Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 340 | Noviembre 2009


Latin America

The Codes of Latin American Culture

The Christian religious tradition, a resigned pragmatic political culture and economic values that legitimize inequality are among the codes of Latin American culture that the Left must change if it wants to transform our continent’s reality.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

Like any other dimension of reality, the values that make up a society’s collective self-image need to be categorized to be analyzed. It is thus possible to talk about political culture, economic culture and religious culture. In individuals’ minds and in society’s collective self-image, however, these analytical differences disappear because the religious, political and economic aspects form part of a whole in which their significance is integrated either harmonically or contradictorily, depending on how their meanings are socially interpreted and evaluated.

Searching for a new “common sense”

There are deep tensions and contradictions among democratic political values, the Christian ethic of solidarity and the market’s economic values that the human mind and dominant social self identities have been able to relate and harmonize—at least in the historical experience of capi- talism—the same way cubist paintings managed to relate and harmonize representations from diverse and even contradictory perspectives. Basically speaking, it’s a perverse harmonization in which the rationality of capital is imposed on the true sense of Christian solidarity, devaluing or obscuring it, or else distorting its meaning. In this regard, it can be said that the dominant forms of capitalism and Christianity have managed to establish relations of “elective affinity” over and above their contradictions.

Weber uses the concept of “elective affinity” to refer to situations in which the ideas, materiality, events and circumstances of history develop mutually attracting and reinforcing relationships that at times culminate in a sort of cultural symbiosis. Following Weber, Michael Löwy defines this same concept as the mutual selection and reciprocal reinforcement of distinct socio-cultural phenomena. In the case of the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism, the discursive congruence established between the Calvinist sense of predestination, the Protestant work ethic and the generation and accumulation of wealth was imposed over the capacity of the Christian message to shine a light on the injustice resulting from capitalist accumulation, as well as the contradictions between this accumulation and the sense of equality feeding the idea of solidarity as preached by Jesus.

The nature of the relationship—congruence or incongruence—between a society’s religious, political and economic value systems depends largely on how the normative elements that are a part of each system are either devalued or inflated. In other words, a relationship of “elective affinity” can come about between the political, economic and religious spheres based on inflating the compatible elements in these three cultural systems. Such an ethical subversion of reality involves reconstructing the history of these affinities, identifying the inflations—and devaluations—that make it possible and establishing another form of relationship, with its own inflations and devaluations, that translates into a new “common sense” and a new social ordering.

The struggle to define “sin”

Political discourse and social theory play a central role in defining how society perceives the relationship among the ideas that make up a society’s different value systems. Discourse and social theory can stress the incongruities and contradictions between Christianity and capitalism, as does liberation theology, or the relationships of affinity between the market’s logic and the official Catholic ethics, as does the Vatican’s economic thinking.

The Catholic Catechism, for example, accepts as normal that “differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce and the distribution of wealth.” According to the Catholic Church, these differences are part of God’s plan, as “the ‘talents’ are not distributed equally.” (Catechism 1936)

In contrast, liberation theology offers a vision of the social inequality in Latin America as one of the results of oppression and exploitation, not as part of some divine plan, as proposed by the Catholic Catechism. For Gustavo Gutiérrez, for example, “material poverty is a scandalous state, the result of the oppression and injustice of the rich and powerful.” From this perspective, the poor are not people whose material condition is derived from a heavenly distribution of “the talents.” Liberation theology sees the poor person as “the oppressed person, the person marginalized by society, the proletarian fighting for his most basic rights, the exploited and dispossessed social class….”

The positions of both the Catholic Church and liberation theology regarding poverty and inequalities are based on interpretations of the Christian gospels. However, the representations of poverty derived from those interpretations are different and even contradictory. Liberation theology attempted to subvert the institutionalized values of Catholic Christianity. It failed both because it bound its fate to that of Latin American revolutionary Marxism and because it was frontally attack by the Vatican.

The Catholic Church authorities used not only their administrative and coercive power in that attack, but also the power of the word. In other words, they used argument to delegitimize the religious interpretations offered by liberation theology. So while liberation theology talked about “structural sins” to refer to the unjust social structures that generated poverty and inequality, the Vatican reduced the category of “structural sin” to an accumulation of personal sins through its Sollicitudo Rei Socialis encyclical of December 30, 1987.

The discursive struggle over the definition of sin was fundamentally important to the Vatican. At stake was one of the basic definitions of good and evil that form part of Latin Americans’ collective religious self-image. This definition also transcended the strictly religious sphere. If the power structures that reproduce the prevailing order in Latin America could be qualified as sinful, it was a Christian’s obligation to fight against them. A re-codifying of the religious sense of sin could have been the start of a change in the power relations in the region’s societies.

The primacy of religious matters

A review of the history of the religious, political and economic systems in Latin American societies shows that religious values have provided the foundation on which the region’s political and economic subjectivities have been built. The constitution of a Latin American political culture and economic culture—with all their national and sub-regional differences—took place within the religious self-identity constructed since the time of the Conquest. This meant that the development of the economic and political values of the States that emerged in Latin America at the beginning of the 19th century necessarily had to make use of the collective religious self-image on which the region’s political societies were constructed and developed. The social order and political and economic power, for example, were justified through invocations to the will of a God that supported the European conquering and colonizing enterprise.

Chronology, however, is just one of the elements that allow us to establish the primacy of the religious side of things in the collective self-identity of Latin American societies. Psychology, sociology and biology also contribute elements of judgment that facilitate the understanding of the preponderant role religious matters play in the functioning of the collective self-identity of the region’s societies.

Religions as expressions
of the collective unconcious

Analytical psychologist Karl Jung is especially relevant for understanding this role. For Jung, society’s “collective unconscious” is the level of subjectivity in which lie the “archetypes” or “primordial images” from which personal consciousnesses and society’s morality are derived. Miguel de Unamuno refers to this phenomenon when talking about “intra-history” as a sedimented dimension of the “patterns of apperception and conduct” transmitted through time. From this perspective, religions are expressions of society’s collective unconscious. In other words, they are projections of the unconscious that acquire objectivity on being discursively materialized in rites and words.

The way these projections are materialized is conditioned by the socio-historical and special context in which the force of the archetypes that form the “intra-history” of humanity is materialized. The vision of God offered by the Old Testament, for example, is different from the one provided by the New Testament. Equally, there are important common elements between the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition and that of the Islamic one, although there are also differences that largely result from the historical and social contexts in which the discursive articulations of the idea of God were formulated.

So the values that define the world’s religions are projections of the archetypes that make up humanity’s intra-history. From a sociological perspective, they are manifestations of what George Steinmetz terms “deep culture” in order to talk about the pre-reflexive values that operate in the unconsciousness of men and women who share a historical time and social space. Pierre Bourdieu also refers to the “deep culture” Steinmetz talks about in order to refer to the constitutive force of religious beliefs. For Bourdieu, these beliefs do not function in the sphere of the consciousness. They are corporal dispositions that do not operate as mental calculations, and can thus be irrational.

Religious beliefs operate at a much deeper cognitive level than ideologies. For Bourdieu they are cognitive structures inscribed on the body through the collective history (phylogenesis) and individual history (ontogenesis) of a society’s members.

God is the most powerful
and persistent of all “memes”

Like analytical psychology and sociology, evolutionist biology reveals the existence of a cognitive scale within which religious beliefs occupy a founding place. According to Richard Dawkins, the ideas of God have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years.

Dawkins uses the concept of “memes” to refer to the “unit of cultural transmission” responsible for the evolution of ideas. A meme is a “replicator” of values and meanings that functions much like the biological replicators known as genes. Memes can be seen as the reproducers that make possible inter-generational transmission of the projections of the unconscious to which Jung refers. But not all memes have the same force. Some manage to settle and survive for longer than others and to engrave themselves as primary cognitive structures on the bodies of individuals that make up a society or culture.

For Dawkins, the god meme is the most powerful of all the memes that have existed in the history of humanity. A well known atheist, Dawkins explains the nature of its strength in the following way: “Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation.’ In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.”

Refound the religious bases,
rearticulate the idea of God

Evolutionist biology, like analytical psychology and sociology, provides important explanations related to the preponderant weight played by religious values in society’s collective self-identity. To these scientific explanations can be added the more obvious evidence revealed by the relationship between politics and religion in the history of philosophy. The study of this relationship demonstrates that many of the main concepts and political ideas in Western philosophy have a theological/religious origin. For Carl Schmidt, for example, the figure of the “omnipotent lawgiver,” which occupies a central place in the theory of the modern State, is derived from the Christian idea of the “omnipotent God.” The modern State itself and the principle of sovereignty that forms part of its development have also been studied as an extrapolation of religious symbols and principles, with particular intensity in the philosophy of Hobbes. Chris¬tianity’s influence in Western philosophical thinking is also revealed in Locke’s Liberalism.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the ideas of God propagated by the Catholic Church and other churches for over five centuries has had a determining weight in the formation of Latin American reality’s subjective dimension. More concretely, the religious culture institutionalized in Latin America is projected in the region’s political and economic cultures, creating a relationship of elective affinity among a providentialist Christian religious tradition, a pragmatic and resigned political culture and the economic values that justify and legitimize the organization, functioning and distribution of economic power. The ethical subversion of Latin American reality implies refounding its religious basis and, more concretely, rearticulating the idea of God.

Prisoners of providentialism

The collective psychology within which the conquest and colonization of the Americas took place was fed by a “Christian cosmovision of the world and of human existence that sees a provident God governing the changing historical situations” (Fazio Fernández). This superstitious and inquisitorial providentialism of the Counter-reform dominated the visions of power and history that the conquistadores and missionaries transplanted to the American continent.

Providentialism is a theological concept that expresses a vision of the history of individuals and societies as processes governed by God in concordance with His plans and purposes. From this perspective, according to Ferguson and Wright, providence represents the beneficent work of God’s sovereignty that guides and stipulates all historical and natural events to realize the purposes of good and glory for which the universe was created.

Some providentialist visions project an idea of God as a general historical influence. “General providentialism” accepts and promotes humanity’s active participation in the construction of its own history. According to this vision, God establishes a framework of action within which individuals, communities and institutions organize the development and meaning of social life. In contrast, “meticulous providen¬tialism” provides a vision of God as a force that determines each and every aspect of the history of individuals, societies and the world.

The virtue of docility
in the face of exploitation

Christian providentialism combined with the dominant religious, magical and fatalist cosmovisions in pre-Columbian societies to reinforce the political thinking and pre-modern visions of the social order, power and history that dominated the colonial experience. For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the world and human existence were regulated, even in their most minimum details, by supernatural forces they had to obey. After independence from Spain, provi¬dentialism was maintained as one of the central elements of the prevailing Catholic theology in Latin America. The region’s poor cultural development in general and the Catholic clergy in particular facilitated the reproduction of this vision right up to the present day.

It needs to be pointed out that the weight of providential¬ism varies from country to country and sub-region to sub-region. Measured in terms of “formal religiosity,” Mexico and Central America are the region’s most traditional sub-region, while the countries of the Southern Cone are the least traditional, with the Andean countries coming somewhere between those poles. This classification obviously doesn’t consider the tremendous social and cultural fragmentation existing within each of the Latin American countries, which translates into the coexistence within a single country of sectors whose practices and thinking express different degrees and kinds of providentialism. In general terms, however, the predominant providentialism in Latin America is the “meticulous” kind. This model provides a vision of God as an all-powerful and omnipresent force that controls and administers every aspect of the life of individuals and of society.

Anthropology, social psychology and popular education have demonstrated the meticulous providentialist model’s weight in the region. The work of social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, for example, shows the tendency of the traditional Latin American providentialist Catholicism to turn “docility” into a “religious virtue.” In the field of pedagogy and popular education, Paulo Freire’s work demonstrates how the “oppressed consciousness” of Latin Americans inhabits a magical world in which the victims of exploitation interpret their own suffering as a divine design. Liberation theology made providentialism more visible and fought against it.

Pentecostals and Charismatics
feed providentialism

Statistical support for the existence of Latin American meticulous providentialism is fragmented, but solid. The following are some examples: 9 out of every 10 Mexicans believe in a providential God and are prone to call on the Virgin of Guadalupe or a saint to resolve their problems; a smaller percentage of Chileans (59%) say they believe in miracles; in a Nicaraguan study published in 2002, 79% of those interviewed said that God, rather than their personal will, was the force that determined the direction taken by their life and history. Studies on “grassroots Catholicism,” which predominates in Latin America, have also revealed the dominant weight of meticulous providentialism in the region. The idea of a God that intervenes in history through angels, saints and supernatural forces to reward and punish humanity is the essence of “grassroots Catholicism.”

Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement have reinforced the weight of Latin American meticulous providentialism historically promoted by the Catholic Church. These two groups perceive God as a force that meticulously controls the destiny of individuals and society, so their believers seek the solution to their problems outside of the real political arena; i.e. in a meta-historical space in which humanity’s future depends on the unfathomable designs of the divinity.

Pentecostalism’s capacity to intensify traditional Latin American providentialism can be seen with particular intensity in the case of Guatemala, where this religious movement has developed an influence unparalleled in the rest of the region. Timothy J. Steigenga pointed out in 2005 that 88% of Guatemalan Pentecostalist Protestants said they had benefitted from a miracle. Over 70% of Catholics and even 64% of people who said they had no formal religious affiliation also claimed to have had such an experience.

Their numerical weight and rapid growth give Pentecost¬al¬ism and the Charismatic Movement the necessary strength to intensify providentialism in Latin American religious culture. In 1970, the Pentecostal and Charismatic population accounted for just 4.4% of the total Latin American population. But by 2005 this figure had jumped to over 28%, and today 30%, 49% and 60% of the populations of Chile, Brazil and Guatemala, respectively, call themselves Pentecostal or Charismatic.

At the bottom of
a “deep, shadowed pool”

The reproductive capacity of the dominant providentialist religious vision in Latin America has multiple causes, including the weakness of science and technology in constructing the social imaginations dominant in the region’s societies.

Francisco Piñón vividly illustrates this weakness: “Only 20% of the population of the corresponding age gets into university, while in developed countries the proportion averages 50%. The percentage of the GDP earmarked to research and development (R&D) in Latin America is just over 0.5%. This percentage is 1.9% of the GDP in the European Union (where a global goal of 3% has been set), 2.7% in the United States and 3% in Japan. Two thirds of the Latin American R&D budget comes from public funds, while in developed countries a greater amount comes from and is executed by private enterprise. The meager resources available coexist with an insufficient number of scientists and researchers: approximately 260,000 in the whole of the South working full time and just 126,000 in all of Latin America. This is the equivalent of a quarter of the professionals dedicated to science and investigation in Western Europe.”

As Edward O. Wilson accurately points out, a society that lacks scientific culture remains trapped in a cognitive prison. Without the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the natural sciences, the members of that society are “like intelligent fish born in a deep, shadowed pool. Wondering and restless, longing to reach out, they think about the world outside. They invent ingenious speculations and myths about the origin of the confining waters, of the sun and the sky and the stars above, and the meaning of their own existence. But they are wrong, always wrong, because the world is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined.”

Any effort to transform the painful material reality of Latin America’s poverty, exclusion and social inequality must recognize and accept the need to break out of the cognitive prison referred to by Wilson. It isn’t possible to promote a modern model of social organization—based on the principles of liberty, justice and social equality—unless there is a transformation of the region’s prevailing pre-modern religious culture. Moreover, no desire or effort to transform social reality can be generated if Latin American men and women cannot manage to perceive history as a process they themselves can control.

The pragmatic-resigned political culture

The providentialist vision of God prevailing in Latin America induces the region’s men and women to accept that their individual and social destinies are determined by forces beyond their control. This vision has contributed to the generation of a political culture that can be termed “pragmatic-resigned.”

Resigned pragmatism constitutes a way of perceiving the social reality as a historical condition determined by forces beyond thought and social action. From a pragmatic-resigned perspective, the politically desirable must always be subordinated to the circumstantially possible. In other words, the political sphere is conceived as the capacity to adjust to the reality of power or “accommodate oneself to circumstances.”

Resigned pragmatism is clearly reflected in the grassroots classes. The poverty and low education levels that affect the poor visibly promote passive and fatalist behaviors in the face of inequality, corruption and even the blows of nature. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that resigned pragmatism doesn’t affect Latin America’s elites. This sector’s power and wealth mask a tendency to assume that reality defines the limits of what is possible. They enjoy their privileges but are incapable of expanding the horizon of their reality, which includes developing and exploiting the entire economic potential of their own societies. To borrow from Gabriel García Márquez, despite their wealth they are inferior to their own fate.

In a speech he gave during his tenure as president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Enrique Iglesias illustrated the political culture of the Latin American elites when he lamented their tendency to “tolerate” poverty, inefficiency and underdevelopment. Their “tolerance” is correlative to an aversion to economic and political risk. The Latin American capitalists have defended the market economy, but have never dared assume the risks implied in promoting the organization of real competitive environments for the expansion and development of the region’s markets. And most of the economic groups and sectors that currently support neoliberal free trade do so hand in hand with transnational capital.

The Latin American elites’ aversion to economic risk feeds their resistance to facilitating the democratization of the relationship between State and society in the region. They prefer to operate with States that can be colonized by their interests, as in the Southern Cone States, with their corporativist tradition, or with States that can be directly manipulated to reproduce the unequal distribution of wealth and power, as in the case of the Central American States where an oligarchic tradition dominates. The so-called democratization processes being developed in Latin America for 20 years now haven’t changed the dependent mentality of Latin American businesspeople, their inclination to use the State to support them or their intolerance of poverty and social inequality in the region.

The Left as well

The Latin American Left hasn’t been immune to pragmatism and resignation. For the Left currently in government, for example, resigned pragmatism is expressed in a tendency to accept the rules of neoliberalism, both implicitly and explicitly. Those rules are inscribed in the neoliberal institutionality and the culture, designed to construct and reproduce the societal model to which the national partners of global capitalism aspire. The resigned pragmatism of the Latin American Left is associated with the theoretical crisis of Marxism and the absence of political thought that provides an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal model. In the absence of its own way of thinking, the governing Left has ended up internalizing the dominant morality of the region’s societies.

The indifference of the elites, the fatalism of the masses and the political accommodation of the Left express a sense of irresponsibility with respect to history. This attitude can be qualified as pre-modern, not because a linear historical progression places the world’s societies on a development scale led by the countries of the North, but rather because Latin America’s resigned pragmatism resembles the social culture that prevailed in Europe for most of the Middle Ages. In Medieval Europe, history was perceived as a process governed by God and Fortune. Modernity involved the emergence of a new cosmovision that allowed humanity to assume the right and duty to participate in building history.

Promoting that cosmovision, consolidating a Latin American modernity without trying to copy the process through which it was developed in Europe is one of the main challenges facing any social transformation project in Latin America.

The crystallization of neoliberalism

Religious providentialism and resigned pragmatism provide the foundation on which neoliberal values are currently erected. Neoliberalism is a special form of capitalism, a model of relations between the State, the market and society that intensify the market’s instrumental rationality to the point of turning it into the normative guiding axis of all life in society. This model has been institutionalized around the world, despite the immense social cost it has generated and the crises it has suffered and continues to suffer. Overcoming it requires an alternative model. It’s not enough for neoliberalism to collapse, as many announce with inexplicable satisfaction, because the result would inevitably be another capitalist model with social consequences that could be even more damaging.

Talking about the institutionalizing of neoliberalism is to talk about the crystallizing, normalizing and even naturalizing of a set of ideas, such as the liberalization of trade and the markets, labor markets included; the privatization of State assets; and the reduction of the States’ social role. All these measures and policies are organized within a rationality blind to many of the most important dimensions of the region’s injustice and social inequality.

This market rationality has been successfully imposed as the framework of values within which the societies of today’s world tend to define the role of the State and the limits of democracy. So whether a state policy or action is good or bad increasingly depends upon its impact on the market: the development of business competiveness and corporate profit margins. The implications of these actions and policies for social justice and the promotion of the common good don’t form part of the set of problems addressed by the market’s rationality and morality. That’s how Latin American neoliberalism can celebrate the macroeconomic successes achieved by a society when they favor the development of capital, regardless of the human cost imposed on the weakest, most vulnerable sectors by the measures typically used to consolidate those successes—the reduction of social spending, the watering down of labor rights, etc.

The tremendous social cost imposed by neoliberalism cannot be seen as evidence of its failure unless we assume that neoliberalism sought to resolve the problems of poverty and exclusion in Latin America and the rest of the world. Neoliberalism has been institutionalized precisely because it currently appears as a quasi-natural order that pushes many to think there is no alternative but to accept it—despite its brutal social cost.

From the omnipotent God
to the all-powerful market

When the parties of the Latin American Left reach power, they find themselves impelled to act as the legitimizers and even defenders of the neoliberal model they attacked from the opposition. They legitimize it when they try to “humanize” it and when, to paraphrase Foucault, they feel obliged to discuss reality from the truth imposed and reproduced by the neoliberal power structures. From this perspective, the strength of neoliberalism cannot even be measured by the levels of protest it generates, but rather by the capacity this system demonstrates for keeping grassroots protest and the strength of the Latin American Left within the system of norms, values, processes and structures created by capital.

The rationality of the neoliberal market has been incorporated into the Latin American political and religious value system, establishing relationships of “elective affinity” that almost always end up reinforcing the worst dimensions of the market, religious and political values that form the collective self-image of Latin American countries. As the scission between history and humanity caused by the idea of a providential God induces millions of Latin Americans to accept that their individual and social destinies are determined by forces beyond their control, this idea generates the appropriate mental and cultural conditions to accept the power of any external force that, like God, presents itself as omnipotent.

A mind conditioned to accept the decisions of an unpredictable God that punishes humanity with hunger, earthquakes and illnesses is a mind prepared to accept the reality of a power, like the global market, that rewards or punishes according to a logic immune to human will. This logic is responsible for the perception of “economic miracles” that occasionally fill the business sections of the world’s newspapers. And according to theologian Harvey Cox, it also explains why any state interference in the market’s dynamic and morality is perceived as a condemnable deviation.

The rationality and functioning of the neoliberal market is suffering certain modifications due to the global financial crisis that started in the United States in 2008. President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech stressed the necessary role of the State in that country’s economic organization. However, we shouldn’t expect more than a limited reassessment of the role of the State, one that will go no further than reducing the inefficiencies in its role of facilitating capitalist development.

At the service of humanity

The institutionalization of neoliberalism in Latin America has involved coupling the values and practices of this model with our countries’ traditional culture and institutional framework. Neoliberalism has been transformed into an additional component of the common sense of Latin American reality.

The exacerbated individualism promoted by neoliberal capitalism is compatible with the traditional attitude of indifference that forms part of the resigned pragmatic culture and behavior of Latin America’s elites. Neoliberalism simply reinforces and legitimizes a traditional cultural attitude. Meanwhile, the idea of a God that decides everything has been turned into a convenient disguise to hide the functioning of the market’s “invisible hand,” whose index figure points to who will eat and who will not, who will live and who will die in today’s globalized world.

Transcending Latin America’s religious providentialism requires humanizing Christianity and updating the idea of God proposed by Thomas Jefferson. After all, as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. The above text is a chapter from La Subversión ética de nuestra realidad, recently published by envío and the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica (IHNCA).

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