History of Latin America: The Rise of Latin American Nations

From the Lecture Series: A Brief History of the World

By Peter Stearns, Ph.D., George Mason University

Latin American nations do not usually loom in world history as the source of great traditions. They’re a borrower of forces and influences from other places that then merge with more local elements. But the truth is Latin America has had a varied and significant role in world history.

image of british invasions for the article on Latin American Nations
British invasions of the Río de la Plata. c.1806

From the colonial period, Latin America—which in many ways is the world’s newest major civilization—had developed a number of important features. Its economy was, in many respects, dependent on that of western Europe through the intermediaries of Spain and Portugal. Particularly by the 18th century, though, important local manufacturing and other economic activities had developed.

Latin America had developed some significant issues concerning the formation of effective governments. Given the importance of outside intervention, of colonial control from Spain and Portugal, as well as economic interference from some other sectors, given the importance also of landlord rule in many parts of Latin America, developing central governments that had any kind of effective control over the larger territories they officially ruled was a significant issue.

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Spain and Portugal had both tried to address this issue during the 18th century in a series of reforms, called the Bourbon reforms after the dynasty back home, that put the administration of the colonies increasingly in the hands of people sent out from the Iberian peninsula, who were born there and increasingly talented and efficient, hopefully. There was some political change on the eve of the Long 19th Century, but it had some diverse implications.

The Decade-Long Struggle for Independence

The big first event in the shaping of the Latin American experience in the Long 19th Century involved the wars of independence that stretched primarily between 1810 and 1820. These independence movements reflected firm convictions, organized around liberal and nationalist beliefs imported from western Europe and the United States, and inspired, indeed, by U.S. and French revolutionary examples.

The goals were, obviously, national independence from Spanish and Portuguese control—although the Brazilian case is more complicated—but also the formation of liberal political states that would have parliaments, constitutions that would not be monarchies, and that would at least have some defense of individual rights. This was a liberal nationalist movement, much in the mold of similar efforts in western Europe and North America, so there was normally some hope by the leaders of the movement to curb the powers of the Catholic Church without necessarily overturning the church.

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The social base of the independence movements was usually fairly shallow. Most of the leadership was Creole—that is, people of European origin born in Latin America. Only vague hints, if at all, existed of more popular support for these national risings. Although in a few cases, social measures resulted, such as the abolition of slavery in Mexico, correspondingly, the social results of these independence movements were very limited. These were political movements.

They did successfully chase the Spaniards out, in part because Spain was itself so distracted by the Napoleonic wars and subsequent political turmoil back home and also because the British and other European agents were eager to protect these independence movements for very selfish reasons. These movements were political successes, but they did not overturn the basic ruling forces in Latin American society that revolved around the church, the landlord class, and, increasingly, the military.

Declaration of the Brazilian independence by the later Emperor Pedro I on September 7, 1822.
Declaration of the Brazilian independence by the later Emperor Pedro I on September 7, 1822.

Learn more about independence movements in Central and South America

“New Nations” Problems

After independence was successfully achieved, during the 1820s, 1830s, and on into the 1840s, many Latin American nations exhibited what we call “new nations” problems. It’s a limited concept but a useful one that first gets illustrated by the Latin American experience but then also by experiences later in the 20th century in many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, etc.

Here’s the argument: Again, it’s a perfectly factual one as far as Latin America was concerned. New nations can successfully form once colonial overlords are chased out, but they will characteristically have a number of problems. First of all is the problem of identifying experienced political leadership. One of the grievances of the independence leaders was the fact that they had been excluded from participation in government in the 18th century under the colonial Spanish reforms, but by the same token, there just weren’t very many people who had actual experience in running a state.

Second, the attack on the colonial overlords normally leads to at least a brief period of economic dislocation. In the Latin American case, this period was exacerbated by the importation of British industrial goods now that Spanish tariff protection and military protection had been withdrawn. Economic hardship hit home very hard in the Latin American case.

Disputes over political legitimacy are a predictable third problem. Who’s supposed to rule? What political constitution actually should be adopted? While most of the independence movements were hostile to monarchies, certain political forces—for example, in Mexico—really tried hard to find a new monarch because that’s the system that made sense to them. Quarrels about political legitimacy could also have to do with the territorial integrity of the new states.

Most nationalist leaders in Latin America hoped for fairly big states on the U.S. model to the north, thus the United States of Central America or the effort to form a Grand Colombia. But most of these more ambitious combinations fell apart because nobody actually recognized the legitimacy of this territory and more parochial interests predominated. In the process, there would be considerable political turmoil until the boundaries were settled upon and became somewhat traditional.

Finally, although this was not an overwhelming issue in Latin America, there’s also the question of external boundaries. Who’s going to claim what territory as two new nations collide? Border wars, in other words, are a final component of the new nations phenomenon.

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Why Did America Fare Better After Independence?

Latin American political history in much of the 19th century, after the successful wars of independence, was marked by frequent regime changes and periods of personal authoritarianism but also by a deeper-seated tension between liberals and conservatives, who might oscillate in power and who both might provide actual sources of authoritarian rule. Interestingly and pretty obviously, at first blush, this aspect of Latin American history contrasts with the experience of the United States, also a new nation, but not one in which some of these new nations phenomena occurred to the same degree.

Different colonial experiences had given more North Americans some experience in government. Economic problems existed after the American Revolution, but they were less conclusive. There were certainly quarrels about political boundaries and it took some time to forge the actual agreement on what the United States was to become, but these problems were simply less paralyzing than to the south and, obviously, the results would shape a rather different political experience.

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Lest this sound too self-congratulatory, it’s also important to note that the United States would have one granddaddy of a new nations problem because when the nation was formed, there was no agreement on what was to happen to slavery. This new nations problem would crop up in a massive civil war, a far worse period of turmoil in concentrated fashion than any of the Latin American states faced, but the political experience was undeniably different.

Common Questions About Latin American Nations

Q: How many nations exist in Latin America?

There are 33 countries or nations in Latin America.

Q: Are Latin America and South America the same thing?

No. While there is overlap, South America is the actual land mass while Latin America refers to nations where a form of Spanish, French or Portuguese language is spoken and is therefore largely cultural.

Q: Is Latin spoken in Latin America?

No. Latin is a dead language for the most part and was spoken in the ancient Roman Empire. The languages currently spoken in Latin America derive their name from their Latin roots.

Q: Where does the Latin American ancestry originate?

Latin Americans trace their ancestry to either Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, French, or Italian people.

This article was updated on 9/5/2019

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