Southern separatism in Brazil: A joke to be taken seriously?


Southern separatism in Brazil: A joke to be taken seriously?

Founded in 1992, the movement “O Sul é Meu País” (“The South is My Country”) brings together individuals from three states in southern Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná) with the objective of separation. These states believe that there are significant cultural and historical differences between inhabitants of this region and the rest of the country. They also dispute more practical issues, such as the transfer of taxes to the Union, a recurring theme among other Brazilian separatist movements (such as in the case of movements calling for the separation of the state of São Paulo).

The movement has always been treated as a joke. Its goals are forbidden by the Brazilian constitution, which preaches the indivisibility of the country. Yet the contempt for the sentiment it engenders may not be the best way to deal with the situation – especially considering that, apart from separatism, the movement preaches economic liberalism and minimal state intervention. These economic positions are gaining more and more traction in Brazil, and can be therefore used to cultivate broader support for the separatist cause.

In 2016 and 2017, the group organized two informal plebiscites in the three states, called Plebisul. Voter turnout wasn’t spectacular: roughly 600,000 in the first, 350,000 in the second. But in both cases, over 95 percent who actually voted wanted the independence of the region. Undoubtedly this would seem like limited support, one more reason for the group to be treated as a joke, but in analyzing the question objectively one could conclude: a group capable of galvanizing between 300,000 and 600,000 people cannot be treated as a mere joke.

Still, in the midst of the political and economic crisis plaguing Brazil as a whole, the tendency is to strengthen regional identities and a notion of community more focused on the local. This is also seen, for example, in Catalonia, where the economic crisis and taking of political actions contrary to Catalan interests promoted by the central government led to the strengthening of the separatist movement.

No doubt they are not comparable movements, but similarities do exist, particularly when considering their mutual histories of conflicts, ill-fated independence movements and the maintenance of an independent identity.

The Farroupilha Revolution is a critical milestone for the defenders of Southern separatism. It has given rise to two short-lived republics, the Rio-Grandense Republic (in present-day Rio Grande do Sul) and the Juliana Republic (in Santa Catarina state). The anniversary of the Farroupilha Revolution, September 20, is celebrated annually by the Gaucho Tradition Centers, important cultural centers and gathering spaces.

These centers promote a “Gaucho” identity. Furthermore, in the 1940s during  World War II, the Brazilian government banned the use and teaching of languages such as Italian and German. These were large immigrant groups in the region that helped forge the local identity, which adds an element of victimization that the group is able to capitalize upon.

Gaucho identity Brazil separatism

It is doubtful that a genuinely separatist movement would become dominant in the south, but it cannot be doubted that with some organization the movement could become larger. It might also grow to incorporate new elements and agendas capable of upsetting the current regional elites, or even become a regional political force, focused more on advocating for more local autonomy. There is an undeniable feeling of being different in the south, especially for the Gauchos, that differs from the general conception of Brazilianness.

It is an identity that does not necessarily stand in opposition to the Brazilian one, but instead complements it, even incorporating new elements. Yet it can also be exploited, especially if there is a capacity to address economic issues – real or imagined.

Some authors would argue that the movement is based on ideas of racial and ethnic superiority, just as it would only have economic concerns as the main argument for a separation and not a real identity component. It is a proposition that is difficult to sustain, due to the dynamic process of identity construction of those who see themselves as a minority – somewhat similar to the Lega Nord party in northern Italy.

The fact, however, is that it is not only a movement, but an idea with the potential to grow, especially during times of crisis, that must be treated with seriousness.

In reality, the movement is not just small, but also somewhat marginal. No local or national political leadership wants to have its image linked to the group, nor has it been able to explore local cultural or economic issues as it would like to. The space that the group receives in the media, however, shows that on the one hand, there is a real fear that separatism will gain traction – the insistence with which they are treated as a joke, or even ridiculed, suggests concern- and on the other, which is more believable, that there is something real to be explored, if not for the O Sul é Meu País, but for other groups with more modern and more pluralistic discourses.

It is also worth noting that a considerable portion of the arguments against the cause of Southern separatism comes down to pointing out that the Brazilian constitution prevents such an event, without touching on the fundamental causes and issues posed by the movement. There is nothing that helps a cause more than forbidding it without analyzing its merits.

Gaucho identity Brazil separatism deficit states

“Would you rather keep your billions or send them to Brasília?”

The fact is that the independent South would be one of the largest economies on the continent. With a GDP of 5.77 trillion BRL (in 2014), the region’s per capita income is among the highest in Brazil. Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and Santa Catarina are, respectively, the 4th, 5th and 6th largest economies in Brazil.

However, the public deficit of the state of Rio Grande do Sul alone is estimated at 6.9 billion BRL for the next year and the public debt was 54 billion BRL in 2015, and the trend is for growth. In other words, the new Southern state would be heavily indebted and also suffer from a long-term pension deficit that, today, is proportionally the largest in Brazil and equivalent to 24.6 percent of the State’s net revenue.

The states of Santa Catarina and Paraná have a better economic situation, but find it difficult to balance the accounts to avoid deficits and pay their employees and suppliers. The perfect world of the separatists seems more complicated when one looks carefully at the real economic situation of the southern states and the consequences of a separation. This is especially so if one remembers that Rio Grande do Sul entered in November with an application to join the Tax Recovery Regime, which consists of imposing adjustments, such as the sale of state-owned enterprises, in exchange for federal funds for debt restructuring.

Yet, Brazil finds itself at a political crossroads in which populist politicians (such as Lula on the left and Bolsonaro on the right) seek to establish a position, opening space for alternatives that could very well be radical and, say, innovative. At least there is room for new alternatives and political ideas.

Miraculous solutions for the payment of debts contracted over the years and public deficits can’t be discarded. After all, propaganda is often more important than reality.

O Sul É Meu País can hardly present itself as a viable alternative. Yet it proposes and puts forth an ideology that is firmly rooted and that has a relative strength in the region, even if largely dormant in the political arena.

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About the author

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Journalist and researcher at the Ph.D. program in Human Rights of University of Deusto, Spain.