While other European nations, including Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and England, would establish colonies in what became known as the “New World,” Spain was the primary colonizer of the region. In colonial Latin America, Spanish governors in the New World introduced the encomienda system, which entrusted both the land and its native inhabitants to Spanish noblemen. When Spain began to colonize the Caribbean islands, the Indigenous population on islands including Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico was almost completely wiped out by disease and mistreatment, so Spain turned to the slave trade, importing forced labor from Africa to support huge sugar plantations.
Part of Spain’s mission was to “civilize” the Indigenous people by forcing their adoption of European customs and values, which included missionary efforts to convert the people to Catholicism. Colonies were established according to a rigid caste system, with Spanish-born men at the top, criollos (or colonial-born whites) below them, next the mestizos (or mixed-race peoples), then the African slaves and the Indigenous people at the bottom.
Colonial rule in the Americas began to be challenged in the late eighteenth century. The French colony of Saint-Domingue in present-day Haiti became the first colonial possession in Latin America and the Caribbean to win independence in the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In 1808, France invaded Spain, an event that weakened Spain’s colonial administrations in the New World. Revolutionary leaders took advantage of Spain’s preoccupation with its affairs in Europe, launching the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, which ended with Mexico’s independence in 1821. José de San Martín (1778–1850) and Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) were key figures in the Latin American independence movements, aiding in the independence of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, New Granada, Ecuador, and Peru between 1812 and 1824. The United States pledged to prevent the return of European control in the region by issuing the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that any European interference with the newly independent Latin American nations would be treated as a hostile act against the United States.
Latin American nations now faced the difficult challenge of establishing their own governments. Some former colonies opted to band together, including the Republic of Gran Colombia (uniting the colonies of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador) established in 1818, and the United Provinces of Central America (uniting present-day Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica) established in 1823. Disagreements among the member states ultimately doomed these confederations; Gran Colombia had dissolved within ten years of its founding, and the United Provinces had disbanded by 1841.
Many Latin American nations saw the rise of corrupt and authoritarian leaders who held power for decades, such as Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for nearly thirty-five years until he was overthrown during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Authoritarian rulers and power struggles would mark the region throughout the twentieth century. Many of these leaders were propped up by the United States in the interest of preventing the spread of communism during the Cold War (1947–1991), a period of time after World War II (1939–1945) when the Communist Soviet Union and the United States engaged in an intense economic and political rivalry that particularly affected the regions of Asia and Latin America. The United States largely ignored the abuses of power of these military juntas, which included ruthless elimination of those perceived to be threats to the state, severe limits on the press, and the squashing of political parties. These abuses were coupled with widespread economic inequity, which saw wealth and power concentrated in the hands of an elite few while the vast majority of the population suffered in poverty. The military and economic influence wielded by the United States in Latin American is referred by some as neocolonialism.
Revolutionary movements arose in response, beginning with the successful Cuban Revolution in 1959, which saw the installation of a Communist government. The struggle for power would result in devastating civil wars in several Latin American countries throughout the second half of the twentieth century as right-wing military dictatorships sought to eliminate all left-wing opposition through state-sponsored terrorism. Along with the political violence, many nations were rocked by the violence resulting from competing drug cartels who battled for control of the lucrative drug trade to the United States.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to the Cold War, greatly reducing the support the Soviet Union and the United States provided to regimes aligned with their interests. The resulting regime changes brought several left-leaning leaders to power in Latin America, starting with the election of the first Socialist president of Venezuela in 1998. The socialist movement, known as the Pink Tide, also brought socialist governments to power in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, where leaders introduced changes in line with their leftist ideals in which economic and political power would be more equitably distributed. Yet despite gains in political freedom, economic inequality, government corruption, and endemic violence continued to be challenges in the region in the twenty-first century.