Breaking up is hard to do, especially when it comes to nation states. With Europe reeling from the results of the Brexit referendum and the associated economic and diplomatic fallout, some may begin to question the forced marriage of large federations composed of countries and regions with differing traditions and cultures. The Catalonian independence movement is showing strong popular support. Scottish nationalism has surged of late, and now post-Brexit, may once more bid for independence. Now too in Brazil, a country which has undergone stark political and economic change over the past months and years, a nascent movement for change is brewing in the south.
O Sul e Meu Pais (The South is My Country), the political movement whose current president is journalist and historian Celso Deucher, has a rather bold goal: to secede three of the southernmost states of Brazil – Rio Grande Do Sul, Paraná and Santa Catarina – from the Federal Republic, and to establish a new, as yet unnamed, independent nation state.
In an unofficial vote on October 1st last year, in a number of constituencies across the three aforementioned states, an overwhelming majority (95.74%) of the 600,000 participants voted that the South should be a separated from the rest of Brazil. Southern Brazil, a region of circa 20 million inhabitants, encompassing an area roughly the size of France, has a rich cultural history of European emigration.
The northernmost state of the trio, Paraná, has a tradition of Slavic, Italian and Germanic emigration. In the state capital Curitiba, you will find Leminskis, Langers, latkes and borscht to beat the band. The region of Prudentopolis in central Paraná claims that 80% of the entire population is of Ukrainian descent.
Santa Catarina, the smallest of the three secessionist states, is home to early Portuguese colonial migration; however subsequent settlement was predominantly German in origin. In Michael Palin’s recent travelogue on Brazil, he visits a beer festival in the Catarinense town of Pomerode, population circa 30,000, of which an overwhelming majority (90%) claim German heritage. Sausages and sauerkraut are more prevalent than samba, and the locals preserve an archaic German dialect from Pomerania in their day-to-day interactions.
“Similar to the revolution almost two hundred years prior, the main reasons for the current attempt at secession are economic”
But to fully understand the origins of the movement, it is necessary to explore the history of the third state of the trio, Rio Grande Do Sul. At first glance, it shares a lot more in common with neighbouring Uruguay and Argentina. In the West of the state, the traditions of the cattle herders or gauchos remain strong. There remains a hardy frontiersman spirit in those lands, one which the Argentine author Jose Hernandez immortalised in his epic poem Martin Fierro, in which the eponymous hero, an itinerant cattle drover, roams the pampas in search of distraction. Further east in the verdant valleys of the Serra Gaucha, Italian and German immigrants settled side-by-side in neighbouring towns, bringing with them traditions of wine-making and beer-brewing. Perhaps the state’s most internationally renowned daughter is supermodel Gisele Bundchen, herself of German descent.
The close geographic proximity to its Latin American neighbours Uruguay and Argentina meant that Rio Grande Do Sul has always had a turbulent history as a buffer zone between opposing imperial interests. During the 18th century, as the Spaniards and Portuguese staked their claims on territory near the River Plate, parts of the region were claimed by both sides. But the most similar precursor to the current separatist movement was the 1835 Farroupilha Revolution, possibly the only populist armed revolution in history to be borne out of a dispute over the trade in beef jerky (the English name deriving from the Quechua term char-ki).
Humble beginnings aside, this bloody struggle spanned ten years, in which the so-called ‘Ragamuffins’ battled to control the state of Rio Grande do Sul, even capturing Santa Catarina to the North for a short period. The revolutionaries ultimately surrendered in 1845, despite the able assistance of legendary Italian sword-for-hire Giuseppe Garibaldi, who spent a number of his formative years (and gained a Brazilian-born wife, Anita) fighting and leading the rebel cause. To this day, memories of this uprising remain strong in the hearts and minds of the residents of the state capital Porto Alegre, who celebrate an annual weeklong festival in honour of the movement.
It is from the struggles of the gaucho forebears that the current followers of O Sul E O Meu Pais take their lead. Formed in 1992, its main goals are to make viable the political and administrative separation of the three southern states of Brazil.
Similar to the revolution almost two hundred years prior, the main reasons for the current attempt at secession are economic. According to economic research into the regional divergences in Brazil, the South has a Human Development Index of 0.83, higher than that of Brazil as a whole (0.75 in the same year) and comparable to neighbouring Chile, which boasts the highest such index in Latin America.
Recent surveys of the entire country showed that Afro-Brazilians and mixed race citizens made up a sole 17% of the Class A designation of the Brazilian upper-middle class. Although gains were made in quality of life indexes for the poorest Brazilians during the twenty year reign of the Partida dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party), Brazil remains a country of extreme inequality.
Recently Brexit has given some hope to the separatists as has the current resurgence of the auto-determination movement in Catalonia. But like the Catalans, there are constitutional issues to be overcome. Unlike the EU, the Brazilian constitution has no provision to legally allow states to secede from the Federal Republic: a constitutional change is required and this would have to be put to a popular vote. Although the region is over-represented in GDP, its mere twenty million population pales in comparison with the two hundred million inhabitants of the Federal Republic.
“Brazil is mired in recession, economic growth is low, and Southerners and Northerners alike have tired of the current system of government”
Response from Brasilia has been unsurprisingly mute. The current governor of the state of Santa Catarina, Raimundo Colombo, made a statement claiming that he was against the separation of his state from the rest of the country, that he felt ‘Brazilian’ (as opposed to Southern Brazilian) and believed in a united Brazil. In fact, the organisers were not legally permitted to use the term plebiscite for the vote, as this implied that the vote would have some form of legal standing. Likewise, the organisers were also banned from holding the vote on the same day as the municipal electoral vote in the State of Santa Catarina, in another blow to legitimacy.
History has shown parallels in the struggle for separatist legitimacy in Brazil. In an article from 1993, James Brooke interviews the then-leader of a similar Southern Brazilian separatist movement, Irton Marx. Marx describes his plans for a ‘Republic of the Pampas’, much to the chagrin of the President of Brazil at the time, Itamar Franco, who ordered a federal police investigation into the group. To add insult to injury, the then Governor of Rio Grande Do Sul, Alceu Collares, branded the group ‘nazi-fascist’, no doubt alluding to the group’s apparent white-supremacist mantra.
However, it is no coincidence that a movement such as O Sul E O Meu Pais, born out of frustration with the infamously impeached President Fernando Collor’s regime in the 1990s, has resurged in recent months. Brazil is mired in recession, economic growth is low, and Southerners and Northerners alike have tired of the current system of government. In recent municipal elections, the Workers Party of the recently impeached President Dilma Rousseff suffered a landslide defeat in the majority of the country, and Brazil’s political sphere, like that of its Mercosur neighbour Argentina, has shifted rightward. Public sector workers in particular have been bearing the brunt of cutbacks in recent months in Rio Grande de Sul, with the state of Rio de Janeiro even declaring bankruptcy.
And what next for the sulistas? Another popular vote is scheduled for 2017, but without sufficient legal support for separation, only possible with by constitutional change as the Brazilian Constitution currently defines the Federal Republic as an ‘indivisible union of states’, the South of Brazil will remain merely a state of mind, rather than a nation state.
Gerard Lynch PhD is a recent aficionado of Brazilian current affairs and is currently learning how to speak gaucho.