Essay • The South Is My Country: An Analysis of Brazil’s Secessionist Movement

What defines or determines a nation? It is a simple question, no? Just look at a map and there you will find every nation color coded, neatly separated by lines, and identified with its name. Perhaps to a primary school student that answer makes enough sense. For many adults, too, there is a belief that nations are simply defined by a government’s sovereignty over a singular community and geographic space, thus creating, a nation-state. Yet, with an understanding of history and the contemporary world order, there comes an understanding that nations are much more complicated. New states are born while other states die. Some states do not recognize each other. Neighboring states war over the political lines separating them. Simultaneously, within states, communities fight over self-determination. Within that final scenario lies the conundrum this paper grapples with.

State implies a central governance over one community, but most modern states are in reality pluralistic and are composed of several ethnic communities. Differences in history, language, societal norms, cultural values, and future projects makes the coexisting of several communities under one state difficult and unnatural. Particularly, as those norms, projects, and values translate into political and economic power for just one or a handful of communities. Communities finding themselves as political minorities and struggling to obtain political footing may seek to secede from the state and establish their own self-governance. But, who is correct and whose rights take precedence? A state has the right to sovereignty, but people have a right to self-determination.

The question of people versus state has been particularly visible this decade. In the last five years, Britain voted to leave the European Union and the autonomous communities of Catalonia and Scotland have made notable efforts to leave Spain and the United Kingdom, respectively. Although it has obtained less traction and media attention, another interesting example, which will serve as the focus of this paper is the Southern separatist movement in the state of Brazil. Known as “O Sul é O Meu País” (The South is My Country), this political organization seeks the independence of Brazil’s three most southern states: Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. The organization cites that historic, economic, cultural, social, and geographic differences between their region and the rest of the county, as well as the central government’s (Brasilia) corruption,  have driven them to seek secession as the rightful next move.

In this paper, I will not be answering the prior question about state sovereignty versus self-determination, because the political infrastructures of every state are vastly different and have varying degrees of success in creating and preserving national identities. The question is, thus, too broad and subjective. Instead, in this paper, I will solely analyze how credible the motivations of The South is My Country are by using empirical data and theory related to Brazilian history, culture, geography, sociopolitics, and socioeconomics. I will be finding whether The South is My Country has presented a sufficient case to secede and if such secession would be successful long-term.

“If You Don’t Like This Country, Get Out”: The Legality of Secession in Brazil

Democratic nations are built on the value of active participation from the people. Active participation engenders political expression, yet, it seems like that expression, that outspokenness is often met with the line: if you don’t like this country, get out. Political participation is, thus, difficult to envision as a means of achieving progress and power. Differences between the communities within democracies lead more often to division than to discourse. Yet, while that line, “get out” is so recklessly thrown around at individuals, it seems like there is no legal path for whole communities to truly “get out” of a nation.

Brazil’s Constitution (1988) makes this clear within the First Article: “The Federative Republic of Brazil, formed by the indissoluble union of the states and municipalities and of the Federal District”. Keyword is “indissoluble”. According to Article 60 of the Constitution, no such amendment can be made either. The movement’s president Celso Deucher has, thus, identified three ways in which secession can be completed: violent revolution, peaceful revolution, or the approval of a new Constitution with two-thirds of Congress’ approval.

The plan is to obtain enough momentum for UN backing, seeing as the Resolution 1514 (XV) of December 14, 1960 grants the following: All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. To make the case, the movement which was started in 1992, has created a Charter of Principles and in the past two years has held Catalonia-inspired informal plebiscites throughout the region to show tangible support.

So Different We Would Rather Be the Same: Analysis of the Cultural Argument

The South is My Country movement presents the following cultural differences as reasoning for its secession:

The Sulina population today is about 25 million people, of European origin, mixed with the African, Native American and Asian. This miscegenation that absorbed culture, customs, and traditions from four continents…shaped the profile that is peculiar to the southern region, differentiating it from other Brazilian regions. The Sulino people thus became the holder of a very diversified culture, expressed through the customs and traditions that the region cultivated.

This reasoning presents numerous historical, statistical, and moral misconceptions. First, this logic states that the Southern states are “different[iated]… from other Brazilian regions” because they are more culturally diverse. Yet, “European origin, mixed with the African, Native American, and Asian” is the demographic reality of all of Brazil and most nations in the North American and South American continents. According to Edward Telles, professor of sociology at UCLA and an awardee of the American Sociological Association, “Brazil’s Portuguese settlers were primarily male [and] they often sought out African, indigenous and mulatto females as mates.” Such high amounts of racial mixing during the slave trade turned the Brazilian state into a predominately Black or mixed nation.

So, no, this diversity is not “peculiar” to the South. As of the 2010 Census, 47.7 percent of Brazilians identify as White, 43.1 percent as Black, 7.6 percent as Black, and the remaining as mostly Asian or Indigenous. If anything, the South is the least diverse of Brazil’s regions: 75.92 percent White, 18.96 percent Mixed, 4.28 percent Black, and less than 1 percent Asian or Indigenous.

That difference may just be how White the region is. Whiteness is something the movement seems to take pride in. If their argument is read more closely, “European origin” is placed first and all other races with which Europeans have “mixed” seem secondary. Additionally, the argument states that the diversified culture is “expressed through the customs and traditions that the region has cultivated.” During my own visit to the Southern city of Curitiba in April 2018, I saw monuments to the European immigrant communities all over, as well as artwork dedicated to Asian and European history in the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. Yet, no representations of Afro-Brazilian culture, which tends to be at the forefront of the Brazilian national identity.

The kind of emphasis placed on its European roots makes the movement (and the general region) seem racist. Others think so too. Racism and xenophobia are points that critics of the movement continuously circle back to which has even forced the president of the movement, Celso Deucher, to decry such implications. In a letter to the public, he pointed readers back to the anti-discrimination principle of the movement that reads, “guiding against any form of discrimination, ideological, religious, sexual, racial, cultural or social”. But, words are just words and these do little to disprove the prejudice that is the underbelly of the movement.

It is particularly difficult to have faith in this movement because the South’s role in white nationalism is historically substantiated:

Brazil’s population was mostly black or mixed race until the 1930s when Brazil [explicitly] encouraged and received a large number of European immigrants as it sought to find new sources of labour…blocking Chinese and African immigrants. The growing population of European origin was also expected to mix with the non-white, further “whitening” the Brazilian population.

A majority of Europeans were incentivized to immigrate through government policies that gave them swaths of unclaimed farmland in the South. Those lands could have instead gone to the descendants and victims of slavery, which had only been recently abolished in 1888. But alas, the end of slavery was seen as an end to racism. According to Telles, this racist policy continued for a long time without raising eyebrows because Brazilians at the time considered only overt racism an issue and believed that the state was supporting a “racial democracy”. At the time, the state made Afro-Brazilian culture a part of the national identity by institutionally promoting things like Carnaval, capoeira, and samba.

In recent years, perceptions on racism have changed and it is commonly acknowledged throughout the county that racial prejudice exists. Brazil has headed into “a national debate about race and racism, and the beginning of serious policy attempts to reduce racial inequality represent a new stage for Brazil”. Such policy attempts have included enacting an affirmative action policy in 2001 and the creation of Bolsa Familia, higher education grants, in 2003. It comes off as if those in the movement want no part in addressing those issues, even if historically many in the South benefited from the state’s handouts of land.

If the South is my Country truly valued diversity than it would stay in Brazil rather than leave. Yet, standing as its own nation it would be 20 percent more White. If the South truly valued diversity than it would celebrate the region’s Black and Mixed populations by adopting their traditions and commemorating their culture with monuments as they have with European ethnicities. Instead, the movement has created a paradox for itself that only reveals its racist and xenophobic intentions. These supposed cultural differences are not sufficient reason to secede.  

The Kettle Calling the Pot Black: Analysis of the Political Argument

The South is My Country movement’s lack of desire to be active in the amelioration of class and race issues becomes present in the political arguments they present. The movement has divided these arguments into three: politics, taxes, and moral accountability, but they all generally tie-in together. The arguments explain how the South is positioned on the losing end of the stick in the Brazilian political sphere.

The argument is that there is “a pernicious parliamentary representation [that is] blatantly disproportionate” and which makes the South “subject to the bad distribution of the tributary cake, that privileges regions, discriminating others, as well as the poor distribution of our tributary effort that only contemplates the strengthening of the clientelistic political oligarchies of the North and Northeast”. This is why, feeling like a minority, the movement has chosen secession in place of negotiation as a solution. In their moral argument, the movement addresses corruption as another barrier to negotiation, saying “the lack of serious and speedy investigation in the face of constant and growing denunciations of estelionato, embezzlement, formation of gangs and locution with the resources of the treasury”.

The argument related to a supposed disproportionate representation is easily refutable. Brazil has a bicameral Congress composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. Bicameralism ensures states with large populations do not overshadow small states – precisely what the movements complain about. However, the system does accomplish its objective. Each state and the Federal District of Brasilia have three Senators, while the number of members in the Chamber of Deputies is approximately proportional to the share in overall population. Rio Grande do Sul has a 6 percent share in the Chamber of Deputies, while Parana has 5 percent and Santa Catarina has 3 percent. These numbers are all equal to their shares of the Brazilian population.  

A component of the complaint too are the “clientelistic political oligarchies of the North and Northeast,” a claim made in part because the number of representatives in many of the states in those regions are not completely proportional. The Chamber of Deputies has rules that the minimum number of deputies per state be 8 and the maximum number of deputies be 70. Because of these rules, the states Acre, Amapa, Rondônia, Roraima, Sergipe, and Tocantins which have especially low shares of the overall population (less than 1%) have 8 deputies when they would normally have as few as 1 or 2. The State of Sao Paulo, the largest, with more than 20 percent of a population share, would normally have 100 deputies, but gave up 40 deputies. These rules create a more level playing field. The movement is against such “inaccuracies” despite being unaffected and having a truly representative number of delegates.

The movement claims, too, that the South is underrepresented in public budgets and spending. One statistic that has made rounds is one the movement got from the Transparency Poll (open government budget data), which states that only 20 percent of the tax money collected from the South returns there. The movement uses this statistic as leverage to secede and prove that the South is a discriminated region which is “relegated to almost nonexistent federal investments.”

The movement has jumped to additional, ungrounded conclusions, about the North and Northeast, in saying the “poor distribution of [their] tributary effort…[is] to the detriment of the populations of those regions themselves.” The statistic and its use are problematic for a few reasons.

First, the statistic is manipulated, because the time frame for the amount of tax collected from the South and the amount of tax returned from the federal government are different – the former accounts for a full year, while the latter accounts for a quarter, so, of course, it will seem like the federal government does not return enough.

Second, the general public has an exaggerated perception regarding public spending in the Northeast. In general, just 11% of Brazil’s GDP goes towards welfare programs like education, food, and healthcare, yet public perception is that the largest portion of the GDP goes towards the “welfare state” when in reality it goes towards matters like debt and defense. This distinction is important to make because much of the negative rhetoric towards the Northeast regards the supposed large amounts of money invested into social programs there.

One movement supporter at a polling station said, “If you look at the six or seven states above us (in the northeast), altogether they don’t give what the three states of the south give in taxation.” So, what? This is true. It is true as well that national welfare programs will mostly benefit the North and Northeast regions as these are poorer regions, yet, the programs benefit people in all states as poverty is not state-specific. In fact, poverty is quite an issue in Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, Porto Alegre, which was described by many during my trip as abandoned and crime-ridden. Would the states purge the poor within their states as well? 

The argument made by the movement implies that government redistribution is something novel and odd, yet it is the basis of most nations in the world. Even “free-market states” play a socialist role in implementing programs that use individual and family unit tax money to ameliorate poverty and other social conditions.

Considering that the Northeast is not only the poorest region in the nation, but also the Blackest (a staggering 27 percent of the population identifying), the movement’s singling out of the Northeast in its arguments only adds to the evidence pointing at racism and xenophobia being at the core. 

Corruption-at-large has also been cited by the movement as a cause for splitting. Yet, regardless of the corruption in Brasilia, the South is not absent of its own corruption. At the municipal level, there is a lot of corruption too and much of the money generated by the three states is rarely invested into the cities. A prime example is again Porto Alegre’s current state of poverty. The movement argues that it can solve the issue of corruption within the municipal level as well, but it is argued by economist Alexandre Porsse of the Federal University of Parana, that the lack of structure present when creating a new “public administration for the new country, such as a central bank, senate, chamber of deputies, and courts of justice” would only further problematize and open the door to corruption. It seems as though the economic and logistical detriments would greatly outweigh the benefits.

Money Grows on Trees: Analysis of the Economic Argument

The South is My Country presents an economic argument to solidify the viability of success as a nation after secession. It presents a geographic argument as well, but I will analyze them in unison, as much of the economic positioning comes from the land’s geographic gifts. Regarding geography, the movement says the following:

[Sul] has a highly favorable geographical situation. Endowed with [varied terrain which] presents technological and physical conditions for a productive and diversified agricultural base… [and] presents a formidable tourist potential, bigger than the great majority of the countries in that area.

Its economic argument, short and concise, says the following:

The South Region has all the necessary requirements to become one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Its human, social and economic potential leaves no doubt as to its viability as an independent country.

The movement substantiates these claims with a list of several of the South’s accomplishments. Regarding the geographic positioning of the region, the movement cites Paraná’s rivers and waterfalls, as well as Santa Catarina’s beaches and sierras as major tourist attractions. Besides a booming tourism industry, the rivers of Parana have provided the South with the Itaipu Dam which is the largest producer of electricity in Brazil, providing 15% of it. Santa Catarina is Brazil’s largest exporter of seafood. In general, due to the greenness of the region, the South has a large agribusiness industry (more than 50% of its GDP being related to the industry) and is the largest chicken and meat producer and the second largest producer of grain in the country.

Notice how the state of Rio Grande do Sul is missing from the conversation at this point? That is because unlike Parana and Santa Catarina, this state is not prospering. According to Fernando Schuler, professor of political science at Insper University in Sao Paulo, “Rio Grande do Sul is currently immersed in a financial crisis and has lost much of its economic clout.” The financial crisis is deep-set too. “We have a gap that has lasted ten years [and] Rio Grande do Sul has been losing share in GDP in relation to other states,” said Professor Alfredo Meneghetti Neto of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul. He argues that Rio Grande do Sul actually benefits greatly from national government aid and that if not dependent on Brasilia, the state would become dependent on the other two states if Sul were to become a nation. “The separation of [Sul] is based on the political argument, which brings nothing from reality to the economic argument,” Neto concluded.

The movement’s economic arguments and evidence have been mostly used to support the theory that a “rational use of geography will bring [them] autonomy in the energy field, in the tourist industry, in agriculture, in livestock and in many other fields of economic activities, besides allowing [them] a natural system of flow of production”. Yet, because the movement’s conclusions are hypothetical, there is insufficient evidence to support that secession from Brazil would not lead to economic instability regarding international trade.

Thus far, the movement cites that it has ten international ports which facilitate trade – particularly with the neighboring countries of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, with whom Brazil shares the trade bloc of Mercosur since 1991. Additionally, that international trade law secures them partial ownership of Itaipu Dam (half is owned by Paraguay) if they were to leave Brazil. However, given a lack of discourse or negotiation with other nations regarding their secession push, the movement makes a bold assertion in claiming how easily they will move into international trade agreements.

The leaders have said the following about trade, “many people think that the independence of the South is the same as saying that we will isolate ourselves from the world. It is not true, there will be interdependence between countries, just as it does in every country in the world. We could export our products, and import products that we do not produce here”. Yet, making those trade deals is complicated as it takes time for a completely new nation to establish itself and for it to even find itself included in the current deals.

Porsse agrees, having said, “the economy of these states is interdependent of the Brazilian economy. Assuming the region was separated, trade policies would be needed to export and import products, within a protectionist network, with a series of tariff barriers. It’s not something simple.” He additionally noted that Sao Paulo and Parana, in particular, have a very strong economic relationship which would be likely strained by secession. The leaders of the movement, however, have made a strong (ungrounded) assertion that Brazil would remain a main partner.

Of further note is that in their economic argument, the movement makes a generalization in claiming that “history, geography, climate, ethnicities, and cultural characteristics” have “woven affinities” between the South and its neighboring countries of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. All three nations are old and large enough to have established different and unique national identities, so the South should not assume any affinities are so strong, particularly when they seek to leave their own current nation with whom they do share many of those unifying factors listed. Iná Elias Castro explains why defining such heritages or affinities is subjective, in saying that, “the political consequences of these regionalisms are absolutely reactionary, because they support their visions of history in geographical fatalities, in what approaches the idea of ​​superiority of races, as an attribute derived from nature”. She said this specifically in relation to Brazil’s South and Northeastern region, which have regionalisms supported by a territorial imaginary based on “natural differences”: the drought on one side and the subtropical climate on the other.

Conclusion

Although I am morally against borders and nationalism, I can agree that for some states, sovereignty and self-determination are congruent. The borders and nationalism make sense and are natural. Brazil, being both diverse and large demographically and geographically, is not one of those states. The rise of secessionist movements like The South is My Country are expected. However, just because a bunch of states were thrown together to naturally create the nation of Brazil does not mean this is the right time to separate.

Dissolving the nation would likely throw both the South and the greater nation of Brazil into a frenzy than neither is prepared for. Both nations are dependent on each other because of trade. The South has large markets the rest of the country does not have and vice-versa. As much as the leaders of the movement claim trade would be easy afterward there is no concrete evidence offered to substantiate that claim. The South would first need to establish itself as its own nation, with the adequate government offices and sectors, and it is similarly unknown how successfully the region would be able to do that.

What becomes evident is that much of the movement is rooted in racism and xenophobia even if explicit rhetoric is not at the forefront. However, the implications of the language used reveal the undertone to the movement. All the arguments, sociopolitical or socioeconomic, lead back to class, which is tied to race in Brazil.

In a great paradox, the region likes to claim that its difference is what sets it apart from the rest of Brazil, but it is actually what makes it the same. Brazil is a diverse country and it is bounded to the South by that. All that needs to happen is for the South to embrace that.

 

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