Establishment of Latin American States
Author: Allen Pikermen
The new nations of Latin America faced a complex of dilemmas that
bequeathed a frustrating century of political instability and foreign economic
domination. Civil wars, revolutions, and regimes came and went with alarming
and costly regularity. Progressive leaders who tried to modernize their
countries had to face the opposition of powerful, traditional institutions and
massive and complex social problems.
The Creation Of The Latin American States
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Latin American
colonies pursued an irresistible movement for independence (see ch. 23). By
1825, Spanish and Portuguese power was broken in the Western Hemisphere, and
nine new political units emerged in Latin America. Mexico, Guatemala, Great
Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile were free of Spain,
and Brazil had gained its independence from Portugal. Once free of those
powers, however, the new nations of Latin America were hampered by European
and North American dominance over their economic and political affairs.
For most of the new Latin American nations their first half century was a
time of decline and disappointment. The great liberators could not maintain
control of the nations they had freed. The liberal, urban Creoles who had
begun the independence movements were inexperienced and unable to make the
political compromises necessary to govern new countries. They soon lost power
to crude military leaders, or caudillos, whose armed gangs struggled for power
in a confusing series of upheavals. A growing sectionalism accompanied these
coups. Mammoth states broke up into tiny republics, which in turn were
threatened by localism.
In part, Latin America's problems resulted from the Spanish colonial
system that had offered native-born whites little opportunity or
responsibility in government. The tradition of autocracy and paternalism was a
poor precedent for would-be democratic republics. The emphasis on executive
power inspired presidents, generals, landowners, and church officials to wield
authority with arrogant disregard for public opinion and representative
The colonial economic system, based on raw materials rather than
industry, encouraged concentration of land and other forms of wealth in a few
hands. The church with its vast properties, monopoly on education and welfare
agencies, and command over cultural life complicated the politics of every new
In addition, the new states were cursed by problems associated with the
wars of independence. Some of the most productive areas were devastated.
Hatred and division remained. Many men who had fought the royalists remained
armed, predisposed to a life of violence and pillage and likely to group
themselves about the caudillos, who promised adventure or profit in
The final problem facing the new states was that of racial disunity. In
1825 there were from 15 to 18 million people in the former Spanish empire.
About 3 million of them were whites, the wealthiest and most educated
population. That figure remained constant until the last third of the century,
when immigration from Europe inreased drastically. There were about the same
number of mestizos, who scorned the Indians, but were not accepted by whites.
Their numbers steadily increased, as did their ambition. During the nineteenth
century at least half of the population in some states was Indian. Deprived of
the small protection once offered by the Spanish crown, they either sank into
peonage or lived in semi-independence under their tribal rulers. Finally, in
Brazil and most of the Caribbean island, blacks were in a large majority.
Conflicts of interest quickly developed between these broad racial groups,
particularly between the Creoles and the mestizos. The pernicious effects of
these divisive factors can be seen in the experiences of each nation.
Despite its promising beginning in 1821, Mexico suffered a half-century
of turmoil. The empire of Iturbide lasted only a few months, and was replaced
by a federal republic. In less than ten years, however, a coup enabled a
preposterous military leader name Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1795-1876) to
become dictator. His notorious rule witnessed the massacre of the defenders of
the Alamo in 1836 and the general debasement of Mexico's political life. His
conduct of the war with the United States (1846-1848) humiliated Mexico. The
overthrow of this corrupt, incompetent caudillo in 1855 brought more
thoughtful and circumspect men into politics.
The liberals, under the leadership of Benito Juarez (1806-1872) set out
to implement a reform program known as the Reforma. They planned to establish
a more democratic republic, destroy the political and economic force of the
church, and include the mestizos and Indians in political life. A terrible
civil war followed their anticlerical measures; it ended in 1861 with the
apparent victory of Juarez, but inability to meet payments on debts owed to
foreigners brought an invasion of Mexico by European powers and the
establishment of a French puppet regime. By 1867 popular uprisings and
pressure from the United States had driven French troops from Mexican soil.
Juarez again set out to institute the Reforma, but the poverty of the
country hampered progress. After he died, one of his adherents, Porfirio Diaz
(1830-1915), took power. Under Diaz, who served as president from 1877 to 1880
and again from 1884 to 1911, Mexican politics stabilized. Foreign capital
entered in large amounts. Factories, railroads, mines, trading houses,
plantations, and enormous ranches flourished, and Mexico City became one of
the most impressive capitals in Latin America.
Diaz's rule, though outwardly conforming to the constitution, was a
dictatorship. If there was much encouragement of arts and letters, there was
no liberty. The Indians sank lower and lower into peonage or outright slavery.
In spite of the anticlerical laws of the Juarez period, the church was quietly
permitted to acquire great wealth, and foreign investors exploited Mexico,
creating a long-lasting hatred of foreigners.
In 1910 the critics of Diaz found a spokesman in a frail, eccentric man
named Francisco Madero (1873-1913) who undertook to lead a revolutionary
movement and surprised the world by succeeding. Madero was murdered in 1913,
and Mexico endured another period of turmoil during which the country was
controlled mainly by self-styled local rulers. Still, a determined group was
able to organize a revolutionary party and to bring about the only genuine
social revolution that Latin America experienced until the First World War.
Until the 1970s, Argentina was probably the most advanced
Spanish-speaking country in the world. It attained this position in a period
of sudden growth that followed a half century of sluggishness. Its beginning
as a free nation was promising. Soon, however, the bustling port city of
Buenos Aires, whose energetic population sought to encourage European capital
and commerce, found itself overawed by the caudillos, the great ranchers of
the interior, and their retainers, the guachos - colorful, nomadic, cowboys
and bandits whose way of life has been romanticized in literature and
folklore. The caudillos intimidated the supporters of constitutional
government in Buenos Aires, and until midcentury, Argentina was not a
republic, but rather a gaucho paradise, isolated and ruled by men who wanted
to keep European influences out.
In 1852 a combination of progressive elements overthew the gaucho leader.
Commerce with Europe was revived and within ten years Argentina had become a
united republic of admirable stability. The constitution was usually observed
and individual rights were respected to a high degree. Immigrants poured in,
and soon the population of Argentina became the most European of the New World
republics, for it contained few Indians or blacks.
Foreign capital, especially British, brought about amazing developments;
port facilities, railroads, light industry, and urban conveniences were among
the most advanced in the world. Buenos Aires became by far the largest and
most beautiful city in Latin America, despite its location on a monotonous,
flat plain beside a muddy estuary.
The flat plain, or pampas, is perhaps the richest land in the world for
grass and wheat, and livestock have been multiplying there for centuries. The
introduction of refrigerated ships around 1880 made it feasible to transport
enormous quantities of fresh beef to Britain in exchange for capital and
finished goods. About 1900 wheat joined beef as a major Argentine export. This
intimate commercial relationship with Britain, which lasted until after World
War II, affected nearly every aspect of Argentine life.
Nevertheless, although elite society was dominated by leaders who were
pro-British in business and pro-French in culture, a true Argentine
nationalism was developing. Along with the growth of this powerful sentiment
came demands for more democracy and a wider distribution of wealth.
For many years this former Portuguese colony escaped the turbulence and
disorders that befell its Spanish-speaking neighbors, probably because it had
achieved independence without years of warfare and military dominance and
because it enjoyed the continuity and legitimacy afforded by a respected
monarchy. The first emperor, Pedro I (1822-1831), promulgated a constitution
in 1824, and the accession to the throne of Pedro II in 1840 initiated a
period of political liberty and economic and cultural progress that lasted
throughout his fifty-year reign.
Immigrants were attracted to this peaceful land, and foreign investments
were heavy, but without the massive exploitation that Mexico experienced under
Diaz. Economic growth tended to favor the southeastern part of the country at
the expense of the great sugar plantations in the tropical north. The
abolition of slavery in 1888 hurt the sugar lords economically, and they rose
up against the emperor. Joining them were army officers, who resented the
civilian nature of Pedro's regime, and a small number of ideological
republicans. In 1889 the aging emperor was forced to abdicate.
For nearly ten years the new federal republic of Brazil underwent civil
wars and military upheavals, much like those experienced by other Latin
American countries. Finally, the republic was stabilized with the army in
control, and Brazil resumed its progressive course. Foreign capital continued
to enter, and immigration from Europe remained heavy. By 1914 Brazil was
generally stable and prosperous, with a growing tradition of responsible
Other Latin American Nations
Political turmoil, geographical handicaps, and racial disunity all played
a part in the development of the other new nations in Latin America. Bolivia,
named so hopefully for the Liberator Simon Bolvar, underwent countless
revolutions. Peru's course was almost as futile. The state of Great Colombia
dissolved by 1830, and its successors - Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador -
were plagued by instability and civil wars. Paraguay endured a series of
dictatorships and Uruguay, created in 1828 as a buffer between Argentina and
Brazil, long suffered from interventions by those two countries.
An exception to the prevailing pattern of political chaos was the steady
growth of the republic of Chile. in 1830 Chile came under the control of a
conservative oligarchy. Although this regime proved to be generally
enlightened, the country was kept under tight control for a century and was
ruled for the benefit of the large landlords and big business.
Central America narrowly escaped becoming part of Mexico in 1822. After a
fifteen-year effort to create a Central American confederation, Guatemala, San
Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica asserted their independence.
Except for Costa Rica, where whites comprised the bulk of the population,
racial disunity delayed the development of national feeling. In the Caribbean
the Dominican Republic, after decades of submission to more populous but
equally underdeveloped Haiti, maintained a precarious independence.
The Industrial Revolution came into full stride just after the Latin
American republics were born. The great industries of western Europe and the
United States demanded more and more raw materials and new markets in which to
sell finished products. Capital accumulated, and investors eagerly sought
opportunities to place their money where they could obtain high rates of
interest. This drive for markets, raw materials, and outlets for surplus
capital led to classic examples of economic imperialism.
The continual disorder and the lack of strong governments in Latin
America gave businesses the opportunity to obtain rich concessions and float
huge loans. Many of the Latin American government leaders, brought to power
through revolution and interested only in personal gain, often resorted to the
vicious practice of selling concessions to foreign corporations for ready
cash. Political bosses bartered away the economic heritage of their lands, for
Latin America was rich in minerals, oil, and other important resources.
Foreign investors sometimes acted in good faith, providing capital at a
reasonable rate of interest to Latin American regimes which, it became
apparent, had no intention of fulfilling the contract. On other occasions
unscrupulous capitalists took full advantage of officials in ignorant or
Injured foreign investors usually appealed to their government to
intercede in their behalf, and an unending stream of diplomatic correspondence
over debt claims was begun. The United States, Great Britain, Germany, France,
Italy, Spain - the chief investor states - would not permit their citizens to
be mistreated in their ventures into foreign investments.
In 1902-1903 a dispute between Venezuela and a coalition formed by
Germany, Great Britain, and Italy provoked the three European powers into
blockading the Latin American country and even firing on some of the coastal
fortifications to remind the Venezuelan dictator of his obligations to some of
their nationals. U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt at first stood by,
watching Venezuela take its punishment. Then he became suspicious of German
motives and began to match threat with threat, forcing the Europeans to back
down and place the issue into international arbitration.
In 1904 Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,
an addition that was a frank statement that chronic wrongdoing on the part of
Latin American governments might force the United States to exercise an
international police power. Picturesquely described as the policy of speaking
softly but carrying a big stick, the Roosevelt pronouncement launched the era
of the Big Stick. The United States established a customs receivership in the
Dominican Republic and exercised similar control in Nicaragua and Haiti. The
Roosevelt Corollary expanded the Monroe Doctrine from its original purpose of
keeping out European political interference in Latin America to enlarging the
commercial interests of the United States.
In 1898 the United States had gone to war with Spain over the way the
Spaniards ruled Cuba: the mistreatment of the Cubans also affected American
commercial interests. Victory in the brief, dramatic, and well-publicized
Spanish-American War brought the United States recognition as a world power
and a conglomeration of islands in the Pacific Ocean as well as in the
Caribbean. The United States annexed Puerto Rico and placed the Philippines,
halfway around the world, under American rule. Sensitive to accusations of
imperialism in Cuba, the U. S. government offered Cuba an imperfect, closely
tutored independence in which the Cubans were obliged by law to acknowledge
the right of the United States to intervene for the "preservation of Cuban
independence" and the "maintenance of a government adequate for the protection
of life, property, and individual liberty." These and other restrictions on
Cuban independence were embodied in the Platt Amendment (1901) to the new
Cuban constitution. Thus the United States established its first American
protectorate. Panama soon became another protectorate of the United States.
Generally both American business and the local population profited.
Roosevelt oversaw the introduction of what has been called Dollar
Diplomacy - the coordinated activites of American foreign investors and the
U.S. State Department to obtain and protect concessions for the investors.
From 1890 this policy won concessions for Americans in Latin American products
such as sugar, bananas, and oil from more than a dozen Latin American
In the face of such activities, the pious assertions of those espousing
the Pan-American philosophy - that the nations of the western hemisphere were
bound by common geography and democratic political ideals - gained little
acceptance. The "Colossus of the North," as the Latin American nations
referred to the United States clearly acted in its own self-interest.
Sarcastic observers referred to the Pan-American Union, founded in 1889, as
"the Colonial Division of the Department of State." By 1914 Latin America's
relations with the rest of the world were neither healthy nor comforting.
After a century of independence, Latin America still lingered on the margins
of international life. Left to shift for itself in the face of a future shaded
by U.S. imperialism, Latin America saw only a hard road ahead in its relations
with the outside world.
[See Battle Of Quasimas: Nearly one-quarter of the invasion force that sailed
for Cuba was made up of black troops. This illustration of the Battle of
Quasimas near Santiago, Cuba, June 24, 1898, shows the 9th and 10th Colored
Cavalry supporting the Rough Riders in the battle against the Spanish. Black
soldiers also helped the Rough Riders take San Juan Hill. From Library Of