Latin America vs. the United States: A Tale of Two Independence Movements
Independence movements in Latin America and the United States have generated interesting discussions in historical circles over the past two centuries. Both wars of independence featured colonists in the New World revolting against their European overlords, eventually leading to the creation of new nation-states. Yet since then, the results in these two region’s levels of economic prosperity and political stability have diverged considerably.
What could explain such differences in overall economic and political outcomes?
A closer look at the underlying principles behind the independence movements and the political circumstances surrounding them reveals a nuanced picture that history texts tend to gloss over.
Juan Baustista Alberdi, one of Latin America’s most renowned classical liberal thinkers, highlighted an interesting point in the distinct philosophical motivations behind the Latin American and American wars of independence in the Omnipotence of the State:
Washington and his contemporaries were more interested in fighting for individual rights and liberties than just fighting for independence of their country. Once they attained the former, they were able to achieve the latter, as opposed to South American countries, who won their political independence but did not obtain individual freedoms.
Additionally, in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the signers referred to a brotherhood of sorts with the inhabitants of Britain and mostly directed their grievances towards the British Crown as opposed to British people as a whole.
In contrast, the call to arms in the Mexican theatre of the Latin American wars of independence was “Death to the Gachupines (Spaniards),” while the legendary liberator Simón Bolívar declared a War to the Death on all Spaniards and Canarians; introducing a racial dimension to these independence campaigns.
Rather than trying to build a stable political order based on sound principles of governance, Latin American revolutionaries were more concerned with committing arbitrary killing sprees against a group of people they perceived as a universal threat.
Spaniards: Epitome of Evil or Unsung Heroes?
Contrary to popular historical narratives, it was the Spanish that were gravitating towards a more classical liberal style of governance at the time. On the other hand, Latin American elites wanted to maintain the colonial status quo.
While the Spanish imperial government was no paragon of liberty, prior to the outbreak of the Latin American wars of independence it implemented numerous reforms, better known as the Bourbon Reforms. The implementation of the Bourbon reforms streamlined colonial governance by stripping criollos (Creoles) — colonial elites of Spanish descent — of their political privileges and loosening protectionist measures that favored local elites. Consequently, many of the Creoles felt that the Spanish crown was usurping political positions which they believed they were entitled to.
The straw that ultimately broke the camel’s back was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. The Napoleonic Wars created a significant power vacuum in Spain, with the deposition of the Spanish King Ferdinand VII and the installation of Joseph Bonaparte as the new ruler.
Hugo Faria highlights the initial confusion that the Napoleonic Invasion caused among the colonists in the New World:
Between 1808 and 1810, revolutionaries swore allegiance to King Fernando VII of Spain. Their grievance with the local authorities, who were Spaniards appointed by the crown, was the allegation that these crown representatives were ‘usurping’ political positions to which wealthy locals of European descent felt entitled (Uslar 1962; Fronjosa 2012). Once the Spanish Crown did not hear—or else misunderstood—the underlying plea, the early patriots switched their efforts to the objective of obtaining independence from Spain.
Local rulers back in the New World took advantage of this tumultuous scenario and began to concoct schemes to rid themselves of their Spanish overlords.
As the French occupation of Spain continued, a small segment of Spanish classical liberals fought back by putting forward the Constitution of Cadiz in 1812. This constitution called for unprecedented reforms such as a separation of powers, reform of the church, a weakened monarchy, and a representative parliament. Naturally, such a far-reaching set of reforms motivated Creole elites already on the fence to join the independence cause.
After the smoke settled in the mid-1820s, Latin America was filled with fledgling nations. But this honeymoon ended rather abruptly, as many of these countries immediately became mired with internal strife, civil wars, despotism, and coups. This legacy of instability would continue throughout Latin America for the next century and still reverberates to this very day in countries like Venezuela.
The major lesson that can be gleaned from comparing the Latin American and United States independence experiences is that Latin American elites were more fixated with gaining independence at whatever cost than actually securing freedoms. On the other hand, the American revolutions fought to establish and re-assert freedoms that the English crown usurped. Performance wise, the results between the two regions have been nothing short of stark.
Historians will ultimately have to come to grips with a cold, hard, and unbearable truth — Bolívar and his colleagues unleashed a Frankensteinian political project that many of them, including Bolívar himself, would later lament.
Shortly after gaining independence, it became abundantly clear that Latin American countries were not ready to embark on the path of self-governance and create a stable foundation for posterity.
To solve Latin America’s many problems, policymakers and scholars should take a trip down memory lane and understand how the Latin American independence experience initiated the genesis of the region’s on-going state of underdevelopment.