Latin America: between empires and imperialisms

Latin America: between empires and imperialisms
Fecha de publicación: 
15 March 2023
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Quito (Prensa Latina) The first proposals on Latin American dependency emerged during the 1960s, associated with ECLAC´s formulations on external dependence, which implied the fragility of the regional countries in international trade, since they exported raw materials and imported processed goods and technologies. There is even a gap in the terms of trade. There was early talk of “center” and “periphery”.

But, at the end of the same decade and, above all, in the 1970s, what came to be called the theory of dependency appeared, linked, instead, to a reflection on imperialism. And, it was explained, finally, that the “underdevelopment” of Latin America correlates with the “development” of the capitalist “centers”, which historically “underdeveloped” their “satellites”, which could only escape from “dependence” by overcoming the capitalist regime.

Andre Gunder Frank summed it up in a formula: the development of underdevelopment. But also, along with him, there were formidable Latinamericanists, such as Theotonio Dos Santos, Ruy Mauro Marini, Celso Furtado, Enzo Faletto and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The dependency theory was cultivated in all the countries and it had a lasting influence. It marked a special way of appreciating power relations in the international world: Iberian colonialism (particularly, Spain) was the starting point, followed, during the 19th century, by dependence on the United Kingdom and, in the 20th century, on United States imperialism.

In Ecuador the “dependentistas” made important contributions and, among the pioneers, was Fernando Velasco. Also admirable is the early criticism of the famous theory made by Agustin Cueva, a sociologist renowned throughout Latin America.

Another way of understanding international relations and the situation in Latin America, already initiated in the 50s by historians such as Argentinean Ricardo Levene, emerged in the 1990s, as a prelude to the bicentennial of the region´s independence processes.

After the studies published by Francois-Xavier Guerra followed other works, such as those of James Rodriguez (very questionable his interpretation of the Quito Revolution of 1809-1812), Clement Thibaud, Mark Thurner, Josep Delgado, Manuel Chust, Genevieve Verdo or also Federica Morelli (who has even worked on Ecuador) and lately Deborah Besseghini, with her studies on empires.

It has become clear that Latin American independence cannot be seen exclusively as a confrontation between patriots and Spaniards, but as a broader process in which the reconfigurations of the great powers were also involved.

The United Kingdom was in the lead, playing alliances with anti-French Spain, which was fighting against Napoleon´s invasion (1808); butit also acted autonomously to introduce itself among the Latin American revolutionaries, to collaborate in the independences and favor not only their commercial presence in the region but also their hegemony. It was British resources that were involved in Miranda´s project to make Venezuela independent (1806) and there were British officers alongside O´Higgins and also next to Bolivar. France, which came to control territories in Canada, had the most coveted colony in Haiti (which became independent in 1804), it gained one of the Guianas in South America and imposed an Emperor (Maximilian, 1864-1867) in Mexico even after it was liberated.

Portugal´s monarchy moved to Brazil and, from there, the expansionist desires of Queen Charlotte -who pretended to represent Spanish interests- were fed.

Finally, there is the United States with its own interests with regard to all Europeans; it expanded its territory through war not only against the Indians and on the way to the Wild West, but against the United Kingdom (1812), bought Louisiana from France (1803), Florida from Spain (1819), although it did not pay for it, and Alaska from Russia (1867), but also took half of Mexico´s territory (1848). Its advantage was unstoppable and it secured it with the Monroe Doctrine (1823) which marked its hegemony: “America is for the Americans”.

It is true, then, that Latin American independence process must be observed not only from nationalist perspectives, but also in the areas of “Hispanic unity”, the “modernity of the Hispanic world”, the projections of the “Mediterranean world”, the “Atlantic reconfiguration”, the British “informal imperialism”, the “inter-imperial” or “trans-imperial” connections, which are the categories used in the studies I point out.

But, even so, there is still a basic fact that cannot be interpreted Hegel-style, which is, considering that America is an “echo of foreign life.” Because it would seem that the Latin American independence revolutionaries were sort of “outposts” or pieces mobilized by the interests at stake among the great powers in full rise during the contemporary era.

This minimizes a crucial issue: the independences in the continent and particularly in Latin America broke off with colonialism, they did so in the dawn of capitalism even before the independences in Asia or Africa and, in addition, they allowed the constitution of States striving for sovereignty, all of which constitutes a fact of world-wide transcendence and which is different from the interests of the great powers of the time.

No doubt, the “dependentistas” were right to warn that these independences were formal, of a political nature, because the Latin American national States fell into a new form of economic-structural dependence on the United Kingdom, first, and then on the United States.

And, without a doubt, another understanding is imposed: empires and imperialisms (because the term has had different connotations) did not only act during the era of Latin American independences and the construction of the national States, but continue to do so to this day. We are living precisely at a time when US and European hegemony has been challenged by the rise of China, Russia, the BRICS and the constitution of new blocs in diverse regional spheres. We are witnessing a new era of profound changes in human history, marked by the recompositing of world powers.

In Latin America, there is a clear movement of vindication of sovereignty in more open and forceful terms than in the past, as can be observed in the configuration of institutions such as Celac, Mercosur or Unasur; the interest of several countries to join the “new silk road” with China; or the clear sovereign positions -at the same time as Latinamericanist- of the progressive governments of the 21st century, which are expressed, at present, in the geopolitical definitions made by Presidents Alberto Fernandez, of Argentina, Gustavo Petro, of Colombia, Luiz Inacio da Silva, of Brazil, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in Mexico, to mention only the largest nations, which seek to combine the region´s own strategies towards the future.

The reaction against Monroeism and the OAS, which has been its contemporary instrument, has deepened, in addition to the fact that “interference” (that is, direct imperialist actions) is still present, arousing increasing rejections, while Cuba´s cause against the US blockade has become United Nations Resolutions of condemnation during the last 30 years, although they remain unattended by the US.

In this context, Latin America finds no reason to lean toward the powers that seek its alignment in the conflict in Ukraine, since our thesis is based on the demand for peace as international policy, as assumed in the Proclamation signed by the II Celac Summit (Havana, January, 2014).

The Mundus Novus of the 21st century is a historically unstoppable process, although it may last several decades. It goes hand in hand with the growing triumph of Latin American progressiveness, the new lefts, the rise of popular social movements and the questioning of imperialisms, as well as of the internal oligarchic dominions.

*Ecuadorian historian and analyst.

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