(The Economist) LATIN AMERICA is linked to Spain and Portugal by language, culture and ancestry as well as by investment and the shared project of democracy. So it is not surprising that Latin Americans have been gripped by the conflict over Catalonia’s future. Se rompe España? (Is Spain breaking up?), asked the cover of Semana, Colombia’s leading news magazine.
For most Latin Americans it goes without saying that Catalonia is part of Spain. While the Spanish empire was at first a Castilian venture, Catalonia, too, provided viceroys and the forebears of presidents. In recent decades many Latin American writers have made Barcelona, with its literary agents and publishing houses, a temporary or permanent home.
Having lived in Barcelona for 12 years until 2012, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, one of Colombia’s leading novelists, wrote last month in El País, a Spanish newspaper, of his “astonishment and melancholy” at the drive for Catalan independence.
To ensure that they remain part of a global culture, several writers have moved recently from Barcelona to Madrid (as last month did Planeta, the biggest Spanish-language publishing house). But the astonishment is also because separatism is unfamiliar in Latin America.
That statement needs some slight qualification. Spanish-speaking mainland America splintered into 15 countries after independence. So that he could build a canal, Theodore Roosevelt arranged to detach Panama from Colombia in 1903. Rio Grande do Sul fought a ten-year war to break away from Brazil before coming to terms in 1845. (Paradoxically, Giuseppe Garibaldi, later the hero of Italian unification, fought for Rio Grande.) In 1849 Yucatán sought to follow Texas in seceding from Mexico and joining the United States, but was turned down.
More recent separatist efforts have been less significant. Commercially minded eastern regions of Bolivia flirted with secession during their political battle with Evo Morales, the socialist president.
There are occasional mutterings of separatism in Zulia, in western Venezuela, and in Argentine Patagonia. Last year a campaign called “the South is my country” organised an informal referendum on independence in three southern states of Brazil (including Rio Grande), in which less than 3% of the electorate voted. In an echo of Catalonia, its organiser claimed that the region pays “four times” more taxes than it receives. An attempt to stage a repeat on October 7th this year was a fiasco: only 2% turned out.
Latin America’s linguistic and ethnic divisions do not lend themselves to separatism. Indigenous populations, with their own languages, are too crushed, dispersed and/or divided to attempt it.
Many indigenous people would not want to: in several countries, they want autonomy to preserve their culture but are also battling to be treated like full citizens.
Another reason is that, like France, countries such as Brazil and Mexico turned national unity into an explicit political project. In 1937 Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s nation-building populist, having declared a dictatorship, ordered the ceremonial burning of the flags of the states—including the farrapo (rag), as the flag of his native Rio Grande do Sul was called. He claimed to have crushed “the arrogant imposition of regional interest” which endangered national unity. Vargas ordered Portuguese to be the sole language of school teaching.
Something similar happened in Mexico following its revolution of 1910-17. “We are Indian, blood and soul; the language and teaching are Spanish,” declared José Vasconcelos, the education minister in the 1920s and champion of mestizaje (racial mixing) as the essence of Latin America. Only more recently in Mexico, as in the Andean countries, have governments promoted bilingual teaching in Spanish and indigenous tongues.
For regional grievances to become separatist movements requires some specific conditions, as Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Lima, has noted in a comparative study of Peru and Bolivia. These include a powerful regional political elite, access to economic resources and foreign trade, and a paramount city that rivals the national capital. These applied to the Bolivian movement centred on Santa Cruz. And they apply in Catalonia.
Yet if the Bolivian movement petered out it was partly because the pull of national unity in Latin America is strong. The popular demand is often to make that a reality by building infrastructure and spreading public services. Outside Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, Latin Americans know what it is for their countries to be small and weak in global terms. Breaking away has little appeal.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition The Economist under the headline “Why no Catalonias?”