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LATIN AMERICA: Revving Up for Bicentennial Celebrations

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Oct 9 2007 (IPS) - Several Latin American countries have set in motion plans for celebrating the bicentennial of their independence from Spain, many of which will fall between 2008 and 2010. But the festivities will not take place without controversy.

The anniversary, an opportunity to cement national unity and identity, according to officialdom, coincides with Spain’s own celebrations of its rebellion against the French invasion under Napoleon, two centuries ago.

Chile began planning in 2000, Argentina’s preparations got under way in 2005, Ecuador and Mexico started the ball rolling this year, and in other countries people have just started to talk about the issue. Many Central American countries did not win independence until 1821, while others in Latin America had to wait until 1825.

In Chile, the Bicentennial Commission is orchestrating the events, Argentina has its Permanent Bicentennial Committee, Ecuador is entrusting the preparations to a National Permanent Commission of Civic Commemorations, and Mexico has a coordinating group. In all these countries, the government is directing the proceedings.

The aim is a celebration worthy of the historic fight for independence, which will also bring greater national unity, officials say.

Such a goal might be elusive, at least for Mexico. In 2010, this country will also commemorate the centenary of the Mexican Revolution, with its heroes Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) and Pancho Villa (1878-1923). But the planned celebrations and official rhetoric have not grasped the popular imagination.

In March, the administration of conservative President Felipe Calderón set up a coordinating committee to be in charge of the bicentennial celebrations. But some states and towns, as well as universities, have decided to go ahead with their own plans.

“There is division, and a common project is lacking,” said historian and political scientist Lorenzo Meyer at the Colegio de Mexico, a prestigious higher education institution.

Polarisation may become more accentuated as the commemorative date draws nearer, as in 2010 five state governors will come up for election.

In addition, there will be two years to go to the end of Calderón’s term, so that would-be presidential candidates may be raising their profiles and causing the political temperature to rise.

In other countries, governments are planning to open museums, monuments, buildings and other works of urban infrastructure. Alongside local authorities and business associations, they will sponsor cultural events, the publishing of books, academic debates and prizes for different intellectual and material works.

Spain, which during its days as a colonial power treated the indigenous population of the Americas harshly, decided in July to back the Latin American celebrations by appointing a special ambassador, former prime minister Felipe González (1982-1996).

“Spain wishes to share with the countries across the Atlantic the definitive consolidation of constitutional, democratic rule, as well as to continue to build the Ibero-American community in all its facets of political, economic, social and cultural cooperation,” said a statement from Madrid when it announced González’s appointment.

“In Spain as in the Americas, the emphasis for the bicentennial is on unity and supposed concord, which aren’t just illusions, while the memory of the destruction caused during the colonial period will be toned down, in spite of the millions of indigenous people killed and the scorning of their culture and beliefs,” Rafael Torres, a professor of sociology, told IPS.

“The official discourse talks of unity in this part of the world, but it’s mere rhetoric, because Latin America is deeply divided. It has the greatest income disparity between rich and poor of any region in the world,” said Torres.

In this region, 205 million people are poor and 79 million people are extremely poor, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

The Spanish conquest between 1492 and 1650 cut short the lives of more than 70 percent of the 70 million indigenous people who were living in what today is Latin America and the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus first arrived here, several studies say.

The wars of independence in Spain’s colonies in the Americas, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, were sparked by the French invasion of Spain in 1808.

Argentina’s Secretary of Culture José Nun, the head of the Permanent Bicentennial Committee, said the celebrations will only make sense if the events lead to constructive educational work, publications and infrastructure.

“To throw a big national party, first of all there must be some achievements worth celebrating. My ambition for the bicentennial is for it to be a festival, and a festival is a collective undertaking, not a convocation,” he said.

The Argentine government’s aim is for the “bicentennial to grow into a great moment of collective enthusiasm that will open the way for us to rethink how we construct reality, and make a definitive break with the endless series of crises we have been going through, and are still suffering from,” Nun said.

According to the government decree that created the Bicentennial Commission in Chile in 2000, “the anniversary date is not just another milestone to remember, but represents an emblematic step in our history, the beginning of the process that brought us into being as an independent nation.”

As time goes on, feelings about the commemorations are expected to grow stronger, as is the political presence of Spain, “which won’t be willing to let the celebrations focus on the sanguinary way in which it conquered and ruled its colonies,” said Torres, the Mexican sociologist.

“Spain hopes that many of the independence commemorations in Latin America will give a fresh boost to a new phase in the already close and positive relations between Spain and Latin America in the social, cultural, economic and political spheres,” Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said in July.

Since the early 1990s, Spain has been actively reconquering Latin America, this time in the field of business, through its banks, energy companies, telephone companies and hotels.

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