Mexican Independence Day: Across Latin America, bicentennial parties abound

Mexican Independence Day marks the 200th anniversary of freedom from Spanish rule. This year, five Latin American countries mark their bicentennials by taking stock of progress and challenges ahead.

Carlos Jasso/AP
A woman sits next to Mexican flags of different eras at the Obispado viewpoint Sept. 15, as the northern industrial city of Monterrey prepares for the Independence celebrations in Mexico.

Latin America is showcasing the remains of revolutionary war heroes. It is lighting up central plazas with displays that could illuminate entire villages. Conferences, dance, poetry? Take your pick, almost any day of this year.

Patriotism is in no short supply in 2010, the year of the bicentennial of Latin America, with five countries commemorating 200 years of independence from the Spanish crown. In many ways, it is an excuse for Latin America to party, with governments pouring money and political capital into mega-events that have been broadcast widely. But it is more than just a spectacle, with Latin America taking stock of where it stands today and where it wants to go in the future.

And by most accounts, despite deep troubles in several countries, the region is optimistic about its path, confident in its relationship with world powers, and intent on forging regional unity.

IN PICTURES: Mexico prepares for bicentennial celebrations

Mexican Independence Day is celebrated today and tomorrow. Chile celebrates Saturday. Venezuela, Colombia, and Argentina celebrated their bicentennials earlier this year. The anniversaries come on the heels of celebrations in Bolivia and Ecuador last year. Next year, Paraguay will celebrate its bicentennial and another slew of celebrations will kick off in 2021.

During centennial celebrations, each country was looking inward, says Margarita Gutman, director of the Building Latin American Bicentennials Program, a project analyzing the meaning of bicentennials in Latin America, at the New School's Observatory on Latin America in New York.

“They were celebrating the construction of the modern state,” she says.

Today, says Ms. Gutman, “The idea of having a regional presence now is much more active.… The issue of trying to recover the old links of the region is present in different ways.”

An occasion to mark regional progress

Latin America has much to celebrate. Many countries have transformed from weak states to stable democracies this century. They are more inclusive of indigenous groups and the poor in general. In countries across the region, elections in the past decade have ousted the long-ruling elite in favor of leaders promising a redistribution of wealth and power.

Resentment toward the US footprint in the region has given way to a more favorable view of America, in the wake of globalization and diversification that has brought China, India, and other world players to the scene.

In the latest survey from Latinobarometro, a Chile-based organization that culls data from across the region, 74 percent of Latin Americans have a positive opinion of the US (up from a low of 55 percent in 2003).

The region has made a push to unite, with the formation of trade groups, such as Mercosur or Alba, and regional groups like Unasur. There have been obvious setbacks and limitations, with no group or leader successfully mediating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras last year, and with tensions flaring between Colombia and Venezuela.

But Ms. Gutman says work toward a common bloc, reflected in the discourse of bicentennials across the region, is a shift from the past. During the centennial celebration in 1910, for example, Argentina knew more about what was happening in Europe or the US than in its own backyard, she says.

Deep issues abound

Columnists in Mexico have asked what Mexico can celebrate 200 years after independence, given the drug violence that has plagued the nation and threatened democracy.

“Despite the many achievements brought about by democratic governments in the region, weak institutions along with poverty and corruption are fertile ground for criminal organizations to insert themselves in government structures,” says Erika de la Garza, program director of the Latin American Initiative at Rice University's Baker Institute.

Latin America is still the region of the world with the greatest income disparity, she says, and it still faces century-old problems, including the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.

But many strides have been made, says Ms. de la Garza. Today, a slew of Latin American women are heads of state, and in Bolivia an indigenous head of state represents the indigenous majority.

Most residents in countries surveyed by Latinobarometro say they are optimistic about the course of their lives, with 78 percent of Latin Americans saying they and their family are on the right track.

And now is their time to celebrate, whether it is in the form of indigenous dance shows, history lessons, or, in the case of Venezuela, exhuming the remains of independence father Simon Bolivar.

True, Latin Americans might not even know exactly what they are celebrating. Only 43 percent correctly said from whom their country won independence, says Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarometro.

But that will not stop them.

“This is not a society that is looking back at its identity, it is looking forward,” she says. “Independence is nice, it allows us to party. But people want prosperity, Internet, and iPhones. None of that has to do with colonial times.”

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