Blind nationalism is a problem everywhere under globalized capitalism. Capitalist elites use state apparatuses such as the education system, national media and culture to instill a sense of pride, love and loyalty for one’s birthplace. This is especially true in Latin America, where white settler capitalist elites monopolize political and economic life.
As a Colombian, the yellow, blue and red colors of my country’s flag have an apparently inexplicable enchantment. Similarly, before I could decipher the meaning behind the words, the national anthem sometimes would make my hairs stand on end. This is hardly surprising when these national symbols are imposed on us from birth. In Colombia’s preschools, as is the case in many other countries in the region, children are forced to stand up for the national anthem and the all-important ritual of flying the flag.
Although my family moved to Europe when I was just five years old, those deep nationalist feelings planted in infancy stayed with me well into adulthood. This loyalty to one’s country is merely love for one’s capitalist masters. The flag, emblem and anthem of our countries are the symbols of state power. We are all made to respect them unconditionally. When we are inclined to turn our backs on these symbols or appropriate them to take on a revolutionary significance, our own impoverished and oppressed communities become state agents, rushing to defend them against their “desecration.”
The carving up of Latin America by white criollo elites at the beginning of the 1800s, during the independence period, has also helped to foment wars and conflicts between the different states. In turn, these state conflicts incite the spread of xenophobic nationalism from Mexicans who discriminate against Central American immigrants, Colombians who often believe they are racially and culturally superior to other Andean nations, to extremes such as the lynching of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. While ordinary Latin Americans are divided and alienated from each other, the colonial-capitalist elites of each of those countries have more in common with each other than with their own citizens.
Nonetheless, not all patriotism and nationalism have the same motivations. Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia — with their progressive and socialist-leaning governments — have used these once-elitist state symbols to create a sense of true national pride that goes beyond a superficial love for one’s country. Movements like the independentistas in Puerto Rico and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, have used the flags and symbols of the colonial-capitalist state to represent the struggle of these countries’ masses. The Western left, which refuses to see the imperialist nature of global capitalism, tends to denounce all nationalism as fascist and wrong.
From a decolonizing perspective, our nationalism must be based on a deep understanding of the history of our countries. It must take on the political and economic conditions our homelands face. Although Latin America and its individual nation states were created by white colonial elites that carved up our continent, we can appropriate these symbols to give them a deeper meaning — even a revolutionary one.
Take Cuba as an example. Its flag once represented a dictatorship controlled by the United States; a symbol of the oppression of millions of its people. Today, thanks to the revolutionary work of its government and people, the Cuban flag does not just represent revolutionary change in Cuba, but hope for revolutionary change in the whole of Latin America.
We do not have to throw away and destroy these symbols completely to achieve the justice our peoples have been longing for for over five hundred years, like many Western leftists and cultural nationalists will have us believe. What does need to be destroyed completely are the political and economic structures of capitalism-imperialism that are inherently exploitative and oppressive.
When that day comes, I will enthusiastically stand up for the Colombian national anthem.