Pan-Americanism – An identity without borders?

Each country in Latin America has its own cultural, political and geographical makeup which forms a specific sense of national pride and identity in the minds of its people, and this is certainly something we have observed in the countries we have visited so far. However, when observing Latin America as a whole, from the tip of Argentina and Chile to the North of Mexico, it is worth noting how much the expansive territory has in common.

From its almost universal languages of Spanish and Portuguese and the similarities found in the local food, dances and music; to the colonial history that these countries share, there are many characteristics in each country which unite the region as a whole. This sense of shared roots and regional unity is something that many Latin Americans not only celebrate, but seek to strengthen and build upon for the future. Their vision of a stronger and more unified Latin America is often known as Pan-Americanism.

The champions of Pan-Americanism hold a vision of a united Latin America which breaks down the borders put upon them by the powers of Europe, which used ‘divide and rule’ tactics to separate the region’s people during the colonial era. Although this break-up of the Americas began during the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism with the creation of viceroyalties and separate colonies, it really took root following the colonies’ independence, and was mainly orchestrated by the British Empire. Following the wave of revolutions in the Spanish colonies, Britain rushed in to the region and carved up the newly liberated areas in order to continue the oppression and plundering of the region in as practical and efficient a way as possible.

We learnt about Britain’s involvement in great detail thanks to the enlightening and incredibly well written book Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer and thinker who is a true ‘Pan-Americanist’. We would recommend his book to anyone wanting to know more about the history of Latin America and the development of global capitalism. Written in 1970, but with an urgent tone and a message which is still relevant today, it is a fascinating and angering account of five centuries of exploitation and manipulation of the Americas by Europe and the US. Its powerful message is sure to convince many who read it of the power of Pan-Americanism to change the fate of the Americas. In the final pages of the book Galeano laments the breakup of the newly liberated colonies into alienated, peripheral, quasi colonies, controlled and exploited by European, and later US, powers:

“For US imperialism to be able to ‘integrate and rule’ Latin America today, it was necessary for the British Empire to help divide and rule us yesterday. An archipelago of disconnected countries came into being as a result of the frustration of our national unity… ‘For us the fatherland is America’, Simon Bolivar proclaimed; but Gran Colombia was divided into five countries and the liberator died defeated: ‘We shall never be happy, never!’… Today the world sees the result: any of the multinational corporations operates with more coherence and sense of unity than the congeries of islands that is Latin America, broken up by so many frontiers and such a lack of communication.”

It is of course important to note that before the arrival of the Spanish in 1492, the region was by no means a perfect picture of unity and solidarity. In many ways the different areas of the region had much less in common at that time than they do now, being occupied as they were by varying cultures, tribes and empires with different languages and customs. Neither was the region a peaceful one, with groups such as the Incas waging war on other cultures to create a dominant empire which stretched across five of Latin America’s modern day countries, only to be defeated by the Spanish in the early 16th century. However, following the colonisation of the region, the subsequent spread of the colonisers’ language, religion and culture across the region was seen by liberators such as Bolivar as an opportunity to unify the colonies against their common enemy. There are clearly limitations to this vision of unification, not least the continued oppression and disregard of Latin America’s indigenous cultures and languages post-independence. Nevertheless, what occurred in reality was even worse; the destruction of Bolivar’s Pan-American dream and the emergence of an ‘archipelago of disconnected countries’, remaining in the hands of foreign powers. Although the alternative vision was far from perfect, the actual outcome is certainly worth lamenting as Galeano does in Open Veins.

In the past decade, there has been a surge in support for Galeano’s demands for a united, anti imperialist Latin America, which brings back to the region the territorial unity and common heritage that Bolivar and his fellow liberators Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin envisioned. With socialist politicians such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and the Kirchners in Argentina creating a ‘pink wave’ across the continent during the noughties, a new left-wing political alliance was formed, which aimed to spread a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ to unite the countries of Latin America once again under an anti-imperialist banner.  The alliance challenged the status quo of allowing the United States to maintain a division between the region’s states in order to exploit each country’s resources, which, they argued, would only ever result in the economic expansion of the US and the stagnation of Latin America’s own economic development. They championed home grown economies and began to trade within their Socialist alliance instead of with external powers such as the US. Back in 2009, upon meeting Barack Obama at a Summit for the Americas, Hugo Chavez famously gave the US president a copy of Galeano’s book, as a symbol of the kind of relationship he wanted Venezuela, and Latin America more widely, to have with the US.

However, this alliance, which offered so much hope and promise to the region, has begun to crumble. With the Venezuelan economy in meltdown under the late Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro, the Kirchner government of Argentina recently being voted out in favour of neoliberal Mauricio Macri, and even the 60 year long Communist state of Cuba beginning to make compromises with the US, the region does not seem as likely as it once did to unite under an anti-imperialist Pan-American ideology.

What’s more, even those who still claim to adopt this regionalist no-borders approach to Latin American soil do not always portray this ideology in their diplomatic relations with other Latin American countries. Rivalries and animosity between many neighbouring countries are increasingly tense, with some countries, such as Bolivia and Chile, even mentioning the possibility of war (over the section of Bolivia’s coast that Chile won in the War of the Pacific). This does not offer much hope for the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, championed by many of these politicians, which is supposed to unite all Latin American countries together against the imperialism of the US, instead of fighting amongst themselves.

Nevertheless, outside of this often contradictory and hypocritical world of politics, there exist positive social movements which champion the Pan-American ideal, and one can observe a strong pride amongst citizens of Latin America in their common territory and culture, from their universal celebration of the region’s literature, music and dances, to their love of Latin America’s impressive selection of cocktails.

Whilst travelling we have met several Latin Americans from Chile, Peru and elsewhere who believe in one united Latin America and do what they can to break down the rivalries and tensions between the countries. For example, Yaque, a close Chilean friend of ours that we met on a voluntary project in the Peruvian jungle, engaged in many conversations with local Peruvians who would jump into an argument with her as soon as she stated her nationality (Chile and Peru have a strong rivalry dating back to the War of the Pacific where Peru fought alongside Bolivia against Chile, and also lost the southern section of its coast). She tried to make them see that in reality they were no different, with the same cultural and linguistic roots, from countries with the same history of oppression from Western imperial powers. Whether she got through to them or not is another matter, but it is promising to witness citizens of all Latin American countries working in this way to build bridges and unify the region. Whilst there are clearly still strong tensions and animosity between neighbouring countries, people like Yaque who see themselves as belonging to Latin America before their country of birth, and who engage in small, everyday acts provide hope for the future of the region.

We will finish this blog with the words and powerful imagery of Calle 13, a political rap group from Puerto Rico who are known and beloved across the entire region and who celebrate the diversity and beauty of Latin America through their music. The music video of this song, Latinoamerica, sums up the love that Latin Americans feel for their universal origins, and sends out the powerful message that despite all of the tensions and divisions that still exist in the region, there is, and should continue to be, much more that unites its people than divides them.


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