Europe’s astounding benign neglect of Latin America


Latin America is not high on the radar of European politicians with the exception of Spain and Portugal. These last two countries of course having the closest ties, they are the usual suspects to look to Latin America for economic opportunities and political ties. In Spanish and Portuguese languages, often the term ‘Iberoamerica’ is used to describe this part of the world. The term ‘Latin America’ was coined by French emperor Napoleon III in order to give credence to french expansionist claims in this part of the world, culminating in French involvement in many places such as Mexico, which was made an Empire with Maximilian as a puppet emperor at a time when the other expansionist power to the north, the United States was embroiled in a Civil war which took up all US resources, which in turn enabled French influence to persist in Mexico.

Once hardly a unit, Latin American integration is just as impressive as EU integration. In many ways both Latin America and Europe have been heavily influenced by the French Revolutionary years and the Rule of Napoleon, albeit in different ways than in Europe. The French coup d’etat in Spain and deposing of King Fernando VII lead to a power vacuum which caused the Spanish-Amerian ‘criollo’ -elites who had always been critical of too direct Spanish influence to organize in local governments, ultmately leading to the independence of Latin American countries.

It is important to remember that the American continent was discovered by Columbus and explored by others for centuries when European explorers were looking for a passage across the sea to China. It was only after the Castilian conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires and subsequent gold fever that Emperor Charles V became interested in the gold of the new world. Famously, Cortez explained Aztec Emperor that the Spaniards suffered from a disease that could only be cured with gold. Less famously, the Aztec gold treasures that were robbed from Tenochtitlan, were quickly melted into coins in order to finance Charles’ manifold wars on the old continent.

The Portuguese only turned Brazil into a thriving colony when competition with the Ottoman Empire and other forces in the Indian Ocean turned out to be too strong to truly expand. In many ways therefore, the Americas were paradoxically not high on the list of European powers, if it was not for the profits to be yielded from it. No Spanish king ever visited the American colonies. Even in the 18th Century, it was widely believed that America, both North and South, did not possess the right qualities in the same way as Europe. Thomas Jefferson had to defend the North American natural world to his European colleagues to show that America was plentiful and possessed the right qualities for life to thrive. When at the end of the 18th century, Spain finally realized the full potential of its American colonies, also in a cultural sense, the famous Bourbon reforms quickly backfired onto the Spanish King. It was only in the course of the 19th century when the picture started to change and a general interest in Latin America developed, to a significant extent due to the explorations by Alexander Von Humboldt at the turn of the 19th century.

The 19th century saw European influence rising and falling, whereby different models of influence were put to the test by various European powers. France exerted the most influence on a cultural level from the philosophy of Auguste Comte to Napoleon III-styled cities all over Latin American major cities, which influences dwarf even the short yet significant French attempt at monarchism in Mexico. Britain, itself the champion of abolition of slavery was mostly interested in investing and finance, specifically in Imperial Brazil where British money and black slave labor coexisted in a highly profitable yet uneasy marriage. At the end of the 19th century, the US had mostly taken over the British position.

After the 1970′s, Europe’s interest in Latin America slowly but gradually declined, in a way commensurate with Europe’s own waning influence in the world. Latin America became a playground between the Soviet and American hegemons. Leftist parties who had supported the likes of Che Guevara and Allende, were swept aside by a right wing surge in the late 1970-es and early 1980-ies which saw a return of right wing dictators. In the 1990-ies, when  Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ was celebrated in naïve optimism, Latin America’s political polarization was considered outdated at best and Europe focused on its own eastward expansion.

So in many ways, the current disinterest in Latin America fits within a larger picture of benign neglect or sometimes even lack of knowledge from Europe towards the Continent. Yet things may change in the near future of Chinese hegemony. it is good to remember that without Latin America, Europe’s influence in the world would have remained limited to Europe, North America and Australia and New Zealand. Latin America however was just as much a product of European influence as other places in the world more commonly associated with ‘the West.’ Indeed as a scholar has said, Latin America is ” the poor West”. But the future will, if that same West is to occupy a significant place in the world, probably show that the West is not confined to the North Atlantic world plus Australia / New Zealand. The West will have to redefine its perimeters and finally actually study both Americas in order to survive. So maybe no NATO-membership for Latin American countries, but closer ties and partnerships, yes please!

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