Latin America is a grouping of countries who gained their independence from Spain in a series of separate uprisings and wars of independence. Countries in South America were fed up with the rule of monarchies and wanted to operate free of Spain. Following the example of the American colonies, 18 countries in Latin America fought and won their freedom. The independence movement would eventuate in success, but not before the newly formed nations were thrown into political, social, and economic turmoil. For some of these countries, the problems continue today.
When England created the American colonies, the goal was to expand England’s power and the wealth of the crown. The same thing was occurring in South America. The Spanish established colonies to expand their territory. Spanish colonies were led by aristocrats. By the 1800s, Spanish aristocrats born in Latin colonies were demanding respect. Creoles were born in the country, but they were not represented in the government. Colonies were administered by native-born Spaniards appointed by the King of Spain (McKay et al. 813). This angered the new population of native-born Creoles. They viewed the colony as their home not Spain and did not want to be ignored.
Spain also forbid the Latin colonies from trading with anyone but Spanish merchants. The colonies were forced to sell their goods to Spain at a low price. The colonies produced all types of goods including coffee, textiles, and wine but Creoles were restricted from trading with the American colonists or England (McKay et al. 813). This made Spanish merchants rich, but it limited the money that could be made by the colonies. Colonies began to sell their goods to other countries without the permission of Spain. Even though Spain loosened their trade restrictions, it was too late. While Spain was busy fighting a war against the British with France, colonies were making plans to create independent nations. When Napoleon turned on Spain, the colonies took advantage of the distraction of the war and declared political independence.
Haiti was the first country to fight for their independence from Spain following the tradition of American colonists. Over the next twenty years, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay, would create independent nations (McKay et al. 814). Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only countries who did not gain their independence. While the Spanish Empire crumbled, and South American countries gained their freedom, it was not smooth sailing for many of the newly creates countries in their post-independence.
Countries who gained their independence experienced political, social, and economic instability (Bates et al. 3). When colonies gain independence they no longer had the protection of Spain. Latin American countries did not have recognized borders which led to land disputes between colonies leading to violence (Bates et al. 10). Most Latin American countries experienced political instability and poor economic growth. Attempts to unify the newly develop nations led to internal conflict and violence. Many nations in Latin America wanted to craft their governments based on Americas federalist approach but there was division in society.
The Spanish are Roman Catholic. When Spain claimed South America, the religion spread to South American colonies. Reformers wanted to be afforded the same liberties as American citizens, but conflict surfaced over freedom of religion and the level of influence of the Catholic Church. Like America, parties were split by Liberals and Conservatives. Liberals wanted freedom of religion. Reformer government consisting of Creoles attempted to implement representative government but many failed.
In the first decade of the 1800’s, Venezuela and Chile created constitutions and crafted their governments after American and British democracies (Bates et al. 13). Like America’s first attempt at creating a democratic government, it resulted in the creation of weak centralized governments. Many Latin American countries wanted weak centralized governments, but these models failed. Other countries embraced monarchies to create strong governments and to increase security. When Brazil gained their independence, they introduced a constitutional monarchy (McKay et al. 814). Mexico followed a similar path when they appointed an Emperor. Other countries appointed military leaders like Bolívar.
A majority of the newly formed nations in Latin America established strong centralized governments. Even with strong centralized governments, many Latin American countries continued to experience political instability (Chapman 281). One of the biggest problems was the constant change in government leadership. For example, in Mexico, the government changed hands 48 times in the first thirty years (Chapman 281). Instead of following the constitution, Mexican political leaders would violate the law. This led to conflict between political parties. Most countries just had Liberal and Conservatives, but countries like Peru and Mexico also had a military class that was involved in the government.
Even though the military class was not organized, powerful military leaders, called caudillo, rose to power using violence especially in countries experiencing political instability. In Chile, the first military leader established a stable government. In Argentina, Juan Manuel de Rosas became the caudillo (Chapman 282). He led through violence and brutality. He used his secret police force to keep the people from rebelling. The caudillo would rise in power in many Latin countries during the 19th Century (Chapman 282).
Political disorder in Latin American countries made it difficult for Latin American countries to create strong economies. Even though Creoles believed separating from Spain would make them wealthy, this was not the case (de la Escosura 8). The new formed nations were crippled from the wars of independence. Countries like Venezuela and Mexico did not have the economic resources to mine minerals or to produce good needed to recover their economy (de la Escosura 8). It would take decades for many Latin American countries to regain its pre-independence levels of production (de la Escosura 8). For Mexico, it would take fifty years for the economy to recover (de la Escosura 8).
The injection of foreign capital helped to stabilize many governments, but some countries are still experiencing economic and political stability. Countries like Mexico and Venezuela. Chile was still experiencing economic and political turmoil in the 20th Century. In Chile, there is a multi-party system that creates fragmentation in the government. Rich landowners had the most power over the countries politics. After years of fighting and the rein of four democratic president, the country has become the most prosperous country in Latin America. This has not been the case for Mexico and Venezuela.
In Venezuela, the country is going through a political and economic crisis. The military in politicized in the country and use violence to quell any opposition. When military leader Hugo Chavez took over the country in 1999, he changed the country’s political and economic structure crating the current crisis (Maya 68). In Mexico, a president runs the country, but they hold the position of the head of state and head of executive branch giving the leader total power. The control of the president had led to the current unrest in Mexico. The country is experiencing political dissent and the economy is failing. In both countries, crime is a major problem along with violence perpetuated by the government.
When America gained independence from England there was little political unrest. The forefathers and representative from each colony came together to create a united country. This did not happen in Latin America. Post-independence created major problems and result in the newly formed nations establishing different types of government. Some democracies flourished after strong central governments were established while others formed governments led by Caudillos or monarchies. Countries like Mexico and Venezuela are still experiencing political turmoil and economic challenges.
Bates, Robert H., John H. Coatsworth, and Jeffrey G. Williamson. “Lost Decades: Post-independence Performance in Latin America and Africa.” The Journal of Economic
History 67 (2007)” 1-42.
Chapman, Charles. “The Age of the Caudillos: A Chapter in Hispanic American History.” Hispanic American Historical Review 12.3 (August 1932): 281–310.
de la Escosura, Leandro. “Colonial Independence and Economic Backwardness in Latin America”. London, UK: London School of Economics. (2005). Web.
Maya, Margarita. “Venezuela: The Political Crisis of Post-Chavismo”. Social Justice 40.4 (2014): 67-87.
McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler, Patricia Buckley Ebrey, and Roger B. Beck. A History of World Societies: Volume II, Since 1450. 9th Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin.