The Balkanisation of Brasil?
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The Balkanisation of Brasil?

In a period of Post-Coup instability, separatists look to Brexit as a model of how the once unthinkable might be possible, while foreign actors watch with interest.
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The effect of Temer’s Government and its regional allies austerity and public security policies on the everyday life of Brazilians is being felt, in some parts of the country more than others. Some are asking ‘are we seeing the Brazil of tomorrow?‘.

A cartoon character emerged on social networks in January 2017 and triggered a storm of memes. It was called ‘Sulito’ – a gurning, blue-eyed map, with improbable humanoid anatomy. Sulito was an unofficial mascot of the Movimento Sul Livre, also known as “The South is My Country” who are campaigning to force a plebiscite which would decide upon the breakaway and independence of Brazil’s 3 southernmost states. They have announced a new unofficial plebiscite for October 7th 2017.

One commentator remarked that the movement doesn’t stand a chance if they can’t find one competent graphic designer in their country.

Is this even conceivable? Most would tell you no, and there was internal debate about whether we should even cover this topic, but here we will explore context, history & hypotheses.

Lost futures

The last time there was any kind of concerted move towards independence in the South of Brazil was in the troubled early 1990s, when the Neoliberal experiment of Fernando Collor’s presidency had left the country ravaged with currency crash & hyperinflation, chronic unemployment, shortages and hunger.

In 1992, led by politician and activist Irton Marx, Gaucho separatists even declared the independence of their new  “Republic of the Pampas” in place of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which they referred to as an occupied territory. Their campaign claimed to have collected over 1 million signatures in RS alone, but the movement ultimately came to nothing.

In the 25 years since, following Itamar Franco’s establishment of the Plano Real, the 16 year combined presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva (plus the first term of Rousseff) came to be the most stable and prosperous period of Brazil’s modern history, and thus there was little enthusiasm for separatism with all its associated risks and uncertainty.

Going further back, the Farroupilha Revolution or Ragamuffin war in 1835-45 (mostly conducted by foreign fighters), and São Paulo’s revolution of 1932, all had separatist characteristics. The Inconfidência Mineira in 1789 or 1641’s Amador Bueno Aclamation in SP could be considered the first separatist movements. These movements & uprisings have most often coincided with debt crises at a state level (as exist in the South today).

The separatist groups are by and large viewed as a lunatic fringe, but they are trying to capitalise on the political and economic instability in Post-Coup Brazil to reassert their vision for an independent southern nation, even including a provisional bill of rights for its citizens. Bridges have been built with independence movements such as Basque Country, Catalonia & Scotland. São Paulo separatists even used the success of Brexit as an example of how the long unthinkable might be possible. Beyond the newly social democratic presentation of its campaign “The South is My Country” is less the independence push of a historically sovereign nation such as Scotland, and closer in concept to the US/Canada’s fanciful “Cascadia“, or the “Padania” proposition of Italy’s Fascist Lega Nord. “Padania” is not limited to its spiritual home of Lombardia, instead it cherry-picks anything north of the gothic line, and extends right up to Italy’s European borders. Lega Nord, like these Brazilian separatists, also emphasises cultural difference, and similarly taps into a prejudice against Romans and Southern Italians of being “Lazy” and “Corrupt”. Lega Nord does however have a significant electoral base, and has participated in Government Coalitions – a crucial difference to the Southern Brazilian movement. At time of writing the Californian secessionist movement is gaining traction, also using a combination of economic, political and cultural arguments, following the election of Donald Trump. Some are accusing “Calexit” of being a Russian plot to destabilise the United States.

In recent years Parana, represented by US-schooled Judge Sergio Moro, has gained a new level of influence in the Brazilian political landscape, and the core of this rebooted movement originates in the conservative parochialism of that state. A National hero on the Brazilian right, It is not clear what Moro’s personal feelings on independence of his region are, but he was honoured for his work by a group of Southern Generals in July 2016, and granted the Order of Civic Merit, after refusing a separate honour from the Congress in Brasilia. Nationalistic images from Moro-worshipping protests of 2015 don’t seem to sit well with the notion of regional independence.

So what are people outside the movement’s own public relations saying?

“Nothing more than a daydream of Fascists,” is the curt judgement of Fernando Horta, a Gaucho Historian in Brasilia with first-hand experience of these movements.

Angela Milanese – a lawyer and translator from Santa Catarina is equally dismissive: “Brazil’s southern separatist movement is based on three terrible assumptions: First, that the south is better than the rest of the country; Secondly, that the rest of the country is dragging the south down; Thirdly, that the southern region will be better off as an independent nation. It is a foolish, deluded and misguided movement, fuelled by prejudice, racism, and xenophobia, and a shameful embarrassment to us Southerners. “

As with Brexit, such outright derision does not mean the idea is dead in the water, and the ridicule the Sulito character received did not reflect what appears to be a well presented, well organised, and well funded movement.

“The North East’s needs are completely different to the South’s” says Andrew, an English businessman living in São Paulo, who is more enthusiastic about regional separatism in Brazil than he is in the UK with Scotland.

Rafael Ioris, History Professor at University of Denver is cautious: “This is a recurrent issue, well researched by scholars at UFRGS, usually when the economy goes south. It is one more of those old ‘invented traditions’ or a southern uniqueness. Certainly the São Paulo case has been more race-oriented (or overt racist), especially anti-nordestinos, but this also seems to be gaining ground in RS, along with the more culturally conservative mindset on the rise. I do not expect it to gain practical ground, if history has any relevance. BUT, who knows in today’s Brazil…”

Through foreign eyes

New countries are inherently fascinating, but in this 2011 Time Magazine feature, “Top 10 Aspiring Nations” neither Southern Brazil nor Pampas Republic even made the list. Yet there’s a new international hype for the idea of a new Southern state. How is such a marginal movement now getting so much traction in Anglo media?

Rarely reliable on South American affairs, in October 2016, The Washington Post ran this piece which talks up the popularity of a Southern regional breakaway. Discovery’s ‘Seeker Daily’ viral news channel quickly followed with this rather odd video feature which refers to a fallacious “majority” who want independence (based on a voluntary referendum of 600 thousand in a regional population of 30 million). It identifies Dilma Rousseff, who was already removed from office months before broadcast, as a “target” of the movement, and even attempts to depict an “ethnically pure” South against images of the Brazilian melting-pot.

Consistently poor in its coverage of Brazil (and elsewhere), the Economist later ran this gushing feature on the Southern states, emphasising superiority with a barely concealed racial undertone, and depicting a disconnect with the rest of the country. Following the 2014 election, the Economist had amplified Southern conservatives portrayal of a “North-South” divide in votes between the Worker’s Party and Centre-Right PSDB, which did not account the far more complex breakdown across both rural & urban areas.

Some national bonds with the region run deeper than basic trade & diplomacy. Britain’s history in Brazil is not something taught in schools but it played a significant role in industrialisation, engineering the canalisation of rivers and the building of railways to aid extraction. 1920’s British settlers even left behind a city, Londrina, or Little London, in the state of Parana. Italy has robust business links with the South, including São Paulo in particular, while Germany has particularly strong cultural ties with the state of Santa Catarina, auto manufacturer BMW recently chose the state as the site for their first production plant in the country.

Islands of Sanity

Several accounts of the Military Coup in 1964 claim that one of the reasons deposed President Joao Goulart did not resist militarily is that he had received reports that, should they come ashore, the United States Military, aided by a possible declaration of independence by Minas Gerais, intended to in-effect partition the country from the state of Espírito Santo across, creating a kind of “North & South Korea” & very probably a civil war, in the words of Goulart’s own son speaking in 2010, it would’ve made a “Lebanon” out of Brazil.

“Our people are too integrated, I don’t think they can do to us what they did to Syria.” – Unnamed protester at Anti-Coup demonstration, March 2016.

In her 1977 book “United States Penetration of Brazil”, Jan K. Black refers to what, at the time of the 1964 Coup, the Johnson Administration called “islands of sanity” – regions, cities or states with which they could do business with directly, a practice which continues today. Should any serious progress towards a “Balkanisation” of Brazil be made today, foreign actors, in particular extractive multinationals, would be enthusiastic at the prospect of direct negotiation with the eager-to-please Governments of smaller new countries in the Southern Cone. In context of the recently announced new Military Bases in neighbouring Argentina, and activity around Paraguay’s Chaco region, the territorial integrity of the Brazilian republic is irrefutably of concern to the United States & Transnational Capital. This is particularly true of the south of the country, which sits atop the enormous Guarani aquifer, a resource of immense strategic importance.

Culture & Racial Identity versus Economics

The emotional call of separatism is that of identity, there are few convincing economic arguments for separation, especially given that the southern states, besides water, lack equivalent resource wealth in what is still primarily a commodity exporting country. The separatists point to the southern service and high-tech industries, but they are unlikely enough to make the proposed country self-sufficient. Individual wealth and power should independence come to pass are of course another matter.

An enormous federal republic of 26 states, it is understandable that in some regions there has historically been desire for full autonomy, and aside from that some also believe Brazil should be split into 3 or 4 administrative regions, reflecting their differing needs.

Although by far the most prominent independence movement has been in the south, home to the highest proportion of immigrants from German & Italian descent, there have been more recent examples of Brazilian separatism, in states such as Ceara, Pernambuco, or even the North East as a whole – a movement whose outlook and philosophy are directly at odds with that of the Southern separatists.

One of the leaders of the Northeastern movement, engineer, economist and professor at UFRPE, Jacques Ribemboim, who was runner-up for Mayor of Pernambuco capital, Recife in 2016. He says that for at least 120 years, the Northeast has undergone a process of internal neocolonialism that, for him, is more serious than traditional colonialism, with military occupation and withdrawal of goods. In neocolonialism, he explained, exploitation takes place more in the exchange of commercial relations. “There is this unequal exchange, taking raw materials and labour below the values ​​practiced in the international market and in return gives us manufactured and industrialised products at much higher prices. The Northeast, while independent, could break from this and negotiate directly in the international market and with other countries” he explained. For him, the current model benefits only the growth of the Southeast Region to the detriment of the Northeast. 

Ribemboim also believes that the Northeastern Independence movement follows a trend occurring around the world. “In the last 25 years, there has been more emergence than disappearance of countries. In the former Soviet Union alone there were 15 new independent republics. Most separatist movements take place on ethnic-religious grounds. This would not be the case in the Northeast, which has much more social, cultural and economic roots” he said.

Rio Grande do Sul feels culturally similar to Uruguay, which is perceived to have higher quality of life, education, services and so on. Other conservatives in the already more affluent South can see attainable goals in secession, despite Parana being more similar to the state of São Paulo. Resentment of poor, mostly Black or Mixed-Race North-Easterners migrating to the region is partly analogous with current immigration hysteria in Europe & United States. The South often perceives itself as an “European island” in the “Jungle” of Brazil, but this does not hold true – it is too a melting pot, just of a different makeup, including what is thought to be one of the oldest indigenous populations on the continent.

Fernando Horta: “To illustrate, take Gremio & Internacional, the rival football clubs of Gaucho capital Porto Alegre. Internacional, the club that is commonly accepted as having 50% of Southern support, have as its mascot a black legless folkloric figure, Saci Pererê. They’re seen as the “club of the people.” he continues “And, most people in the South that could identify themselves as “Pardos” choose to identify as “Brancos” precisely because of racist bias.”

Southern independence’s modern incarnation also attracts a large number of white supremacists, and is often dismissed as an inherently racist movement. Recently some southern far-right groups were revealed by a police investigation to have ties to Neo Nazis in the Ukraine, who had been trying to recruit Brazilians to fight in their civil war. This is a disturbing development in context of US support for Neo-Nazi organisations in Ukraine itself.

Fernando Horta: “Blaming “the others” for the crisis is the fuel that is making the world so dangerous, with the far-right unleashing their ideas all over the world. It is no different in Brazil – Southern Brazilian people think the crises are mostly caused by North-Easterner’s poor political management – its the same idea, same biased theory.”

Post 2013-16

Though always a minor background noise, Southern separatism re-surfaced on social media during the 2013 destabilisation and has grown over the subsequent 4 years, as has a more minor campaign for São Paulo’s independence, which uses similar language and presentation.

Fernando Horta: “I think we are in middle of a backlash against the “Globalization” idea. The 2008 and 2010 crisis showed two things:  major institutions  such as the European Union simply could not act timely enough to ease or prevent the crisis’ outcomes. The European Union simply didn’t have any form of control that could be applied to all of the continent. Economists have praised Iceland and how that country managed the crises, so it seems they are implying that smaller states can be more flexible, accurate and quicker with their answers in a crisis situation than large countries or federation-like institutions”

So what do we have? A well resourced, articulate & well organised campaign around a disruptive idea, harnessing identity, crisis, discontent, fear and hope, with powerful local interests behind it and the apparent support of international media. In the epoch we’re living, it would be foolish to ignore.

However, despite similar southern origins, when compared to the synthesised “grassroots” campaign for Dilma Rousseff’s illegitimate impeachment – the pivotal act of 2016’s Soft Coup – separatist movements have a crucial disadvantage: they would never have the support of TV Globo, who have after all invested the last 50 years in the continuation of a nation building project initiated by Getulio Vargas in the 1930s.

It remains unclear if the Southern separatist movement is a genuine threat to Brazil’s territorial integrity, but such divisive politics is inevitably adding to an already poisonous political climate.

Whether separatism should be considered a consequence or an objective of Brazil’s 2013-6 crises will be a question for the historians.

Who knows, the way things are going perhaps this new movement, for the independence of the National Capital, Brasília, has the most potential to succeed.


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