Aug 26, 2005

Mass Exclusion: The Legacy of Latin American Independence Movements


Left: "El grito de Dolores," Father Miguel Hidalgo's legendary call to arms

The image of thousands of peasants following such charismatic revolutionaries as Father Miguel Hidalgo and Simón Bolívar contributed to the traditional historiographical view of Latin American independence movements as popular, democratic uprisings. However, as noted by historian Brian Hamnett and other researchers, a more complete understanding of the Latin American drives for domestic sovereignty recognizes that these changes were ultimately elite-driven; in addition, the governments that evolved from the revolutionary campaigns largely reflected the political desires of the criollo elite.

Hamnett correctly argues that the independence movements of the early nineteenth century in the American colonies of the Iberian powers were, in large part, a function of events far removed from the colonies themselves. For example, the Napoleonic invasions of Spain and Portugal created temporary power vacuums; the disruptions in metropolitan authority and the corresponding diminution of colonial legitimacy played significant roles in the rise of Latin American clamors for self-rule. Other factors, such as the English naval blockades, contributed to a disruption in the economic status quo, which helped fuel the rise for autonomy.

Another contributory factor in the rise of Latin American independence sentiments was the Bourbon predisposition towards reserving key administrative posts for peninsulares. This created class conflict within and among colonial elites, as criollos bore natural resentment towards those who they perceived as peninsular interlopers. However, such frustrations remained an intra-elite squabble; the incursion by peninsulares into the upper echelons of colonial administration was hardly a concern for persons of the lower castas, for whom such posts were beyond normal access.

Members of colonial Latin American elite classes tended to fall into two categories – those who favored a form of constitutional monarchism, and those who held republican notions of representative government. However, neither group exhibited a tendency towards egalitarian, inclusive democracy. It is not surprising, then, that the governments evolving from the independence movements of Latin America excluded the landless masses from participation; the post-independence governments reflected the political viewpoints of the elites who constructed the new systems.

It is important to recognize that there did not yet exist a sense of nationalism among the colonial populace; the focus of popular consciousness remained at the local and regional level. Given this rather limited ability by the peasantry to think of themselves as part of a larger whole, the ability of elites to shut out the masses from any significant political participation in the new Latin American governments seems, in retrospect, to be a pre-ordained outcome.

Similarly, events at the national level did not have significant, immediate effects on people in the outlying areas. For the most part, the establishment of new central governments separate from the Iberian metropoles was, to the rural peasantry, of little concern to life in agricultural villages. In addition, the radicalism inherent in some liberal beliefs, such as Church reform, were in direct conflict with popular traditionalism, and this neo-conservative backlash played into the hands of the proponents of limited republican governments.

Far from the traditional representations of flag-waving peasants throwing off the yoke of Spanish imperialism, the independence movements of colonial Latin America were more akin to the cynical model envisioned by the Who's Pete Townshend:
"Meet the new boss...same as the old boss."


Anonymous said...

I like the local history better.

Lisa Renee said...

Well this one for me was interesting because I don't know that much about Latin America, with the exception of the influence it has had in the Catholic Church.

I know a bit about Puerto Rico since I married one - lol but this was another good piece Mike, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Latin America should be the 51st state. They can't run their own show.