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Odyssey of Identity: Culture and Politics in the Evolution of Latin American Nationalism, The

Roger P. Davis, "The Odyssey of Identity: Culture and Politics in the Evolution of Latin American Nationalism, " Platte Valley Review, 15:1 (Spring, 1987), 36-45.

In 1968, Victor Alba observed that "People in Europe and the United States talk less and less about nationalism, but they talk more and more about it in Africa, Asia, and Latin America . . ."1 Fourteen years later, at a university commencement address in 1982, Carlos Fuentes echoed this sentiment and amplified its significance: "Nationalism represents . . . a profound value for Latin Americans simply because of the fact that our nationhood is still in question. In New York, Paris, or London, no one loses sleep asking himself whether the nation exists. In Latin America you can wake up and find that the nation is no longer there. . . .2

The validity of these observations is reflected in contemporary affairs. Over the past thirty-six months there has been ample evidence that Latin Americans are still waking up with concern. In a July 1986 article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled "Venezuela Grapples with Identity Crisis," President Jaime Lusinchi lamented in his state-of-the-union address that because of the corrupting effects of past oil wealth "our vision was distorted," leaving Venezuelans unsure of themselves.3

In Argentina, President Raul Alfonsin, declaring that Buenos Aires was undermining "the fundamental beliefs and concepts that gave birth to our nation," announced proposals to move the capital six hundred miles south to Patagonia.4 In Peru President Alan Garcia declared in favor of a transfer of that nation's capital one hundred and twenty-five miles east to the Mantaro River Valley. Lima, he concluded, "does not have much of a future."5 In Chile, the theatrical producers "El Nuevo Groupo" explain that their political dramas are not anti-Pinochet polemics but calls to rediscover Chilean values, "to return to what we Chileans were before."6 Reporting from Honduras for the New York Review of Books, Edward Sheehan found such a mixture of helplessness and concern over regional instability that he entitled his article, "The Country of Nada."7 Even such stalwarts as Costa Rica and Mexico are not free from anxiety over national viability and identity. The economic crises of 1981-1982 and the political instability surrounding Nicaragua have shaken Costa Rica's economy and neutrality. Ex-President Luis Alberto Monge described these events as "the most difficult and the most dangerous moment that Costa Rica has had." Current President Oscar Arias has underscored this sense of insecurity by initiating new efforts to reinvigorate her identity as a neutral nation.8 The crisis faced by Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party is well known, but the larger aspects of the current stresses in Mexico go beyond the fate of the party. Jorge G. Castaneda, writing in the fall 1986 edition of Foreign Policy, makes these cautionary remarks:

It would be illusory to dismiss the risk of national disintegration. The danger of splitting the country into a modern, affluent integrated, relatively democratic north and a backward, destitute, independent, and undemocratic south is real; the perception of the danger is widespread.

Castaneda identifies the one grace that may save Mexico from these tensions as "Mexico's cultural vigor and exceptionally strong national identity." 9

Latin American concern about nationalism goes beyond simply coping with routine affairs of national existence. It is a concern over the legitimacy of that existence and an uncertainty over what it means. It is a question of national identity. It is also a question of regional identity; for no matter the distinctions between states, the many historical, cultural and linguistic ties also provide an ambiance of "continental nationalism," a general Latin American nationalism, that is equally as important.10 Both the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa have recently argued, from disparate political positions, that a crucial aspect of the Central American crisis is the threat of an imposed solution which would jeopardize "the respect and credibility of a whole continent.' 11 Exhibiting their faith in continental nationalism, Fuentes declared, "This is a Latin American problem and it deserves a Latin American solution"; and from Vargas Llosa, "The battle for liberty in Latin America will be won strictly by themselves.'' 12

Clearly nationalism, as Fuentes earlier observed, stands as a serious element of life for Latin Americans. In New York, however, it is as yet a passe subject. While Latin Americans are concerned with the topic, North American efforts to analyze modern Latin America have omitted or severely limited any discussion of the theme.

Three of the most widely used textbooks on Latin America, particularly the modern period, are A Short History of Latin America by Keen and Wasserman,13 Modern Latin America by Skidmore and Smith, 14 and Latin America: Its Problems and Its Promise, written and edited by Jan Knippers Black. 15 Keen and Wasserman and Skidmore and Smith provide admirable analysis of the modernization processes, of distinct political, economic, and social elements of change and stability, but there is no effort to introduce nationalism as a viable analytical concept for understanding Latin America."16 In the Black collection, nationalism is briefly acknowledged by one author as a "potent force favoring change and development." Overall, however, the theme is restricted to the realm of artistic expression in literature and the plastic arts."17 These works are not cited here for censure, but to note the decline in the discussion of nationalism with regard to Latin America, and to suggest that this theme, while historiographically the past for many scholars, is very much the present in Latin reality and thus, still a viable analytical device.

Nationalism is a term with a myriad of meanings. It is a phenomenon of concrete socioeconomic elements that are historically specific. It is an analytical construct that has its own historiographical evolution. It is also a psychological and metaphysical phenomenon that is as powerfully compelling as it is difficult to specifically delineate.

In his classic critique of the scholarship of nationalism, Boyd Shafer acknowledged nine definitions of the term. Distilling the labor of some fifty years of research on the topic, Shafer identified a number of the criteria of nationalism. They include territorial boundaries, common language, common social, political, and economic institutions, and a shared historical experience. The most compelling qualifications, however, are elements of belief, of faith, of spirit.18 Other scholars of the topic have also acknowledged the importance of these aspects of nationalism. Hans Kohn has described these as a "group consciousness."19 Louis Snyder writes of the "national soul"20 while Karl Deutsch speaks of the evolution of a nearly metaphysical ''people.''21 Whatever the description, the consensus is clear that these psychological and metaphysical elements are crucial in animating nationalism, in transforming it from an academic theory to a motivational force. Nationalism in this form penetrates the consciousness of the individual, binds the individual with the society at large. As Shafer observed, in a world undergoing rapid change in a material sense, "Nationalism became the instrument of mobilization, of retaining identity as well as fulfilling expectations."22 With regard to the significance of these qualities, the concept of identity is central to modern nationalism. Louis Snyder has written that nationalism "may be in part a substitute for religion and an answer to psychic needs, or it may be in part a carryover of parent and family fixation . . . a response to the individual's need for security and protection . . . an outlet for aggression . . . anxiety . . . or it may reflect a sense of inferiority."23 Specifically referring to contemporary nationalism, Anthony Smith has written that "No other ideal has been able to reappear in so many guises, or to suffer temporary eclipse only to reemerge stronger and more permanently. No other vision has set its stamp so thoroughly on the map of the world and on our sense of identity."24 The discussion of nationalism is also a discussion of political culture; not of politics in the narrow sense of institution and political parties, but political culture as formally defined as the aggregate of learned socially transmitted behavior and beliefs; the product of historical experience of the whole society as well as personal experience that can contribute to the socialization of the individual, drawing upon the elements of psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology.25

The concept of identity and the inclusive nature of political culture are at the heart of the evolution of nationalism in Latin America. Although now out of vogue, the topic of nationalism did command sufficient attention in the past to prompt a fine collection of studies specific to Latin America. Gerhard Masur's Nationalism in Latin America: Diversity and Unity,26 Arthur Whitaker's Nationalism in Latin America: Past and Present27 and with David Jordan Nationalism in Contemporary Latin America, 28 Samuel Bailey's Nationalism in Latin America, 29 and Victor Alba's Nationalists Without Nations 30 are among the most noteworthy. The topics of Latin American identity and political culture have also received past attention. Significantly, these studies were generally not designed to make a political connection or serve as investigations of nationalism. They stood as volumes on Latin American art, literature, philosophy, and general intellectual history. These included such stalwarts as W. Rex Crawford's A Century of Latin American Thought,31 Harold E. Davis' Latin American Thought: A Historical Introduction, 32 and Martin S. Stabb's In Quest of Identity: Patterns in the Spanish American Essay of Ideas.33 Two studies that did come closer to the amalgam of culture, politics, and identity in Latin American nationalism were Jean Franco's The Modern Culture of Latin America 34 and the Jorrin-Martz study Latin American Political Thought and Ideology.35

Taken together, these and other contributions by authors of both Americas depict an odyssey of identity as an essential aspect of Latin American culture, and even more so as a key feature of the formulation of Latin American nationalism. The crucial aspect of this observation, however, is not simply the grail of identity, but the nature of the quest and its continuation.

From Esteban Echevarria's lament in 1839, "Let us weep, brothers: our country does not exist!"36 to Victor Alba's echo in 1968 that "The Latin American countries are not nations . . ."37 Latin Americans have in an inverse sense tied their feeling of political, social, and economic well being to the question of who they are. Over the last century and a half they achieved political independence, but decried their lack of mental emancipation. They constructed states to strike the balance of liberty and order, but found them inauthentic and ineffective. They embraced Positivism and sociology to justify modernization, but proclaimed a spiritual crisis and initiated a search for the soul of their people, countries, and continent. The labors of such as Alberdi, Bello, Sarmiento, Samper, Barreda, Rodo, Vasconcelos, Mariategui ,Ma?ach, Zea, and Paz are the testament of that travail. From independence onward, the effort was to find "a way of shaping national consciousness and giving a sense of tradition."38

The answers arrived at vary widely but do share a common element, that of synthesis. Alonso Reyes once remarked that Latin America's compensation for arriving late at "so-called Western Civilization" was that it allowed Latin Americans to be "in the position of making a synthesis and of profiting from this, without being limited to narrow cultural spheres."39 In this spirit Latin Americans were, and are, variously in the process of becoming: becoming civilized through European immigration; becoming statesmen through borrowed political theories and forms; becoming efficient social engineers and economists through the absorption of Positivistic faith; becoming a people liberated from the crass materialism of the West through the rediscovery of the Indian spirit in the Latin soul, or the mestizo, or criollo, or Hispanic spirit in that soul. In his study of contemporary nationalism in Latin America, Whitaker focused upon this evolutionary and unsettled quality. He found that despite the numerous attempts to define national identity, "No generally acceptable answer was found."40. Another scholar of the problem, Kalman Silvert, agreed in his observation that

The roots of a common interest [of all Latin American nations] lie in the desires to control the national fates: to assert sovereignty, contain multinational corporations, promote national development, confront problems associated with population. urbanization, and international market prices . . . the reasons for combination exist, the vessels and the ideas are as yet embryonic.41

The nation is so embryonic a vessel in Latin America that there is not only uncertainty about whether it will exist tomorrow but also whether it yet exists today. Silvert concluded that Cuba stood as the sole example.42 Victor Alba found Mexico the only state "closest to being a true nation."43

Another student of Latin America, Frederick Pike, found that

In Latin America, with the possible exception of Mexico and Cuba, the countries have not yet become nations, political stability and economic progress sometimes serve as a veneer, temporarily masking long unresolved and increasingly explosive conflicts over identity, integration and destiny.44

In such an environment with such concerns, it is not surprising that the Latin American artist and intellectual emerged as the "guide, teacher, and conscience of his country," and of all of Latin America.45 In her study of the artist and society in Latin America, Jean Franco observed that "An intense social concern has been the characteristic of Latin American art for the last one hundred and fifty years. Literature--and even painting and music--have played a social role.46 Even the national artistic inclination to universal elements has remained grounded in local and regional reality and maintained the artist as a spiritual arbiter and leader in Latin society.47 In the Latin context, this af fords these elites another form of leadership, of a political nature. Alan Riding, in a recent discussion of revolution and the intellectual in Latin America has written that


      Intellectuals exercise enormous political influence in Latin America. It is

      they who provide respectability to governments . . . legitimacy to re

      volts . . . who articulate the ideas and contribute the images through

      which Latin Americans relate to power, they who satisfy the decidedly

      Latin need for a romantic and idealistic raison d'etre.48

Artists and intellectuals have exercised that influence within the formal political structure as well as from without. They have been and currently serve across the Latin American political landscape as presidents, ambassadors, ministers and party leaders. It is with this sense of the odyssey of Latin American identity and the convergence of culture and politics in that search that we return to the contrast drawn at the beginning of this paper.

If nationalism seems no longer viable as an analytical device for Latin America, it may be due to the fact that the language of that nationalism is value-laden and rich in psychological and metaphysical imagery, qualities anathema to modern behavioralist analysis. It may also be that the most articulate spokesman for Latin American nationalism-the painters, poets, and writers-are not accredited in terms of contemporary models of political evaluation. Kalman Silvert correctly prophesized the dangers of this developing contrast in an article on U.S.-Latin American relations entitled "The Kitsch in Hemispheric Realpolitik":

The proponents of "realistic' polities invariably content themselves with the "concrete" and the "positive" facts of social life. Natural resources, population size, urbanization, military preparedness. and industrial development are for them "hard" facts, the "real" ones. Ideologies, norms, values, personal crochets, and ethics are "soft," the claptrap in utopian minds.... This construction turns night into day; it is hardly pragmatic in the philosophical sense of the term, and it is fiercely--if pessimistically--ideological. This idea, like many others in our contemporary political armory, will have to be taken off its head and put back on its feet before we can go on to make sense out of our situation.49

In a recent New York Times editorial, Luis Burstin, the ex-Secretary of information in Costa Rica, warned against two "pervasive myths" concerning Latin America. They are "that revolutions are caused by poverty and social injustice and that foreign economic assistance will prevent those revolutions." Noting that economic aid would not end Latin upheaval, he contended that "Political reform is urgent and indispensable; without it, nothing will help."50 Recent word from Latin America also informs us that the first three volumes of a fifty-four volume compendium on liberation theology have been released. In addition, a series of shorter books by Leonardo Boff is being issued on how to do liberation theology.51

Our situation, as Silvert put it, and that of Latin America is being present at creation. The creation of a national and regional identity that is already quite traditional in its process, predictable in its language and symbols, and reasonable in its context. Whether it is a cosmic race, justicialismo, Indoamerica, the new Cuba, or Nicaragua, or a new theology, the creation of "new men" and "new societies" is at the heart of that odyssey of identity in Latin American nationalism.


1. Victor Alba, Nationalists Without Nations: The Oligarchy Versus the People in Latin America (New York: Praeger, 1968), p. v.

2. "After the Malvinas" Wesleyan, 66:1, 1982, p. 4.

3. July 28, 1986.

4. "Proposal to Move Argentine Capital Hailed and Condemned" Las Vegas Review- Journal, June 12, 1986.

5. "Garcia Proposes New Peru Capital." Omaha World-Herald, September 17, 1986.

6. "Artistic Dissent Persists in Chile," Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 8. 1986.

7. March 27, 1986.

8. "Costa Ricans Cheerfully Absorb U.S. Aid," Wall Street Journal. September 19, 1985; "An Interview with Luis Alberto Monge, Costa Rica's President" Caribbean Today, May, 1986; "Costa Rica's Image as Haven Fading.-- New York Times, September 12, 1986.

9. "Mexico's Coming Challenges," No. 64, p. 138.

10. Arthur Whitaker and David C. Jordan, Nationalism in Contemporary Latin America (New York: Free Press, 1966), p. 161.

11. Carlos Fuentes, "Approaches to the Americas: Reagan's Nicaragua Obsession Puts All The Hemisphere at Risk," Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1986.

12. Ibid., and "Latin America: A Media Stereotype," Atlantic Monthly, January, 1964.

13. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 2nd ed.

14. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

15. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984).

16. Keen and Wasserman do acknowledge a "nationalist temper" (p. 253) and do note that Latin scholars, writers, and artists see their work as an instrument of social and political change (p. 496), but they segregate that observation to a critique of Latin American literature from 1930-1983. Skidmore and Smith note that "cultural influences . . . are not merely adornments or superstructures; they have important effects on the perceptions, attitudes. and actions of the people who make history" (p. 12). Yet regarding Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Amado and Jorge Luis Borges. the context remains literature in Latin America (p. 384).

17. E. Bradford Burns, "The Continuity of the National Period," p. 71. The essays on art, literature and ironically, "Nationalism and Modern Latin American Art" are segregated from polities and economies in "Part Three: Cultural Expression."

18. Faces of Nationalism: New Realities and Old Myths (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972) pp. 3, 4, 9, 17-20.

19. Cited in Whitaker, Nationalism, p. 3.

20. Louis L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 189.

21. Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Its Alternatives (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969). pp. 14-15.

22. Shafer, Faces of Nationalism, p. 293.

23. Snyder, Meaning of Nationalism, p. 110.

24. Anthony D.S. Smith, Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University, 1979), p. 1.

25. Jack Plano; et. al. The Dictionary of Political Analysis (Oxford: ABC Clio, 1982) 2nd. ed. p. 100.

26. (New York: MacMillan, 1966).

27. (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 19621.

28. (New York: Free Press, 1966).

29. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1971).

30. (New York: Praeger, 1968).

31. (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1963).

32. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.. 1972).

33. (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1967).

34. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 19701.

35. (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1970).

36. Crawford, Latin American Thought, p. 12.

37. Nationalists Without Nations, p. 16.

38. Franco, Modern Culture, p. 19.

39. Ibid., p. 192.

40. Nationalism, p. 166.

41. "The Kitsch in Hemispheric Realpolitik" in Essays in Understanding Latin America (Philadelphia: Institute for Study of Human Issues, 1977), p. 146.

42. "Fate, Chance. and Faith" in Essays ,p. 90).

43. Nationalists Without Nations, p. 16.

44. Frederick B. Pike, ed., Latin American History: Select Problems: Identity, Integration, and Nationhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace. and World, 1969) p. ix.

45. Franco, Modern Culture, p. 11.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., pp. 191-192. A dissenting voice in this regard is that of Victor Alba, who contends that the universalist aspirations of these elites disenfranchise them. He writes, "Latin American artists and intellectuals are isolated from their own country and know nothing of its problems." As allies of the oligarchy, Alba condemns them for using nationalist themes only as "an opium for their conscience." Nationalists Without Nations. Chapter 7, pp. 147 185.

48. "Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin America," New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1983, p. 30. For a contrary opinion by an English journalist see The Unrevolutionary Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) by John Mander. He states that "Except perhaps in the Liberal heyday of Sarmiento and Juarez intellectuals have not enjoyed the political influence in Latin American that foreigners imagine" (p. 121).

49. Essays, p. 147.

50. "Economic Aid Won't End Latin Upheavals," Arizona Daily Star .February 13, 1984.

51."Resources," Latinamerica Press, 18:31, August 28, 1986, p. 4.