Monday, October 6, 2014

Simón Bolivar’s Jamaica Letter

Simón Bolivar El Libertador, Juan Dávila
Bolivar’s Jamaica Letter gives us a snapshot of a particular moment in the history of Latin America.  This letter was written on September 6, 1815 on the heels of the Peninsular War(see this clip and this one with John Green)(1807-14) that involved Spain, the UK and Portugal in opposition against France’s José Napolean Bonaparte.  The French and the Spanish both tortured and mutilated captives (Think of Goya's Disasters of War) in an all out protracted guerrilla war.  The push for independence in Latin America can be understood, in large part, as a response to the turmoil in Spain that resulted from the French invasion rather than as part of the evolution of a common Latin American identity.  This is significant because once the colonies attained their independence there was not a defined path for the region to take.  Bolivar’s letter to his English friend and admirer Henry Cullen attests to this crossing point in colonial history.

To begin, Simon Bolivar describes the great diversity of Latin America and suggests that the diversity of the states is too great to be united under a single nation with a single bond.  Even though he notes that these states have a common origin, language, customs, and religion he argues: “America is separated by climactic differences, geographic diversity, conflicting interests, and other dissimilar characteristics.”  In his view, the founding of a single unified Latin American nation is an unrealistic fantasy. 

It is a grandiose idea to think of consolidating the New World into a single nation, united by pacts into a single bond. It is reasoned that, as these parts have a common origin, language, customs, and religion, they ought to have a single government to permit the newly formed states to unite in a confederation. But this is not possible. Actually, America is separated by climatic differences, geographic diversity, conflicting interests, and dissimilar characteristics. How beautiful it would be if the Isthmus of Panamá could be for us what the Isthmus of Corinth was for the Greeks! Would to God that some day we may have the good fortune to convene there an august assembly of representatives of republics, kingdoms, and empires to deliberate upon the high interests of peace and war with the nations of the other three-quarters of the globe. 

The issue of a Latin American identity is ambiguous in Bolivar’s letter.  As I mentioned, he argues that the region is vastly different, but then again he makes a strong argument for the emergence of a unique Latin American identity.  He describes Latin America as a small universe unto itself that can be characterized as a “new” people; different from Spain and also from the native populations:

...We scarcely retain a vestige of what was; we are, moreover, neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers. In short, though Americans by birth we derive our rights from Europe, and we have to assert these rights against the rights of the natives, and at the same time we must defend ourselves against the invaders.

In his letter Bolivar is very critical of the colonial system and the conduct of the Spanish in the colonies since the initial “discovery.”  Bolivar points out that Bartólome de las Casas who recorded the horrors that he witnessed, collected reliable testimony and also based his history on trial records from Seville documented the atrocities.

Three centuries ago, you say, "began the atrocities committed by the Spaniards on this great hemisphere of Columbus." Our age has rejected these atrocities as mythical, because they appear to be beyond the human capacity for evil. Modern critics would never credit them were it not for the many and frequent documents testifying to these horrible truths. The humane Bishop of Chiapas, that apostle of America, Las Casas, has left to posterity a brief description of these horrors, extracted from the trial records in Sevilla relating to the cases brought against the conquistadores, and containing the testimony of every respectable person then in the New World, together with the charges, which the tyrants made against each other. All this is attested by the foremost historians of that time. Every impartial person has admitted the zeal, sincerity, and high character of that friend of humanity, who so fervently and so steadfastly denounced to his government and to his contemporaries the most horrible acts of sanguinary frenzy. 

Bolivar lays out the political and economic logic behind the Latin American move for independence from Spain.  One of these is that Latin Americans have been deprived of the ability to govern themselves and have been marginalized from holding positions of authority in the colony.  He argues that those born in the Americas occupy only subordinate positions without the royal privileges that the Peninsulares enjoy.  This inequality between the Peninsulares and the Criollos also plays out economically to the detriment of the colonies because it impedes their development.  Many of the prohibitions set by Spain limited the opportunities in the colonies to buy and sell products, so that these would have to be purchased from the Peninsula, and limited their ability to do business with other colonies or with countries other than Spain.

Americans today, and perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, who live within the Spanish system occupy a position in society no better than that of serfs destined for labor, or at best they have no more status than that of mere consumers. Yet even this status is surrounded with galling restrictions, such as being forbidden to grow European crops, or to store products which are royal monopolies, or to establish factories of a type the Peninsula itself does not possess. To this add the exclusive trading privileges, even in articles of prime necessity, and the barriers between American provinces, designed to prevent all exchange of trade, traffic, and understanding. In short, do you wish to know what our future held?--simply the cultivation of the fields of indigo, grain, coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cotton; cattle raising on the broad plains; hunting wild game in the jungles; digging in the earth to mine its gold--but even these limitations could never satisfy the greed of Spain. 

…As I have just explained, we were cut off and, as it were, removed from the world in relation to the science of government and administration of the state. We were never viceroys or governors, save in the rarest of instances; seldom archbishops and bishops; diplomats never; as military men, only subordinates; as nobles, without royal privileges. In brief, we were neither magistrates nor financiers and seldom merchants--all in flagrant contradiction to our institutions. 

Another important facet of the letter is that it is a call for Europe to help in the projects for independence in the Americas.  Bolivar bases his plea on the moral goal of attaining freedom for the hemisphere, but also argues that it would make sense for Europe to build a commercial relationship with the Americas that would be advantageous to both hemispheres based on equality and mutual respect.  He makes it clear that his call for help in the independence project is not an invitation for another imperial country to step in to replace Spain as a ruling power.

Europe herself, as a matter of common sense policy, should have prepared and executed the project of American independence, not alone because the world balance of power so necessitated, but also because this is the legitimate and certain means through which Europe can acquire overseas commercial establishments. A Europe which is not moved by the violent passions of vengeance, ambition, and greed, as is Spain, would seem to be entitled, by all the rules of equity, to make clear to Spain where her best interests lie.

All of the writers who have treated this matter agree on this point. Consequently, we have had reason to hope that the civilized nations would hasten to our aid in order that we might achieve that which must prove to be advantageous to both hemispheres. How vain has been this hope! Not only the Europeans but even our brothers of the North have been apathetic bystanders in this struggle which, by its very essence, is the most just, and in its consequences the most noble and vital of any which have been raised in ancient or in modern times. Indeed, can the far-reaching effects of freedom for the hemisphere which Columbus discovered ever be calculated? 

Finally, in this letter we see Bolivar consider possible systems of government for the future.  He is a proponent of a Republican system to replace the authority of the King and he is also in favor of a centralized system instead of a federal one.  It is interesting that while Enlightenment ideals of freedom and autonomy where harnessed to incite the revolution that these were abandoned, in large part, in the arguments concerning how to arrange self-government.  Bolivar believed that Latin America was an inexperienced and young region that needed a type of government that was practical and that would bring stability.  

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