Article — From the December 1990 issue

Questions of Conquest

What Columbus wrought, and what he did not

In Madrid not long ago, a shadowy group calling itself the Association of Indian Cultures held a press conference to announce that its members (it was not clear who these men and women might be) were preparing to undertake, in Spain and also throughout Latin America, a number of acts of “sabotage.” It is, of course, a sad fact of life that in a number of Latin American countries–in Spain as well–the planting of bombs and the destruction of property continue to be perceived by some as a means of achieving justice, or self-determination, or, as in my country, Peru, the realization of a revolutionary utopia. But the Association of Indian Cultures did not seem interested in seizing the future. Their battle was with the past.

What are to be sabotaged by this group are the numerous quincentennial ceremonies and festivities scheduled for 1992 to commemorate the epochal voyage nearly 500 years ago of Columbus’s three small caravels. The Association of Indian Cultures believes that the momentous events of 1492 should in no way be celebrated; and although I have yet to hear of other persons willing to make the point through subversion, I do know that the group will not lack for sympathizers.

The question most crucial to these individuals is the oldest one: Was the discovery and conquest of America by Europeans the greatest feat of the Christian West or one of history’s monumental crimes? It is a question they ask rhetorically and perhaps will answer with violence. This is not to say that to discuss what could have happened as opposed to what did happen is a useless undertaking: Historians and thinkers have pondered the question since the seventeenth century, producing wonderful books and speculations. But to me the debate serves no practical purpose, and I intend to stay out of it. What would America be like in the 1990s if the dominant cultures were those of the Aztecs and Incas? The only answer, ultimately, is that there is no way to know.

I have two other questions, both having to do with the conquest, and I happen to think that an honest and thoughtful discussion of them is as timely and urgent as any others one could pose just now about Latin America. First: How was it possible that cultures as powerful and sophisticated as those of the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians–huge imperial cultures, as opposed to the scattered tribes of North America–so easily crumbled when encountered by infinitesimally small bands of Spanish adventurers? This question is itself centuries old, but not academic. In its answer may lie the basis for an understanding of the world the conquest engendered, a chronically “underdeveloped” world that has, for the most part, remained incapable of realizing its goals and visions.

The second question is this: Why have the postcolonial republics of the Americas–republics that might have been expected to have deeper and broader notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity–failed so miserably to improve the lives of their Indian citizens? Even as I write, not only the Amazonian rain forests but the small tribes who have managed for so long to survive there are being barbarously exterminated in the name of progress.

To begin to answer these questions, we must put down our newspapers and open the pages of the books that allow us to see close up the era when the Europeans dared to venture to sea in search of a new route to India and its spices, and happened instead on an unspoiled continent with its own peoples, customs, and civilizations. The chronicles of the conquest form an astonishingly rich literature–a literature at once fantastical and true. Through these books we can rediscover a period and a place, much as the readers of contemporary Latin American fiction discover the contemporary life of a continent. In their own way, the early chroniclers were the first Magical Realists.

The historian who mastered the subject of the discovery and conquest of Peru by the Spaniards better than anyone else had a tragic story. He died without having written the book for which he had prepared himself his whole life and whose theme he knew so well that he almost gave the impression of being omniscient. His name was Raul Porras Barrenechea. He was a small, pot-bellied man with a large forehead and a pair of blue eyes that became impregnated with malice every time he mocked someone. He was the most brilliant teacher I have ever had.

In the big old house of San Marcos, the first university founded by the Spaniards in the New World, a place that had already begun to fall into an irreparable process of decay when I passed through it in the 1950s, Porras Barrenechea’s lectures on historical sources attracted such a vast number of listeners that it was necessary to arrive well in advance so as not to be left outside the classroom listening together with dozens of students literally hanging from the doors and windows.

Whenever Porras Barrenechea spoke, history became anecdote, gesture, adventure, color, psychology. He depicted history as a series of mirrors that had the magnificence of a Renaissance painting and in which the determining factor of events was never the impersonal forces, the geographical imperative, the economic relations of divine providence, but a cast of certain outstanding individuals whose audacity, genius, charisma, or contagious insanity had imposed on each era and society a certain orientation and shape. As well as this concept of history, which the scientific historians had already named as romantic in an effort to discredit it, Porras Barrenechea demanded knowledge and documentary precision, which none of his colleagues and critics at San Marcos had at that time been able to equal. Those historians who dismissed Porras Barrenechea because he was interested in simple, narrated history instead of a social or economic interpretation had been less effective than he was in explaining to us that crucial event in the destiny of Europe and America–the destruction of the Inca Empire and the linking of its vast territories and peoples to the Western world. This was because for Porras Barrenechea, although history had to have a dramatic quality, architectonic beauty, suspense, richness, and a wide range of human types and excellence in the style of a great fiction, everything in it also had to be scrupulously true, proven time after time. In order to be able to narrate the discovery and conquest of Peru in this way, Porras Barrenechea first had to evaluate very carefully all the witnesses and documents so as to establish the degree of credibility of each one of them. And in the numerous cases of deceitful testimonies, Porras Barrenechea had to find out the reasons that led the authors to conceal, misrepresent, or overclaim the facts; knowing their peculiar limitations, those sources had a double meaning–what they revealed and what they distorted.

For forty years Porras Barrenechea dedicated all his powerful intellectual energy to this heroic hermeneutics. All the works he published while he was alive constitute the preliminary work for what should have been his magnum opus. When he was perfectly ready to embark upon it, pressing on with assurance through the labyrinthine jungle of chronicles, letters, testaments, rhymes, and ballads of the discovery and conquest that he had read, cleansed, confronted, and almost memorized, sudden death put an end to his encyclopedic information. As a result, all those interested in that era and in the men who lived in it have had to keep on reading the old but so far unsurpassed history of the conquest written by an American who never set foot in the country but who sketched it with extraordinary skill–William Prescott.

Dazzled by Porras Barrenechea’s lectures, at one time I seriously considered the possibility of putting literature aside so as to dedicate myself to history. Porras Barrenechea had asked me to work with him as an assistant in an ambitious project on the general history of Peru under the auspices of the Lima bookseller and publisher Juan Mejia Baca. It was Porras Barrenechea’s task to write the volumes devoted to the conquest and emancipation. For four years I spent three hours a day, five days a week, in that dusty house on Colina Street in Lima, where the books, the card indexes, and the notebooks had slowly invaded and devoured everything except Porras Barrenechea’s bed and the dining table. My job was to read and take notes on the chronicles’ various themes, but principally the myths and legends that preceded and followed the discovery and conquest of Peru. That experience has become an unforgettable memory for me. Whoever is familiar with the chronicles of the discovery and conquest of America will understand why. They represent for us Latin Americans what the novels of chivalry represent for Europe, the beginning of literary fiction as we understand it today, The tradition from which sprang books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Julio Cortazar’s short stories, and the works of the Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastes, books in which we are exposed to a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy, started without doubt in those chronicles of the conquest and discovery that I read and annotated under the guidance of Porras Barrenechea.

The chronicle, a hermaphrodite genre, is distilling fiction into life all the time, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s tale “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Does this mean that its testimony must be challenged from a historical point of view and accepted only as literature? Not at all. Its exaggerations and fantasies often reveal more about the reality of the era than its truths. Astonishing miracles from time to time enliven the tedious pages of the Crónica moralizada, the exemplary chronicle of Father Calancha; sulfurous outrages come from the male and female demons, fastidiously catechized in the Indian villages by the extirpators of idolatries like Father Arriaga, to justify the devastations of idols, amulets, ornaments, handicrafts, and tombs. This teaches more about the innocence, fanaticism, and stupidity of the time than the wisest of treatises.

As long as one knows how to read them, everything is contained in these pages written sometimes by men who hardly knew how to write and who were impelled by the unusual nature of contemporary events to try to communicate and register them for posterity, thanks to an intuition of the privilege they enjoyed, that of being the witnesses of and actors in events that were changing the history of the world. Because they narrated these events under the passion of recently lived experience, they often related things that to us seem like naive or cynical fantasies. For the people of the time, this was not so; they were phantoms that credulity, surprise, fear, and hatred had endowed with a solidity and vitality often more powerful than beings made of flesh and blood.

The conquest of the Tawantinsuyu–the name given to the Inca Empire in its totality–by a handful of Spaniards is a fact of history that even now, after having digested and ruminated over all the explanations, we find hard to unravel. The first wave of conquistadores, Francisco Pizarro and his companions, was fewer than 200, not counting the black slaves and the collaborating Indians. When the reinforcements started to arrive, this first wave had already dealt a mortal blow and taken over an empire that had ruled over at least twenty million people. This was not a primitive society made up of barbaric tribes, like the ones the Spaniards had found in the Caribbean or in Darien, but a civilization that had reached a high level of social, military, agricultural, and handicraft development that in many ways Spain itself had not reached.

The most remarkable aspects of this civilization, however, were not the paths that crossed the four suyus, or regions, of the vast territory, the temples and fortresses, the irrigation systems, or the complex administrative organization, but something about which all the testimonies of the chronicles agree. This civilization managed to eradicate hunger in that immense region. It was able to distribute all that was produced in such a way that all its subjects had enough to eat. Only a very small number of empires throughout the whole world have succeeded in achieving this feat. Are the conquistadores’ firearms, horses, and armor enough to explain the immediate collapse of this Inca civilization at the first clash with the Spaniards? It is true the gunpowder, the bullets, and the charging of beasts that were unknown to them paralyzed the Indians with a religious terror and provoked in them the feeling that they were fighting not against men but against gods who were invulnerable to the arrows and slings with which they fought. Even so, the numerical difference was such that the Quechua ocean would have had simply to shake in order to drown the invader.

What prevented this from happening? What is the profound explanation for that defeat from which the Inca population never recovered? The answer may perhaps lie hidden in the moving account that appears in the chronicles of what happened in the Cajamarca Square the day Pizarro captured the last ruler of the empire, Inca Atahualpa. We must, above all, read the accounts of those who were there, those who lived through the event or had direct testimony of it.

At the precise moment the Inca emperor is captured, before the battle begins, his armies give up the fight as if manacled by a magic force. The slaughter is indescribable, but only from one of the two sides. The Spaniards discharged their harquebuses, thrust their pikes and swords, and charged their horses against a bewildered mass, which, having witnessed the capture of their god and master, seemed unable to defend itself or even to run away. In the space of a few minutes, the army, which defeated Prince Huáscar, the emperor’s half brother, in a battle for rule, and which dominated all the northern provinces of the empire, disintegrated like ice in warm water.

The vertical and totalitarian structure of the Tawantinsuyu was without doubt more harmful to its survival than all the conquistadores’ firearms and iron weapons. As soon as the Inca, that figure who was the vortex toward which all the wills converged searching for inspiration and vitality, the axis around which the entire society was organized and upon which depended the life and death of every person, from the richest to the poorest, was captured, no one knew how to act. And so they did the only thing they could do with heroism, we must admit, but without breaking the 1,001 taboos and precepts that regulated their existence. They let themselves get killed. And that was the fate of dozens and perhaps hundreds of Indians stultified by the confusion and the loss of leadership they suffered when the Inca emperor, the life force of their universe, was captured right before their eyes. Those Indians who let themselves be knifed or blown up into pieces that somber afternoon in Cajamarca Square lacked the ability to make their own decisions either with the sanction of authority or indeed against it and were incapable of taking individual initiative, of acting with a certain degree of independence according to the changing circumstances.

Those 180 Spaniards who had placed the Indians in ambush and were now slaughtering them did possess this ability. It was this difference, more than the numerical one or the weapons, that created an immense inequality between those civilizations. The individual had no importance and virtually no existence in that pyramidal and theocratic society whose achievements had always been collective and anonymous–carrying the gigantic stones of the Machu Picchu citadel or of the Ollantay fortress up the steepest of peaks, directing water to all the slopes of the cordillera hills by building terraces that even today enable irrigation to take place in the most desolate places, and making paths to unite regions separated by infernal geographies.

A state religion that took away the individual’s free will and crowned the authority’s decision with the aura of a divine mandate turned the Tawantinsuyu into a beehive–laborious, efficient, stoic. But its immense power was, in fact, very fragile. lt rested completely on the sovereign god’s shoulders, the man whom the Indian had to serve and to whom he owed a total and selfless obedience. It was religion rather than force that preserved the people’s metaphysical docility toward the Inca. It was an essentially political religion, which on the one hand turned the Indians into diligent servants and on the other was capable of receiving into its bosom as minor gods all the deities of the peoples that had been conquered, whose idols were moved to Cuzco and enthroned by the Inca himself. The Inca religion was less cruel than the Aztec one, for it performed human sacrifices with a certain degree of moderation, if this can be said, making use only of the necessary cruelty to ensure hypnosis and fear of the subjects toward the divine power incarnated in the temporary power of the Inca.

We cannot call into question the organizing genius of the Inca. The speed with which the empire, in the short period of a century, grew from its nucleus in Cuzco high in the Andes to become a civilization that embraced three quarters of South America is incredible. And this was the result not only of the Quechua’s military efficiency but also of the Inca’s ability to persuade the neighboring peoples and cultures to join the Tawantinsuyu. Once these other peoples and cultures became part of the empire, the bureaucratic mechanism was immediately set in motion, enrolling the new servants in that system that dissolves individual life into a series of tasks and gregarious duties carefully programmed and supervised by the gigantic network of administrators whom the Inca sent to the farthest borders. Either to prevent or to extinguish rebelliousness, there was a system called mitimaes, by which villages and people were removed en masse to faraway places where, feeling misplaced and lost, these exiles naturally assumed an attitude of passivity and absolute respect, which of course represented the Inca system’s ideal citizen.

Such a civilization was capable of fighting against the natural elements and defeating them. It was capable of consuming rationally what it produced, heaping together reserves for future times of poverty or disaster. And it was also able to evolve slowly and with care in the field of knowledge, inventing only that which could support it and deterring all that which in some way or another could undermine its foundation–as, for example, writing or any other form of expression likely to develop individual pride or a rebellious imagination.

It was not capable, however, of facing the unexpected, that absolute novelty presented by the balance of armored men on horseback who assaulted the Incas with weapons transgressing all the war-and-peace patterns known to them. When, after the initial confusion, attempts to resist started breaking out here and there, it was too late. The complicated machinery regulating the empire had entered a process of decomposition. Leaderless with the murder of Inca Huayna Capac’s two sons, Huascar and Atahualpa, the Inca system seems to fall into a monumental state of confusion and cosmic deviation, similar to the chaos that, according to the Cuzcan sages, the Arnautas, had prevailed in the world before the Tawantinsuyu was founded by the mythical Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo.

While on the one hand caravans of Indians loaded with gold and silver continued to offer treasures to the conquistadores to pay for the Inca’s rescue, on the other hand a group of Quechua generals, attempting to organize a resistance, fired at the wrong target, for they were venting their fury on the Indian cultures that had begun to collaborate with the Spaniards because of all their grudges against their ancient masters. At any rate, Spain had already won the game. Rebellious outbreaks were always localized and counterchecked by the servile obedience that great sectors of the Inca system transferred automatically from the Incas to the new masters.

Those who destroyed the Inca Empire and created that country called Peru, a country that four and a half centuries later has not yet managed to heal the bleeding wounds of its birth, were men whom we can hardly admire. They were, it is true, uncommonly courageous, but, contrary to what the edifying stories teach us, most of them lacked any idealism or higher purpose. They possessed only greed, hunger, and in the best of cases a certain vocation for adventure. The cruelty in which the Spaniards took pride, and the chronicles depict to the point of making us shiver, was inscribed in the ferocious customs of the times and was without doubt equivalent to that of the people they subdued and almost extinguished. Three centuries later, the Inca population had been reduced from twenty million to only six.

But these semiliterate, implacable, and greedy swordsmen, who even before having completely conquered the Inca Empire were already savagely fighting among themselves or fighting the pacifiers sent against them by the faraway monarch to whom they had given a continent, represented a culture in which, we will never know whether for the benefit or the disgrace of mankind, something new and exotic had germinated in the history of man. In this culture, although injustice and abuse often favored by religion had proliferated, by the alliance of multiple factors–among them chance–a social space of human activities had evolved that was neither legislated nor controlled by those in power. This evolution would produce the most extraordinary economic, scientific, and technical development human civilization has ever known since the times of the cavemen with their clubs. Moreover, this new society would give way to the creation of the individual as the sovereign source of values by which society would be judged.

Those who, rightly, are shocked by the abuses and crimes of the conquest must bear in mind that the first men to condemn them and ask that they be brought to an end were men, like Father Bartolome de Las Casas, who came to America with the conquistadores and abandoned the ranks in order to collaborate with the vanquished, whose suffering they divulged with an indignation and virulence that still move us today.

Father Las Cases was the most active, although not the only one, of those nonconformists who rebelled against the abuses inflicted upon the Indians. They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of a moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality. The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization in our world.

It seems to me useless to ask oneself whether it was good that it happened in this manner or whether it would have been better for humanity if the individual had never been born and the tradition of the antlike societies had continued forever. The pages of the chronicles of the conquest and discovery depict that crucial, bloody moment, full of phantasmagoria, when–disguised as a handful of invading treasure hunters, killing and destroying–the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Spanish language, Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, the notion of individual sovereignty, and the chance of living in freedom reached the shores of the Empire of the Sun. So it was that we as Peruvians were born. And, of course, the Bolivians, Chileans, Ecuadoreans, Colombians, and others.

Almost five centuries later, this notion of individual sovereignty is still an unfinished business. We have not yet, properly speaking, seen the light. We in Latin America do not yet constitute real nations. Our contemporary reality is still impregnated with the violence and marvels that those first texts of our literature, those novels disguised as history or historical books corrupted by fiction, told us about.

At least one basic problem is the same. Two cultures, one Western and modern, the other aboriginal and archaic, hardly coexist, separated from each other because of the exploitation and discrimination that the former exercises over the latter. Our country, our countries, are in a deep sense more a fiction than a reality. In the eighteenth century, in France, the name of Peru rang with a golden echo. And an expression was then born: Ce n’ est pas Ie Perou, which is used when something is not as rich and extraordinary as its legendary name suggests. Well, Le Perou n’est pas Ie Perou. It never was, at least for the majority of its inhabitants, that fabulous country of legends and fictions but rather an artificial gathering of men from different languages, customs, and traditions whose only common denominator was having been condemned by history to live together without knowing or loving one another.

Immense opportunities brought by the civilization that discovered and conquered America have been beneficial only to a minority, sometimes a very small one; whereas the great majority managed to have only the negative share of the conquest–that is, contributing in their serfdom and sacrifice, in their misery and neglect, to the prosperity and refinement of the westernized elites. One of our worst defects, our best fictions, is to believe that our miseries have been imposed on us from abroad, that others, for example, the conquistadores, have always been responsible for our problems. There are countries in Latin America–Mexico is the best example–in which the Spaniards are even now severely indicted for what they did to the Indians. Did they really do it? We did it; we are the conquistadores.

They were our parents and grandparents who came to our shores and gave us the names we have and the language we speak. They also gave us the habit of passing to the devil the responsibility for any evil we do. Instead of making amends for what they did, by improving and correcting our relations with our indigenous compatriots, mixing with them and amalgamating ourselves to form a new culture that would have been a kind of synthesis of the best of both, we, the westernized Latin Americans, have persevered in the worst habits of our forebears, behaving toward the Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the Spaniards behaved toward the Aztecs and the Incas, and sometimes even worse. We must remember that in countries like Chile and Argentina, it was during the republic (in the nineteenth century), not during the colony, that the native cultures were systematically exterminated. In the Amazon jungle, and in the mountains of Guatemala, the exterminating continues.

It is a fact that in many of our countries, as in Peru, we share, in spite of the pious and hypocritical indigenous rhetoric of our men of letters and our politicians, the mentality of the conquistadores. Only in countries where the native population was small or nonexistent, or where the aboriginals were practically liquidated, can we talk of integrated societies. In the others, discreet, sometimes unconscious, but very effective apartheid prevails. Important as integration is, the obstacle to achieving it lies in the huge economic gap between the two communities. Indian peasants live in such a primitive way that communication is practically impossible. It is only when they move to the cities that they have the opportunity to mingle with the other Peru. The price they must pay for integration is high–renunciation of their culture, their language; their beliefs, their traditions and customs, and the adoption of the culture of their ancient masters. After one generation they become mestizos. They are no longer Indians.

Perhaps there is no realistic way to integrate our societies other than by asking the Indians to pay that price. Perhaps the ideal–that is, the preservation of the primitive cultures of America–is a utopia incompatible with this other and more urgent goal–the establishment of societies in which social and economic inequalities among citizens be reduced to human, reasonable limits and where everybody can enjoy at least a decent and free life. In any case, we have been unable to reach any of those ideals and are still, as when we had just entered Western history, trying to find out what we are and what our future will be.

If forced to choose between the preservation of Indian cultures and their complete assimilation, with great sadness I would choose modernization of the Indian population, because there are priorities; and the first priority is, of course, to fight hunger and misery. My novel The Storyteller is about a very small tribe in the Amazon called the Machiguengas. Their culture is alive in spite of the fact that it has been repressed and persecuted since Inca times. It should be respected. The Machiguengas are still resisting change, but their world is now so fragile that they cannot resist much longer. They have been reduced to practically nothing. It is tragic to destroy what is still living, still a driving cultural possibility, even if it is archaic; but I am afraid we shall have to make a choice. For I know of no case in which it has been possible to have both things at the same time, except in those countries in which two different cultures have evolved more or less simultaneously. But where there is such an economic and social gap, modernization is possible only with the sacrifice of the Indian cultures.

One of the saddest aspects of the Latin American culture is that, in countries like Argentina, there were men of great intelligence, real idealists, who gave moral and philosophical reasons to continue the destruction of Indian cultures that began with the conquistadores. The case of Domingo F. Sarmiento is particularly sad to me, for I admire him very much. He was a great writer and also a great idealist. He was totally convinced that the only way in which Argentina could become modern was through westernization; that is, through the elimination of everything that was non-Western. He considered the Indian tradition, which was still present in the countryside of Argentina, a major obstacle for the progress and modernization of the country. He gave the moral and intellectual arguments in favor of what proved to be the decimation of the native population. That tragic mistake still looms in the Argentine psyche. In Argentine literature there is an emptiness that Argentine writers have been trying to fill by importing everything. The Argentines are the most curious and cosmopolitan people in Latin America, but they are still trying to fill the void caused by the destruction of their past.

This is why it is useful for us to review the literature that gives testimony to the discovery and the conquest. In the chronicles we not only dream about the time in which our fantasy and our realities seem to be incestuously confused. In them there is an extraordinary mixture of reality and fantasy, of reality and fiction in a united work. It is a literature that is totalizing, in the sense that it is a literature that embraces not only objective reality but also subjective reality in a new synthesis. The difference, of course, is that the chronicles accomplished that synthesis out of ignorance and naivete and that modern writers have accomplished it through sophistication. But a link can be established. There are chronicles that are especially imaginative and even fantastic in the deeds they describe. For instance, the description of the first journey to the Amazon in the chronicle of Gaspar de Carvajal. It is exceptional, like a fantastic novel. And, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has used themes from the chronicles in his fiction.

In the chronicles we also learn about the roots of our problems and the challenges that are still there unanswered. And in these half-literary, half-historical pages we also perceive–formless, mysterious, fascinating–the promise of something new and formidable, something that if it ever turned into reality would enrich the world and improve civilization. Of this promise we have only had until now sporadic manifestations–in our literature and in our art, for example. But it is not only in our fiction that we must strive to achieve. We must not stop until our promise passes from our dreams and words into our daily lives and becomes objective reality. We must not permit our countries to disappear, as did my dear teacher, the historian Porras Barrenechea, without writing in real life the definite masterwork we have been preparing ourselves to accomplish since the three caravels stumbled onto our coast.

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2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Commentary October 7, 2010, 10:57 am

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