Independence Movements in the 21st Century

Independence movements are rocking the world right now. The most high profile of these is Britain exiting the EU – colloquially referred to as Brexit. However, it’s far from the only independence movement worth observing right now. Catalonia has denounced Spain and is demanding their independence. Scotland has a growing independence movement to breakaway from the United Kingdom. Hong Kong is experiencing growing support for full independence from China.

Let’s dive into the above movements a little further to understand what’s causing them since they’re all fairly separate movements:

You Brexit, You Buy It.

Why did Britain Vote to Leave the EU? Well, a few reasons. Let’s talk about the EU and its history first. The EU originated with the idea that pooling war resources (steel and coal) would help ensure that France and Germany never went to war again. If economies were interdependent, the reasoning goes, then war is a net negative for all involved. The 6 founding members of this agreement were Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Based on that treaty’s success, they furthered their integration in 1957 by creating the European Economic Community, which allowed for people, goods and services to all move freely across borders. This is the basis for the EU as we know it today.

The United Kingdom wouldn’t join until 1973 after seeing the success and prosperity that followed the removal of tariffs, customs, et cetera of the member states.

In the following years every day citizens would begin electing members of the European Parliament (as opposed to being delegated by the nations themselves) and more importantly, the influence of the European Parliament on individual nations grew.  This growing influence led to a greater concern that Britain was losing her sovereignty, and thus led to a desire for more control.

Support for EU membership has always fluctuated between 30 and 60% among the British populace, which makes claims that the vote’s result was due to a recent surge of xenophobia ring a bit hollow. Regardless, the United Kingdom has always identified themselves as Brits before Europeans, and the surge of immigrants from the EU migrant crisis certainly fueled a distrust of the open borders policy of the EU. The United Kingdom voted to secede from the Union in 2016, and their exit plan is due in just a few days. The UK is hoping to gain more control over their borders and economy despite repeated warnings of the potentially disastrous consequences to their market. Their secession is expected with or without any exit plan unless they renege their exit vote with a second referendum, a growing possibility.

Brexit is threatening to tear apart the UK government. The lack of ability to come to a consensus on what Brexit would mean has already triggered a vote of no-confidence (comparable to an impeachment in the United States) and caused several cabinet resignations. You’ve probably heard of soft vs hard Brexit, and the main difference is just how integrated into the EU Britain would remain. Some countries, such as Norway, pay a lump sum into the Union’s budget for access to the Union’s Economic area, but are not full fledged voting members. This would situation would be similar to the result of a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit would be total and complete withdrawal, which gives Britain the control over its borders it wants, but would also introduce tariffs that non members must pay for trade.

Catalan Can, Catalan Can’t

Spain’s Catalonia is a region with its own language and culture, and is experiencing a growing movement for full independence since a referendum for further autonomy was struck down in 2006. The small region of Catalonia provides over a 5th of Spain’s GDP and tax revenue, and many of the aggrieved Catalans argue that the Spanish government doesn’t use that tax money wisely. Things have only worsened since the 2008 economic crisis, and protests are commonplace.

Catalonia held a referendum for full independence in 2017. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence, although turnout was only 43%. Spain not only dubbed the referendum illegal and refused to recognize the result, but violently smashed polling booths, suppressed demonstrations, and injured nearly 1,000 people.

The movements leaders are on trial and some are on the run. The 12 leaders on trial are facing decades in prison, and 10s of thousands of people are protesting in Madrid.

Hong Kong Is China. Or Else.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are all in odd places within the Chinese sphere. China has made it incredibly clear that if any were to declare independence, they would invade straight away. However, that doesn’t stop 1 in 6 Hong Kong citizens from supporting the movement or a mere 3% of citizens in Hong Kong referring to themselves as Chinese – the lowest in 2 decades. Even so, independence is an incredibly taboo topic, and the Chinese government is cracking down. Just recently, Hong Kong itself banned their own independence party known as the Hong Kong National Party, and the Chinese government applauded the decision. Being a member or raising funds for the party is now a crime, one that’s justified by concerns for national security.

Historically, there are a lot of independence movements to choose from. Last time I spoke almost exclusively about post world war II movements, so as tempting as Gandhi’s India was as a topic, I decided to return to my favorite periods of history, antiquity (specifically Rome), the Industrial Revolution and the first world war.

If the Roman Emperor Won’t Protect Me, I’ll Protect Myself.

The role of what exactly government’s role should be is one of the most contentious topics in our time, and that’s not unique to our time either. However, most can agree that if government has only one basic function, it is to protect its citizens from invaders. That’s the one thing Rome could not do in the 3rd century. As a result, the Roman Empire broke into thirds, the Gallic Empire in the west, lead by a great general named Postumus and the Palmyrene Empire in the East, so what set off these independence movements in the world’s greatest empire?

The empire was at war on all sides. A plethora of various Germanic barbarian tribes were invading from the north, the Sassanid Persian Empire was invading from the east, and the emperor simply couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Making matters worse was an ongoing succession crisis. When Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his own troops in 235, it kickstarted a series of usurpations and civil wars lasting most of the century. Each time any general successfully fended off an invading force without the emperor present, his troops would hail that general as emperor. The new emperor would lead his army to confront and fight the reigning emperor causing a cycle of usurpers. There would be 25 emperors over the following 50 years. For context, prior to the crisis of the 3rd century, the average reign of an emperor was 20 years.

So that’s the backdrop, war and a lack of a stable leadership. Each of the following two secessions will be slightly different in character. Unfortunately, much less is known about this period of Roman History than any other period of the Roman Empire. What we do know is that Gallienus was co-emperor with his father Valerian in 268. Valerian was on the eastern front fighting against the Sassanids when Valerian was captured by the Sassanids. The Franks, a tribe beyond the border, used this as a worthy distraction and invaded in the north east. When Gallienus got the word of the new Frank invasion, he was helping Postumus, the governor of Germania Inferior (north west-ish area of the empire), defend against a separate invasion. He left Postumus in charge while he attended to the new invasion.

Postumus successfully repelled this invasion, and Gallienus lost a lot of support for leaving in the middle of a war. This caused Postumus’ troops to hail him as emperor, but unlike many of the previous emperors, Postumus didn’t march on Rome to take power. Instead, he setup shop and created what is now known as the Gallic empire. He would briefly absorb modern Spain into the empire as well. Interestingly, he vowed never to attack Italy, and kept that promise. This ended up allowing Gallienus to focus in the east and gave him a bit of a buffer zone between his Empire and the Germanic tribes, so while his contemporaries damned his memory for never taking it back during his life, it may have objectively been his best move.

Gaul so easily and readily broke away for two main reasons: 1. The military hailed every general as emperor after winning a battle. They were able to do this because it had become increasingly obvious that the military ultimately decided who was emperor despite any formal processes in place. If somebody, such as the senate, disagreed, well the military had all the weapons and was often loyal to the highest bidder. More importantly, 2. The actual emperor’s inability to protect the citizens of Gaul. Postumus’ ability to fend off the invaders in absence of the emperor was a clear sign that the emperor wasn’t needed. They were paying taxes for a protection that couldn’t be provided by Rome.

The Gallic empire would survive several invasion attempts from the Roman Empire to reunite the empire, but the Gallic Empire would last for fourteen years before reunification, and Gallienus would be long dead by the time it was reclaimed. Unfortunately Postumus would also be assassinated, and Postumus’ successors were not nearly as brilliant, which is a large reason it was able to be reclaimed at all.

Amidst all this, the Roman colony of Palmyra was controlling Roman troops under the blessing of Gallienus.  Before long the leader of Palmyra kicked the bucket, and his widow, Zenobia, acted as ruler. Zenobia wanted power, but bided her time and kept up the charade of loyalty to Rome, but when another Germanic tribe invaded, she wasted no time seizing the opportunity and additional territory for herself. The Roman Empire now looked like this:


Gallienus would not be remembered kindly by his contemporaries, but modern historians have taken a kinder view recognizing that the empire at large may have completely collapsed had he not given both regions up. Having a buffer zone to the Sassanids allowed Gallienus to focus his troops on invaders from a specific area.

The Gallic empire would be partially retaken by Claudius Gothicus, and then both would retaken entirely by Aurelian. In both cases, it was not that the empires couldn’t survive on their own, but that they were forcibly retaken. Ironically, the west had only left because that same military force couldn’t protect them. The east, however, left as little more than an opportunistic power grab.

The cycle of endless emperors would be ended by the reforms of emperor Diocletian starting in 286. As a result, the Roman Empire would exist for over 100 years before falling in the west, and would continue on in the east for over a millennium as the Byzantine Empire.

Haitian Revolutions

Haiti was once France’s most profitable colony. Haiti, known at the time as St. Domingue, produced 60% of the world’s coffee, and 40% of its sugar. That profit was only possible with massive amounts of slavery. In 1789, slaves outnumbered non-slaves by a factor of 10-1. Slaves were regularly imported due to conditions being so incredibly inhumane that the slave’s death rate outpaced their birth rate. Slaves weren’t the only ones unhappy with the status quo though. Both plantation owners and a group known as “petit blancs” (basically just poorer whites in service jobs such as a shopkeep) felt disenfranchised because they had no representation in the French government and were forbidden to trade with any country other than France.

Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, ideals like every man is born equal and that circumstances of ones birth should not determine social ranking, a freed former slave by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture led a violent and bloody insurrection in 1791 that would last 14 years.

Interestingly, L’ouverture is a name given to him by fellow soldiers meaning to convey that Toussaint always found a weakness to exploit, which terrified plantation owners.

The uprising was triggered not only by the French Revolution, but also by a decree which granted freedom to men of color in May of 1791, thus enraging the Petit Blancs. This decree was not enforced in St. Domingue and by August, L’ouverture led a full rebellion that would result in him holding a third of the island in just a few months. In 1793, France issued a proclamation explicitly freeing St. Dominigue’s slaves. In exchange, L’ouverture helped the French fight the British, who’d tried to take the colony, and the Spanish, who owned the eastern half of the island.

That said, L’ouverture’s rebellion was never about independence. That is, until Napoleon came to power. Napoleon fought a lot of wars. Like…a lot. He also needed money to fund those wars, so he attempted to reestablish slavery in St. Domingue. (Quick tangent: the Louisiana purchase was also used to fund Napoleon’s wars.) Napoleon was coy about this, but soon the army of 40,000 made it pretty clear that in 1802, slavery was about to be reinstated. Napoleon still promised he wouldn’t reinstall slavery, but he’d promised the same to other islands where he went ahead and reinstated it anyway.

Napoleon may have succeeded had it not been for yellow fever ravaging his army. L’ouverture was imprisoned , and the rebel forces looked to Dessalines. Dessalines would lead his rebels to their final victory, creating both the Haitian flag and proclaiming independence in 1804. Haiti was the second country to win independence from a European power (the first being the United States), and the world’s first black republic.

What’s particularly interesting about the Haitian revolution is that it didn’t begin as an independence movement. It began as a civil rights movement, and when those rights were granted, then reneged, independence went ahead full swing. It will be interesting to see if Hong Kong takes a similar path if the Chinese government obstructs too many rights. It also bears resemblance to Catalan in that Catalan’s movement began as simply wanting more autonomy rather than full independence. While Haiti likely has less in common with Brexit than the other common stories, an important lesson that we see being repeated is that the denial of a request can lead to the demand of full independence.

Simon Says, “Viva La Revolution!”

Haiti’s Revolutions were an important inspiration for those of Latin America, and our hero of this story, a Mr. Simon Bolivar, will lead Venezuela and other Latin countries to declare their independence from Spain and attempt to form new federal republic. That republic would be the republic of Gran Colombia. Simon Bolivar gave full credit to the first president of Haiti. He even said, “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Petion is the true liberator of my country?”

Before we dive into that though, let’s talk about the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela was a Spanish colony, not unlike the United States was to Britain just a few years before. Venezuela’s grievances with the Spain didn’t resemble the States’ quarrel with Britain. This article gives a great overview, but in short there’s a few reasons:

Spain wouldn’t allow its colonies to trade with any other country, and trade with Spain was fixed at prices favorable to Spain. Colonial traders would trade with other countries illegally, but even so, having to do something illegally doesn’t beget confidence or trust in your country’s leader.

Spain was also briefly overthrown by Napoleon in 1808 during the Napoleonic wars. I’ll talk more about this later, but put it in your back pocket for now.

Lastly, there was a weird social hierarchy comprised of a Jenga tower of racism. Spain had purged most minority classes from its borders by the early 17th century (with measures such as the Alhambra Decree) but the colonies had not. The colonies were comprised of imported slaves, native peoples, mixed race (broken down in 64ths), Creoles, and Peninsulares in ascending order of social status. Those last two in this case are both of spanish descent, but the former was born in a colony and latter in Spain (the Spanish “Peninsula”). Even weirder, the Spanish crown would actually “sell” whiteness to those hoping to improve their social position. This would repeal certain discriminatory laws that would have otherwise applied. This process was known as gracias al sacar.

All this plus the normal high taxes, mismanagement of the colony, and of course, nationalism.

That’s how Simon Bolivar found his home country when he returned from Europe in 1807. While in Europe he witnessed Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation and became inspired to liberate Venezuela from Spain and to promote liberal ideas (liberal at the time meaning voting rights, freedom of the market and press, etc). Independence had already been a growing movement since about 1800, and in 1806 Francisco De Miranda, a successful general in the French revolution, attacked the Spanish unsuccessfully. He evaded capture and ran for his life. Fun fact, Francisco also took Catherine the Great of Russia as a mistress. Interesting dude.

In 1808 Napoleon began the Peninsular War. This war would see Napoleon betray their Spanish allies and occupy Portugal and Spain, and in the process throw the Spanish king, Ferdinand the VII, in prison. As a result, Simon Bolivar was able to convince the loyalists to declare a provisional independence in 1810 – that is, they vowed their loyalty to King Ferdinand, who was in prison. Effectively, they declared independence from France – since there was no Spanish authority to declare independence from. This satisfied the loyalists who didn’t want to declare independence, but certainly didn’t feel loyal to France. That’s not a good long term strategy since it didn’t look like Ferdinand wasn’t coming back anytime soon, so full independence was declared in 1811. This was known as the first Venezuelan Republic (of more than one, so buckle up). Venezuela was the first Spanish colony to declare independence.

In this first iteration of their republic, slavery was outlawed. Envoys were sent to the United States and Britain. Simon Bolivar actually financed one of the missions to Britain, and in exchange he was, begrudgingly, allowed to come along. He was thought to be a bit young, naive, and hot headed, but Venezuela couldn’t finance the mission on their own, so that concession was made. On this trip, Bolivar ran into Francisco De Miranda and brought him back to Venezuela with him.

The first Venezuelan Republic was not long for this world. An earthquake destroyed the capital city of Caracas in 1812 killing more than 10,000 souls. Spanish priests were able to convince a superstitious population that this was retribution for the crime of declaring independence.  Rebellions broke out and militias allied with the remaining Spanish forces and a couple provinces who were never so fond of independence to begin with. Miranda fought them all to no avail. When Bolivar returned, he did so just in time to see his republic fall. Upset, he handed over Francisco De Miranda to the Spanish forces, who threw him in jail for the rest of his life.

Bolivar was forced into exile in New Granada (modern day Colombia) where an independence movement itself was growing. Bolivar took a post and by 1813, he’d removed most Spanish forces from the area. He led an army back into Venezuela retaking every city on the way in what became known as the Admirable Campaign.  Bolivar was named liberator and dictator of the Second Republic of Venezuela. Make no mistake, Bolivar certainly believed in republican ideals, but he increasingly believed that only he could secure them.

In 1813, the war got ugly. Bolivar issued his infamous, “War to the Death” decree. In essence, he ordered all Spaniards, even civilians, executed. The only way Spanish citizens could be saved were to join Bolivar’s fight for independence.

Around this time the “Legion of Hell,” basically mercenaries, joined the cause with the Spanish. The resulting war became so merciless that cities of thousands were reduced to dozens. Corpses rotted in the street. Not even infants were spared. Joseph Bonaparte was removed from the Spanish throne, and Ferdinand (remember him?) was reinstalled. Spain was able to send an additional 10,000 troops and retake Venezuela and New Granada. In addition, with Spain back under Spanish control, many colonists felt independence was wrong. They had only helped revolt because a French usurper was on the throne, but now that the rightful Spanish king was there? Spanish rule wasn’t what some where upset about. In 1814, Bolivar was again sent into exile, this time to Haiti, and the Second Venezuelan Republic came crashing down.

The war continued with little progress for the next 6 years. Bolivar would be able to secure some more vulnerable territory with the help of Haitian funding (funding only promised on the condition that slaves be liberated – a promise Bolivar upheld), but not his homeland of Venezuela. Then, he had an idea. An audacious idea. An idea only a madman would try to execute, but it had worked before. The Andes are a mountain range just north of Bogota, New Granada/Columbia. Bolivar had the idea to march his army through the Andes and recapture Bogota, not unlike Hannibal did to the Romans centuries ago. It worked, but at a heavy cost. I saw mixed numbers on exactly how many people Bolivar lost, but it was between 1,000 and 2,000. The Spanish were completely taken off guard, and terrified of Bolivar’s decree.

The battle of Boyata was the most decisive battle in Bolivar’s war for independence. Bolivar liberated New Granada. From here, the rest was easy. He quickly liberated Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1819 he formed a united state, Gran Colombia comprising Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada (Colombia):

Gran Colombia

Bolivar also sent an army to liberate Peru. The last of the Spanish forces were stationed there. The upper portion of Peru formed a separate state, Bolivia – named in honor of their liberator, and Bolivar was named  its president (even though he was already president of another nation, but you know, whatever).

Unfortunately, like his Republics, Gran Colombia was not long for this world. While Bolivar was off campaigning, each of the regional authorities began consolidating their power either trying to break away or raise their own leader to the office of president. Bolivar needed more power to stabilize the unruly republic and named himself dictator for life in 1828. This only fueled resentment, and eventually forced his resignation from power. In 1830, the Liberator died and with him his dream of a united federation. Gran Colombia dissolved that same year.

Bolivar’s legacy and death live on today as does the resulting strife in Latin America. Even today Bolivia is using his name and claiming that a Colombian political rival poisoned Bolivar,  and Venezuela’s government is on the brink of total collapse and civil war. Even with its problems, Latin America still exhibits more freedom than several parts of the world. The Economist rates Peru, Panama, and Ecuador between a 6-7 on its Democracy scale. The United States sits just below an 8.

What does Latin America’s experience mean for Brexit? It’s hard to say. Obviously the United Kingdom isn’t a colony of the EU, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels. Independence from EU is highly contested just like Latin America’s independence from Spain. This is often a recipe for civil strife – even if a civil war is unlikely. Even so, former prime minister David Cameron believes Brexit would in increase the odds of a European war. Likewise, nationalism was a factor in both Latin America and Britian’s independence movement. Civil strife is a common theme in independence movements. Even the United States went to war with itself less than 100 years after declaring independence. Unlike all of our stories today, Britain voted to leave in a manner deemed legal by all parties. It was a vote to leave, not a rebellion. Independence being declared often leads to war, it doesn’t have to, and luckily Britain is deciding how close to stay rather than how far to go.

Further Reading:
On the Crisis of the 3rd Century

On Simon Bolivar

On the Haitian Revolution