Los movimientos de la independencia española de América: 200 años de historia
Por Roberto Breña, profesor en El Colegio de México (en ingles y mandarín)
Since last year, several countries in Latin America are celebrating 200 hundred years of the “beginning” of their independence. I put the word beginning in quotation marks, because, of course, the Spanish Americans of 1810 did not know that the political movements that started in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Chile on that year would take them, eventually, to political independence. This time, I put the word in italics because the only independence that Spanish American countries achieved between 1811 and 1826 was political (not economic, not cultural, not intellectual). This is not to say that political independence is not important; in fact, it is the first step to any other kind of independence. But let us go back to 1810, when it all began.
In April of that year, the Captaincy General of Venezuela declared its autonomy, but not from the Spanish Crown, but from the Regency, that was the political entity that at that time represented the king of Spain (Ferdinand VIIth), who was prisoner in France. How come? This question takes us to what could be considered the spark that ignited the fire that eventually led to the independence of the whole continental possessions of the Spanish Empire in America (after 1824, only Cuba and Puerto Rico, two islands, remained part of the Spanish Crown). This spark was the entry in Spain by the troops of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the Autumn of 1807. This entry turned into an invasion in May of 1808, when the uprising of the people of Madrid against the French troops in the city ended up in a brutal repression (a historical event that the famous Spanish painter Francisco de Goya depicted so well in his painting “Los fusilamientos del dos de mayo”). From that day on, the Spanish towns and cities declared war against the invaders and started a heroic fight against what was, without any doubt, the most powerful army of that time. As could be expected, the Spanish troops were repeatedly defeated by Napoleon’s army (with one notable exception: the famous battle of Bailén in July of 2008). This situation started to change when England decided to support the Spanish resistance against the invaders; however, almost six long years had to go by (1808-1814) before the French were ejected from Spanish territory (an ejection that was possible to a good extent due to the fact that in 1812 Napoleon decided to invade Russia, with the disastrous consequences for him and his army that are well known). In any case, during the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Napoleon’s troops and with Ferdinand VIIth prisoner in France, the Spanish had to organize themselves politically. At first they created local “juntas”; by September of 1808 they were able to create a Central Junta, then a Regency and, finally, a legislative body known as the “Cortes de Cádiz”, who were able to gather in that port in southern Spain thanks to the protection of the British fleet.
Between 1810 and 1814, in the Cortes of Cadiz participated more than 200 Spanish deputies and more then 60 deputies from Spanish America. These parliament carried out a political transformation of such magnitude that contemporary historiography refers to this period of the history of Spain as the “Liberal Spanish Revolution”. It is true that this revolution was short lived, for Ferdinand VIIth abolished all of the liberal legislation that the Corte approved when he came back to power in 1814. For our readers in China, it might be interesting to know that the political connotation of the word “liberal”, or, more concretely, the use of the word “liberal” to refer to a political group, was first used in the Western world in the Cortes of Cadiz at the end of 1810. From there, the term extended its use to the rest of the continent and by the 1830’s it was a word used in several European countries to refer to politicians, political groups or political parties that espoused liberal ideas.
Let us go back now to Spanish America. We said that in April of 1910, Venezuela didn’t recognize the Spanish Regency. The same happened in May in Rio de la Plata (contemporary Argentina), in July in Nueva Granada (contemporary Colombia), and in September in New Spain (contemporary Mexico) and in Chile. That means that by the Fall of 1810, five very important territories in Spanish America were looking for some kind of political autonomy. Not independence we should insist, because those five territories recognized Ferdinand VIIth as king, but a new kind of political arrangement with the metropolis. As it always happens in history with movements in which powerful interests and many people are involved, these autonomous movements gained momentum and went farther than their original intentions. This explains the fact that these first political “skirmishes”, if we may call them that way, ended up in the attainment of absolute independence.
However, it should be mentioned that this independence was not obtained by all the Spanish American territories at the same time or at the same pace. In fact, there is a gap of fifteen years between the independence declared by Venezuela in 1811 and the independence declared by Bolivia in 1826. The Spanish Empire in America did not crumble from one day to the other. In fact, the support for metropolitan Spain was widespread among the population of the different Spanish American territories. We should also point out that the military capacity of the Spanish Crown was far from impressive; among other reasons due to the six year war it waged against the Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The fact that independence took so many years in some territories, can only be explained by the fact that many Spanish Americans were in favor of the metropolis and decided to fight for it. This is why the wars in Spanish America from 1810 to 1824 were, eminently, civil wars.
Notwithstanding what we just said, the final result was the birth of seven new countries in Spanish America by 1826 and ten by 1830. The whole of continental Spanish America was now free to decide its future. This future proved to be a very difficult one from almost every perspective. Politically, the new societies decided to be republics (not monarchies), but had no experience whatsoever in representative government; economically, the protracted war that all of them had gone through left them in terrible shape; socially, the deep inequalities and marked hierarchies that characterized Spanish America during the colonial period (that is, for three centuries) continued unchallenged in several aspects. All these elements contributed to make the first decades of independent life a very troublesome and unstable period.
This situation began to change until the second half of the XIXth century (as always, there are some exceptions; regarding political stability, for example, Chile was able to attain it before the rest). Little by little, Latin America started to achieve certain political, economic, social and cultural development. We are now two hundred years away from the independence of Latin America. The historiography about this period is more dynamic than ever: new researchers, new books and new approaches are making of this period one of the most exciting in contemporary Western academia. In the last twenty years, more books and academic articles have been written about the Spanish American independence movements than in the previous one hundred and eighty. This does not mean that experts agree on every issue. In fact, one of the reasons why this academic field is so dynamic and interesting is because there are so many disagreements in the air. This is good from an intellectual perspective and this should go on (as long as differences are decided by the best arguments).
Let us put an end to these lines making reference to the bicentennials that are with us since last year and that will remain with us until 2030 (it was in 1830 that Simón Bolívar, the most important military leader of the Spanish American independence movements, died). From now until 2030 the different Latin American countries, and specially its governments, will have bicentennial motives to celebrate (due to declarations of independence, decisive battles, achievements of independence, deaths of military or intellectual leaders, etc.). Historical commemorations always tend to simplify history; I expect that Latin American intellectuals, research centers and universities are able to stand their ground, “celebrate” in their own peculiar way and, maybe more importantly, reach the ears of many Latin Americans and of the many interested in the region.