Latin America

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Latin America

Latin America, the Spanish-speaking, Portuguese-speaking, and French-speaking countries (except Canada) of North America, South America, Central America, and the West Indies. The 20 republics are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The term Latin America is also used to include Puerto Rico, the French West Indies, and other islands of the West Indies where a Romance tongue is spoken. Occasionally the term is used to include Belize, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.


See H. M. Bailey and A. P. Nasatir, Latin America: The Development of its Civilization (3d ed. 1973); B. Keen, A History of Latin America (1988); J. A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America (4th ed., 1992); E. Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America (1992); M. Arana, Silver, Sword, and Stone (2019).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Latin America


(América Latina), the general name for the countries located in South America and in the southern part of North America south of the Rio Grande del Norte (that is, Central America and the West Indies). Area, approximately 21 million sq km. Population, 285 million (1972). As of 1976, 26 states were located in Latin America: Argentina, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Colonial possessions of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the USA are also located in Latin America.

Ethnically the population of Latin America is extremely diverse. It includes European immigrants and their descendants, mestizos, mulattoes, American Indians, Negroes, Chinese, and East Indians. Spanish is the state or official language in 18 of the countries of Latin America. In Brazil, Portuguese is the official language; in Haiti, French; in the Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the British colonies, English; and in Surinam and the colonies of the Netherlands, Dutch. English and Spanish are the official languages of US colonies in Latin America. More than 10 percent of the inhabitants of Latin America speak Indian languages. The name “Latin America” refers to the Latin basis of the Romance languages, which are spoken by the majority of the inhabitants.

Historical survey.FROM ANCIENT TIMES TO THE BEGINNING OF THE 16TH CENTURY. The territory of Latin America was settled in the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods by migrants from northeast Asia, who later intermingled with the descendants of other migrations to form numerous Indian tribes and peoples. The oldest settlements of primitive people date from the 20th to the tenth millennia B.C. By the time of the invasion of European conquerors in the late 15th century and the early 16th, the majority of the Indian tribes were in various stages of primitive communal society and were engaged in gathering, hunting, and fishing. The Aymaras, Aztecs, Quechuas, Mayas, Incas, and Chibchas established early class states (for example, Copán, Tahuantinsuyo, Tenochtitlan, and Chichen Itza). Many of them had a despotic caste system which rested on the centralized redistribution of rent in kind or in labor, which was levied on members of the commune. Slavery developed to a certain extent. Some of these peoples invented their own systems of writing and made significant achievements in astronomical, mathematical, and medical knowledge, in processing nonferrous metals, and in weaving, construction technology, navigation, and the fine arts.

After the voyages of Columbus and his discovery of the Antilles and the coasts of Central America and Venezuela (1492–1504), the first Spanish settlements were founded on the islands of Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba. They were bases for the further penetration of the American continent. Expeditions led by Balboa (1513), H. Cortés (1519–21), F. Pizarro (1532–34), and other conquistadores resulted in the consolidation of Spanish rule in Mexico, California, Florida, Central America, and the entire South American continent, with the exception of Brazil, which was conquered by Portugal, and the Guianas, which were seized by England, Holland, and France. The internecine struggle among the Indian chiefs, who entered into alliances with the foreign conquerors, facilitated the conquest of Latin America by the colonizers.

UNDER THE COLONIAL YOKE: THE CREATION OF A MIXED COLONIAL ECONOMIC STRUCTURE DOMINATED BY A FEUDAL STRUCTURE, 16TH–18TH CENTURIES. The conquest of Latin America by the Spaniards and the Portuguese, which began at the end of the 15th century, was essentially completed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the native inhabitants’ desperate resistance, to which the colonizers frequently responded by totally exterminating them, Spain and Portugal established their languages and religion (Catholicism) in Latin America and greatly influenced the development of the psychology and culture of the Latin American peoples. The English, French, and Dutch also influenced the historical destiny of Latin America but to a significantly lesser degree than the Spanish and Portuguese. The colonization of Latin America was important in the primitive accumulation of capital and the development of the world market. Differences in the levels of development of the Indian tribes and peoples at the time they were conquered, as well as geographic conditions, led to differences in the social, economic, and political organization of the colonies. The West Indies and the coastal strips of Venezuela and Brazil became primarily settlers’ colonies where plantation slavery, which depended on the importation of Negro slaves from Africa, prevailed. The extreme southern and the interior regions of South America remained uncolonized until the 19th century.

Where agriculture had been practiced since ancient times and where Indian territorial communes existed, the Spanish feudal state took the place of the ancient despotisms and granted the colonists the right to exploit the Indians. In Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Argentina, Jesuit missionaries established a system of exploitation that reproduced the caste organization of the Inca state. A mixed system developed in the American colonies of Spain and Portugal, where feudal exploitation—including binding the Indian commune members to the land and imposing labor obligations—was combined with elements of the developing system of capitalist exploitation (the use of some hired laborers in agriculture and manufacturing and the commodity character of the latifundia and their orientation to the world market).

The abolition of the encomienda system in the 18th century was accompanied by the appropriation by the landlords of part of the communes’ land, which they began to lease to landless peasants on terms of debt servitude. More hired laborers were employed in manufacturing, commodity exchange between colonies increased, and smuggling grew, especially contraband trade with Great Britain. By the end of the 18th century the plundering policies of the metropolitan countries, which hindered the development of the productive forces, had become evident. These policies included restrictions on manufactures and handicrafts and the prohibition of the cultivation of a number of agricultural crops and of the extraction of some minerals. The elimination of the colonial regime became an urgent task for the peoples of Latin America.

THE WARS OF THE FRENCH, SPANISH, AND PORTUGUESE COLONIES FOR INDEPENDENCE IN THE LATE 18TH CENTURY AND THE EARLY 19TH THE FORMATION OF THE LATIN AMERICAN STATES. The development of capitalist relations, as well as the peasant and urban uprisings of the 18th century (for example, the peasant war in Peru during 1780–83 and the uprising in New Granada in 1781), shook the colonial system and promoted the awakening of a sense of national identity among the peoples of Latin America. The War for Independence of the British colonies in North America (1775–83) and the Great French Revolution hastened the development of national identity in Latin America. In Haiti the outbreak of an uprising of Negro slaves in 1791 and the war against the French colonizers led to the abolition of slavery in 1801. When Haiti won independence in 1804, Spanish rule in Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic) was undermined.

The French invasion of Portugal (1807–11) and Spain (1808–13) created favorable conditions for the outbreak in 1810 of a war for the independence of the Spanish colonies in America. The revolutionary intelligentsia, some of the lower clergy, and Creole landlords and merchants joined the Indian peasants and the Negro slaves in the war. The War for the Independence of the Spanish Colonies of America (1810–26) culminated in the destruction of the colonial regime. Almost all of the Spanish colonies won their political independence. Attempts to liberate Cuba and Puerto Rico were suppressed by the intervention of the USA and Great Britain. Brazil’s independence from Portugal was proclaimed in September 1822, in the wake of a broad popular uprising.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CAPITALIST STRUCTURE (1826–95). The formation of states was an important precondition for the acceleration of the development of capitalist relations. In Mexico, Brazil, and Chile the foundations of light industry and banking were laid. Because large-scale landlord agriculture and the privileges of the church were preserved, various forms of precapitalist exploitation also survived the demise of the colonial regimes. A new upsurge in the revolutionary movement began in the mid-19th century. In Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Guatemala civil wars broke out, and the governments of Peru, Honduras, and Brazil were forced to introduce important social reforms. Some of the property of the Catholic Church was secularized. Popular uprisings forced the abolition of Negro slavery and the poll tax on Indians. (However, the former slaves were not given land.) Noble titles were also eliminated. In Brazil the monarchy was done away with and a republic proclaimed in 1889.

The first workers’ strikes took place in Chile, Mexico, and Argentina in the mid-19th century. Trade unions were organized. Somewhat later, Marxism began to spread, and sections of the First International were founded. Socialist parties and groups, which were formed in the late 19th century and the early 20th in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, were outgrowths of the Latin American sections of the International. However, anarchism and anarchosyndicalism were strong in the Latin American workers’ movement.

The peoples of Latin America had to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity against invasions by foreign troops. For example, the USA invaded Mexico in 1846–48 and Central America in 1855–57 and 1860; Great Britain, France, and Spain invaded Mexico in 1861–67; and Spain invaded Chile and Peru in 1864–66. The young states concluded defensive alliances and held Latin American conferences to oppose foreign aggression. The expansion of foreign capital investment and the unevenness of Latin American economic and political development contributed to the outbreak of a number of wars, including the War of the Pacific (1879–83) and the Paraguayan War of 1864–70.

The upsurge of the workers’ and general democratic movements in the metropolitan countries in the 19th century and slave uprisings in Martinique, Jamaica, and several other colonies led to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in the 1830’s, in the French colonies in 1848, and in the Dutch colonies in 1863.

BOURGEOIS DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTIONARY PROCESSES (1895–1918). With capitalism’s entry into the imperialist stage, the economically weak Latin American states became financially, economically, and diplomatically dependent upon the imperialist powers. Taking advantage of the Cuban national uprising against Spanish rule (1895), the USA occupied Cuba and seized Puerto Rico in 1898. US imperialists unleashed a policy of territorial expansion, seizing the Canal Zone from Panama in 1903, occupying Nicaragua (1909–33), the Dominican Republic (1916–24), and Haiti (1915–34), and invading Mexico (1914 and 1916–17). An anti-imperialist movement developed in Latin America, and bourgeois democratic anti-oligarchic revolutions occurred, the culmination of which was the anti-imperialist Revolution of 1910–17 in Mexico, which was accompanied by a peasant war. Revolutionary internationalist tendencies developed within the Latin American socialist parties, and national trade union centers were founded in a number of countries.

THE PERIOD OF THE GENERAL CRISIS OF CAPITALISM: THE DEVELOPMENT OF POPULAR ANTI-IMPERIALIST AGRARIAN REVOLUTIONS AND THEIR GROWTH INTO SOCIALIST REVOLUTIONS (FROM 1918). Under the influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, revolutionary processes in Latin America were accelerated. They also became more sharply anti-imperialist and acquired a profound social content. In many countries the working class became the leading force in the liberation movement. The majority of the socialist parties were transformed into communist parties, absorbing revolutionary elements from the anarchists and syndicalists. Mass actions by the proletariat led to the adoption of labor laws, the limiting of the workday, and the expansion of suffrage. In a number of states the tendency to pursue independent economic and foreign policies became stronger. Thus, for example, some Latin American states established diplomatic relations with the USSR.

The world economic crisis of 1929–33 on the one hand and the achievements of socialist construction in the USSR on the other exerted a powerful influence on the political situation in Latin America. Revolutionary outbreaks took place in Cuba (1933), Brazil (1935), and Paraguay (1936), and a popular uprising led by the Communist Party took place in El Salvador in 1932. An attempt was made to establish revolutionary power in Chile in 1932, and a Popular Front government supported by the Communists was formed there in 1938. In Mexico, L. Cardenas’ government (1934–40) began to implement important agrarian and anti-imperialist reforms. Some social reforms were introduced in Colombia. All of these changes promoted the expansion of internal markets. Manufacturing developed somewhat more quickly. At the same time, with the support of foreign monopolies authoritarian regimes were imposed on a number of countries (Argentina, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua). The imperialists provoked wars between Colombia and Peru and between Bolivia and Paraguay.

The majority of the Latin American countries fought in World War II (1939–45) on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition. Mexico and Brazil sent troops to the theater of military operations. A new upsurge in the liberation movement, which began under the influence of the defeat of the fascist bloc, led to the democratization of politics and to social reforms in Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Venezuela. Coalition governments in which the Communists participated held power briefly in a number of countries, including Cuba, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Chile. Diplomatic relations with the USSR were established by the governments of Argentina (1946), Bolivia (1945), Brazil (1945), Costa Rica (1944), Cuba (1942), Guatemala (1945), Mexico (1942), Uruguay (1943), and Venezuela (1945). (In some of these cases, relations with the USSR had previously been broken and were restored.)

Oligarchic regimes were overthrown, and revolutionary, anti-imperialist, antifeudal transformations were begun in Guatemala in 1944 and in Bolivia in 1952. However, in the atmosphere of the “cold war,” local oligarchic circles supported by US monopolies succeeded in establishing tyrannical, antinational regimes in Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala, Cuba, and other Latin American countries between 1948 and 1955. The Organization of American States was founded in 1948 under the aegis of the USA, which tried to use it to pursue an expansionist policy in the western hemisphere. Changes in the world balance of power in favor of socialism created favorable external preconditions for a new upsurge of democratic, anti-imperialist revolutionary activity in the second half of the 1950’s. In a number of countries tyrannical regimes were overthrown, and in Cuba revolutionary forces won the greatest victory of this period. With aid from the USSR and other socialist countries, Cuba began to build the foundation of a socialist society, repulsing the aggressive actions of the North American imperialists.

Ruling circles in the USA tried to counteract the upsurge in the revolutionary democratic movement, combining a program of reforms—the Alliance for Progress—with reactionary, military coups and open, armed intervention (for example, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965). Private capital investment from the USA in Latin America totaled $15.8 billion in 1971, as compared with $8.4 billion in 1962. In 1971, Latin American states owed the USA $19.3 billion ($9.1 billion in 1963). The Latin American countries also suffered great losses because of the foreign trade expansion of the USA, which deepened the gap between their level of economic development and that of the USA. Besides, the latifundia system and the conservative, tyrannical superstructure hindered social and economic progress and caused greater fluctuations in the economic development of the Latin American countries. In 1969 the per capita gross national product of Argentina was $743; of Chile, $566; of Paraguay, $220; of Bolivia, $181; and of Honduras, $249. Mexico’s per capita gross national product in 1968 was $558, and Haiti’s, $86. A number of Latin American states tried to solve these problems by establishing multilateral trade and by pursuing independent foreign policies. Most of them worked to improve their relations with the USSR. At the end of the 1960’s the Latin American countries established the Special Latin American Coordinating Commission (Comisión Especial de Coordinación Latinoamericano). Founded in 1969, the subregional Andean economic grouping included Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. It exercises control over foreign capital investments. In 1975 the Latin American Economic System, which included all the Latin American countries, was founded.

The economic structure of Latin America has changed. New branches of industry have developed, including petroleum, chemicals, electronics, atomic energy, and machine tools. Industry’s share in the gross national product rose from 18.5 percent in 1950 to 24.3 percent in 1970. Tendencies toward the formation of state monopolies surfaced in a number of countries, deepening Latin America’s dependence on imperialism and aggravating the contradictions between the Latin American countries and the USA.

Changes in the social and economic structure were accompanied by noticeable class changes. Between 1950 and 1970 the proportion of the total labor force employed in agriculture fell from 53 percent to 41 percent. The number of wage laborers increased from 32 million in 1955 to 55 million in 1970, or from 54 to 62 percent of the gainfully employed population. The role of the working class, the most important force in the revolutionary democratic movement, increased. During the 1960’s and 1970’s as many as 20 million workers per year went on strike. The trade union organization of the proletariat became stronger, as was reflected in the founding of the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity of the Workers of Latin America and the Central American Trade Union Council in the late 1960’s. In 1973 there were Communist parties in 24 countries (approximately 600,000 members). The workers are beginning to take united action with the urban middle strata and the peasantry. Broad, democratic, anti-imperialist coalitions have been formed in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

The revolutionary government of the armed forces took power in Peru in 1968 and began to carry out anti-imperialist and antioligarchic measures. The government of Popular Unity, which included Communists, Socialists, and representatives of other democratic parties, came to power in Chile in November 1970. As a result of the nationalization of the property of foreign and local monopolies, as well as the most important banks, the state sector became dominant in Chile’s economy. A far-reaching agrarian reform was carried out, and the wages of workers and the salaries of employees were increased. However, the popular revolutionary democratic transformations were interrupted by a military fascist coup d’etat in September 1973, which was organized by the local oligarchy and the agents of imperialism. A worldwide campaign of solidarity with the victims of terror, with the Chilean people, has developed.

The fall of the colonial system of imperialism was reflected in the liberation of the peoples of the Caribbean Basin from colonial dependence on Great Britain and in the creation of a number of young states there. The role of the peoples of Latin America in the struggle for world peace has grown. Throughout Latin America the movement of solidarity with the peoples of Cuba, Panama, and Peru has become stronger. Ties with the worldwide anti-imperialist movement have been strengthened. The social base of the liberation movement has expanded, drawing on the young people, patriotic members of the military, and progressive Catholics, and the movement’s anti-imperialist content has grown more profound.


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Arismendi, R. Problemy latinoamerikanskoi revoliutsii. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from Spanish.)
Arismendi, R . Lenin, revoliutsiia, i Latinskaia Amerika. Moscow, 1973. (Translated from Spanish.)
Castro, F. Rechi i vystupleniia. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from Spanish.)
Castro, F. Rechi i vystupleniia, 1961–1963. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from Spanish.)
Castro, F. Nashe delo pobezhdaet: Rechi i vystupleniia, 1963–1964. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from Spanish.)
Castro, F. Pust’ vechno zhivet bessmertnyi Lenin! Moscow, 1970. (Translated from Spanish.)
Codovilla, V. Izbrannye stat’i i rechi. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from Spanish.)
Latinskaia Amerika v proshlom i nastoiashchem (collection of articles). Moscow, 1960.
Natsii Latinskoi Ameriki: Formirovanie, Razvitie (collection of articles). Moscow, 1964.
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SSSR i Latinskaia Amerika, 1917–1967. Moscow, 1967.
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Leonov, N. S. Ocherki novoi i noveishei istorii stran Tsentral’noi Ameriki. Moscow, 1975.
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Revunenkov, V. G. Istoriia stran Latinskoi Ameriki ν noveishee vremia. Moscow, 1963.
Vol’skii, V. V. Latinskaia Amerika, neft’ i nezavisimost’. Moscow, 1964.
Gvozdarev, B. I. Organizatsiia amerikanskikh gosudarstv. Moscow, 1960.
Neokolonializm SShA ν Latinskoi Amerike. Moscow, 1970.
Romanova, Z. I. Ekonomicheskaia ekspansiia SShA ν Latinskoi Amerike. Moscow, 1963.
Strany Latinskoi Ameriki ν sovremennykh mezhdunarodnykh otno-sheniiakh. Moscow, 1967.
Vneshniaia politika stran Latinskoi Ameriki posle 2-i mirovoi voiny. Moscow, 1975.
Osvoboditel’noe dvizhenie ν Latinskoi Amerike. Moscow, 1964.
Proletariat Latinskoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1968.
Danilevich, M. V. Rabochii klass ν osvoboditel’nom dvizhenii narodov Latinskoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1962.
Politicheskie partii stran Latinskoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1965.
Ermolaev, V. I., and A. F. Shul’govskii. Rabochee i kommunisticheskoe dvizhenie ν Latinskoi Amerike (s Oktiabria do nashikh dnei). Moscow, 1970.
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Al’perovich, M. S. Sovetskaia istoriiografiia stran Latinskoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1968.
Sizonenko, A. I. Ocherki istorii sovetsko-latinoamerikanskikh otnoshenii. Moscow, 1971.
Levene, R. Historia de América, vols. 1–14. Buenos Aires, 1940–42.
Herring, H. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present, 3rd ed. New York, 1968.
Lateinamerika zwischen Emanzipation und Imperialismus, 1810–1960. Berlin, 1961.
Lipschutz, A. Perfil de Indoamérica de nuestro tiempo. Santiago, 1968.
Teitelboim, V. El amanecer del capitalismo y la conquista de América. Havana, 1965.
Medina Castro, M. Estados Unidos y América Latina, Siglo XIX. Havana, 1968.
Rama, C. M. Mouvements ouvriers et socialistes (chronologie et bibliographie): L’Amérique Latine, 1492–1936. Paris, 1959.
Ruiz García, E. América Latina hoy, 2nd ed., vols. 1–2. Madrid, 1971.
Franco, J. L. Revoluciones y conflictos internacionales en el Cáribe. Havana, 1965.
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S. I. SEMENOV [14–613–2; updated]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Latin America

those areas of America whose official languages are Spanish and Portuguese, derived from Latin: South America, Central America, Mexico, and certain islands in the Caribbean
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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