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History of Latin America

The term Latin America refers to the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in the Americas.

Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the region was home to many indigenous people, many of which had advanced civilizations, most notably, the Aztec, Inca and Maya.

A 17th-century map of the Americas

In the early nineteenth century nearly all of the region attained its independence, giving rise to new countries, although a few, small colonies remain.

In the colonial era most of the immigration comprised Spanish and Portuguese settlers, as well as some settlers and overseers from France and the Netherlands. Large numbers of black African slaves were imported. Most were purchased by the sugar plantations in the West Indies, where life expectancy was very short, or plantations in Brazil, which was much healthier. A large scale immigration took place from the 1840s to 1914, chiefly to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Chile. Most of the new immigrants came from Italy, Spain, Britain, and Germany; some Japanese and Chinese immigrants also arrived.


  • Origin of the term and definition 1
  • The Pre-Columbian period 2
  • Colonialism 3
  • Religion in colonial times 4
    • Traveling to the New World 4.1
  • Religion in Latin America 5
  • Nineteenth-century revolutions: the postcolonial era 6
  • 20th century 7
    • 1900–1920 7.1
    • 1930–1960 7.2
    • Late 20th century military regimes and revolutions 7.3
    • Washington Consensus 7.4
    • Turn to the left 7.5
  • See also 8
    • Pre-Columbian 8.1
    • Colonization 8.2
    • History by region 8.3
    • History by country 8.4
    • Other topics 8.5
  • Notes 9
  • Bibliography 10

Origin of the term and definition

The idea that a part of the Americas has a cultural or racial affinity with all Romance cultures can be traced back to the 1830s, in particular in the writing of the French Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, who postulated that this part of the Americas were inhabited by people of a "Latin race," and that it could, therefore, ally itself with "Latin Europe" in a struggle with "Teutonic Europe," "Anglo-Saxon America" and "Slavic Europe."[1] The idea was later taken up by Latin American intellectuals and political leaders of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, who no longer looked to Spain or Portugal as cultural models, but rather to France.[2] The actual term "Latin America" was coined in France under Napoleon III and played a role in his campaign to imply cultural kinship with France, transform France into a cultural and political leader of the area and install Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.[3]

In the mid-twentieth century, especially in the United States, there was a trend to occasionally classify all of the territory south of the United States as "Latin America," especially when the discussion focused on its contemporary political and economic relations to the rest of the world, rather than solely on its cultural aspects.[4] Concurrently, there has been a move to avoid this oversimplification by talking about "Latin America and the Caribbean," as in the United Nations geoscheme.

Since, the concept and definitions of Latin American are very modern, going back only to the nineteenth century, it is anachronistic to talk about "a history of Latin America" before the arrival of the Europeans. Nevertheless, the many and varied cultures that did exist in the pre-Columbian period had a strong and direct influence on the societies that emerged as a result of the conquest, and therefore, they cannot be overlooked. They are introduced in the next section.

The Pre-Columbian period

What is now Latin America has been populated for several millennia, possibly for as long as 30,000 years. There are many models of migration to the New World. Precise dating of many of the early civilizations is difficult because there are few text sources. However, highly developed civilizations flourished at various times and places, such as in the Andes and Mesoamerica.


Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492. Subsequently, the major sea powers in Europe sent expeditions to the New World to build trade networks and colonies and to convert the native peoples to Christianity. Spain concentrated on building its empire on the central and southern parts of the Americas allotted to it by the Treaty of Tordesillas, because of presence of large, settled societies like the Aztec, the Inca, the Maya and the Chibcha, whose human and material resources it could exploit, and large concentrations of silver and gold. The Portuguese built their empire in Brazil, which fell in their sphere of influence owing to the Treaty of Tordesillas, by developing the land for sugar production since there was a lack of a large, complex society or mineral resources.

During the colonization of Latin America, most of the native population was destroyed, either by war or by disease brought from across the ocean. Smallpox was just one of many diseases brought by the conquistadors that killed off the population.

Because the Spanish were now in power, native culture and religion were forbidden. The Spanish even went as far as burning the Maya Codices (like books). These codices contained information about astrology, religion, Gods, and rituals. There are four codices known to exist today; these are the Dresden Codex, Paris Codex, Madrid Codex, and Grolier Codex.[5]

Religion in colonial times

Traveling to the New World

Europeans and more specifically the Spanish Crown had a deep interest in regulating the flow of individuals in and out of Latin America. Leo J. Garofalo, Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College, states that "an examination of records [reveals] ... the Spanish Crown's attempt to regulate the flow of people to the Americas."[6] The ability to strictly regulate the flow of people allowed the Spanish Crown to keep a firm grip on power in the Americas. While the Spanish Crown attempted to regulate the flow of all individuals into the Americas they focused specifically on insuring only true Christians were granted access. In colonial times politics and law were closely intertwined meaning that if individuals did not follow the same religion and thus, the same values and morals, governance could become difficult. Therefore, the Spanish Crown was rigorous in their attempts to allow only Christians passage to the New World and required proof of religion by way of personal testimonies. Specific examples of individuals dealing with the Crown allow for an understanding of how religion affected passage into the New World.

Francisca de Figueroa, an African-Iberian woman seeking entrance into the Americas, petitioned the Spanish Crown in 1600 in order to gain a license to sail to Cartagena.[7] On her behalf she had a witness attest to her religious purity, Elvira de Medina wrote, "this witness knows that she and parents and her grandparents have been and are Old Christians and of unsullied cast and lineage. They are not of Moorish or Jewish caste or of those recently converted to Our Holy Catholic Faith."[8] Despite Francisca's race, she was allowed entrance into the Americas in 1601 when a 'Decree from His Majesty' was presented, it read, "My presidents and official judges of the Case de Contraction of Seville. I order you to allow passage to the Province of Cartagena for Francisca de Figueroa ..."[9] This example points to the importance of religion when attempting to travel to the Americas during colonial times. Individuals had to work within the guidelines of Christianity in order to appeal to the Crown and be granted access to travel.

=Religion in Latin America

Once in the New World religion was still a prevalent issue which had to be considered in everyday life. Many of the laws were based in religious beliefs and traditions and often these laws clashed with the many other cultures throughout colonial Latin America. One of the central clashes was between African and Iberian cultures; this difference in culture resulted in the aggressive prosecution of witches, both African and Iberian, throughout Latin America. According to European tradition "[a] witch – a bruja – was thought to reject God and the sacraments and instead worship the devil and observe the witches' Sabbath."[10] This rejection of God was seen as an abomination and was not tolerated by the authorities either in Spain nor Latin America. A specific example, the trial of Paula de Eguiluz, shows how an appeal to Christianity can help to lessen punishment even in the case of a witch trial.

Paula de Eguiluz was a woman of African descent who was born in Santo Domingo and grew up as a slave, sometime in her youth she learned the trade of witches and was publicly known to be a sorceress. "In 1623, Paula was accused of [12] The appeals to Christianity and profession of faith allowed Paula to return to her previous life as a slave with minimal punishment. The Spanish Crown placed a high importance on the preservation of Christianity in Latin America, this preservation of Christianity allowed colonialism to rule Latin America for over three hundred years.

Nineteenth-century revolutions: the postcolonial era

Countries in Latin America by date of independence

Following the model of the U.S. and French revolutions, most of Latin America achieved its independence by 1825. Independence destroyed the old common market that existed under the Spanish Empire after the Bourbon Reforms and created an increased dependence on the financial investment provided by nations which had already begun to industrialize; therefore, Western European powers, in particular Great Britain and France, and the United States began to play major roles, since the region became economically dependent on these nations. Independence also created a new, self-consciously "Latin American" ruling class and intelligentsia which at times avoided Spanish and Portuguese models in their quest to reshape their societies. This elite looked towards other Catholic European models—in particular France—for a new Latin American culture, but did not seek input from indigenous peoples.

The failed efforts in Spanish America to keep together most of the initial large states that emerged from independence— Gran Colombia, the Federal Republic of Central America[13] and the United Provinces of South America—resulted a number of domestic and interstate conflicts, which plagued the new countries. Brazil, in contrast to its Hispanic neighbors, remained a united monarchy and avoided the problem of civil and interstate wars. Domestic wars were often fights between federalists and centrists who ended up asserted themselves through the military repression of their opponents at the expense of civilian political life. The new nations inherited the cultural diversity of the colonial era and strived to create a new identity based around the shared European (Spanish or Portuguese) language and culture.

For the next few decades there was a long process to create a sense of nationality. Most of the new national borders were created around the often centuries-old audiencia jurisdictions or the Bourbon intendancies, which had become areas of political identity. In many areas the borders were unstable, since the new states fought wars with each other to gain access to resources, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. The more important conflicts were the Paraguayan War (1864–70; also known as the War of the Triple Alliance) and the War of the Pacific (1879–84). The Paraguayan War pitted Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay, which was utterly defeated. As a result, Paraguay suffered a demographic collapse: the population went from an estimated 525,000 persons in 1864 to 221,000 in 1871 and out of this last population, only around 28,000 were men. In the War of the Pacific, Chile defeated the combined forces of Bolivia and Peru. Chile gained control of saltpeter-rich areas, previously controlled by Peru and Bolivia, and Bolivia became a land-locked nation. By mid-century the region also confronted a growing United States, seeking to expand on the North American continent and extend its influence in the hemisphere. In Mexican–American War (1846–48), Mexico lost over half of its territory to the United States. In the 1860s France attempted to indirectly control Mexico. In South America, Brazil consolidated its control of large swaths of the Amazon Basin at the expense of its neighbors. In the 1880s the United States implemented an aggressive policy to defend and expand its political and economic interests in all of Latin America, which culminated in the creation of the Pan-American Conference, the successful completion of the Panama Canal and the United States intervention in the final Cuban war of independence.

The export of natural resources provided the basis of most Latin American economies in the nineteenth century, which allowed for the development of wealthy elite. The restructuring of colonial economic and political realities resulted in a sizable gap between rich and poor, with landed elites controlling the vast majority of land and resources. In Brazil, for instance, by 1910 85% of the land belonged to 1% of the population. Gold mining and fruit growing, in particular, were monopolized by these wealthy landowners. These "Great Owners" completely controlled local activity and, furthermore, were the principal employers and the main source of wages. This led to a society of peasants whose connection to larger political realities remained in thrall to farming and mining magnates.

The endemic political instability and the nature of the economy resulted in the emergence of caudillos, military chiefs whose hold on power depended on their military skill and ability to dispense patronage. The political regimes were at least in theory democratic and took the form of either presidential or parliamentary governments. Both were prone to being taken over by a caudillo or an oligarchy. The political landscape was occupied by conservatives, who believed that the preservation of the old social hierarchies served as the best guarantee of national stability and prosperity, and liberals, who sought to bring about progress by freeing up the economy and individual initiative. Popular insurrections were often influential and repressed: 100,000 were killed during the suppression of a Colombian revolt between 1899 and 1902 during the Thousand Days' War. Some states did manage to have some of democracy: Uruguay, and partially Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia. The others were clearly oligarchist or authoritarian, although these oligarchs and caudillos sometimes enjoyed support from a majority in the population. All of these regimes sought to maintain Latin America's lucrative position in the world economy as a provider of raw materials.

20th century


By the start of the century, the United States continued its interventionist attitude, which aimed to directly defend its interests in the region. This was officially articulated in Theodore Roosevelt's Big Stick Doctrine, which modified the old Monroe Doctrine, which had simply aimed to deter European intervention in the hemisphere. At the conclusion of the Spanish–American War the new government of Cuba and the United States signed the Platt Amendment in 1902, which authorized the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs when the United States deemed necessary. In Colombia, United States sought the concession of a territory in Panama to build a much anticipated canal across the isthmus. The Colombian government opposed this, but a Panamanian insurrection provided the United States with an opportunity. The United States backed Panamanian independence and the new nation granted the concession. These were not the only interventions carried out in the region by the United States. In the first decades of the twentieth century, there were several military incursions into Central America and the Caribbean, mostly in defense of commercial interests, which became known as the "Banana Wars."

The greatest political upheaval in the second decade of the century took place in Mexico. In 1908, President Álvaro Obregón,. The Mexican Constitution of 1917, still the current constitution, was proclaimed but initially little enforced. The efforts against the other revolutionary leaders continued. Zapata was assassinated on April 10, 1919. Carranza himself was assassinated on May 15, 1920, leaving Obregón in power, who was officially elected president later that year. Finally in 1923 Villa was also assassinated. With the removal of the main rivals Obregón is able to consolidate power and relative peace returned to Mexico. Under the Constitution a liberal government is implemented but some of the aspirations of the working and rural classes remained unfulfilled. (See also, Agrarian land reform in Mexico.)


The Great Depression posed a great challenge to the region. The collapse of the world economy meant that the demand for raw materials drastically declined, undermining many of the economies of Latin America. Intellectuals and government leaders in Latin America turned their backs on the older economic policies and turned toward import substitution industrialization. The goal was to create self-sufficient economies, which would have their own industrial sectors and large middle classes and which would be immune to the ups and downs of the global economy. Despite the potential threats to United States commercial interests, the Roosevelt administration (1933–1945) understood that the United States could not wholly oppose import substitution. Roosevelt implemented a Good Neighbor policy and allowed the nationalization of some American companies in Latin America. Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized American oil companies, out of which he created Pemex. Cárdenas also oversaw the redistribution of a quantity of land, fulfilling the hopes of many since the start of the Mexican Revolution. The Platt Amendment was also repealed, freeing Cuba from legal and official interference of the United States in its politics. The Second World War also brought the United States and most Latin American nations together.

In the postwar period, the expansion of communism became the greatest political issue for both the United States and governments in the region. The start of the Cold War forced governments to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union. Following the 1948 Costa Rica Civil War, the nation established a new constitution and was recognized as the first legitimate democracy in Latin America[14] However, the new Costa Rican government, which now was constitutionally required to ban the presence of a standing military, did not seek regional influence and was distracted further by conflicts with neighboring Nicaragua.

Several socialist and communist insurgencies broke out in Latin America throughout the entire twentieth century, but the most successful one was in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution was led by Fidel Castro against the regime of Fulgencio Batista, who since 1933 was the principal autocrat in Cuba. Since the 1860s the Cuban economy had focused on the cultivation of sugar, of which 82% was sold in the American market by the twentieth century. Despite the repeal of the Platt Amendment, the United States still had considerable influence in Cuba, both in politics and in everyday life. In fact Cuba had a reputation of being the "brothel of the United States," a place where Americans could find all sorts of licit and illicit pleasures, provided they had the cash. Despite having the socially advanced constitution of 1940, Cuba was plagued with corruption and the interruption of constitutional rule by autocrats like Batista. Batista began his final turn as the head of the government in a 1952 coup. The coalition that formed under the revolutionaries hoped to restore the constitution, reestablish a democratic state and free Cuba from the American influence. The revolutionaries succeeded in toppling Batista on January 1, 1959. Castro, who initially declared himself as a non-socialist, initiated a program of agrarian reforms and nationalizations in May 1959, which alienated the Eisenhower administration (1953–61) and resulted in the United States breaking of diplomatic relations, freezing Cuban assets in the United States and placing an embargo on the nation in 1960. The Kennedy administration (1961–1963) authorized the funding and support of an invasion of Cuba by exiles. The invasion failed and radicalized the revolutionary government's position. Cuba officially proclaimed itself socialist and openly became an ally of the Soviet Union. The military collaboration between Cuba and the Soviet Union, which included the placement of intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Late 20th century military regimes and revolutions

By the 1970s, leftists had acquired a significant political influence which prompted the right-wing, ecclesiastical authorities and a large portion of each individual country's upper class to support coups d'état to avoid what they perceived as a communist threat. This was further fueled by Cuban and United States intervention which led to a political polarization. Most South American countries were in some periods ruled by military dictatorships that were supported by the United States of America.

Around the 1970s, the regimes of the Southern Cone collaborated in Operation Condor killing many leftist dissidents, including some urban guerrillas.[15] However, by the early 90's all countries had restored their democracies.

Washington Consensus

The set of specific economic policy prescriptions that were considered the "standard" reform package were promoted for crisis-wracked developing countries by Washington, DC-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the US Treasury Department during the 1980s and '90s.

In recent years, several Latin American countries led by socialist or other left wing governments—including Argentina and Venezuela—have campaigned for (and to some degree adopted) policies contrary to the Washington Consensus set of policies. (Other Latin counties with governments of the left, including Brazil, Chile and Peru, have in practice adopted the bulk of the policies). Also critical of the policies as actually promoted by the International Monetary Fund have been some US economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik, who have challenged what are sometimes described as the "fundamentalist" policies of the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury for what Stiglitz calls a "one size fits all" treatment of individual economies. The term has become associated with neoliberal policies in general and drawn into the broader debate over the expanding role of the free market, constraints upon the state, and US influence on other countries' national sovereignty.

Turn to the left

Left-leaning leaders of Bolivia, Brazil and Chile at the Union of South American Nations summit in 2008

Since the 2000s, or 1990s in some countries, left-wing political parties have risen to power. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica in Uruguay, the Lagos and Bachelet governments in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras (although deposed by the 28 June 2009 coup d'état), and Rafael Correa of Ecuador are all part of this wave of left-wing politicians who also often declare themselves socialists, Latin Americanists or anti-imperialists.

See also



British colonization of the Americas, Danish colonization of the Americas, Dutch colonization of the Americas, New Netherland, French New France, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, New Spain, Conquistador, Spanish conquest of Yucatán, Spanish conquest of Mexico, Spanish missions in California, Swedish

History by region

History by country

Other topics


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  3. ^  
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  9. ^ McKnight, Afro-Latino Voices p 64.
  10. ^ McKnight, Afro-Latino Voices p 176.
  11. ^ McKnight, Afro-Latino Voices p 175.
  12. ^ McKnight, Afro-Latino Voices p 193.
  13. ^ Christopher Minster (2007). "The Federal Republic of Central America (1823-1840)".  
  14. ^ Mainwaring, Scott; Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal (December 2008). "Regime legacies and democratization: explaining variance in the level of democracy in Latin America, 1978-2004." (PDF). Kellogg Institute. 
  15. ^ Victor Flores Olea. "Editoriales – El Universal – 10 de abril 2006 : Operacion Condor" (in Spanish).  


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