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National Histories: Latin America

Latin American history
Figure 1.--Since independence in the early 19th century, the military has played a major role in Latin American history. The military has generally allied with conservative forces, including the church and landowners. The military in seeveral countries fought an insurgency against Communist terrorist groups (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay). The brutal measures used by the military is now a subject of considerable concern in these and other coutries. Often not considered is what would have happened if the Communists had succeeded. Since the return to civilian government in the 1980s-90s, the military has generally refrained from political involvement.

South and Central America were the home of the great Native American civilizations. The isolation of the Americas probably explains the failure of Native American civilization to make the transition to the Bronze Age. Despite their impressive achievements, they were stone-age peolples and easily overcome by the Conqistadores. Many Native American tribes were wiped out by the Conquistadores. European diseases to which isolated Native Americans had no immunity played a key role in the fall of their principal civilizations. The region developed as Portuguese and Spanish colonies in which the surviving Native American peoples were Christinized and exploited economically. Modern South Americans are an ethnic mix of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans imported as slaves to replace decimated Native American populations. The ethnic mix varies from country to country. None of the countries in the region have achieved the success of either Europe and North America. Argentina came the closest, but faltered. Today Brazil is making considerable progress. The key question in studying the history of the region is why have these countries have not developed economically and socially so that they can provide their people a decent standard of living. Many Latin Americans influenced by Marxist thought blame the United State and to a lesser extent European economic exploitation. Such conclusions are not based on any real economic analysis, but rather a muddled mix of ideologically-nationalist kant, often effectively used by populist politicans. There is a general reluctance among academics and politicans in the region to more deeply investigate the region's economic failure. Regional annalysts not only fail to assess the reason for the disparity between North and Soith America, but why many poor Asian countries in the post-World War II era are making the transition to modern economies while Latin America is not. Here are the national histories we have compiled on South American countries.

Native Americans

Native American civilizations are difficult to arrange chronologically. The best known civilizations (Maya, Aztec, and Inca) are contemporaneous with Medieval Europe. There are civilizations that were ancient at the time these and other civilizations flourished. Teoteauacan was an ancient ruin at the time of the Aztec. While the chronology of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca are fairly well developed, the dating of the early civilizations and the early history of human settlement of the Americas is a matter of some controversy. The Native Americans civilizations of the New World are unique in that they developed in isolation from the other great world civilizations. Some of the great Old World civilizations had extensive contacts. Others had only minimal contact, but contact nevertheless. The contact with the Europeans beginning in 1492 was in many ways to Native Americans like visitors from outer space would seem to our modern world. [West]

Age of Discovery

The Native American civilizations were brought into contact with Europe beginning in the late 15th century by the European explorerors. Christopher Columbus was the first in 1492. The initial impetus was trade with the Spice Islands and China, but as ruors of a famulous cities of gold circulated in Europe, gold became an increasing allure. While there was no El Dorado, Conquistadores found civilizations with great quantities of the precuous metal.The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world.

The Conquest

The voyages of Columbus and the other European Voyages of Discovery had profound consequences for both Europe and the world. Following on Columbus' voyages, Spain rapidly beagan estalishing colonies. At first Columbus and the Spanish did not realize that they had chanced upon an entirely new continent--the Americas. They thought it ws India and thus called it the Indies and the Caribbean Islands have become known to us as the West Indies. Spanish colonization was at first in the Caribbean and extrodinarily brutal. The native Americans on the islands were for the most part exterminated. Next the Spanish looked to the mainland where rumors described natin American civilizations of vast wealth. This led to Diego Cortez's Conquest of Mexico. Balboa had earlier found the Pacific across the Istmus of Panama. This led to Hernando Pizarro's Conquest of Peru. The gold and silver flowing from the Americas made Spain a European super-power and financed the Great Armada. The most significantimpact of the conquests, however, may well have been the introduction of the humble potato to Europe fom Peru and corn from Mesoamerica.

European Colonial Empires

The two major European colonial empires in the Americas were the empires founded by Portugal and Spain. Latin America was the heart of the colonial empire of both of these companies. For Portugal it was just one colony--Brazl. The Portuguese led the Europeann outreach with voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The primary interest at this time was to establish outposts for trade and to provide secure ports to support voyages further south. Portugal was, however, a small country and thus found it difficult to compee with the larger Europdan powers as well as the Dutch, another small country, who for a time threated Portugese cntrol of Brazil. . The Spnish Empire was divided among several wide spread colonies extending from Tierra del Fuego north to what is now California and with desires to reach further north. The other European maitime powers (England, France, and the Netherlands) lso founded colonies, but they were minor parts of their colonial empires, espcially after the French failed in Mexici and the Dutch failed in Brazil. One country that was not aajor power (Denmark) possed afew Cariiban islands. The nature of the Portuguese and Spanish Catjlic empires were very different than the Protestant English empire in North America. The French at one time posssessed Hiti whivh ws incredibly valuable and vast swaths of North America. Unlike theEnglish, howeer, few French people wanted to eave France. A key factor here was the French suprssion of the Hugnoughts and the refusal to allow them to populate their North American possessions.

Latin American Wars of Independence

Latin America when the French Revolution erupted in Europe was largely controlled by Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese colony was Brazil with a capital at Rio de Janeiro. Brazil included much of eastern South America and the amazonian Basin. Spain controlled the rest of South America, Central America, Mexico, and a few Caribbean islands. Spanish South America was divided into the three Viceroyalties of New Grenada (Bogot´┐Ż), of Lima and of Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires). Spain restricted power in its colonies to a small European born elite, not trusting the criollos, people of European ncestry born in the colonies. The growing number of locally born colonists who had acquired wealth as important landowners and merchants resented the inferior status assigned to them as "criollos". They wanted a share in the governing of the colonies. Unlike English North America, there were no colonial legislstures in Latin America. The mother country also severly restricted economic activity. The colonies were only permitted to trade with the mother countries. And both exports and imports were taxed. The Enlightenment provided a challenge to the legitimacy of monarchies. The American Revolution (1775) and French Revolution (1789) showed agrieved Latin American criollos that change was possible. And than the Napoleonic Wars weakend both Portugal and Spain, giving Latin American criollos the oportunity to seize theur independence, especially when French armies crossed the Pyranees to invade Spain and Portugal. Napoleon deposed the Bourbon monarch in Spain and the Portugese court fled to Brazil. The result was a two decade struggle involving many fronts on which opposing armies fought on some of the most difficult terraine imaginable.

Individual National Histories

Latin America is an imprecise term, but it is the best term available to define the countries south of the Rio Grande. It of course relates to the fact that the primary colonial countries in Central and South A were the Iberian countries--Portugal and Spain. It is here that the Latin linuistic heritage was most pronounced, but perhaps not the Latin cultural heritage. These two countries were not the only colonial powers in the region. There were British Danish, Dutch, and French colonies in Central and South America and more importantly the Caribbean. Even so it is the Portuguese and Spanish colonies that dominate the region and the region's tumultuous history. And of course that heritage outside the Caribbean is a blend of the colonial and existing Native American heritage. Here the colonial power and importance of Native Americans vay from country to country and furthur diversity resulted from immigration. The Caribbean and Brzil is different from much of the rest of the region in that here the Native Americans were largely eliminated and replacec through the slave trade by captive Africans.

Latin American Wars

The first major war in Latin America was the Wars for Independence. These were a series of wars fought in primarily South America and Mexico in the early 19th century. They were made possible as a result of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe which weakened Spain. Several wars were fought in South America during the 19th century. The bloodiest was the War of the Tripple Alliance, between Paraguay and an alliance of its neighbors (Argentin, Brazil, and Uruguay). Another major war was the War of the Pacific involving Chile which fought agains Bolivia and Peru. Several wars were fought in Mexico. These involved the war against the United States (1846-48) anf Frane (1864-68). The Mexican Revolution evolved in a series of military campaigns.

Latin America and North America

One overiding question emerges when studying Latin American history. Why did Portuguese and Spanish Latin America developed so differently than English North America? The United States and Canada are two of the most successful countries in the world when measured in terms of providing its people a decent standard of living. Latin American countries include many failed nations with large numbers of people eeking out limited existences. Large number of Latin America have migrated north to seek jobs in the United States. The question is why have Latin Americans not made the transition to modern industrial socities as have North Americans, Europeans, and now some Asian countries. There has been a bnotable lack od self interspection from Latin Amrican authors. The dominant theme for many years was a Marxist interpretation, that capitalist Europe and North America have exploited Latin American people and prevented development. This has been a popular theme as Latin Americans could avoid responsibility for their failure. Even a minimal assessjent of the historical record, however, refutes Marist explanations. Argentina which came the closest to developing a modern economy after World war II clearly failed because of the populist policies of Colonel Jyan Peron and not evil foreign capitalists. And Cuba which separated itself from ties with the United States did not as a result prosper, but rather becamne the poorest country in the hemisphere. But even non-Marxist authors have not shown great interspection. One would have thought that former Mexican President from the free market PAN Party would be an expert on this subject. But in his book, Revolution of Hope, he not only denies Mexico's failure, but attributes it primarily to corruption. While we do not dismiss this as factor, it is a very simplistic view of a very complex problem.

Latin America in the 21st Century


Fox, Vicente. Revolution of Hope (2007).

West, Rbecca. Survivors in Mexico (Yale University Press, 2003), 264p.


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Created: 1:54 AM 11/7/2007
Last updated: 1:26 AM 3/6/2014