South American History, Part I

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The first step towards understanding South America’s Hybrid War vulnerabilities and the driving factors that could motivate the US to wage these sorts of asymmetrical conflicts is to grasp an appreciation of the continent’s history and its geostrategic importance to the rest of the world. The purpose here isn’t to review every historical detail that contributes to the South American story, but rather to present an introductory overview that can succeed in helping the reader place modern-day events in the continent into a larger contextual continuum. Relatedly, the scope of the work isn’t wide enough to explain how South America and each of its separate states figure into every Great Powers’ strategic equation, but it can still convey the geostrategic importance of the continent to the emerging Multipolar World Order in general and express the varied ways in which its countries interact with one another on their home landmass. 

Therefore, the first part of this chapter will begin with a cursory review of South America’s history up until the end of the Cold War, while the second half will address the most noteworthy developments that happened afterwards. It’s important for readers to grasp the essence of the continent’s history in order to better understand the broader strategic situation in the modern day, as the past has a direct influence on the geopolitical trends that are presently playing out. It should be reminded that none of this is expected to be comprehensive, and that there’s plenty more to learn for any reader who’s interested in doing so on their own, but the point in conducting such a relatively brief review of both the history and current situation in South American is simply to familiarize individuals with this unique area of the world and set the stage for understanding the forthcoming detailed analysis that will follow in the subsequent chapter. 

Bearing in mind the logical limits that are being made on the scope and depth of the research in the interests of both time and theme, here are the most relevant historical events to take place in shaping South America’s continental identity and contemporary geopolitical arrangement:

Iberia Divides The “New World”

It should be common knowledge to all, but just in case it isn’t, South America is split into Hispanophone and Lusophone halves, or to put it more simply, the countries that speak Spanish and the one which speaks Portuguese (Brazil, which takes up nearly half of the continent both physically and demographically). The UK, the Netherlands, and France colonized the Guyanas in the northern part of the continent, but their conquests were geographically limited and physically isolated from the rest of South America’s geopolitical occurrences. Therefore, it’s much simpler to speak of this continent as having been literally divided between the Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal, and while these two states do share a lot of civilizational similarities, they nevertheless have certain historical-cultural features which make them distinctively different and have thus fostered a sense of identity separateness between the two parts of South America over the centuries. This eventually contributed to a rivalry between Brazil and the rest of the countries in the post-independence period, and despite having seemingly been surmounted in recent years, lingering suspicions still exist and could be played upon by Hispanophone demagogues in their home countries. 

Bolivar And San Martin Save South America

The Hispanophone countries of South America were led to independence by revolutionary heroes Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, which generally operated in and left their strongest legacies in the northern and southern parts of the landmass respectively. The former Spanish colonies/viceroyalties were thrown into political uncertainty after Napoleon’s conquest and occupation of Spain, which set into motion the long-running wars of independence that would carry on throughout South America until the 1820s with Peru and Bolivia’s belated freedom. These two independence-era leaders were highly influential in helping their newfound states establish a political identity separate from Spain, and the continent’s modern history of international relations directly traces back to this time. Brazil, too, also underwent its own independence struggle, albeit one which bloomed later than its Hispanophone counterparts’ due to the peculiarities of its history during the Napoleonic Wars. Portugal was occupied just like Spain was, but the difference was that the King fled to Brazil and continued his reign from abroad. It wasn’t until the early 1820s when the country fought its War of Independence against its imperial ruler and emerged as the Empire of Brazil shortly thereafter.  

From Two States To Six

From a geopolitical standpoint, it’s very interesting that two large ‘super states’ in South America eventually fell apart and gave way to six separate ones. The entities being spoken about are what are anachronistically referred to by historians as “Gran Colombia” (simply called the Republic of Colombia during that time) and the Peru-Bolivia Confederation. The first one emerged from its War of Independence as a unified state in 1821 but fell apart due to irreconcilable internal differences in 1831 to form Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, the latter of which later experienced the secession of Panama in 1903. As for the second polity, the Peru-Bolivia Confederation, both constituent halves started off as independent states but then decided to join together for a few years between 1836-1839, throughout which time it was eventually broken apart by Chile. 

Although both ‘super states’ were only in existence for a very short period, they each had a powerful impact on the identities of their successors. The former states of “Gran Colombia”, for instance, share very closely related flags because of their shared history and still have complex relations with one another owing to the rivalries that broke out during their separation. Regarding the Peru-Bolivian Confederation, these two states have a lot of historical, cultural, and native demographic similarities that explain why they decided to join together in the first place, and while the differences between them have been accentuated in the nearly past two centuries, their commonalities still unite them more than any other factors divide them. It’ll later be analyzed that a reconsolidation of these ‘super states’ is either occurring or being attempted in an integrational sense, which interestingly raises the question about whether the historical rivalry between the two for modern-day Ecuador will play out again in the near future. 

Buenos Aires vs. Brasilia

This ‘catchphrase’ title isn’t historically accurate since Brasilia became the Brazilian capital in 1960 (it was previously Rio de Janeiro) and long after the commencement of the Argentine-Brazilian rivalry, but the intention is to create a memorable saying that captures the essence of what’s being expressed. The origins of their competition can be traced to the fact that they’re both relatively populated and economically promising states that incidentally neighbor one another and straddle the Hispanophone-Lusophone divide, but the trigger for what would turn out to be their long-running (and it could be argued, still-present) rivalry was the status of Uruguay. 

This modern-day state fought for its independence from Brazil during the 1825-1828 Cisplatine War, never having felt a part of the Empire because it was only forcibly added to it in the mid-1810s after being taken by Lisbon from Madrid’s Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Accordingly, the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, the main successor state of the viceroyalty and the predecessor of what would later become Argentina, decided to assist the Uruguayans with their war of independence from Brazil and thenceforth continued to intervene in the country’s affairs all throughout its subsequent civil war. 

The specifics surrounding this complicated period aren’t too relevant to the present day, so it’s only contextually pertinent for the reader to learn that Buenos Aires didn’t fully unify and stabilize until the 1860s, and that this relatively ‘late start’ is partially accredited with Brazil’s rapid rise as the continental hegemon during this time. Nevertheless, the two neighboring countries remained heated rivals ever since their initial 1820s proxy war over Uruguay, and this has been a running constant of South American geopolitics ever since, despite having its ups (Mercosur) and downs (the early 20th-century South American dreadnaught race). 

Pummeling Paraguay

The bloodiest war in South American history was the War of the Triple Alliance, also popularly known as the Paraguayan War, when – as the name denotes – a triple alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay invaded and defeated Paraguay in what would today be described as a genocidal conflict of total destruction. The origins of the war can be simplified as then-Paraguayan leader Francisco Solano Lopez attempting to lead his country out of its landlocked geographic captivity and towards the open seas through an alliance with what turned out to be the losing faction of the 1864-1865 Uruguayan War, which in turn prompted the Uruguayan winners and their Argentine and Brazilian allies to unite against the revisionist state that perceptively ‘threatened’ them all. 

To summarize this tragic chapter of history, Paraguay ended the six-year-long conflict with less than half of its pre-war population, which included the death of at least 90% of its original male inhabitants. Instead of extinguishing Paraguay from the map and dividing the territorial spoils between South America’s longest-running rivals, Brazil and Argentina preserved the pummeled state and had it essentially function as geopolitical buffer between them ever since. The war showcased the strength and rising role of the Brazilian military, which would carry out a pro-republican coup against the Emperor in 1889, while it also reinforced the Paraguayans dislike for Argentina, the latter of which historically viewed its smaller neighbor as nothing more than a ‘renegade province’. 

All in all, the conflict inadvertently served to strengthen the Paraguayans’ patriotism and sense of nationhood, which would later come in handy when they fought and beat Bolivia against all odds during the 1932-1935 Chaco War. It’s also the reason why Paraguayans still have a very strong identity to this day and are distrustful of their two larger neighbors. This factor would later come into play after the first decade of the 21st century when the US helped orchestrate a ‘constitutional coup’ in Paraguay in 2012 which ended up getting the country temporarily suspended from Mercosur, after which it began flirting with the Pacific Alliance and set into motion the “Battle of the Blocs” that will be discussed in more detail in the last chapter. 

Breaking Bolivia

Bolivia used to be a lot larger than it currently is today, and most importantly, it formerly had a Pacific coastline too. This was lost to Chile during the 1879-1882 War of the Pacific but has remained an inextinguishable part of Bolivia’s identity ever since. It’s a tragic pity, then, that this impoverished and landlocked country ended up fighting against its equally despondent Paraguayan neighbor in the 1930s over the Chaco region, 2/3 of which it eventually lost to Asunción. In the interim between these two unforgettable conflicts, Bolivia also lost the northern rubber-rich Acre region to Brazil after Lusophone settlers waged a low-level separatist insurgency and succeeded in convincing Rio de Janeiro (then the capital city) to back their annexation demands through the 1903 Treaty of Petrópolis. 

Nevertheless, the one territorial loss that hangs most somberly over the head of all Bolivians is the Litoral Department. The country’s maritime ambitions and historical memory are why it campaigned so vehemently for Trans-Oceanic Railroad (TORR) to cross its territory and thus give its people an indirect reliable outlet to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Bolivians never forgot the loss of prestige and practical sufferings that came with abruptly becoming a landlocked country, and they still harbor an intense degree of resentment against Chile for what they perceive as being an unresolved historical injustice. They singlehandedly blame this traumatic geopolitical event as being responsible for their country’s present socio-developmental shortcomings, and the War of the Pacific has become an inseparable part of Bolivian national identity ever since. 

Even though Bolivia was broken up in the traditional geopolitical sense, however, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be functionally reconstituted in a modified way in the 21st century. What’s meant by this is that the landlocked state could circumvent its historical isolation through TORR, particularly via the nearby Peruvian portion in the port of Ilo and the country’s second-largest city of Arequipa. This strategically transformational New Silk Road project is predicted to set the stage for the de-facto restoration of the Peru-Bolivian Confederation due to the forthcoming full-spectrum partnership between the two states, and this forecasted observation will be discussed a bit more at a later part of the research. 

The Path To Patagonia

The last corner of South America to be conquered was the Southern Cone of Patagonia. Argentina and Chile – both of which have always been rivals with one another just like Buenos Aires and Brasilia – gradually expanded into this part of the continent from the 1840s-1880s. This timeframe interestingly mirrors that of the US’ expansion to the West, and it was equally as devastating for the locals. The Argentines’ “Conquest of the Desert”, as the later part of this era has been called, has retrospectively been criticized for the brutal effect that it had on the native population of Patagonia, just like the US’ western expansion had on their own in that part of the Western Hemisphere. Both Argentina and Chile encountered problems with the Mapuche inhabitants that straddle their mountainous Andean border, and this issue continues to persist somewhat in Chile’s Araucania Region to this day. Also, both countries had tense overlapping claims to the southern Patagonian islands, but they were eventually able to resolve what was been the “Beagle Conflict” due to the Vatican’s diplomatic intervention in the early 1980s. 

The reason why the Path to Patagonia is so important in South America’s history is because it demonstrates that these states only recently began to incorporate the majority of the territory that’s associated with their countries, and that the ‘historic’ hearts of their states are around their capital cities and not the peripheries. Argentina and Chile didn’t begin to settle the full length of their modern-day border until they signed an 1881 treaty over this issue, which goes to show just how late Buenos Aires and Santiago were in exercising relative control over the vast areas that have now come to define their countries’ political space. No value judgement is being made on this in one way or another, but it might be useful for the reader to learn about these facts so as to not take these two states’ borders for granted in assuming that they had traditionally been that way ever since their independence from Spain. The historical incorporation of Patagonia into Argentina and Chile closely parallels the US’ own conquest of the West, and with a similar effect on the national consciousness in these countries. 

Amazon-Andean Wars

Mostly overlooked by many casual observers of continental affairs are the wars that have occasionally broken out over control of certain Amazonian and Andean territories in the northwestern part of South America. The first one of significance was between “Gran Colombia” and Peru in 1828-1829 over Amazonian territory that some Ecuadorian nationalists depict as being historically a part of their state. No other important battles over this space occurred until the 20th century and the return of the Colombian-Peruvian conflict over the Amazon basin territory in their borderland regions.  The brief 1932-1933 fighting didn’t result in any changes to the status quo and was the last time that the two sides went to war with one another over their territorial differences. 

The same can’t be said for Peru and Ecuador, however, since the two sides clashed from 1941-1942 over part of the Andean Mountains. The also fought one another for a very short period of time in 1981 and then again during what is now called the Cenepa War of 1995. The situation is formally resolved and neither side harbors any territorial designs against the other, but the lasting impact is that the long-running dispute has left an undeniable impression on the psyche of both countries. Ecuador believes that it unjustly lost out on Amazonian territory that it historically identified as its own, while Peru is left with a legacy of conflict with its much smaller neighbor.  

Both sides are presently very pragmatic and it appears as though neither political actor will allow this historical episode to interfere with their contemporary state-to-state relations, but it might have an influence on whether Ecuador ends up siding more closely with a revived “Gran Colombia”, a de-facto reconfigured Peru-Bolivia Confederation, or decides to ‘go it alone’ by not tying itself too close to either. Peru and Colombia have historically coveted control of Ecuador, each for their own separate reasons (Bogota’s historical memory of “Gran Colombia” and Lima’s desire to spread across the former Incan Andean space), so it’s not unforeseeable that they may engage in a low-intensity non-military proxy rivalry over this middleman country sometime in the future, one which might even complicate their Pacific Alliance trading partnership with one another. 

Although unrelated to concrete territorial claims or international tension, it’s notable that both Colombia and Peru each fought against leftist rebels during and after the Cold War, albeit for dramatically different lengths of time and with completely separate intensities. Colombia began fighting against the FARC in the mid-1960s, whereas Peru didn’t start having a problem with the Shining Path until 1980. Both conflicts have pretty much smoldered over and are no longer major factors undermining their national stability in either of these states, but they could always come back in a different form sometime in the future. Additionally, these insurgent groups and/or their successors/offshoots could also be co-opted by foreign patrons for geopolitical purposes (such as the US may do with the Shining Path against TORR), so that’s another reason why the Andean-Amazon wars shouldn’t be overlooked by foreign observers. 

The Condor Years

One of the darkest eras to sweep the continent was undoubtedly during the height of the Cold War, when the US helped organize a series of military-led regime changes all across South America which led to the installment of pro-American juntas. The US “Led From Behind” in facilitating and encouraging the “deep state” integration of these countries’ military and intelligence bureaucracies under the aegis of “anti-communist” cooperation (the so-called “Operation Condor”), the effect of which was that these new governments began a war on their citizens. Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed all across South America during this time, although the number of victims dramatically varies depending on the country. The US provided intelligence, logistics, and training assistance for many of these crimes, thus making it complicit in the state-sponsored terrorism which swept this part of the world. 

The Condor Years will never be forgotten because of the lasting impression that they left upon the population, though each society is somewhat divided over how to assess this era. Leftists generally agree that this was a reign of US-backed terror which ravaged their countries, while citizens of a right-wing disposition sometimes defend the abuses during this time as a painfully necessary sacrifice in order to root out the internal conspirators that wanted to overthrow the state on behalf of “international communism”. The divergence in historical interpretation is once more becoming a relevant political point. Leftists, in reaction to the events of that era, vowed to never again have their countries fall under the US’ influence, and the widespread sympathy that many of their compatriots had for their cause after all of the suffering that they experienced during the rule of pro-American right-wing military governments was enough to propel them into power during the “Pink Tide” (which will be discussed soon). 

Anything overtly associated with the right wing was shunned as evoking the traumatic memory of widespread abuses and foreign dominance, which is why this group of politicians fared very poorly for a while. At the height of the “Pink Tide” and when most of the South American governments were leftist-socialist, they were able to build off of the legacy of “deep state” strategic cooperation that the US inadvertently first spearheaded for them with Operation Condor in order to boost their collective strength for the benefit of their continent. After a while, however, the perceived mismanagement, excesses, and objectively occurring US covert interference prompted the pendulum to purposely swing back to the right and initiated a series of region-wide regime changes which have worked out to Washington’s ultimate favor. The author refers to this ongoing period of New Cold War right-wing governments as Operation Condor 2.0 in reference to the previous Old Cold War era of the past, and without understanding the legacy of the original Condor Years, one can’t fully grasp the magnitude of what’s happening in South America today because it’s so structurally similar. 

“Falklands” Folly

The highest-profile conflict to break out in South America during the Cold War was the 1982 “Falklands War”/’South Atlantic War”. It’s referred to in different ways by the British and Argentinian participants due to their polar opposite interpretation of events and even the phraseology that they use to describe them. London, which exercises administrative sovereignty over the islands, calls them the “Falklands”, while Buenos Aires, which has endeavored to reclaim control over the archipelago for around two centuries, says that they’re the “Malvinas”. The dispute over this territory is a complicated and far-reaching geopolitical-legal issue which remains officially unresolved to this day. It is the direct consequence of imperialism and the British exploitation of weak and fractured post-independent Argentina, but it’s important for observers to not get into the nitty gritty nuances of each side’s claims in the conflict or render normative judgement one way or another in order to importantly preserve the sort of academic neutrality which will greatly assist in analyzing the larger significance of this dispute. 

At the time of its initiation, this conflict was essentially a war between two US allies, and Washington initially sought to balance between the two as an officially “neutral” state before decisively tilting to the UK as the hostilities progressed in its favor. There’s a suspicion that the Argentinian junta decided to initiate the conflict in order for it to serve as a patriotic distraction from the economic underperformance of the preceding years, but at the same time, others argue that both sides were inevitably bound to clash sooner or late due to Buenos Aires’ historical desire to reclaim the territory that it had continually insisted was its own. No matter what the real impetus was for the 1982 war – whether it was just to serve as a smokescreen to distract from domestic economic malaise or was indeed a serious operation to restore sovereignty over the archipelago – the junta would not have commenced the operation had it thought that it would result in a blistering failure and a subsequent governmental downfall. With the knowledge of hindsight, it’s plain to see that the generals completely miscalculated and did not anticipate what the eventual results would be. 

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “earned’ her appellation as the “Iron Woman” for the strong and decisive stand that she took in defending Britain’s claims to the islands and beating back the Argentinians, while the defeated military junta languished in widespread ill-repute and eventually stepped aside in 1983. Even though the war was a failure for Argentina, it still arouses strong patriotic sentiment from its population, and to this day Buenos Aires and London retain unflinching and uncompromising positions on this issue. The 1982 war and the lingering dispute over the islands can be seen as an intercontinental and multi-centennial conflict that still remains relevant to this day, especially in the sense that it has generated enormous anti-imperialist sympathy for Argentina among its South American neighbors. A “war of words” occasionally flares up over this issue from time to time, and symbolic actions are taken by both sides and their allies in support of their claims (for example, Brazil refusing to allow British warships to dock in its ports in 2011 out of solidarity with Argentina), but it seems unlikely that a new hot war will break out anytime in the foreseeable future. 

Even so, the diplomatic-‘soft’ war over the islands will probably intensify in the future. The post-Brexit UK is obviously excluded from the Mercosur-EU trade negotiations and will thus seek to advance a series of bilateral deals instead, presumably modelled off of the US-Brazilian talks which sidestep Brasilia’s multilateral commitment to the rest of its Mercosur partners. The same sort of functional workaround can be used by London in attempting to clinch a series of similar trade deals across the continent, but this could prompt problems between Argentina and its neighbors. Buenos Aires, even if it’s presently controlled by a pro-American right-wing government just like most of the continent at this moment, might vehemently object to any South American state reaching this sort of economic partnership with London, especially if there are concerns (whether real or unfounded) that the UK made the conclusion of any potential pact conditional on tacitly supporting its island claims. In this way, South American integration (be it unipolar- or multipolar-guided) could be inadvertently damaged as the “Falklands”/”Malvinas” reemerge as a geopolitical fault line directly impacting on the continent’s affairs.