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The political essay in Spanish America
This project aims to establish the arguments, motives, prejudices and circumstances that characterize the socio-political development of Spanish America from the period of Independence to the mid-20th century. It begins with an examination of the struggle for the emancipation of the Spanish American colonies, in which revolutionary leaders played a key role in promulgating foreign political and economic models for the project of Independence. Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzmán’s Letter to the Spanish Americans (c. 1792), Simón Bolívar’s Carta de Jamaica (1815), and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier’s Memoria político-instructiva (1821), for instance, helped to fashion not only a political programme but also a new sense of identity among the Spanish American creole elite that excluded large sections of the non-white population. By promoting the implantation of liberal and positivist doctrines later in the century, Spanish American intellectuals boosted (perhaps inadvertently) a process of social fragmentation within the already heterogeneous and fragile Spanish American republics. At the same time, political activists such as the Cuban José Martí warned about the threat of U.S. expansionism and neo-colonialism in the region. Martí opposed the racist characterisations of the Spanish American peoples promulgated by the positivists, as well as D. F. Sarmiento’s dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism, which looked down on autochthonous cultures. Whilst anti-imperialist discourse gained new insights throughout the twentieth century in the essays of José Enrique Rodó and Manuel Ugarte (among many others), the debate on nation and race continued to generate strident theories about the ‘racial predicament’. Thinkers such as José Ingenieros, Carlos Octavio Bunge and Alcides Arguedas spoke of the decrepit, even pathological condition of Spanish Americans. This view in particular was drastically opposed by advocates of the so-called indigenist movement in Mexico and Peru, who confronted the racist arguments of the positivists by highlighting social and economic inequality as well as the injustice and marginality endured by large sectors of the population throughout the colonial period. During these years (the first half of the twentieth century), philosophers such as Antonio Caso, Alejandro Korn, and Francisco Romero developed ‘spiritualist’ and existentialist conceptions of the human condition that helped to counteract the influence of positivism. At the same time, the intellectuals’ search for an authentic philosophical expression led to an increasing preoccupation with the broader question of ‘identity’ (cultural, political, and national). Together with the philosophical inquiry into the ontological specificity of the Latin American people, the second part of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of two important social movements: the vindication of women’s rights, which led to a wider participation in the cultural and political spheres, and Liberation Theology, which challenged the traditional role of the Catholic Church by questioning its commitment to the poor and the oppressed.
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