Simon Bolivar pledged to dedicate his life to establishing freedom in Spain’s American colonies, whilst standing on a hill outside Rome in 1805. His formative years were spent in Spain and France, where he developed the ideas that would sustain his rise to political prominence in South America. After independence from Spain had been secured on the battlefield, by 1821, Bolivar’s efforts were devoted to constructing a political union across South America, known as Greater Colombia, which he hoped would encompass the territories we now know as Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru, and possibly, with a tailwind and some luck, even Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. But communication was difficult in the 1820s, and national and regional identities surged in the wake of warfare against the colonial power and political struggles amongst landowning elites. Bolivar himself had come to represent the ills of centralized government, and his last years were overshadowed by numerous regional revolts against his rule. Bolivar died in 1830 declaring that ‘if my death contributes anything to preserving the Union, it will not have been in vain’.
Bolivar’s principal ally in his attempts to construct and consolidate a super-republic in South America was Great Britain. British diplomats and investors thought (and with hindsight, they were right) that one big state would be more likely to repay its loans to British banks than many small and impoverished states. George Canning and his Foreign Office team through the 1820s also thought that a strong united Hispanic South America would be able to more effectively defend itself against imperial incursions from France, Spain or the United States. In Brazil, the territorial unity of Portugal’s imperial possessions was retained through maintenance of a monarchical regime. In Hispanic South America, occupying a smaller landmass than Brazil, by 1830 there were nine independent republics - Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The last two centuries have seen many leaders and institutions try to build continental unions across political, economic and legal spheres. These efforts have been revitalised in the last two decades, sometimes inspired by the history of the European Union, sometimes wary of its mistakes. More often they have been inspired by South America’s own history, and have attempted to use recent revolutions in communications technology in order to achieve the union that was impossible for Bolivar.
In 2016 the citizens of the European Union can learn from South America’s regional unions, as well as from their own histories of integration. Recent years have seen great constitutional revolutions from Colombia to Ecuador, as nation-states have been reinvented as multicultural and even, in the case of Bolivia under the presidency of Evo Morales, as ‘plurinational’. The Bolivian recognition that nations and communities with differing historical trajectories – from the descendents of nineteenth-century European migrants to the majority indigenous groups of the highlands - can coexist and complement each other within one overarching state apparatus can act as a corrective to those Europeans who see the dissolution of historical unions as the solution to the difficulties caused by neoliberalism and globalization.
My own research as a historian of South America has been shaped and supported by global and European institutions. Although my PhD on the European mercenaries who served under Bolivar was funded by a Carnegie scholarship, whose origins lie in the financial speculations of the Scotsman Andrew Carnegie in industry and transport infrastructure in the Americas and his subsequent philanthropy, I was also fortunate to receive an EU-funded Marie-Curie fellowship. This supported a stay at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Spain, as well as attendance at workshops in Groningen and Bratislava which resulted in my coming to know young European historians, being taught by professors whose horizons were different from those at home, and also being awarded a ‘Eurodoctorate’. My postdoctoral research was carried out at the European University Institute in Florence as a Jean Monnet Fellow, a uniquely European institution, whose pace, culture and research ethos have remained inspirations throughout my travels and research over the last decade.
The European Union is an imperfect community. Its democratic engine needs a lot of work to make it fit for purpose, and its lack of transparency about its operations prevent it from being accountable to the citizens whose wellbeing it exists to protect and promote. But as Bolivar recognised, cutting yourself off from neighbours with whom you share a culture and history is seldom a good idea. Within the Union we are better able to meet and learn from people who are not like us. We can talk with each other more, share experiences and help to create a political environment that enables more democracy and solidarity, not less.
Matthew is a historian of Latin America who works on the history of sport in South America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can find his Latin America blog at http://bolivariantimes.blogspot.co.uk/.