Many Latin American voters appreciate leaders who can recite poetry or break into song. This helps explain Hugo Chavez’s success at the polls and Fidel Castro’s long reign over Cuba. These songsters and poets can sell many things to Latin American voters (Leninism, Trotskyism, etc.), but one thing no one will buy is ethnic nationalism, the European kind.
By ethnic nationalism I mean that brand of nationalism that sees the nation-state as a crenellated castle of virtue that must be defended from liars, dark-skinned foreigners, EU snobs, spies, rootless Jews and homegrown undesirables who threaten the cultural and political integrity of the nation. However one looks at it, I think it is always useful to travel back to the birthplace of this idea or set of ideas, Europa. To some, Evo Morales’ indigenismo in Bolivia resembles this kind of nationalism, but a crucial difference is the absence of walls and watchtowers to keep out the undesirables.
I am no expert on European affairs, but I am a reader, and one thing I’ve always found intriguing about Europe is this moated, pale-skinned nationalism that you see on television and social media in many parts of Eastern Europe, France and elsewhere.
We saw glimpses of it in the UK when the British had their keep the Turks out referendum that was sold in ‘polite society’ as a dispute over fisheries, etc. And we see it in France when Marine Le Pen is not trying to win middle-of-the-road voters during televised debates. We see it here in Belgium when people lay wreaths over Nazi graves and in Poland’s Law and Justice propaganda.
We also see this brand of nationalism in Viktor Orbán’s abject plutocracy and the weapons it employs to intimidate the LBGT+ community, asylum seekers, women and their right to choose, journalists and others. This is a reprehensible use of power and influence, and an affront to the values of the European Union.
Nationalism, to be sure, sells well in many places around the world. You might see nationalistic posturing when Priístas in Mexico or Peronistas in Argentina jump to their feet to sing the national anthem. But this is a watered-down nationalism that is worth little or nothing in the intellectual marketplace of ideas.
Leaders like Chavez and Maduro fulminate against the oil-prospecting Yankees just like certain Europeans denounce the illegitimacy of Brussels technocrats. But their critique is fundamentally anti-colonialist. It’s more father Las Casas than the German Romantics. What is missing in Latin America is that ethnic tribalism that keeps resonating across Europe, a place dotted with old forts and moated castles.
Thanks to Facebook and its multi-billion-dollar ecosystem of apps, disinformation is also rife on Latin-American social media. But most of it takes aim at the people in power or the medical authorities (anti-vaxxer disinformation). In other words, unlike in Europe or parts of the Unites States, you don’t see anyone on social media trying to shoot down the barbarians at the gates. No one is obsessed with walls or national identity. No one in Mexico writes xenophobic screeds against the migrants camped in Chiapas or Tamaulipas. When Venezuelans need to leave their country to find basic foodstuffs, Colombia will take them in like Germany took in waves of migrants, without the nativist backlash. Racism and classism are unfortunate realities in Latin America, but these attitudes are not woven into political platforms.
Uncle Pedro in Latin America is driven to distraction all day long with a steady diet of anti-government jokes, medical conspiracy theories and uneven poetry misattributed to Borges. Uncle Viktor in Europe, on the other hand, is also glued to his phone all day long, but the words and images floating across his screen are, to my mind, far more dangerous. Foreigners who disrespect us and tell us what to do, is a common propaganda theme that comes from its historic homeland, Russia. Another is the existential threat posed by the migrants who storm across the drawbridges.
It doesn’t help that Europe is near the “land of the Grand Turk”, a place still governed by Mehmed the Conqueror in the minds of many European uncles (a ruler far worse than the current satrap). And it doesn’t help that Africa, where the effects of climate change will only intensify, lies just beyond the Mare Nostrum. (Our sea, the sea that’s also theirs.) These are ‘dangerous’ places just beyond the provincial horizons of cosmopolitan Europe, and the reason why people talk and argue about “Our European way of life”, whatever that means.
If you tried to sell something like this over in Latin America, with its euphemistic feel-good framing (“our Latin American way of life”), I can tell you that, ironically, it would probably sell better there than it does here.
The Latin American way of life is nothing to boast about of course. Poverty, inequality, drug violence, death squads, kidnappings for ransom that often end in death, Amazon fires, Central American climate refugees, murdered journalists, murdered students, murdered migrants —the thousands of unsolved murders that keep erasing Latin America’s real wealth and silver, its people.
Despite all these things, Latin America can nevertheless count itself blessed that ethnic nationalism or nativism, as some Europeans experience it, is something that will face certain defeat at the ballot box. This reprehensible ideology, or the postwar echoes that remain, would make Latin America all but ungovernable.
Here’s a piece of graffiti that I hope to see one day wherever these nationalist thugs may be: Nativists are the worst patriots.