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ColoniasThe term Latin America is used to describe the countries in America that were once the old colonies of European nations. The reference to Latin corresponds with the fact that as a by product of colonisation the languages now spoken in these countries are Latin based. They have derived from the so called ¨Romance Tongues¨ of Spain, Portugal and France.

The term Latin America was introduced by the French Empire of Napoleon III. When Napoleon invaded Mexico the term was coined and used to place France among the countries with influence in America. It was also used to exclude the Anglo-Saxons and to give exclusivity to those European countries with Latin based languages. The term has evolved over time and now to understand it, it is necessary not only to consider language but economic, social, political, ethnic, and cultural characteristics as well.

The similarities in most of these countries are due to their long history of being colonial territories of Spain and Portugal and, in a smaller measure, of France. But also it must be remembered that there are variations in climate, economies, politics, cultural customs and language within all of these places.

The term Latin America is also used erroneously for countries not in Central American and South American, for example scores of Caribbean islands (which are Dutch and English speaking) are often included. This is probably due to the fact that these territories are not located in North America. Understandably the Nations of the Community of the Caribbean demand their own Cultural Identity and Geopolitics be recognised and therefore would like the region be called Latin America and the Caribbean.

Canada needs to be considered here as well. While they are included in the literal meaning of the term the provinces of French-speaking Canada are not identified especially with Latin America. There are, nevertheless, some citizens of the Canadian province of Quebec that feel by identifying with the extensive meaning of the term they would have more autonomy from the English-speaking provinces.

Also the American cities with large Hispanic populations, for example, Miami or San Diego, should be forgotten when considering the term Latin America. Some Hispanic-speakers that constitute the native population of California, believe that their towns should be considered as Latin American towns. This combined with the growing Hispanic populations and the persistence of the language and the Latin American culture to influence the Anglo-American culture indicates that the term Latin Americanism will become more frequent as time goes by.

Essentially the culture of Latin America can be described as the fusing of three different cultures:

  1. The aboriginal or native culture.
  2. The European culture, which has four branches of influence; Spain, Portugal, France and England. These cultures undoubtedly left their mark on Latin-America in all of the following areas; language, law and order, human relations, religion, science and education.
  3. The African culture, through the arrival of slaves along with the colonizing countries.

After years of being submissive to European influence, today Latin America is a cultural and political pole recognized in the entire world.

Cristóbal ColónAfter the initial voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the European navigators started to arrive in Latin America. They conquered and colonized the extensive territories of the "New World" for the Crowns of Spain and Portugal. Since the Spaniards had bases that had already been established in the islands of the Caribbean sea, they extended their conquest to Central America, Mexico and Peru with ease. Towns submitted to their zeal every step of the way.

Towards the end of the 16th century they had occupied practically all of South and Central America, as well as the part of North America that remains south of the present United States border. Whilst the Portuguese took hold of the coasts in what is now known as Brazil. The conquerors introduced the Roman Right for Legislation and Administration of Justice, which was applied by the bureaucracy of the colonial powers. This imposed the institutions of the Spaniards and the Portuguese on the native population through language, religion, and customs.

The main element that unified this blend of colonialism was the Catholic Church: the clergy performed an important role in the conversion of the native population to the Hispanic culture and was the agent responsible for designing all the educational system in the colonies. As well as building hospitals and other charitable institutions. The Church was also the main economic agent and with the exception only of the government, the largest owner of lands in the colonies. The clergymen occupied high-ranking positions in the colonial governments varying from bankers to spiritual guides.

Origin of the Latin-American Population
IndigenasBefore the conquest, Latin America had approximately just more than 80 million inhabitants, while the European population was around 60 million. The Spaniards and Portuguese that arrived on the continent were few in number, but superior in arms and military dexterity. Also to the advantage of the conquers was the decimation of the large pre-Colombian civilizations such as the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayans of Central America and the Incas of the Andes, due to the epidemics and diseases brought to the continent by the invaders. The ones that survived, which was not more than the 15% of the population, were placed in positions of service for the colonizers. They were forced to work in the plantations and mines. When this lifestyle continued the destruction of the natives, slaves from Africa were imported to replace them. In spite of the domination exercised by their owners, the aboriginal people and the "Afro-Americans" managed to conserve significant aspects of their languages, customs, religions, crafts and ways of life. Some of which survived to influence culture of the modern Latin-America.

The Spaniards and the Portuguese took very few women with them to America and, as a result of this, there were many unions between the conquerors and the native women and the conquers and the slaves. Towards the end the colonial period, the majority of the populations of many of the colonies were of mixed racial origin. This diversity of ethnic groups and cultures has obviously contributed to the social and cultural aspects of today’s society in Latin America.

In spite of the racial diversity, a notable form of similar social structure developed in the whole region. This was because the European officials governed the colonies and they formed the dominant classes. They were served by the majority of the population formed by the natives, the racially mixed and the black.

These European officials developed a system of centralized commerce with the purpose to exclude to other foreign competitors. However the discovery of gold and silver in the Americas attracted the remaining powers, Great Britain, France and Holland, who established commercial bases in the periphery of the colonies, where they were able to extend their influence to the colonies themselves.  

The End of the Colonial System
Invasión NapoleónicaAfter a century of decadent control from Spain and Portugal, reforms began to happen. Developments were made in mining and agricultural exports, administrative efficiency was advanced, and the defence and the expansion of the borders were verified. These reforms, applied in the Spanish and Portuguese Americas, enlarged the production and incomes of the colonies. However they contributed to the discontent of the natives by exercising a great pressure on population that was already under stress from poor socioeconomic conditions.

The philosophy of the Illustration movement and the diffusion of the liberal ideas had great influence on the high classes of the colonies, but it was the Napoleonic invasion (1808-1814) of the Iberian Peninsula that brought the ideas of the emancipation of Latin America to the forefront. In 1822 the Brazilian natives established an independent monarchy under a Portuguese prince. And by 1825, all of Spanish America, except Cuba and Puerto Rico, had become independent giving rise to the native’s republics.

Liberal Republics and Dictatorships
Simon BolivarThe native classes that inherited the power after the independence revoked many of the institutions, taxes and customs duties in agreement with the liberalism of the 19th century; but their great hopes were dispelled with the political crisis and the economic despondency that characterized the first years of the majority of these new nations. In the middle of the 19th century, new leaders emerged to take the reins of the social, economic, and political power in almost all the region. Portuguese and Spanish control had disappeared but before long Great Britain had become the main commercial power, managing to establish full control in this area, in the independent Latin-America.

However towards the end of the 19th century Latin-America had succeeded in establishing political liberalism and economies were open for new possibilities in commercial agriculture and the mining industry. Infrastructures were also modernized. The United States replaced Great Britain as a more important market and the main investor of capital goods in Latin America. During in the 20th century the United States established its hegemony in all the levels in the region, intervening frequently in the internal matters of the majority of the countries in the continent.

In the later half of the 20th century liberalism in Latin-America occurred increasingly in a more conservative environment. Economic programs began to favour the rise and development of the average classes and urban workers. In some countries, especially Argentina and Brazil, the extensive European immigration accelerated the growth. This also helped to organize more modern political parties to face the liberal elite. The new social classes participated more and more in political life. Meanwhile, the rural population continued living in the deepest poverty and oppression, though revolutionary elements began to appear amongst them in the latter end of the 20th century. The rural migration to the cities became somewhat habitual often creating extensive belts of misery, and although the inequality in the way of life between the city and the field was maintained, the agricultural production continued being the pillar of the economy and the export of Latin America. The revolutions that occurred throughout Latin-America had a wide range of ideologies such as populism, nationalism and socialism. These revolutions were directed and promoted generally by the average classes and supported by the workers and the peasantry, they took place in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and in other countries.

The fact that the countries of Latin-America share the same language, the same majority religion and similar cultures, as well as having similar situations of economic dependence, is a main factor for union in the region. The above are also important incentives for the Latin-American countries to establish commercial and cultural bonds. In the middle of the 1990´s after many years of economic recession, a notable improvement in the conditions and standards of living of the population could be seen. At the same time, the military leaders that had governed a large number of the Latin-American countries in the 1970´s and 1980´s were deposed and replaced by states and democracy developed. And it is this process of democracy that has helped to create a more prosperous future for Latin-America, in spite of the serious lacks of structure within the region.

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