26 March 2008

Definitions and Limitations IV: Perceptions of Shared Identity in South America

The interplay of different cultures in South America is another important factor in analyzing regional politics. The interaction between European immigrants, Africans, and later on immigrants from all over the world with the indigenous communities already living there has created a unique social atmosphere of syncretism and conflict.

A crude division can be made along cultural lines between the indigenous, European (Spanish, Portuguese, and others), and African ethnic groups. These groups can then be further subdivided into numerous others that will not be studied here. There are four official languages spoken; Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch with a number of other minority languages spoken throughout the region. Ironically it is South America's shared history of European colonization that gives rise to some of the strongest divisions observable in the region.[1]

The strict social hierarchy that elevated European culture over the indigenous during the colonial period has had a lasting impact on society by generating vast differences in the quality of life enjoyed by different ethnic groups.[2] The Andes are an especially clear example of this social divide. Here, indigenous communities like the Quechua, Quichua, and Aymara peoples of the sierra still constitute the largest ethnic minority, yet suffer disproportionate poverty rates when compared to their European compatriots.[3]

These differences in shared identity have led to the formation of separate indigenous political parties in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia to defend indigenous rights. Today, their ability to organize around charismatic candidates during national elections gives them political weight other minorities cannot marshal, making their support critical for politicians trying to win election in these countries.

The southernmost nations of Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay have a different cultural distribution. Because of a relatively smaller indigenous population before colonization began and subsequent military campaigns against remaining populations, there are fewer people of indigenous descent than European descent, and consequently lower levels of intercultural conflict.[4]

In political terms the region shares a common European philosophic and economic tradition. All of the States are mixed constitutional democracies; Guyana is part of the British Commonwealth, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela are federal republics, while the remaining states are centralized republics.

Part of South America's shared political tradition stems from its long history of attempts to integrate. Pan-American ideology flourished briefly as a viable theory in the first half of the nineteenth century but was quickly cast aside as unrealistic. The idea and effort were unfortunately timed, but were as pragmatic as they were idealistic. Having endured the same trials of fire from Carabobo to Chacabuco, the new states were aware of their relative insecurity with respect to Europe. Recognizing that cooperation afforded the best chance of protection against the ever-present threat of recolonization, South America tried forming into regional blocks.

Authors like Mario Barros Van Buren and Ramón Sotomayor Valdés contend that the internal political anarchy of the post-independence period brought an end to the hopes of creating a South American union.[5] According to these authors the rise of the nation state and the difficult process of building a national identity generally came at the expense of these Pan-American attempts to establish a regional identity.

What is interesting to note is the malleable nature of identity and the overt efforts by national politicians to manipulate it. We will return to the issue of identity and its role in the current process of integration further on in our investigation.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs

[1] Moreno, 1978, pp.63-64

[2] Vanden and Prevost. (2002) pp. 7-9

[3] CEPAL, Anuario Estadístico, 2006

[4] Vacs, Aldo. (2002) pp. 400, 438-439. It is relevant to point out that although Chile has a relatively smaller indigenous population than its northern neighbors, there are large sectors of the Mapuche communities that still object forcefully to the rule of the Chilean central government.

[5] See Barros Van Buren, Mario. Historia diplomática de Chile (1541-1938) segunda edición (actualizada a 1958). Editorial Andrés Bello. Santiago de Chile: 1990 and Sotomayor Valdés, Ramón. Historia de Chile bajo el gobierno del general don Joaquín Prieto. Santiago, 1962, 4 vols.