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The Birth of Independent Latin American Nations: Role of Simón Bolivar of Venezuela

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Latin American colonies built their independence off a foundation of colonization and conquest. In search for unity and peace, the colonies worked hard to obtain their freedom from the Crown. Although there was a struggle, the journey of Latin America stems from its inhabitants. Friction caused by prejudices, discrimination, and exploitation from the Spanish Crown on the residents of Latin America initiated their uprising. There were many contributing factors leading to the independence of most of Latin America by 1830, including social, political, economic, and ethical conflict along with the influence of many motivated individuals.

The social conflict began when the various social groups of Latin America found themselves being pressured to follow the reforms of the Spanish Crown. In 1500, Latin America witnessed a drastic political change when the Iberians came and conquered the natives and settled upon their land. These invaders worked toward social domination and continued to search for success in riches, the privilege of being served by others, and religious righteousness (Chasteen 2011: 11). Since they remained in control of the region for centuries to come, hegemony developed and the inhabitants of Latin America began feeling angry toward the European colonists and refused to live under the influence of Crown (Chasteen 2011: 57).

The social and ethnic structures in the region caused resentment toward the Crown. A caste system had developed which put Peninsulares, or Spanish-born people of the highest social class, at the top followed by Creoles, Mestizos, and Mullets. This caste system caused tensions to grow and hate to spread throughout social classes, especially between blacks and higher class. This became especially clear as Creoles, such as Simon Bolivar, searched for ways to obtain the same status, wealth, and power of the whites (Chasteen 2011: 94).

During the 1700s, Creole elites discovered the works of Enlightenment thinkers and found inspiration to act, which included Simón Bolivar of Venezuela (Cushman lecture 2019). Bolivar used his position as a military commander to start military campaigns to take back Venezuela. He earned a presidency position in Gran Colombia, where he wrote a constitution for Venezuela based upon equality and unity (Bolivar 1819 Chasteen 2016: 92-99). Bolivar strove to encourage people of South America to rebel against the Spanish colonial rule. He led many forces against the Spaniards and granted liberation to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (Class discussion 2019). His actions encouraged some individuals to work for independence, however other key events became important to sparking revolution.

In 1750, the royal administrators in Spain and Portugal tightened control over New World possessions in an attempt to extract more revenue which ended in economic protest (Cushman lecture 2019). This became known as the Bourbon or Pombline Reforms. The purpose was to rationalize and revolutionize the governance of overseas territories by constraining them to act more like colonies (Chasteen 2011: 74-75). By colonizing the region, Spain and Portugal hoped to have increased profitability from the colonies by raising taxes. The tax raise put people out of work and pushed others, such as indigenous people, further into poverty because of their inability to pay the rates (Chasteen 2011: 76). Tension, as a result of the Crown’s actions, grew within Latin America among the castes and it did not take much before rebellion rose.

In 1791, slaves in Haiti revolted against plantation owners. Toussaint L’Overture led an army of former slaves against French elites. In this time, France, Spain, and Britain sent armies to fight on the side of the French, however, this did not stop the rebels. They reached victory as slavery was abolished in Haiti and Toussaint’s forces took control of the island (Cushman lecture 2019). A few years later, Napoleon sent an army to take over Haiti once again and in time Toussaint was captured, the French were forced to surrender and Haiti declared its independence. The result of this revolt scared other Creoles who strived to obtain power but did not want to face economic or social changes that could possibly threaten how they lived. Although, this revolution did inspire other slave conspiracies and rebellions; it would just take something bigger for independence to be achieved (Cushman lecture 2019).

That spark that created the shatter of the colonial compact was ignited between 1807 and 1808 when Napoleon invaded Spain and Portugal and the leaders in Latin America saw weakness as an opportunity to claim independence from colonial rule (Cushman lecture 2019). Prince João of Portugal pursued refuge in Brazil and developed the colony into the seat of government for Portugal, placing new reforms on the colonists (Chasteen 2011: 92). João left Portugal in hopes that it would prevent a liberal government from forming in the nation. In 1822, when independence movements broke out, as a result of fear of Portugal forcing Brazil back to colonial status, Prince Pedro took responsibility and initiated the break away from the colonial compact. Once their independence was gained, Emperor Pedro strived to develop a working conservative government (Cushman lecture 2019). Liberal Brazilians did not agree with all of his attitudes, however as conservatives remained in power, there was hardly any political protest. Aside from Brazil, Peru also had two important figures which helped shape the independence movement.

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Juana Azurduy and José Santos, of Peru, had a great impact on their region during the liberation protests. Juana Azurduy was a representative of the mestiza population and was admired greatly for her courage and bravery as she fought fight along the patriot guerillas in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. She is mostly honored for her high ranks and dedication to Bolivian and Argentinian independence. Her heroism was thought to inspire future generations of women at the time, even though the new colonies remained just as patriarchal as before. José Santos, however, is best known for his diary entries which highlight the situation of indigenous individuals caught in the guerilla war crossfire. His writing shows what means people would resort to in order to save their lives including switching sides during the war and fighting for the other sides (Chasteen Latin American voices reader pg. 77). As a result of his work, people became inspired to remain loyal to their native attitudes. The influences by these two individuals inspired different social groups to transform their attitudes about liberation.

One of the final countries to gain its independence was Mexico, as a result of the constitution Spain designed for its country. The inhabitants of Mexico feared this document would affect the Spanish colonies (Chasteen 2011: 104). Therefore, creoles, mestizos, and indigenous people in Mexico came together to overthrow the Spaniards and become independent. Around 1825, Latin American independence movements came to an end, however, the goal was not achieved. The original idea was to create a nation of unity, however, rivals between nations (regarding power) got in the way. As a result, peace became hard to achieve. Post-colonial writers such as Domingo Sarmiento and Henry Koster provide some ideas for reestablishing political and social peace in these nations.

Henry Koster was a post-colonial writer of slavery in Brazil. He believed in order to reach peace in Latin American nations, keeping a caste system was key. In his writing, his discussion emphasizes how the slavery in Brazil is a brotherhood and should not be infringed on, unlike U.S. slavery which was considered more intense. Also, he mentions how free black and free mulattos did have opportunities to rise socially, it just was not as easy for free blacks. In his work Travels of Brazil, Koster talks about a militia where all the officers and men are of mixed caste, which supports his idea to continue a caste system, because even with this system, individuals still managed to work together peacefully (Koster in Chasteen 2016: 88). Koster also stressed the importance of maintaining religion, Christianity and Catholicism, in the nations where they existed. Along with Koster, Sarmiento also established his own views for peace and prosperity in the Latin American nations.

Sarmiento’s political and social ideas for restoring peace are evident in his book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Sarmiento uses Juan Facundo Quiroga as a symbol to represent how the manifestation of the issues that arose between civilization and barbarism faced by the peoples of the Americas, because of their revolutionary experience, had turned violence into a lifestyle. Quiroga participated in the revolution of Spain and soon after became a highly recognized individual in Argentina. He developed a sense of federalism as he wanted to preserve his control over his regions and rose to command in the army quickly, leading forces against the president of Argentina. Quiroga worked side by side with Juan Manuel de Rosas, who supported unitarian ideals. Sarmiento uses Rosas and Facundo to demonstrate civilization and barbarism, but also to express his support for unitarians.

In this case, Sarmiento believes life inside towns and cities is what keeps economic and social peace. He believes a lack of civilization and an excess of nature will lead to a loss of morality which threatens existing civilization. He uses Facundo to define barbarism and the effects of living outside of the city. He describes this lifestyle as being frightening and insecure, where “society has altogether disappeared” (Sarmiento [1845] 1998: 21). In contrast, cities are a place of learning and progress. In the cities, the inhabitants are not expected to fight nature in order to survive. There is peace and prosperity. This ideal is represented by Juan Manuel de Rosas who was city raised and encouraged the ideas of unitarians. As Sarmiento writes, a bias toward unitarian concepts develops as a result of the negative representation of “federales” expressed throughout the book.

As Sarmiento defends his argument that city life represents peace, he provides some interesting generalizations to prove his point. For example, Sarmiento’s theory is that the region a person descends from determines their character. Outside of cities in Argentina settles rough terrain: mountains, deserts, forests. All of which are very hard to overcome. Therefore, individuals who settle in these places are required to fight for their lives and become violent as they constantly battle with the nature around them. However, people who descend from the city are much more prestigious and respected because they live in a uniform society. A city is a community which thrives with culture, religion, education, and wealth. In comparison, city dwellers are expected to be more civilized and anyone else is barbaric. These ideas and theories from Sarmiento contribute to what needs to be done for possible social and political peace in the new Latin American nations.

Latin America is a region filled with many nations, all of which developed through social, political, economic, and ethical battles. The actions of individuals such as Toussaint L’Overture, Simón Bolivar, Prince João, Prince Pedro, José Santos Vargas, Juana Azurduy, and Juan Facundo Quiroga contributed to the independence movements of Latin America and inspired individuals all around the region. Post-colonial theories provide some insight of what could be done for the nations to reach ultimate peace and unity following their independence. In the end, through a long battle, most of Latin America was able to achieve independence by 1830 and the consequences of their struggles are still apparent to this day.

Works Cited

  1. Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
  2. Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016.
  3. Cushman, Gregory. “The Colonial Heritage of Latin America”, “The Age of Revolutions & Latin American Independence”. Lecture. The University of Kansas. Lawrence, KS. 2019.
  4. Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino, Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, and Ilan Stavans. Facundo, or, Civilization and Barbarism. New York, NY, U.S.A. Penguin Books, 1998.

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