History


We flew from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last weekend and one of the reasons we haven’t posted anything since then is that it’s been a rough transition.  The total travel time was over 12 hours, with almost 11 hours on planes, and we gained two hours and six months.  Well, we didn’t gain six months, but by crossing the equator we went from late spring in Mexico City, with temperatures in the nineties and over 13 hours of sunlight per day, to late fall in Buenos Aires, with temperatures yo-yoing between the high fifties to low seventies, and only 10 hours of sunlight per day.  Add in a terrible landlady, pressure from Amy applying for and interviewing for a job in Oregon, and it’s been a tiring time.

Things are getting better, though.  By Thursday, Amy got the job, we had a great (but not the best ever) steak in celebration, and it turns out this is a huge holiday weekend here.  All the signs here proclaim that it’s the bicentennial that’s being celebrated, and the events began last night and culminate on May 25, so you’d think that means it’s their Independence Day, but it isn’t.  This marks the events of “May Week” when in 1810 the local viceroy in Buenos Aires was booted out of office and a local government formed (according to Wikipedia).  It wasn’t until July 8, 1816, that national independence was actually declared, so that’s the official Independence Day.  So, this is the bicentennial celebration of  . . . something.  Although this seems to be a national holiday, it might be celebrated more here than elsewhere in the country, in that it commemorates the first local government in Buenos Aires.  Get it?  Yeah, me neither.

We saw part of a military parade, and many of the participants had on old-style uniforms that made it look like a live-action Stratego game.  Celebrations will continue for days, but in our wandering today we never came across food vendors.  I’m sure they’re out there somewhere but I can’t imagine a regular Independence Day celebration in the States, let alone a really big one, that didn’t include more food options than a person could go through in a month.

Some of you may think we recently experienced Mexican Independence Day on May 5 but Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico.  In fact, it’s not a national holiday at all but just a state holiday in Puebla, and which is partially observed elsewhere.  The day commemorates the Battle of Puebla, an impressive victory of the outnumbered Mexican army over the invading French in 1862.  The problem is the French went on to win the war and control Mexico for 3 years, so the Battle of Puebla ended up not making much of a difference in the arc of history, though the battle became a source of justifiable pride for Mexico.  The real Mexican Independence Day will come this September 16, and will mark Mexico’s bicentennial, too.  Several other Latin American countries also declared their independence in 1810, though it took years of fighting in each case to actually break free from the crumbling Spanish Empire.  1810 was not a good year for Spain.

The thing I just can’t wrap my head around is meeting all these nice Montenegrins, Croatians, and Bosnians, and picturing them all trying to kill each other less than two decades ago.

Yugoslavia was created as a kingdom after World War I, then again under the rule of Marshall Tito after World War II, and therein lies the problem: the country was a creation. Yugoslavia means “land of the south Slavs” and most of the people in the country did at least have their Slavic origins in common and most spoke a common language, Serbo-Croatian, but they had different ethnicities.

It gets complicated quickly. There were six republics in Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. But Tito and Yugoslavia also officially recognized nations, such as the Croatian nation and the Serbian nation. The republics had borders that could be drawn on a map, but the nations represented an ethnic identity. Most Slovenes live in Slovenia, most Croatians live in Croatia, etc., but there were Serbs in Croatia, or Croatians living in Bosnia, and so on. There was no Bosnian ethnicity or nation, but the Republic of Bosnia was home to Croats, Serbs, and Muslims (who were officially given the status of being a nation by Yugoslavia in the ‘60’s).

There were more people who identified themselves as Serbian than any other nationality in Yugoslavia, so Tito came up with a system of checks and balances to keep everyone under federal control, or at least keep them from killing each other. Most of the republics were given a fair amount of autonomy, but not Serbia, since it was potentially so powerful. To ensure the Serbs didn’t get their noses out of joint, he then gave most of the administrative jobs in the other republics to ethnic Serbs.

Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, and people in former communist states in Europe began to feel a strong sense of nationalism. This new sense of nationalism resulted in republics like Slovenia and Croatia declareing themselves independent from Yugoslavia. After a short 10 day war, Slovenia was allowed to leave Yugoslavia, but not Croatia. The difference was there were quite a few Serbs living in Croatia, many clustered in Serbian-majority towns and regions, and the Republic of Serbia wouldn’t let them go.
Almost everyone in Slovenia was ethnically Slovenian.

Once Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, Serbia, led by the completely amoral and opportunistic Slobodan Milosovic, helped ensure the Yugoslavian army would be used to attempt to keep Croatia as part of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Once Slovenia was allowed to leave, however, it became clear it was really at heart a war between Croats and Serbians, with everyone else caught in the middle.

Bosnia was in the worst situation. Physically located between Croatia and Serbia, with a mixed population of Croatians, Serbians and Muslims, it had three choices, none of which were good: declare their own independence (which Serbia would reject since they wanted to keep all Serbs together and have as large of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia as possible); stay in a rump Yugoslavia ruled by an unfettered Serbia (which the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia were loathe to accept); or allow itself to be split in two and annexed into Croatia and Serbia (which was intolerable to the Muslims or those still hoping for a Yugoslav state).

Throw in tensions from ethnic Albanians living in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, memories of fighting between Croats and Serbs during World War II, and countless other factors, and war was almost inevitable once the strong hand of the communist rulers was removed. The resulting war (or wars, depending on how you see it) devastated cities and regions. Atrocities were committed on all sides, although there have been far more war crimes indictments against Serbs.

Again, the people we met were all so friendly but it must be difficult to live with the daily reminders of the war. In Mostar and Sarajevo, for example, some buildings still show the pockmarks from bullets, and some are just burned out shells. In cemeteries, there are many headstones showing men who died in 1991 to 1993 at around age 20, and I realized that I was born the same year as many of these men. Seeing all this made us realize we didn’t know as much about the war as we should and we’ve been reading Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It’s not always an easy read but it is informative.

This afternoon, I said “Hello” to Gerry Adams, and he said “Hello” back. I was walking down Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork City Centre when I passed him and a group of his cohorts, one of whom stuck a No on the Lisbon Treaty pamphlet in my hands (for you Americans, we’ll be posting something about the Treaty soon. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it is actually pretty important, I think). So who is Gerry Adams, many of you Americans are asking? Well, if you’ve watched the evening news more than a few times in the last few decades, you’ve probably seen his face (do a google image search for him and you’ll see).

Adams is the President of Sinn Féin (pronounced Shin Fane), a political party in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To really understand Sinn Féin, you need at least a little understanding of Irish history, so here’s my own “Irish History for Dummies,” or, in this case, for clueless Americans. In as short a space as possible, I’ll give you the highlights of Irish political history from the Norman invasion up to and including the Irish Civil War. In the next few days, I’ll bring the history up to the present day. To any Irish readers, I’m sorry for any errors and for skipping over such interesting characters as Wolfe Tone, and to any English readers, I’m sorry you look like right bastards whenever you’re mentioned in Irish history.

The Normans invaded Ireland from England in 1169 when the deposed King of Leinster (a region of Ireland) asked for help from the Norman English monarch, Henry II, in regaining his throne. To make a very long story very short, the English never left, and centuries of English domination of Ireland followed, with the Irish occasionally rebelling against the foreign occupation. English monarchs encouraged English settlements, but this began before there was such a thing as Protestantism, so at first, at least, the settlements were more of a political tool to control Ireland and less of a religious weapon against Catholicism.

Although there were periodic armed revolts against the British, there were also political movements which achieved various levels of success in gaining the rights of Irish Catholics. Sinn Féin, which means “ourselves” or “ourselves alone,” began as a political party in the early twentieth century (although the term is much older), and while it had nothing to do with the Easter Uprising of 1916, Éamon de Valera (who did participate in the uprising) would subsequently take over the party and lead it to win the majority of Irish seats to the United Kingdom Parliament in a 1918 election. Instead of going to England to sit in Parliament, however, many of the newly elected Irish Ministers of Parliament went to Dublin and formed an Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, which declared Ireland independent.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the rebel armed force that won the Irish War of Independence in 1921. The British negotiated a treaty that created the Irish Free State, which would remain a part of the Commonwealth. One of the conditions of the treaty, though, was that six counties in the northern part of Ireland, where there was a higher percentage of Protestants, could opt out of joining the Free State and instead remain as part of the United Kingdom, which they did.

Civil war followed as Irish opinion split, some believing that independence for much of the island was worth temporarily giving up the North (which was expected by some, at least, to eventually join the South), while others couldn’t accept a divided Ireland. People on both sides of the conflict continued to call themselves the Irish Republican Army. Eventually, those arguing for accepting the treaty and the division won.