Plus ça change…Latin America and the Madre Patria

Maybe a French expression is not the best suited for a comparison between Latin America and the Iberian peninsula. But ‘plus ça change, plus la même chose’ might best sum up the rocky and haughty relationship between former colonial powers Spain and Portugal and their new world brethren.

Once, royal ships plied the waters for trade treasures while their compatriots on land enslaved locals to dig deep in the mountains for natural resources. They even moved entire royal families to the Americas in times of crisis. Now, the ships and miners aren’t royal anymore but flagship companies from the Old World have spent the last several decades looking for new markets for products in their former colonies and, of course, still digging deep in the mountains for natural resources.

The Iberian and Latin American economies have always shared important complementarities sustaining export markets and prosperity, Latin mining for European finished goods, Latin unskilled labor and Iberian capital, the list goes on. As much as it looks like tables are turning in favor of Latin America, the current situation reveals that the situation hasn’t actually changed all that much. Now instead of goods and minerals crossing the seas, it’s people.

In the middle of the 20th century, political dissidents running from Franco and Salazar found refuge from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, and São Paulo to Salvador. The diaspora of both nations formed an important part of both region’s 20th century political history.

And then the tides turned again, and not long after both European countries returned to democracy did their Latin American cousins need refuge as well. Coups and brutal military regimes in Argentina, Chile and Brazil sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives to settle in Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon. Some of the most prolific Latin American (and Peninsular) writers, philosophers, and political minds thrived in exile, and many raised families and lived out their lives in their adoptive homes.

But those were different times, times when major Latin American countries were relatively richer in comparison to post-war Spain and Portugal and times when the European Community didn’t offer Spaniards and Portuguese a one-way ticket to labor security elsewhere.

Now as both of the European economies languish in their longest economic crisis in decades, former rivalries and tensions are rearing their heads once again.

At the risk of painting with a broad brush, most modern Spaniards either don’t think much about their Latin American cousins, or don’t think much of them. They have a number of different words for them, ranging from the offensive to the mildly derogatory. A steady wave of Latin American migration to the country over the past decade has helped calm some stereotypes but has also stoked others. The Portuguese are somewhat of a different story. A much smaller and more outward-looking nation than Spain, mixed in with a more turbulent and recent colonial history in Africa, the country has shown itself more open to integrating a wide range of immigrants than Spain.

But now that Spaniards and Portuguese are returning to the New World, attitudes are begin to change. Some countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have begun to ask tough questions of arriving Spaniards, worrying that they’ll turn their tourist visa into a job search and eventually off-the-books work. Anecdotally, it seems that Spaniards are getting a bit more humble about their necessary foray into Latin work markets, but governments from Bogotá to Lima are keen to rub salt in the wounds as retaliation for perceived slights to their own citizens in the past.

There are problems with this attitude, however. In countries like Brazil and Colombia, which suffer important skills gaps and professional shortages despite record-low unemployment and the highest levels of prosperity in recent memory, these job-hungry Europeans bring the skills their own local workforce lacks. The bombastic, cavalier, and typically-nationalistic response belies a darker truth: that the recent prosperity of many Latin American countries has created jobs that most of their citizens are unable to fill.

For Spain and Portugal (and to some extent, Argentina) the opposite is sadly true, that their economies have invested heavily in educating and developing their youth but unfortunately haven’t moved their domestic industry up the value chain in the process.

Finding a better way to capitalize on these differences is a start, much in the way the Brazil is trying to lure doctors from Southern Europe and Ecuador is importing teachers from Spain. But there is a lot of necessary cultural change that needs to happen before both Europeans and Latin Americans alike begin to respect what makes their long-lasting relationship unique and what can make it more constructive.

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