Latin America: the region that Ireland forgot

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), News, Volume 16

At the time of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in June 1984, the extent and depth of Irish people’s revulsion at what the US was doing and supporting in Central America turned the visit into a public relations disaster for the White House as huge and popular protests contrasted with the paucity of numbers turning out to welcome the US President. (An Phoblacht)

At the time of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in June 1984, the extent and depth of Irish people’s revulsion at what the US was doing and supporting in Central America turned the visit into a public relations disaster for the White House as huge and popular protests contrasted with the paucity of numbers turning out to welcome the US President. (An Phoblacht)

This special issue of History Ireland on Ireland and Latin America serves to highlight the interesting and diverse range of links between these two parts of the world. At the same time it throws into sharp relief the astonishing neglect of the region by the Irish state, by Irish civil society and by the Irish private sector right down to the present day. In contrast to the extensive presence of Irish missionaries and, more recently, development workers in Africa since the mid-nineteenth century, and to the presence of Irish soldiers and administrators in British-ruled parts of Asia, of Irish missionaries more widely in that region and, in our days, of Irish businesspeople and diplomats throughout the region, Latin America has gained only momentary attention in Ireland. It remains the region of the world most neglected by the Irish state, with only three resident embassies south of the Rio Grande, two of these established since the 1990s. While some Irish businesses have begun to enter the region, the limited attention Latin America receives from that sector contrasts eloquently with the intense and widespread involvement in Asia, particularly China. Irish Aid directs a miserly part of its resources to the region (mostly through NGOs), and the fitful attention it has paid to Latin America throughout its history serves to underline its essential disinterest.
This disinterest is mirrored throughout Irish education and in the Irish media, further reinforcing the marginalisation of Latin America in the Irish consciousness. As more Latin American countries have established embassies in Dublin (before 1990 only Argentina had an embassy; since then Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Cuba have opened resident embassies), it has become almost routine to hear ambassadors complain in the strongest terms about this neglect of their region. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that many are astonished that Latin America is so absent from the attention of opinion-formers here in Ireland. Only the very biggest stories make it into the Irish media, and on some occasions not even that. For example, I saw no mention anywhere in the Irish media of the Costa Rican referendum on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) last October, a unique event that has never before taken place in the region, when citizens were offered an opportunity to vote on a free trade agreement. The few Irish documentary-makers who take risks in making films about the region find that if they are successful in getting them screened on TV, they are usually put on late in the evening. Our young people learn about the region only to the extent that Europe has impinged on it or vice versa.

Above: Widespread opposition to US policies in the region was sparked by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in March 1980 and by the subsequent championing of the cause of justice and truth by Bishop Eamonn Casey (below). (An Phoblacht)

Above: Widespread opposition to US policies in the region was sparked by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in March 1980 and by the subsequent championing of the cause of justice and truth by Bishop Eamonn Casey (below). (An Phoblacht)

Most Irish young people leave school ignorant of such crucial events as the Mexican or Cuban revolutions, the emergence of neo-liberalism in Chile, or currents of thought such as dependency theory or liberation theology, all of which have had major repercussions throughout the world. It is even less excusable that most university students of history, politics, economics, sociology and even literature rarely hear mention of Latin America, and those scholars who seek to specialise in it experience at best a lack of interest and at worst outright hostility from academic authorities. Despite some valiant efforts, such as the annual conference of Latin Americanists that began in the early 2000s, Latin American studies remain frighteningly marginal in Irish higher education, with, at most, a handful of courses on Latin American subjects on offer, and no possibility for anyone to specialise in studies of the region other than at Ph.D level. Those who choose to specialise at BA or MA level have to leave Ireland.
Yet there is evidence of an interest in the region beyond what this institutional neglect would lead one to imagine. Moments in the recent history of Latin America have captured the imagination of Irish people, who have shown a marked and widespread sympathy. Most remarkable was the impact on Ireland of the conflicts in Central America in the 1980s. Many young Irish people travelled to Nicaragua to learn from the revolution there and, in many cases, to offer practical help, such as in picking the coffee crop. But even more remarkable was the widespread opposition to US policies in the region sparked by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in March 1980, and by the subsequent championing of the cause of justice and truth by Bishop Eamonn Casey. Bishop Casey showed immense courage not only in regularly visiting the victims of state violence in El Salvador and Guatemala but also in voicing his criticisms of US policy very publicly and forcefully, including in Washington DC and in the Vatican. At the time of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in June 1984, the extent and depth of Irish people’s revulsion at what the US was doing and supporting in Central America turned the visit into a public relations disaster for the White House, as huge and popular protests contrasted with the paucity of numbers turning out to welcome the US president. A decade later, it was the Zapatistas in southern Mexico who awakened the interest of Irish people, and again many travelled there to see for themselves and to offer practical support. The work of the Catholic bishops’ development agency, Trócaire, since its foundation in 1973 has been the unique example of a significant Irish institution taking a sustained and committed interest in Latin America, and its work is rightly held in the highest regard there. Building on this interest and helping to sustain it is the work of the Latin American Support Centre (LASC) in Dublin and the annual Latin America week they help to organise every March, bringing speakers from the region and drawing attention to causes requiring support.

Furthermore, there is arguably no region of the world whose development has so paralleled that of Ireland and from which we have so much to learn. Our experiences of colonisation were much more similar than were those of other regions of the world, both for the length of the colonial presence and for its destruction of native institutions and cultures. While many colonised countries emerged into independence with the crippling legacy of mono-crop economies, the policies followed by Ireland to break out of this legacy paralleled those of Latin America much more than of anywhere else through the Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) policies implemented in the wake of the Great Depression in 1929. In explaining the rather peculiar nature of the Irish party system, one finds many more similarities with those in countries like Argentina and Mexico than among our closer neighbours. The Latin American tradition of populism, in particular, offers many insights into the nature of Irish politics and political culture, and of our largest political party, Fianna Fáil. The weak relationship between economic and social development that has been such a characteristic of Latin American development finds echoes in the Irish experience, particularly of late. And while many Latin American leaders are now looking to Ireland as a model to follow, the truth is that both sides would benefit much more from a fruitful dialogue about how to achieve egalitarian, balanced and sustainable development in the conditions of today’s globalised world. Indeed, we in Ireland have much to learn but, outside the circles of the committed, we seem oblivious to it.
This, then, is the wider context for this special issue. What it succeeds in doing is drawing attention to some of the ways in which Irish people have been involved in the region for a very long time, and some impacts of the region on Ireland and the Irish consciousness. It therefore brings to wider public attention some of the fascinating work being undertaken over recent years, particularly by historians, both in Ireland and Latin America (and beyond), to fill in the many gaps in the ways both have interacted for so long.

Peadar Kirby is Professor of International Politics and Public Policy at the University of Limerick.

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