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Latin America
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Featuring background information on the political, social, and economic conditions in all twenty countries of the region, as well as other data.

Culture, Identity, and Politics

The phrase "Eternal Eternity" is in part an allusion to the joke that Brazilians often tell each other: "Brazil is the country of the future -- and always will be!" It also borrows from the description of Colombia as "the land of eternal spring." As I have learned from personal experience, patience is one of the highest virtues in Latin America. To even begin to understand Latin America, one must first put him or herself in a poetic, playful state of mind and set aside deadly earnestness. From the results-oriented technocratic perspective of North America, one is often tempted to dismiss the entire region as plagued by an irrational determination to do things its own way, hopelessly lost in a never-ending search to find its own cultural identity. What is the reason for this tortured struggle of Latin Americans to define themselves? At least at a superficial level, this vast region shares a strong sense of common identity based on language and religion.

Latin America montage

Clockwise from top left: Old cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua; Monument to the Heroic Boys at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City; National Theater in San Jose, Costa Rica; Mural in honor of Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico; Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City; U.S. postage stamp honoring Frida Kahlo; folk musicians in La Paz, Bolivia; Palace of Government in Lima, Peru; and (center) Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.

Why is Latin America called "Latin" anyway? They don't speak Latin, as some people think Dan Quayle once said. Actually, Latin America was a term coined by the French during the 1860s when Emperor Louis Napoleon (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) imposed a Hapsburg monarch ("Emperor Maximilian") to rule Mexico as a puppet on his behalf. (His reign only lasted five years). Ironically, those of Hispanic descent who live in this country and proudly call themselves "Latinos" are perpetuating a terminological trick that was foisted upon their ancestors precisely to justify an imperialist agenda!!! For a splendid cultural history of the region (at least the Spanish parts), see Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World.

Two countries did not gain full independence until later: Cuba (1934) and the Dominican Republic (1844). There are two remaining colonies: Puerto Rico and French Guyana. As indicated in the map above, Belize is NOT considered part of Latin America; like Jamaica, most of its people speak English, or a dialect thereof. What about French Guyana? Shouldn't that be part of "Latin" America? Perhaps, but it is not an independent country, and in fact in political terms it is considered part of Europe: Just look at the "Euro" currency, which shows a map of Europe plus the overseas departments belonging to France.


Beneath this facade, however, one finds that except for Argentina and its neighbors in the "southern cone," the ethnic composition of Latin American countries is heavily mixed, the legacy of Spanish conquistadors marrying (or simply dallying) with indigenous women. (Latin American specialists try to minimize use of the contentious term Indian, both because of the mistaken origins of that ethnic term (Columbus was lost) and because it is considered an insult in most of Latin America, with similar connotations to Redskin.) In Brazil, the ethnic issue originated in the mass importation of African slaves to work in sugar cane fields. Racial differences tend to reinforce class differences, which are in some cases as sharp as any you'll find in the Third World: it's the rich versus the poor with only a weak middle class to keep things stable.


Traditionally considered one of the three main pillars of Latin American society, the Catholic Church became more socially progressive during the 1960s, thanks in part to the Second Vatican Encyclical of Pope Paul VI. This was when a social action movement called Liberation Theology was founded and gained strength. Inspired by the Gospel and the theories of Karl Marx, it is an odd mixture.


Spanish is the official language (though sometimes not the only one) of all but two countries in Latin America: Brazil is predominantly Portuguese-speaking, and people in Haiti speak a local variant of French.

NOTE: Even though I know Spanish fairly well, in most cases I'm not going to worry about accented Spanish characters (other than ñ) on these Web pages.

Social norms

The most outstanding characteristic of politics in Latin America is that everything depends on personalities and personal connections. There is some debate over this, but most scholarly observers agree that a person's obligations to his or her family takes precedence over all other considerations; this may explain in part why respect for the law is often so low in Latin America. Government and civic institutions are relatively weak, by and large, so policies are often uncoordinated and subject to change based on somebody's whim. Corruption is a big problem in the drug-exporting countries (especially Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia), but an even bigger problem is administrative chaos, which reflects the relative absence of professional standards in the bureaucracy. Presidents and cabinet ministers issue decrees by the boatload and nothing gets done about it. Meanwhile, pay scales for bureaucrats are often quite low (especially since all the budget cutting of the late 1980s and 1990s), so many officials have second jobs to pay the bills.

Regions of Latin America

The twenty nations of Latin America can be grouped, more or less, into five subregional groups, based on geography and cultural affinity. There is some "overlap" among these subregions, however: Venezuela, Panama, and Chile combine aspects of two subregions, while Costa Rica and Paraguay are each rather distinctive in their own right. Since I have greater expertise in the Andean region, I tend to pay more attention to those countries.

Mexico / Central America

Before independence from Spain, the Viceroyalty of New Spain (as Mexico was called) extended through all of Central America with the exception of Panama. Most of the countries in this region bear significant residual influence from the Mayan Indian civilization, which began to decline centuries before Columbus arrived. For the first two decades after independence (1821-1838, roughly), there was a unified Central American Confederation. This broke apart into five countries, however, and this region remained backwards for many decades thereafter.

The Caribbean

The island nations of the Caribbean embody a great variety of cultural influences, reflecting the four European nations that colonized them: Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands. A high proportion of people are descended from African slaves.

The Andean Region

Geographically, this region is united by the mountainous terrain plus the cultural legacy of the Inca Empire. Most of these countries were liberated by Simon Bolivar, who dreamed of creating a vast confederation of Spanish-speaking countries. Although there is a semi-effective regional institution (the Andean Group), lingering jealousy and ancient animosity between the neighbors have prevented the goal of regional political-economic integration from being carried out.


Brazil is nearly as big as the United States in terms of land area, and is by far the most populous country in Latin America, so size alone qualifies it as a separate region. The fact that it is the only Portuguese- speaking country in the Western Hemisphere makes it stand out even more. The country has a vibrant, fun-loving culture, with much more relaxed social norms than in Spanish America, where the Catholic Church tends to have a stronger influence.

The Southern Cone

In terms of both ethnicity and dialect, this southernmost part of Latin America does live up to its claim to be the "most European" part of the region. A large proportion of the population in Argentina and Uruguay are of Italian descent, while Germans and Basques make up a substantial portion of the Chilean population. Ironically, despite all the economic advantages and relative lack of ethnic friction that affects the Andean countries, Mexico, and Central America, the Southern Cone has never lived up to its promise. Quite the contrary, some of the most barbaric violence anywhere in Latin America took place in Chile and Argentina during the "Dirty War" of the 1970s and 1980s.

Latin American Music

Caveat: "work in progress"


The most popular form of music throughout most of Latin America. It is strongest in the Caribbean and northern parts of South America, and has many sub-genres. It is usually dominated by trombone, piano, and cowbells, and the orchestral combos that usually perform salsa yield a rich sound reminiscent of 1940s-era "big band" music.


Fast-paced tunes in 2/4 time (oom-pah, OOM-pah, OOM-pah, oom-pah) with a repetitive melody in a minor key. Usually features a trumpet. Most popular in the Dominican Republic and Peru.


Slow-paced tunes with a repetitive melody in a minor key, usually featuring an accordion. Most popular in Colombia.


Accordion-based, moody, minor key music invented in Argentina and Uruguay. Carlos Gardel was the undisputed master of this genre during the first half of the 20th century.


The cowboy music of Mexico, featuring trumpets, violins, and guitars of every shape and size. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass popularized this music in the U.S. during the 1960s.

Indigenous folklore

My personal favorite, a synthesis of indigenous music (Inca or Aymara) with Spanish guitars, often reminiscent of "Old Western" cowboy music. The most distinctive instrument is the charango, shown in the photo. It resembles ukulele, but with five pairs of strings and often using an armadillo shell as the body. Another folk instrument is the quena (flute). (See musical group in photo montage above.)

Vals (waltz)

Slow, moody, nostalgic tunes in a minor key at 3/4 time, most popular in Peru.


The music of Brazil, associated with carnaval celebrations. (The word refers to persons of African descent.) It features multiple large drums, small guitars, and loud cheerful singing.


Medium-paced, rhythm-heavy music popular in the Caribbean.


Fast-paced, music popular with African origins in the Caribbean.

Latin pop and rock

Influence from North America and Europe has had mixed results on the Latin music scene, and some of the Latin rock music is quite good. The list below is ranked in rough order of my preference. It includes U.S.-born musicians whose parents were immigrants.

General sources

Howard J. Wiarda and Harvey F. Kline, Latin American Politics and Development 5th ed. (Westview, 2000)

Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America 4th ed. (Oxford, 1997)

Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America (Stanford, 1995)

Jan Knippers Black (ed.), Latin America: Its Problems and Its Promise 2nd ed. (Westview Press, 1991)

Lawrence E. Harrison, The Pan-American Dream: Do Latin America's Cultural Values Discourage True Partnership with the United States and Canada? (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997)