Nationalism in South and Central America

José Domingues. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The independence of the Iberian colonies in the New World was one of the elements that heralded the advent of modernity. It is within this context, with of course its particularities south of the Equator, that nation-building and nationalism in the Americas must be understood.

Modernity has ‘disembedded’ people from their more circumscribed ways of existence and entirely changed the space-time in which their lives develop. ‘Re-embeddings,’ at both the individual and the collective level, are an answer to this new situation (Giddens 1990; Wagner 1995; Domingues 2006: ch. 4). By and large the nation-state has been, at least in Europe and the Americas, the main frame in which such re-embeddings have been achieved. Modernity implied a process of complexification of social life, cut across by a drive towards differentiation. Nationalism provided a counter-trend: the de-differentiation of collective identity through the homogenization of the nation that emerged thereby, giving birth to a novel focus for cathectic, psychological investment. Since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however restricted, formally and practically, citizenship has accompanied the formation of the nation-state in these areas and the telos of social development, such as was built (and built itself) into the minds and imaginaries of the peoples of these countries, was their incorporation into the nation as equally free citizens. Citizenship, however, as a bundle of rights and (to a lesser extent) duties, and implying de-differentiation too in its universalism, is excessively thin to provide for the construction of identities. Re-embeddings therefore must be cast also in other dimensions, with greater substance. In ‘societies’ that aimed at homogeneity, through the steering-force of the state (a point I will resume below), nationalism, in one way or another, has provided the means for thicker individual and collective identities. It is less abstract than citizenship and stresses the particularities, historical and cultural, that weld together a specific population (Domingues 2006: ch. 7). Besides, although it is universalist and homogenizing, a fundamental ambiguity remains—and is apparent in the cases in point—since differences do not totally disappear and race and class, as well as gender, are hierarchized within what is in principle a homogeneous nation (Wade 2001).

While the atomism of liberal views was strong in Western societies and was somehow in tension with the Romantic and all-inclusive perspective of nationalism, in the Americas colonized by the Iberian kingdoms the prevalence of neo-Thomism as a Renaissance worldview in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries eased the path for the intervention of the state in the ‘civilizing’ sense of creating nations from the amalgam of rather different cultures and peoples. That doctrine lost its proper vocabulary; nonetheless, its main conceptions outlived their explicit formulation and were included in the new political ideologies that flourished after independence, helping the processes of what I have once called ‘nation-building’ (Morse 1982; Domingues 1993, 1995).

To this internal characterization we must add that nationalism must of course also be placed in the context of international relations. It has an external, interactive aspect, in terms of identity-building and (broadly conceived) interest definition. In this regard nationalism in South and Central America shows great differences from that which arose in the ‘core’ countries of the global system. It took at once a defensive and liberating stance, as well as a developmentalist one, which aimed at levelling out the situation of the diverse nations within the global system. At this point we need to introduce a further distinction. Nationalism may assume aggressive forms and search for domination over other nations, or at least hold an exclusionary view; this is often the case of right-wing nationalism. However, it may also assume more benign forms, liberating nations against foreign domination, evincing therefore an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist character; this has often been the case of left-wing nationalism, whether or not of a socialist persuasion. Right-wing, fascist and authoritarian nationalism—petit bourgeois in the 1930s and later with the military dictatorships that plagued the area from the 1960s to the 1980s—did appear in ‘Latin’ America. However, the subcontinent has by and large been prone to the second type, left-wing or centrist type of nationalism, increasingly incorporating the popular masses in its promises of development and autonomy (Vilar 1971). In any case, both types of nationalism appear as forms of re-embedding and identity construction, whose specific cultural and political content depend on concrete social dynamics.

Therefore, nationalism has two features that can be analytically distinguished, although they are concretely weaved together in social process. Nationalism must be placed within an interactive context, that is, as a means to or an aspect of the construction of a collective subjectivity—the nation—that interacts with other collective subjectivities, namely other nations and social systems. And it has also an internal aspect which allows for the social integration (which should, in my view, be grasped as a sense of belonging and recognition rather than via the functionalist notion of an attachment to overall common values) of modern, complex ‘society,’ a particular type of collective subjectivity, in its process of identity building (see Delanty and O’Mahony 2002: 35ff. 70).

Finally, characterized by the heightened globalization which is one of the features of what can be defined as the ‘third phase of modernity’ (Domingues 2006: ch. 8), the present configuration of the world has indeed brought about some renewal of nationalism in South and Central America. Overall, nevertheless, a weakening of national identities (especially in those countries that comprise large indigenous populations and have always had greater trouble in achieving a more homogeneous nation-building) as well as a willingness to fit, in one way or another, into the globalizing movement have been two features of present cultural and political dynamics. Greater complexity and the pluralization of identities, as well as the rolling back of the state and the problematic issue of strategies of development geared to overcome the subaltern position of such countries in the global arena, have been the obverse of those twin social processes.

Independence and Nation-Building

The independence of South and Central American countries was achieved in the period from 1810 to 1825, although Cuba, for instance, became entirely emancipated from Spain as late as 1898, just to be closely controlled by the United States. Few countries in the world, therefore, had to face up to processes of nation-building as early as they did. In this regard they were indeed pioneers, as Anderson (1991: ch. 4; see also Vilar 1971) insightfully noted. However, differently in particular from England and France—and to a great extent to the United States too, though slavery remained in this northern country—one can hardly speak of literacy and popular participation in independencies and in the building of the ensuing nations. To be sure, there were popular sectors, slaves and other small people that joined the independentist effort (especially, though not only, in the regions that became Mexico, Venezuela and Uruguay), but they were a minority and in the aftermath of the downfall of the colonial empires were unable to exert any sway upon the new polities. This in fact marks a distinction from Western Europe and gives a particular, oligarchic face to these pristine nationalist movements.

Social integration at a higher level of complexity and as the means for the re-embedding of large social strata was not achieved thereby. In fact, its predominantly agrarian character, the continuous personal subordination of most of the population (also in the urban centres) through either ‘feudal’ forms or slavery, to landlord and bureaucrats, the confinement of most of the population to specific space-time coordinates (though ‘traditional’ domination would be a poor term to describe the situation), did not imply the need for nationalism as a means to create broader forms of solidarity. The emerging ruling classes and state groups (something at times difficult to separate), who had thus far been excluded from the high ranks of the administration, had indeed a need for new forms of identification and solidary links. Nationalism provided that. However, to some extent the relational aspect of nationalism—which provides for identity and interest definition vis-à-vis ‘external’ collectivities—predominated at this stage. The struggle against colonial powers by the criollos of Spanish America and their counterparts in Brazil led the way and demanded forms of ideology which were able to buttress such a dangerous and doubtful endeavour, that is, the struggle to free their regions from metropolitan domination. I do not mean by this that there was an immediate profit to be gained from that effort, since for many of the colonial freedom fighters the outcome was disastrous, entailing loss of property, physical suffering and even death. From the very beginning, hence, nationalism exercised its tantalizing power as both a social and a psychological force.

If there was a general drive behind the moves towards independence, the specific social conditions were conducive to rather distinct results. The main contrast has to be made between Brazil and the Spanish American colonies. The Portuguese colony kept its integrity while the latter gave birth to a myriad of countries. Of all the explanations to this quite astonishing disparity the most sound is that which points to the intellectual leadership of the two processes as being fashioned in rather distinct ways (Carvalho 1982). The Portuguese colony was never allowed local universities. All its intellectuals and bureaucrats were formed, until the creation of the new country, in the University of Coimbra, and seem to have enjoyed a high level of collective identification, which was maintained in the struggle against the former embracing kingdom. Moreover, this was combined with the transmission of power in the newly independent colony to the son of the king of Portugal, implying an obvious continuity in politics and administration, giving birth, in 1822, to the Empire of Brazil. In contradistinction, the Spanish colonies found their points of fracture and formation of newly independent countries around local universities, which were responsible, during the late colonial period, for the education of intellectuals and administrators. We must not be oblivious, though, to the violence of the process also in Brazil: during the whole nineteenth century local elites and intellectuals organized movements to break free—often through republican ideology—from the new Brazilian Empire, and were severely repressed by the armies of the central government.

During the nineteenth century—which some historians have even deemed a lost one—there was no dramatic change in this configuration. In any case capitalism developed, state bureaucracy was strengthened, social complexity overall increased, urbanization and an incipient process of individual and collective disembedding came about. On the new terrain that slowly emerged it was possible for the appeal of nationalism to be more broadly felt. Military conflicts between the new countries mobilized the population and raised the spectre of citizenship—though very restricted—via participation in war; the opening of the electoral franchise to the majority of the population, however, was accomplished only in the twentieth century. Frequent military and territorial conflicts opposed especially Brazil and Argentina, as well as them both, plus Uruguay, against Paraguay (a country where a more popular form of government and nationalism had taken root), in the War of the Triple Alliance. Chile, Peru and Ecuador also had their wars for territory, as did Chile and Argentina, while Mexico very early on had part of its immense land mass conquered by its northern neighbour. And yet, by and large, nationalism remained a business of the ruling collectivities. Nation-building did not expand to include the popular classes until at least the 1920s. Moreover, since states were neither strong nor organized enough, they were not actually capable of waging massive and sustained wars during this period, which meant that nationalism did not find an especially relevant connection in this area of social life (Centeno 2002).

During the last two decades of the nineteenth and the first three of the twentieth century a crisis brewed. It found distinct resolutions. Modernity was by and large, though in a sort of uneven development, established in the subcontinent. Demands were to deepen it and often to democratize social conditions. In all countries, with greater or less success, these years witnessed the rising—albeit not always irresistible—tide of the popular masses.

Mass Nationalism, Development, and National Liberation

The advance of modernity, in the economy and in social life, had effects that reached the political system in most South and Central American countries. Mexico opens the twentieth century south of the Rio Grande with the first great revolution since the 1789 French upheaval. Mexico had been governed by a strong and authoritarian, though legally based, political system, led by Porfirio Díaz, which modernized the country in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many interests were alienated by the regime, however, which also increasingly faced the opposition of peasant communities in the north and the south. In 1910 revolution broke out, Díaz was toppled and a new period began for Mexico. This included, of course, the forging of a new nation, one in which the popular masses, peasants and the emerging working classes would play a pivotal role. Liberalism and the very revolutionary process, alongside the evocation of the mestizo (the ‘cosmic race,’ such as proposed by Vasconcelos, an important Mexican intellectual), were placed at the core of the new Mexican identity. While liberalism was not actually that relevant for the political and social life of the country, in which an authoritarian, corporative and interventionist state overwhelmingly steered social life, at times in a nationalistic and pro-autonomous industrial development direction, mass participation and rights were taken as a pillar of government legitimation (Córdova 1979; Hale 1997; Aguilar Rivera 2001: 203ff).

Argentina underwent a process which was in many respects similar, although important differences must of course be stressed too. The 1910s brought universal suffrage (although interrupted by some military coups later on) and the rise of the working classes. If Mexico was overall a country of mixed races, especially Indians and Spanish descendants, urban Argentina was mainly a country of immigrants (a process which actually conformed to the racist ideologies that yearned for a white wave to ameliorate the racial make-up of the country). Thousands of people arrived at the beginning of the century in Argentina from Spain and Italy, as well as, in much smaller numbers, other countries. A universal and lay educational system played a key role, unparalleled in any country in the subcontinent, with the exception perhaps of Uruguay, in the homogenization of this mass of people into a single national identity. This implied social rights, steady labour and literacy as the basis of national belonging (Sarlo 1999,2001). However, the 1940s and 1950s were witness to the emergence of an entirely new situation: immigration decreased and the masses from the countryside became the core of the Argentine working class. National identity was lent a twist at this stage through the rise of Peronism, which abandoned the more cosmopolitan outlook of previous socialist and anarchist movements of the immigrant period, and assumed also an often more marked ‘anti-imperialist’ attitude (Rock 1987: chs. 6-8). Although time and again toppled by military coups, Peronism remained to a great extent a crucial element of national identification in Argentina, either as a positive national overall feature, or as signalling a never-ending crisis of nation-building.

Brazil underwent a rather more selective incorporation of the masses into the nation. The 1930s marked the rise of a strong state, nationalist in the sense of struggling for autonomy within the international system and in the economic domain. But the rural masses remained excluded from political life and from social rights. The construction of a national identity was the task carried out over the next decades. This was couched in terms of a mixed race—crystallized in the idea of ‘racial democracy’—in which Indians and blacks enjoyed the same level of recognition as whites (of course a phenomenon more imaginary than real and although the telos of development entailed the whitening of the nation). A further important strand was the maintenance of the unity of such a vast country, as during the earlier independence process, against the more federalist views prevalent during the first years of the so-called ‘Old Republic’ (1898-1930). Stringent intellectual efforts were applied to this (Oliveira et al. 1982; Ortiz 1985,1988; Domingues 1993). Democratic and military regimes alike sustained this project, although the relations with more active popular participation and autonomy in the process obviously varied.

Other countries in the region followed similar paths, albeit within less successful modernization processes (cf. Venezuela, Colombia, etc.). Others still had much more trouble in terms of nation-building, due to the deep differentiation of the population and the difficulty in solving the ‘problem of the indian.’ This was the case of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Guatemala. Mexico had similar difficulties but within a more complex and larger social formation, and through the revolution, it was somewhat more successful in coping with the issue.2 Cultural and political fragmentation were attacked, often through the attempt, sometimes with Marxist inspiration, to treat the problem not in ethnic terms but rather framing it as a class and land issue (see Mariátegui 1928). This actually worked to a great extent. As the incorporation of such masses of ‘peasants’ into the nation lagged behind, the 1970s started to see a new wave of ethnic mobilization which meant the dilution of the Indian masses within the nation.

In most of these countries ‘national-popular’ regimes were placed at the very kernel of nation-building: they aimed at internal class compromises and external accommodation, even though development was their assumed goal (Touraine 1988: Part III). Neither entirely above and detached from nor merely responsive to ‘civil society,’ but rather entwined with it, the national-popular state was crucial in the nationalist arrangements of the period. It tried to extend, with varied reach and success, citizenship to the popular classes. Economic development—or ‘developmentalism’—too, in order to break free or reduce dependency and heteronomy vis-à-vis the world capitalist centres, always loomed large on its horizon (Cardoso and Faletto 1970). The need to craft a synthetic national identity, through a selection of cultural features, which would bring out the ‘essence’ of the Mexican, the Brazilian, the Peruvian, etc., or even that of the ‘Latin American,’ as well as to devise and implement policies capable of integrating and autono-mizing the re-founded nations, led intellectuals one way or another to rally around the national-popular states (Domingues 2003 [1992]). In this regard there are parallels between the South and Central American experience on the one hand, and the European cases on the other. But although there were indeed right-wing nationalist perspectives and movements, expansionist and chauvinistic (Oddone 1986; Rock 1993), most of the energy of nationalism was employed in more benign ways across the region, contrary to what was too often the case in the old continent: ‘Latin’ American popular masses rarely lent fascist and chauvinistic movements their support. Instead national emancipation and development have been much more popular.

On the other hand, national liberation movements have been rare as well. They have been concentrated in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and gathered strength mainly from the 1970s on (Touraine 1988: 331ff). They were not effective in the long run either. Cuba is in this regard of course a special case. It could have followed the same route as Puerto Rico, and, having achieved independence from Spain only at the turn of the century, become a colony or even an associated protectorate of the United States. Social struggle and an anti-imperialist programme became strongly linked in the Cuban revolution from 1959-60 onwards and increasingly directed not only against the internal political system but also against the United States. This rupture with national-popular regimes and projects was achieved only in Cuba in a sustained way and furnished the hard core of the country’s identity in the second half of century (Vilar 1971; Touraine 1988: 347-58). The left, however, wavered strategically during the twentieth century between alliances with those regimes and a more head-on confrontation with ‘imperialism,’ although the link between social struggle, nation-building and national autonomization and development can consistently be found in its programmes (Castañeda 1993).

Some conceptual conclusions can be derived from this brief exposition of the predicament of nationalism in South and Central America in the twentieth century. Nations were not ever found there in a ready-made way. To be sure, this is never the case, anywhere, but in this region it was even more pronounced. There was a massive pre-Columbian population, millions of black slaves were imported, European immigration, from several areas and in successive waves, played a highly prominent role, and miscegenation, despite the deep-seated plague of racism, was far-reaching. Altogether this demanded, after the dreams of ruling circles in the nineteenth century of creating white nations faded, an enormous effort at integration and homogenization. Except for the pre-Colombian populations, especially in the Andean and the Central American countries, common national languages, Portuguese and Spanish, greatly facilitated the process, which nonetheless required dedication from intellectuals, bureaucrats and the political leadership to be accomplished. Nation-building, searched for and achieved with greater or less success by a state which seems to have inherited the neo-Thomist, integrative outlook of the colonial state, was the result rather than the starting point of the process. Hierarchies of race and class nevertheless remained ambiguously omnipresent, with whites and white culture on top, with often a general perspective of whitening of the population, racially and culturally, being envisioned (Wade 2001).

Military dictatorships in some measure interrupted this process. Anti-popular and anti-national popular (Touraine 1988: 367-93), they have thought of the nation in much more geopolitical ways. Their extreme anti-communism, their usually chauvinistic perspectives (also within the South American context), their alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union and its ‘internal allies,’ have crystallized in the Doctrines of National Security, according to which the internal, divisive enemy was to be combated in the course of a situation of total warfare (Comblin 1977). But this has never been able to play an integrative role. At most it worked to freeze conflict and arrest the processes of social mobilization which nonetheless surfaced time and again across the subcontinent. Moreover, an argument about nationalism in its relational aspect can be put forward, which distinguishes South and Central America from Europe. It is true that armies have been based on conscription (which has been a condition for citizenship in America) and wars broke out and at times performed a part in the construction of the nation (Argentina versus Chile or Paraguay or Brazil, Brazil versus Paraguay and the eternal threat of Argentina, Chile versus Bolivia, Peru versus Ecuador, as well as Mexico against the United States and also the French, who occupied the country and supported Maximiliano’s Napoleonic Empire, defeated in 1867). Military mobilization and participation in the army have not been particularly important elements in the definition of individual belonging to the nation, though, perhaps because while in the nineteenth century armies did not enlist the popular classes after independence, in the twentieth century the armed forces were used precisely against popular mobilization for rights and democracy.

In contradistinction, citizenship at large has played, as elsewhere, an important role as an answer to social mobilization. Electoral franchise and social rights did not everywhere reach all of the population. But even where they did not, they remained as an individual and collective goal: to belong to the nation was ultimately to be able to enjoy such rights. ‘Real abstractions’ as they necessarily are (since they consist of abstractly universal attributes of individuals and simultaneously organize key institutions of social life), these rights were tersely coupled with the concrete features of to a large extent state-created nations. This mixture of abstract and more concrete individual and collective identity, in which rights and nation are fused and is typical of the second phase of (state-organized) modernity (Domingues 2005: chs. 3-4 and 8-9), was, as it necessarily is, combined with a particular form of relational pattern. As collectivities, South and Central American nations have consistently striven for inclusion in the international system in a situation of less dependency than they have actually enjoyed. This has barely been achieved. The disembedding and re-embedding processes which are indicative of modernity and obtained throughout the Americas, found here therefore a particular shape, way beyond their limited scope during the nineteenth century and the peculiar liberal and agrarian contours of the first phase of modernity in those undeveloped countries. Now as citizens and members of enlarged nations, enjoying rights and an inclusive identity, Brazilians, Uruguayans, Mexicans, Peruvians, Bolivians, still saw themselves as subordinated to foreign powers in the international systems, although no longer submitted to a colonial situation. This remained a problem, except for those fractions of the ruling collectivities which profited from the situation.

Rolling Back the State, Social Pluralism, and National Identity

The last three decades of the twentieth century were characterized in South and Central America by a crisis which bit as deep as it did elsewhere. Capitalism underwent a major crisis and Keynesianism had its foundations contested. This meant a sweeping crisis for national, state-based development policies which were particularly important in the previous period. I shall not go here into whether or not classes and class identities have been less relevant in this continental context than in Europe. The fact is, however, that working-class organizations and the national-popular movements somehow connected to them were also hit by the crisis of the 1970s. This was still more deeply felt with the demise of the Soviet Union and the East European real socialist societies. Working-class projects and identities seemingly lost much of their plausibility and viability all over the world and in particular in this region. Meanwhile capitalism started to recover. New technologies and a more prominent role for network mechanisms of coordination implied a new arrangement between state, market and other organizations. Social complexity, the social division of labour and pluralism in all spheres of life took large strides. Globalization put huge pressure on the national state. As an answer applied especially in South and Central America, neoliberalism and ‘sound’ economic policies were introduced, along with a far-reaching redefinition of the role of the state, which was rolled back, at least in some crucial areas. This could not but affect national societies that had had the state as a key factor for their organization.

In other words, a new phase, the third, of mixed articulation, started in South and Central America, although apparently facing many more difficulties in finding viable paths and alternatives of development for the region than has been the case, for instance, in Asia or the United States and in certain areas of Europe. How do nationalism and nations appear in this new situation?

A number of issues must be singled out here. The first points to the rise of social pluralism, derived from the greater complexity of social life, its heterogeneity, as well as from the incapacity of national and class identities to perform the trick of generating inclusive and cohesive solidarities and collective subjectivities. The transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes has accompanied these social and economic changes. The second issue is of course the impact of deepened globalization upon the nation-state and national identities. The combination of these two factors leads us to a third problem: the rise of ethnic and racial identities that tend to break the pattern of nation-building through the homogenization of society and culture, including sometimes links with transnational movements and identities. Finally, the emergence of economic blocs, especially the Mercosur, the integration of Mexico through NAFTA and more recently the debate around ALCA imply new issues and roles for the state and national identities in the face of increased globalization. I shall go on later to comment on some countries of special relevance which can help illustrate these more general processes.

By and large, although the crisis of development was deeply felt across the subcontinent, the processes which unfolded from the 1920s onwards, with different chronologies and paces in distinct countries, put South and Central America decisively within the bounds of modernity, of course with specific features, as anywhere else for that matter. As we have seen, disembedding processes were part and parcel of such an unfolding, having been dealt with by an effort on the part of the ruling collectivities to build cohesive national identities. The state was instrumental in this regard. The success of such developments eventually found its limits in a society freed to a great extent from personal forms of domination, wherein people enjoy open possibilities to choose who they are, irrespective of the deep social stratification and the uneven resources each social class, gender and racial or ethnic group has at their disposal to operate such choices. The crisis of working-class identities, strongly felt throughout the world, and the demise of socialism as a project, especially after the terminal crisis of Soviet socialism and even the hopes sustained vis-à-vis the Cuban revolution, made this openness of social identities more acute. Informal job markets and theoretically controversial processes of class mutation added a further element to this crisis. For nations and nationalism the main consequence of this combination of circumstances was a weakening of the possibilities of continuation of national popular movements and regimes. The resulting heterogeneity of social change does not allow for sweeping constructions of the nation (Canclini 1989).

The democratic transition from military rule (or authoritarian regimes like the Mexican post-revolutionary state) has at once contributed to this process of pluralization and helped to overcome the possible fragmentation it may entail (Touraine 1988: Part V). Allowing for interests to come more freely into a renewed public sphere, it has provided in some measure a mechanism of social integration. On the other hand, this openness has provided room for the divergent articulation of interests and identities. Racial—especially black—and ethnic identities—mainly those of the descendants of large pre-Columbian populations, such as Maya or Quechua and Amayra, among others; religious pluralism—with the spread of Protestantism and exoteric sects alongside Catholicism and black and Indian religions; and a simple general perception of people as the ‘poor’: these seem to be the major axes of identification more recently. Citizenship has once again been a main element in the construction of national identity; or at least the demand for rights—civil, political and social—has been placed at the core of national democratic politics. A struggle for recognition, which includes rights, but also the esteem due to particular ways of life (cf. Honneth 1992), is evident in this trend as well. An answer to those demands has proved harder than expected, though, in a continent with the highest levels of inequality to be found in the whole world. Internal problems, class, cultural and political resistance have been responsible for a protected answer to demands for recognition and citizenship. The way globalization reached the subcontinent, however, has decisively contributed to this difficulty and yielded repeated crises in South and Central America, insofar as national polities cannot be responsible to the population due to the strains the financial system and organisms such the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have superimposed on them. Dependency remains therefore a central issue in a transformed situation, one in which alternatives seem scarcer while time and social constraints look starker than ever thanks to the mere institutionalization of democratic regimes—which run the risk of demoralization. In view of that, the relational aspect of nationalism may resurface in terms of attempts to redress this subordination to global financial markets and apply developmentalist policies, hopefully directed to adjust those countries to the requirements of the third phase of modernity (see Haggard and Kaufman 1992).7

Economic processes of integration have moved pari passu with other changes. Mercosur, congregating Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, although undergoing periodic crises, answers for almost half of the trade of the two main partners in the organization. Thus far it remains, nonetheless, merely a commercial venture—politics and social integration, including identity, lag far behind. The Andean Pact and other regional treaties are economically feebler, although agreements between them and Mercosur have also worked to actualize a dream of many ‘Latin American’ intellectuals—the creation of a single country or at least of a strong alliance between the countries of South and Central America (Domingues 1992; Sierra 2001). The inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has worked as a counterbalance to that project of continental integration, since it represents the United States’s hegemony over the Mexican economy and possibly political processes (Canclini 1996b). The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would be a step further in such a contested direction, opening markets and nations in South and Central America to the impact of the economy and finance of the United States, although protectionist interests in this latter country as well as Brazilian and Argentine resistance and strategy have clouded the perspectives of a quicker process of integration.

Of the countries that, during the twentieth century, enjoyed successful development processes, the most dramatic situation of all is that of Argentina. A very rich country according to any international standard, the last decade of the twentieth century set the stage for perhaps its deepest crisis ever. The former notion of Argentine identity was reversed and now includes a faltering public educational system, unemployment and sharp inequalities. There is no longer a strong and relatively homogeneous working class which was the basis of Perón’s support, especially when youth is taken into account. The peso parity with the dollar, bizarrely enshrined in the constitution by Menen, something that was supposed to mean the definite integration of the country in the so-called ‘First World,’ proved to be the last straw in the national debacle, which culminated in the demise of De la Rúa’s presidency after massive street demonstrations. For a while it was as though Argentina had no possible future and was doomed to descend into poverty and shame (Sarlo 2001). On the one hand this seems to have been a crisis long prepared and hinges on the location of the country in the new phase of modernity, beyond agrarian exports, light industry and a welfare state based on the prosperity such an equation afforded. On the other hand, the strains brought to bear by IMF policies and the demands of financial speculation precipitated and deepened the crisis. Mercosur and the integration with the Brazilian economy are now increasingly perceived as main elements in the recovery of the national economy but also as a means to re-insert Argentina into ‘Latin’ America and help recover a national project and the nation’s self-esteem.

Brazil, on the other hand, has consolidated the electoral aspects of its democracy. However, as a rather plural society, its institutions have not been able to deal with the emergence of freer agents and integrate them within a national project and fashion basic daily solidarity. Widespread violence is a result of these shortcomings, which is antagonistic as well as an aspect of national identity. Although formally available and politically relevant, citizenship has fallen short of implying respect for civil rights and actual social rights. Such violence is the outcome of this lack of integrative mechanisms and sense of belonging to the national community (Domingues 2004 [2002]). The project of becoming the leading country in the continent has been strongly resumed and Mercosur constitutes one of its main instruments, although the tension generated by the dependency of the country in relation to global financial markets and IMF policies remains a limiting element in the development of a democratic and inclusive national identity, and is thus a drawback with respect to contemporary forms of social integration of the country. A relatively independent and particularly interesting process, closely connected to disembedding and re-embedding mechanisms, is the re-emergence of the race issue, revolving around the inequalities and discriminations suffered by the large population of African descent in the country. The notion of ‘racial democracy’ has come under heavy attack from the black movement (which tends to adopt the United States white-black divide, against the ‘false consciousness’ arguably inherent in the praise of miscegenation), while plural black identities have mushroomed, without however conflicting with the perspective of integration, via market and citizenship, into a more egalitarian nation. This is connected in different ways with the peculiar location of Brazil within the broad notion of the ‘Black Atlantic,’ implying links, formal or otherwise, with general political and cultural trends that span that ocean connecting Africa, the Americas and Europe in a decentred transnational collective subjectivity (Sansone 2003).

In contradistinction, having eventually started, since the 1990s, to democratize its post-revolutionary, as a matter of fact one-party system and accepting therefore that it must deal with a more heterogeneous society than ever, Mexico has grappled with its integration into the economic space of North America. This has had an inevitably enormous impact on the national identity and the nation’s project, while at the same time the social fabric has become much more plural, especially as regards the encompassing notion of the mestizo, which, although arguably stressing the role of indigenous people in the construction of the nation, denied them autonomy and special rights. Thus far much has been achieved concerning economic processes, although it is not clear which sort of influence the United States will enjoy culturally, and much less how this will work the other way round (Canclini 1996b, 1999; Aguilar Rivera 2001). An outcome of these two-pronged, far-reaching changes has been the rise of ethnicity and especially of a peasant movement with a strong ethnic basis in the extremely poor region of Chiapas, once the stage of the pristine struggle of Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution. Fighting for the rights of indigenous minorities and against economic integration with the United States, it has fiercely denounced neoliberalism and resumed guerrilla tactics which seemed absolutely defunct in the subcontinent.9While it has strong internal roots and resonance, this new brand of Zapatism has been able to mobilize strong external support, configuring itself to some extent as a truly global movement (Johnston and Laxers 2003).

If in Mexico we can already detect the presence of what specialists have been calling the ‘fourth wave’ of Indian mobilization in the subcontinent (Trejo 2000), in Bolivia and Ecuador this has assumed dramatic contours. While a peasant class identity for a while was able to frame the political mobilization of these Indian communities, a web of factors has altered the identity response these modernized peasants have found to their predicament: the withdrawal of the state, under neoliberal dictates, from steady support to small and communitarian agriculture, revision of ejido (community land) law (in Mexico) as well as the action of groups influenced by Protestant and Catholic liberation theology in the Andean region (including the teaching at school of ancient languages). Former state corporatist and religious networks seem to have facilitated and been drawn upon by the new indigenous leadership.

Bolivia is an interesting case that helps to bring to the fore the never-solved problems of integration which afflicted those societies with massive pre-Columbian populations, whose rights and specificities have been consistently overlooked since independence in the construction of national identities and polities, along with the deleterious pressure of the IMF for neoliberal policies of financial restriction and privatization. In a situation of crisis of the once-powerful miners’ movement and attempts by an already weak and composite government to privatize even water supplies, an alliance of Indians-peasants, cocoa producers and the urban poor, which rejects the traditional political party form though utilizing other structures of mobilization, ousted the government and staged a semi-revolution with important symbolic consequences in ‘Indian’ America. For the first time an autonomous ethnic leadership had been able to play decisive cards in the Andean political game. With the election of Evo Morales to the Presidency in Bolivia in December 2005 and other developments, it is clear that the movement’s momentum will be maintained.

Finally Cuba, the brightest star in the constellation of nationalisms and national liberation movements in the whole subcontinent, has been undergoing a very tense ideological and cultural transition. Advanced modernity, especially during the crisis that preceded its third phase, saw the emergence of irredentist or secessionist nationalisms which offered grand narratives to substitute in particular for the vanished socialist project and identities (Delanty and O’Mahony 2002: 126-8). But that crisis was also the stage for the spread of postmodernism and its defiance and mistrust of grand narratives (regardless of being itself a bird of the same feather). Cuba is a country where the protracted crisis of actual existing socialism has not been surpassed. Nationalism, a modern idea itself and one closely entwined with the Cuban revolution and regime, may have been to some extent engulfed by that crisis and has now to compete in a ‘soup of signs,’ a problem that is bound to afflict above all, though not only, the intellectuals, for whom the issue has been a crucial one since the days of the national poet and hero José Martí (killed in the war of independence against Spain and one of the first to denounce the imperialist intentions of the United States over ‘our America’) (Davies 2000). What this means for a country whose economy has been faltering since the Soviet Union disappeared and lives daily under the brutal pressure of the United States government remains to be seen.


Nationalism is a curious phenomenon, which sociology has not easily explained nor even unquestionably described. As a means to create identities and embed people in modern relationships it has been very effective. Several cultural and political collectivities have been involved, in a more sincere or instrumental way, with nationalism also as a means to generate legitimacy for the state and find an appropriate place for their nations in the global system in which, from the very beginning, they have been placed. The internal and relational aspects of nationalism of course vary, although they always share this more abstract problematic.

The Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World were in the forefront of nation-building and nationalism in the early hours of modernity. Only slowly, however, did the actual incorporation and integration of rather heterogeneous masses to the nation take place in the countries that emerged from independence. Citizenship has in particular played an important role in this regard, despite or even due to the difficulties of making it come true. Having broken away from their former colonial masters these nations found themselves in a world wherein their position was one of subordination to foreign powers that enjoyed supremacy in the global capitalist market and military superiority. They have tried, against inner circles that profit from this situation, to overcome that uncomfortable position. The internal and relational aspects of nationalism during the first and the second phases of modernity maintain therefore a considerable level of continuity in South and Central America. These countries begin the twentieth-first century facing similar problems, although the third phase of modernity imposes new dilemmas and demands creative solutions, some of which seem not as yet to have been forthcoming. To some extent the future of the subcontinent hinges on how these new problems and solutions will eventually be tackled.