In the mid 1980s, when Latin America was engulfed by civil wars and right-wing military dictatorships, Panamanian salsa artist Rubén Blades lamented the region’s conflicts through the classic song, “Buscando América,” (Searching for América). More than just a metaphor about the region as a whole, the song suggests a somber, grim and overtly hopeless admission that Simón Bolívar’s dream of a united Latin America was never going to materialize. Fast forward fifteen years or so to the upsurge of leftist, progressive and nationalists movements headed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and you realize that Bolívar’s dream might just come to pass.
But as this week’s recent developments in Venezuela and Brazil show, nothing can be farther away from the truth. Everything that has been built is slowly withering away. And for good reasons, too. Yesterday, thousands of Venezuelans marched in Caracas calling president Nicolás Maduro to be recalled. In Brazil, the National Congress was finally able to oust president Dilma Rousseff from power after finding her guilty in a series of corruption accusations. Late last year, in Argentina, Mauricio Macri ended the Kirchner’s decade long tenure in the executive office. Just a few years ago, most South American countries were led by left-leaning progressive governments with new and promising agendas only to delivery a shoddy product that has, in the case of Venezuela, brought nothing but grief. Now, only Ecuador and Bolivia are left in the entire continent. What happened?
Incompetency and tradition is what halted any serious plans for continental integration between Latin American countries. And although South America is home to several continental and supranational political organizations geared towards integration, they have failed because in order for true integration to take place, the individual countries must abdicate to a higher centralized body. That’s why the United Kingdom has opted to leave the European Union. As a sovereign state, it will not allow Brussels to dictate any of its domestic or foreign policies. Thus, any sort of supranational union is ultimately unsustainable.
At the height of his power and influence, Chávez was able to muster all of the Latin American and Caribbean countries (except for colonial dependencies) to the first annual CELAC (Community of Latin America and Caribbean States) summit in Caracas, Venezuela. Apart from the pomp and circumstance that took place, this summit was key because never in recent diplomatic history in the Western hemisphere has the United States and Canada been explicitly and deliberately excluded from an international forum. It was also very important because here, Chavéz and his Bolivarian Revolution was able to “catechize” the rest of the region’s members into a stronger union that undermined the US’ historic hegemony.
Unfortunately, Chávez’s unexpected death signaled the beginning of the end of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and of its major allies. When Maduro stepped into office in 2013, and after Venezuela was engulfed by dubious internal protests by the Chavista’s enemies, the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) held an emergency meeting in Caracas in support of democratically elected Maduro. Similarly, when the US grounded Bolivian executive Evo Morales’ plane in Europe, thinking that Edward Snowden could’ve been hidden onboard, UNASUR also called an emergency meeting denouncing it as an act of aggression against a sovereign states’ leader. In both these cases, the UNASUR worked. Everyone came together in support of a member. However, this is the exception.
You see, every time there’s internal strife in any country in the region, everyone does two things. The first is to reestablish its sovereignty inside and outside. Meaning that Venezuela, as prime example, always ensures that whatever the state does is in its best interest. As an elected government, they successfully argue that their decisions ought to be respected. The second thing they do it seek ally approval. In that case, Argentina (before Macri), Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia fully supported Maduro’s decisions. And in that sense, Latin America has come a long way. Not so long ago, especially throughout the 20th century and particularly during the Cold War, these “dictatorial” renegades would be ousted by an US supported military coup.
In fact, it was precisely out of Latin America’s 20th century experience where Bolívar’s idea of a united Latin America reappear. Had it not been for the dozens of US interventions and invasions to the region, someone like Chávez–the first continental political unifier since Bolívar himself–would’ve arguably never come to power. But, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. And that’s why Latin America is again turning towards the Right. Because under the premise of sovereignty, Latin American unification is quite limited if not outright impossible.
In this sense, the US is particularly remarkable in being able to wield power along such a vast continental territory. That being said, the US’ historical experience is diametrically different from that of the Latin American countries. The US expanded in a strong and concentrated effort westward, with the Civil War being a sort of “pause” and reaffirmation of the federal government’s will to maintain the Union at all costs. In Latin America, the project wasn’t nearly as strong as it was in the English-speaking colonies. The Spanish American viceroyalties and other subdivisions commanded incredibly huge and diverse landscapes with similarly diverse indigenous and imported African populations. In fact, most of the borders in the region today fall along colonial era admisnistrative lines. And it was (and continues to be) a top-down hierarchical system where only those at the very top truly benefited.
In the US, there existed (and continues to) a very strong, commercial, entrepreneurial and political class of landowning men that inherited the political philosophies of 17th and 18th century England. In the English-speaking world, the Hobbsean and Lockean ideas of men of property working together–each abdicating a temporary morsel of their authority and power to a central figure–towards a commonly beneficial goal had absolutely no bearing in top-down and feudal Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors only came to get rich. As the Spaniards still say, “hacer las Américas,” or to “make it in the Americas.”
Quite the contrary, the Spanish and Portuguese spent all the resources that our lands produced in wars and churches. That’s our capital. The English arrived in the colonies in entire families, which enabled an almost exact reproduction of the old country to take place. In Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese mixed with the local indigenous nobility to maintain legitimacy through blood on both sides. Later, when entire Spanish families arrived, the European-born whites curbed the American born elite’s power. And this was a major reason why the local elites in each country resented the Spanish authorities and sought independence. One of the upsides to this is that Latin America doesn’t have nearly as bad of a race problem as the US does.
Bolívar, knew this. In fact, nowhere in the Americas has there been such a surprising mix of brains and braun as seen in Bolívar. Not even Washington. What the North got as opposed to the South was a better hand. A much leveled playing field–notwithstanding the US and Canada’s inherent qualities. So, when Maduro is overthrown, which is only a matter of time–and Cuba finally opens and democratizes will the Leftist governments of the region realize that they spend all this time invoking Bolivar’s dream while doing the same exact thing that kept him from being able to successfully rule and unite the continent. It’s like Bolivar said in his last days, “America is ungovernable.”