Juan Bautista Alberdi was one of the greatest social thinkers that Latin America produced in the nineteenth century. If we look at the Argentina and South America right after these countries gained independence from Spain from the 1820s, they faced a daunting task: How to build new nations from scratch.
Countries in the region were huge in size with little infrastructure and small populations. In the early nineteenth century, Argentina’s population was a mere 400,000 while Uruguay and Paraguay had an estimated 40,000 and 100,000, respectively. Even countries such as Brazil had underwhelming populations: in 1800 it was estimated to be 3.35 million versus 300,000 in 1700. In the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada (Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela), population estimates for 1750 show that there lived 350,000 Peninsulares (native Spaniards) compared with 600,000 native Americans in 1650.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards in greater numbers from the sixteenth century, the indigenous population was estimated in the Americas to be between 80 million and 100 million, according to some estimates.
Looking at Argentina from the mid-nineteenth century, Alberdi understood that the country would never realize its potential with a small population. According to him, Argentina would never become a developed and prosperous nation as long as it had a population of one million (by 1869 it had grown to 1.527 million) in a country that could comfortably house 50 million people.
While immigration played a more prominent role in forging the populations of countries such as Argentina as opposed to Colombia, it radically changed the demographic make up. By 1914, Argentina’s population had grown to 5.527 million, or 30.3% of the population (49.4% in Buenos Aires!) thanks to immigration.
Look at these percentages and compare it with Finland’s 2.7% foreign population. Some Finns are already sounding the alarms bells because of such a single-digit percentage!
Apart from the demographic impact, European immigration changed the country socially, politically and economically. It had an adverse impact on the country’s Amerindian population. The good news, however, is that such a high percentage of immigrants did not end up at each others throats as was the case in the former Yugoslavia.
Alberdi and Finland
As Finnish policy makers and politicians plan how many immigrants Finland must have to maintain our standard of living and social welfare state, they should read statesmen such as Alberdi, study Finnish and general immigration history to grasp what immigration means instead of falling into the defensive and fearing what it implies to our country.
Alberdi’s greatest work was Bases, which looked at the different constitutions in the region and which ones Argentina should not imitate. His main argument was that those constitutions that placed limits on immigration and nationality were examples that Argentina should not imitate. Taking into account the nationalism and highly exclusive nature of Finland’s constitution of 1919 up to 1999, Alberdi would have surely criticized it because it discouraged immigration on all levels and made citizenship exclusive.
The big question: If Finnish society and history have reinforced nationalism as a nation-building process by excluding others, how is Finland going to be receptive to new members of society?
The above question, in my opinion, is the biggest unanswered challenge facing Finland. We are not ready and too few understand what immigration is and how our society could benefit and correct some of the challenges it imposes.
A good pessimistic example comes from a recent seminar I attended with Finnsh-language teachers who work with refugees and immigrants. After scraping through the “we-believe-Finland-will-win-with-newcomers” phase of our conversation, one of the teachers said in a defensive tone: “We don’t have to change even if more immigrants come to Finland.”
What this statement reveals is not only ignorance what immigration implies but a deep fear that some Finns have. They believe that all they have to do is to bring labor immigrants and continue with their lives as if nothing has happened. Finns don’t have to change because immigrants will be assimilated into our culture.
One could ask how prevalent this feeling is among our policy makers, politicians and population. If that is what the majority feels, immigration will fail miserably in this country.
The saddest fact is that we do not understand why it even failed before it began. on a bigger scale.