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Early years of independence. The mere fact of independence did not bring peace to Latin America. The new nations faced extraordinary difficulties. The wars had been deeply destructive across the region. Factories, farms, and mines had been destroyed, and many Latin Americans had died in the fighting. Spaniards fleeing the wars had taken their money with them, leaving the new countries with scant resources. Across Latin America, upper-class criollos struggled with one another for power. Many of them disliked new laws that abolished forced labor in mines and tribute payments from American Indians.

Political climate. Beginning in the 1820's, mostly white criollo conservatives and liberals struggled over the shape of governments. Many conservatives preferred to keep things more or less as they had been before independence. Some supported the creation of constitutional monarchies. Others supported the establishment of republics. In general, conservatives agreed that the Catholic Church should remain politically powerful.
Liberals favored policies promoting individual freedoms and equality. In practice, however, they held an unfavorable view of blacks, Indians, and mestizos, who made up majorities in many countries. Most liberals sought to reduce the political power of the church, promote private ownership of property, and educate the people. Liberal constitutions that promoted equality, however, actually stripped Amerindians of the special protections they had under Spanish law. During the 1800’s, it was more difficult for Amerindians to be heard by governments than it had been prior to independence. In addition, liberal policies often disrupted Amerindian traditions. For example, they broke up collectively owned lands, forced native people to work for wages instead of living off the land, and discouraged Amerindians from allowing religion to play a large role in their daily lives.
Many of the new nations formed republics. However, the inexperience of the new leaders led to violent struggles. Ambitious politicians seized power in a number of countries. In other countries, wealthy landowners controlled the government.

Caudillismo. In some of the new nations, the local popular leaders known as caudillos took control of the government. The caudillos and their rural supporters had fought and sacrificed much in the wars for independence. As a result, they were not willing simply to disarm and let urban elites and intellectuals take over their new countries. Their resistance led to a power struggle between the caudillos and liberal politicians.
In Argentina, a caudillo named Juan Manuel de Rosas assumed control of the government in 1829. Rosas ruled until 1852. Through violence, control over the land, and the granting of favors to supporters, he successfully brought other Argentine caudillos under the authority of a central government in Buenos Aires.

Regional conflicts broke out between some Latin American nations and their neighbors during the 1800’s. In Mexico, the problems of the post-independence period were compounded by a war with the United States known as the Mexican War (1846-1848). The U.S. government had proclaimed a doctrine called manifest destiny, which claimed that the United States should control all of North America. Under this doctrine, the United States waged an opportunistic war against Mexico, still weak from its war for independence. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the war, the United States took from Mexico the regions of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

In the War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War (1865-1870), Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay attacked Paraguay. Some historians estimate that Paraguay may have lost about 60 percent of its population in the war. In addition, Argentina and Brazil won about a fourth of Paraguay's territory.
A dispute over Bolivian deposits of nitrate, a chemical used for fertilizer, led to the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), which involved Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Chile claimed the Atacama Desert, which contained Bolivia’s rich nitrate fields and provided Bolivia’s only access to the Pacific Ocean. Peru sided with Bolivia.

Liberal reforms. After 1850, liberal politicians throughout Latin America began to push for government reforms. Programs varied from country to country, but most reformers promoted the liberal ideals of private property, public education, and a reduced political role for the church.

In Mexico, justice minister Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, passed liberal reforms that reduced the power of the church and the military and forced Amerindians to sell communal lands. These reforms led to a civil war, between liberals and conservatives, from 1858 to 1860. The liberals won the war, and Juárez was elected president in 1861. Mexican conservatives then persuaded the French to invade Mexico, oust Juárez, and install Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Mexico’s emperor. Juárez and his supporters reclaimed the government in 1867, and Juárez continued to push his liberal agenda. He enjoyed support among the urban middle classes and Amerindians. Conservatives, especially large landowners and the church, opposed him, as did some Amerindians who had lost land to his reforms.
International trade. After about 1870, many Latin American governments pursued policies to broaden their trade with Europe and the United States. At that time, most Latin America countries exported agricultural and mineral products to European countries and the United States, and imported manufactured goods from those countries. This economic exchange led foreign investors and Latin American governments to build railroads and improve ports to facilitate trade. In the early 1900’s, foreign investors, especially from the United States, put large amounts of money into such businesses as fruit companies, mines, and public utilities. The beginning of the 1900’s was also marked by considerable migration from Europe to Latin America.

United States involvement with Latin American politics increased near the end of the 1800’s. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States supported Cuban independence from Spain. The United States then set up a military government in Cuba. In 1901, the U.S. government insisted that the Cuban Constitution include the Platt Amendment. This amendment allowed the United States to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs when U.S. interests were threatened. As a result of the war, the United States also acquired the island of Puerto Rico from Spain.

Beginning about 1900, U.S. companies also worked to increase their trade with, and investment in, Latin America. These companies introduced new work methods to Latin America and provided products that many local people wanted to buy. At the same time, they challenged established ways of life and created resentment among farmers, landowners, and workers who felt that U.S. companies benefited at their expense.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the United States routinely dispatched naval forces to Central America in an effort to protect its business interests there. This practice became known as gunboat diplomacy. The presence of foreign companies, along with such policies as gunboat diplomacy, contributed to a deepening sense of nationalism within Latin America.
Political circumstances in the early to mid-1900’s. As the second century of Latin American independence dawned, much had changed in the region. Leaders had established national governments, and economies had expanded. Such cities as Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro had grown dramatically. These developments contributed to rising social tensions among Latin Americans. Workers in mines and factories and on haciendas wanted higher wages and better working conditions. Urban, middle-class professionals demanded public education and government services. Peasants in the countryside were losing land to railroads and large landowners. And new domestic industries wanted economic protections from foreign competition.

In Mexico, such tensions came to a head in 1910, when a liberal politician named Francisco Madero declared himself in rebellion against the government of President Porfirio Díaz. In the interest of modernization, Díaz had built foreign-owned railroads, expanded the size of the government, divided Amerindian lands, and invited U.S. companies to operate in Mexico. Although these policies improved the economy, they hurt the interests of many Mexicans. Madero’s rebellion set off what came to be known as the Mexican Revolution.

Two prominent revolutionaries were Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Zapata led Amerindians in southern Mexico who wanted to hold communal lands and govern their own communities. Villa led agricultural workers and miners who sought better working conditions, higher wages, and fair treatment from employers, many of which were U.S. companies.
The revolution led to many changes. The Constitution of 1917 recognized the right of Amerindian villages to hold land in common. Villages and towns received a role in government. The Constitution granted the state the power to offer public education and increase government support of domestic industry. A land reform program of the 1930’s gave farms to millions of landless peasants. These policies served to level social differences to some degree. At the same time, the revolution ushered in a long period of strong centralized government. See also Mexico (The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz)Mexico (The Revolution of 1910).
In South America, the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a worldwide economic slump, brought unemployment and poverty to many people, especially those in growing cities. In these circumstances, political leaders known aspopulists took center stage in several countries. They included Juan Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Victor Haya de la Torre in Peru, and Jorge Gaitán in Colombia. These leaders blended a variety of political ideas, referring to themselves as defenders, fathers, and teachers of the people. They argued that the working and middle classes should have a role in government. They also drew upon a deep sense of resentment among South Americans against foreigners, especially North Americans in the United States.
As had leaders before them, the populists sought to modernize their countries while balancing competing demands. In Argentina, Perón promised workers better wages and working conditions. But he also told employers that he would help them control workers' organizations, keep them from striking, and promote national industry. Perón urged workers to join government-approved labor unions and repressed Communist workers. In Brazil, Vargas followed similar policies. In Colombia and Peru, Gaitán and Haya de la Torre said they wanted to end political corruption among the wealthy, protect small-property owners, and provide workers with dignity in their jobs.
High-level politicians, conservative business people and landowners, and some members of the middle class opposed the populist movement. They feared they would lose their political, financial, and social standing if the working class became too powerful. City streets became places where supporters and opponents of populism addressed the public and held protests.
Populist leaders vowed to work toward economic growth while maintaining social peace, but political and social tensions persisted. In 1948, Gaitán was shot to death in Bogotá, Colombia, just before a presidential election. Perón’s support began to slip in the early 1950’s, as the Argentine economy slowed. Perón then began to take unpopular measures against his critics, such as closing down a prominent Buenos Aires newspaper in 1951. In 1955, the Argentine military forced Perón to resign.

Democratic reforms. Throughout Latin America, the period immediately following World War II (1939-1945) was one of hope that democracy and economic development could solve the region’s problems. Guatemala, for example, gave the right to vote to women and people who could not read and write, improved working conditions on farms, and distributed unused land belonging to the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company to landless peasants. The U.S. government, concerned about the spread of Communism and its business interests in Latin America, backed a militarycoup (take-over of the government) that ousted Guatemala’s reformist President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. This violated the Good Neighbor Policy of the United States, agreed to in the 1930's, under which the U.S. government had promised to stay out of other nations' affairs.

The Cuban Revolution. By the mid-1950's, there was a growing sense of frustration across Latin America. Populist leaders had achieved economic growth, but not political peace, in their countries. Reformers, such as President Arbenz Guzman, had met conservative resistance at home and U.S. opposition. Some Latin Americans began to think that perhaps armed struggle was the only way for their countries to progress.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led an armed rebellion against President Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar. Batista ruled as a dictator and was widely regarded as a corrupt politician at the service of wealthy Cubans and foreign companies. Castro, a Cuban lawyer, and Guevara, an Argentine physician, led bands of guerrilla fighters against Batista’s government for nearly three years, until they defeated it in 1959.
After overthrowing Batista, the Cuban rebels set up a Communist government, with Castro as its head. The Castro government developed close ties with the Communist government of the Soviet Union, then the main rival of the United States in a struggle for international power known as the Cold War. Castro later pledged to aid Communist rebels in other Latin American countries.
In 1961, the United States created the Alliance for Progress to provide economic assistance to Latin American countries. The United States hoped the alliance would help prevent widespread revolution by alleviating financial pressures in Latin America. By the late 1960's, the alliance had failed, mainly because it spent more time and resources strengthening military forces to stand against Communism than promoting democracy and economic development.

The rise of military regimes. The Cuban Revolution had an electrifying effect in Latin America. Some throughout the region began to argue for revolutionary change. By the end of the 1970’s, the growth of Latin American economies slowed, and organized workers began making stronger demands on governments. All these developments caused many Latin Americans to worry that their societies were falling into disorder.

The attitudes of Roman Catholic clergy caused considerable anxiety among conservatives. In 1968, a conference of bishops held in Medellin, Colombia, encouraged governments to address the problem of poverty by giving the poor preferential treatment. In his book A Theology of Liberation (1971), the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote that Christian ideals demanded a commitment to creating a just society that would seek to free individuals from poverty. Many upper- and middle-class Latin Americans worried that the Catholic Church, which had long upheld conservative values, was beginning to align itself with political radicals and the poor.
In these circumstances, some military officers argued that only they could prevent their countries from becoming Communist. In Brazil, military forces overthrew President João Goulart in 1964, ushering in 20 years of military rule. Argentina experienced repeated military coups during the 1960’s and 1970's. In Chile, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet toppled popularly elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. The United States supported the coup.
The new leaders believed their countries could not progress economically until they rooted out Communist influences. They enacted conservative policies and suppressed their political opponents, even though the number of Communists in their countries was small. In a number of countries, military governments carried out campaigns of repression known as “dirty wars.” Their political opponents “disappeared” or were tortured or killed in an effort to eliminate political conflict.
Not all military regimes were conservative. In Peru, military leaders seized the government in 1968 and named General Juan Velasco Alvarado president. The new government promised to end Peru’s dependence on foreign investment and sought to find a middle ground between capitalism and Communism. It took over most of Peru's plantations and turned many of them into cooperatives managed by workers. In the early 1970's, it began an industrial reform program that gave workers partial control over some industries. Like other military regimes of this period, Peru’s government arrested and exiled some of its political opponents.
Return to civilian government. During the late 1960's and early 1970's, armed uprisings took place in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The rebels opposed military dictatorship and wanted representation in government. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, led by Daniel Ortega, overthrew the government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Ortega’s government enacted reforms similar to those enacted by democratic reformers in the 1950’s.
During this period, the United States became involved in efforts to overthrow several Latin American governments. In Nicaragua, it funded a counterrevolutionary army known as the contras, which aimed to overthrow the Sandinistas. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the United States provided training and equipment to armed counterrevolutionaries who opposed their nations’ military rulers.
By the 1980's, military rulers faced growing opposition among ordinary citizens. Many Latin Americans disapproved of their governments’ violations of human rights or were impatient with their countries’ slow economic growth. Following an election in 1983, Argentina returned to civilian rule. A civilian president took office in Brazil in 1985. And in 1988, Chile held a plebiscite (vote of the people) on Pinochet's rule. The vote resulted in Pinochet’s defeat, and he stepped down in 1990.

Neoliberalism. During the 1990’s, in keeping with global trends and in response to pressures from international financial organizations, many Latin American countries adopted neoliberal theories of economic growth. Neoliberal theories support free-market activity over government regulation of the economy. Neoliberal policies have had mixed results. Latin American countries have strengthened their banking systems and reduced government inefficiency, but they have also cut funding for social services to help the poor. Many countries have reduced trade protections for domestic industries and privatized some industries—that is, sold state-controlled industries to private companies.

In 1993, Mexico, the United States, and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect in 1994. This agreement allowed for the freer movement of goods and money across international borders. NAFTA has had significant effects in both Mexico and the United States. Some American companies have relocated to Mexico, where wages are lower, causing many American workers to lose their jobs. In Mexico, the economy has grown and some workers have benefited. However, many Mexicans, who hoped that NAFTA would lead to higher wages and better working conditions, have been disappointed. Many have migrated to the United States seeking better employment opportunities.

Soon after NAFTA went into effect, Maya Indians took control of several towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The rebels' spokesperson said the adoption of NAFTA was one reason they revolted, claiming the treaty would harm them economically. The rebel group called itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. More than 100 people died in fighting between the Zapatistas and government troops. The government regained possession of the towns within a week and declared a cease-fire on Jan. 12, 1994. Since then, the Zapatista movement has developed as a peaceful campaign against the poverty and discrimination faced by indigenous Mexicans.

In the early 2000’s, Latin America faced serious economic, political, and social problems. Many people lived in poverty, the gap between rich and poor continued to widen, and rapid population growth put pressure on the region’s resources. In addition, a large illegal drug trade had persisted in a number of countries since the 1970’s.

Latin Americans in several countries elected leftist or reform-oriented presidents in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. These included Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Such leaders have questioned the ideal of globalization—that is, the extension of culture and commerce across traditional national boundaries. They have also favored policies to reduce somewhat their countries’ economic dependence on the United States and on international financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund. At times, they have argued that Latin Americans, and not foreign investors, should have control of, and profit from, natural resources and industries in their countries. They also have promised to improve the welfare of indigenous and working-class people.

In December 2007, the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela signed agreements to establish the Bank of the South. The bank was created to provide loans for economic and social projects in South America. The following month, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela founded another similar development bank. The four countries are members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a left-leaning trade group led by Venezuela.

In 2008, South America's 12 nations, including members of Mercosur and the Andean Community, created the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Modeled after the European Union, UNASUR seeks to increase economic and political ties among its members.

Source: On-line edition of the World Book Encyclopedia (2014)


• Brian P. Owensby, Ph.D., Professor of History, University of Virginia. 

• Mary Weismantel, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University. 

U.S. Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean

Note to Teachers: Beyond developing an understanding of the general history of the region of Latin American, it is also important to note the substantial foreign investment made to the region on the part of the United States. Below is a brief snap shot of said investment.

Geographic proximity has forged strong linkages between the United States and the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, with critical U.S. interests in the region encompassing economic, political, and security concerns. U.S. policymakers have emphasized different strategic interests in the region at different times, from combating Soviet influence during the Cold War to advancing democracy and open markets since the 1990s. Current U.S. policy toward the region is designed to promote economic and social opportunity; ensure citizen security; strengthen effective democratic institutions; and secure a clean energy future. As part of broader efforts to advance these priorities, the United States provides Latin American and Caribbean nations with substantial amounts of foreign assistance. Congress – which authorizes and appropriates aid for the region, and engages in oversight of assistance programs – is currently considering the President’s foreign aid request for FY2013. In recent years, the State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations measure has been the primary legislative vehicle through which Congress reviews U.S. assistance and influences executive branch policy toward the region.

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