
Needless to say, the modernization and democratization ostensibly sought by Latin American societies tends in a different direction. It is not in the Nahuatl language where Mexico will find solace for the toils of its masses - nor Peru in the Quechua, nor Paraguay in the Guarani.
It is in open markets, in increased quality and productivity of work, in acceptance of principles of individual responsibility that a potentially prosperous future lies.
The appeal to return to Latin America's true roots suffers from terminal contradiction. It is an unabashed call to turn the clock back to idyllic times, but it issues from a political left that promises government along "scientific" principles. Science and traditional, tribal society don't mix.
Why is the left so attracted to this call backward? Because the repudiation of things European means a denigration of liberal democracy, long considered outdated by the left and allegedly about to be superseded by "scientific" socialism. It also means an indirect indictment of the free market, the Protestant work ethic, and, of course, the morality of the profit margin contained in the prices of goods and services.
Soon, of course, the Christian religion gets lumped in for punishment, having aided in the destruction of local religions. Then profuse reverence is paid to the Indians' respect for the environment - which allows for a veiled attack on the concept of industrialization.
Such idealization of the Indian is not new. One of the early expressions of Latin America's split personality consisted precisely in the worship of the Indians of the past, coupled with the dire exploitation and humiliation of the living Indian.
After five centuries, what to do with the Indians still remains a central, unanswered question. Even Pope John Paul II, during his visit to the Paraguayan Chaco, cried upon hearing an account of the sufferings of Paraguayan and Brazilian Indians today enslaved, abused, prostituted, and expelled from the fast disappearing forests. But beyond expressing solidarity, the Pope could do little else.
Indians have to decide whether to join effectively in the modern world of Latin America or face slow annihilation. Our countries are too poor to sponsor reservations, and despite protestations by anthropologists, the cultures of the Indians are incompatible with today's world. It is no longer possible for a people to survive by fishing and hunting alone.
The world is marching toward basic equality; special rights are becoming a thing of the past. The efforts of the Brazilian, Colombian, and possibly soon the Paraguayan Constitutions to legislate special privileges for the native populations are likely to be mere exercises. Because something is written into a constitution does not assure a will to fulfill it. Privileges for the underdogs in Latin America appear profusely in the laws, and remain dramatically unseen in the real world.
Nowhere, however, is the schizoid spirit more evident than in the legal systems of the continent. As if in a time warp, Latin America still applies Spain's main contribution to political jurisprudence: Se acata pero no se cumple (laws are accepted but not fulfilled). No region of the world may have more codes about everything, but fewer concerns about transforming the laws from words into actions.
Latin America has had a history of wonderful opportunities wasted. The fifth centennial of the Columbus voyage will not be different. We could have used it to avail ourselves of a chance to analyze our past, correct our course, reinterpret our cliches (and perhaps coin new ones), and learn once and for all that actions necessarily have consequences.
This last is perhaps the worst of the Spanish legacies. We seem not to have learned, yet, to be responsible. Everything is still expected to come as royal grants, compassionate alms, as befits medieval thinking.
We used to hold that the developed world owed us assistance to save us - and themselves - from communism. Now, we cry that the dole must come if democracy is to survive. The constant is that we want charity, whatever the reason.
Need we better proof of our continued colonial mentality?
In Latin America we still think that the best ideas and the important decisions must come from abroad. Consequently, the most appropriate motto regarding this year's celebration would be "Hispanic America, still a colony and with little hope of changing any time soon.