Latin America

Latin America
Latin America
Latin America (orthographic projection).svg
Area 21,069,501 km2 (8,134,980 sq mi)
Population 572,039,894
Pop. density 27 /km2 (70 /sq mi)
Demonym Latin American, American
Countries 20
Dependencies 0
Languages Spanish, Portuguese, Quechua, Mayan languages, Guaraní, French, Aymara, Nahuatl, Italian and others.
Time Zones UTC-2 to UTC-8
Largest cities [1]
1.Mexico Mexico City
2.Brazil São Paulo
3.Argentina Buenos Aires
4.Brazil Rio de Janeiro
5.Peru Lima
6.Colombia Bogotá
7.Chile Santiago
8.Brazil Belo Horizonte
9.Mexico Guadalajara
10.Venezuela Caracas

Latin America (Spanish: América Latina or Latinoamérica; Portuguese: América Latina; French: Amérique latine) is a region of the Americas where Romance languages (i.e., those derived from Latin) – particularly Spanish and Portuguese, and variably French – are primarily spoken.[2][3] Latin America has an area of approximately 21,069,500 km² (7,880,000 sq mi), almost 3.9% of the Earth's surface or 14.1% of its land surface area. As of 2010, its population was estimated at more than 590 million[4] and its combined GDP at 5.16 trillion United States dollars (6.27 trillion at PPP).[5] The Latin American expected economic growth rate is at about 5.7% for 2010 and 4% in 2011.[6]


Etymology and definitions

The idea that a part of the Americas has a cultural affinity with the Romance cultures as a whole can be traced back to the 1830s, in particular in the writing of the French Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, who postulated that this part of the Americas were inhabited by people of a "Latin race", and that it could, therefore, ally itself with "Latin Europe" in a struggle with "Teutonic Europe", "Anglo-Saxon America" and "Slavic Europe".[7] The idea was later taken up by Latin American intellectuals and political leaders of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, who no longer looked to Spain or Portugal as cultural models, but rather to France.[8] The term was first used in Paris in an 1856 conference by the Chilean politician Francisco Bilbao[9] and the same year by the Colombian writer José María Torres Caicedo in his poem "Two Americas.[10] The term Latin America was supported by the French Empire of Napoleon III during the French invasion of Mexico, as a way to include France among countries with influence in America and to exclude Anglophone countries, and played a role in his campaign to imply cultural kinship of the region with France, transform France into a cultural and political leader of the area, and install Maximilian of Habsburg as emperor of the Second Mexican Empire.[11]

In contemporary usage:

  • In one sense, Latin America refers to territories in America where the Spanish or Portuguese languages prevail: Mexico, most of Central and South America, and in the Caribbean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico — in summary, Hispanic America and Brazil. Latin America is, therefore, defined as all those parts of the Americas that were once part of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.[12] By this definition, Latin America is coterminous with Iberoamerica ("Iberian America").[13]
  • Particularly in the United States, the term more broadly refers to all of the Americas south of the United States, thus including: English-speaking countries such as Belize, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Bahamas; French-speaking Haiti and Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana; and the Dutch-speaking Netherlands Antilles, Aruba and Suriname. (In the former Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, Papiamento – a predominantly Iberian-derived creole language – is spoken by the majority of the population.) This definition emphasizes a similar socioeconomic history of the region, which was characterized by formal or informal colonialism, rather than cultural aspects. (See, for example, dependency theory.)[14] As such, some sources avoid this oversimplification by using the phrase "Latin America and the Caribbean" instead, as in the United Nations geoscheme for the Americas.[15][16][17]
  • In a more literal definition, which remains faithful to the original usage, Latin America designates all of those countries and territories in the Americas where a Romance language (i.e., languages derived from Latin, and hence the name of the region) is spoken: Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and the creole languages based upon these. Although French-influenced areas of the Americas would include Quebec, this region is rarely considered to be part of Latin America, since its history, distinctive culture and economy, and British-inspired political institutions are generally deemed too closely intertwined with the rest of Canada.[18]

The distinction between Latin America and Anglo-America, which can be criticized for stressing only the European heritage of these regions (that is, for Eurocentrism), is a convention based on the predominant languages in the Americas by which Romance-language and English-speaking cultures are distinguished. Neither area is culturally or linguistically homogeneous; in substantial portions of Latin America (e.g., highland Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Paraguay), American Indian cultures and, to a lesser extent, Amerindian languages, are predominant, and in other areas, the influence of African cultures is strong (e.g., the Caribbean basin—including parts of Colombia and Venezuela)—and the coastal areas of Ecuador and Brazil.


Common subregions in Latin America

Latin America can be subdivided into several subregions based on geography, politics, demographics and culture. The basic geographical subregions are North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America[19]; the latter contains further politico-geographical subdivisions such as the Southern Cone and the Andean states. It may be subdivided on linguistic grounds into Hispanic America and Portuguese America.


Pre-columbian history

The Americas were thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge, now known as the Bering strait, from northeast Asia into Alaska well over 10,000 years ago. The earliest known settlement, however, was identified at Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt in Southern Chile. Its occupation dates to some 14,000 years ago and there is some disputed evidence of even earlier occupation. Over the course of millennia, people spread to all parts of the continents. By the first millennium AD/CE, South America's vast rainforests, mountains, plains and coasts were the home of tens of millions of people. The earliest settlements in the Americas are of the Las Vegas Culture[20] from about 8000 BC and 4600 BC, a sedentary group from the coast of Ecuador, the forefathers of the more known Valdivia culture, of the same era. Some groups formed more permanent settlements such as the Chibchas (or "Muiscas" or "Muyscas") and the Tairona groups. These groups are in the circum Caribbean region. The Chibchas of Colombia, the Quechuas and Aymaras of Bolivia and Perú were the three indigenous groups that settled most permanently.

A view of Machu Picchu, a pre-Columbian Inca site in Peru. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The region was home to many indigenous peoples and advanced civilizations, including the Aztecs, Toltecs, Caribs, Tupi, Maya, and Inca. The golden age of the Maya began about 250, with the last two great civilizations, the Aztecs and Incas, emerging into prominence later on in the early fourteenth century and mid-fifteenth centuries, respectively. The Aztec empire was ultimately the most powerful civilization known throughout the Americas, until its downfall in part by the Spanish invasion.

European colonization

Archaeological site of Chichén-Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

With the arrival of the Europeans following Christopher Columbus's voyages, the indigenous elites, such as the Incas and Aztecs, lost power to the heavy European invasion. Hernándo Cortés seized the Aztec elite's power with the help of local groups who did not favor the Aztec elite, and Francisco Pizarro eliminated the Incan rule in Western South America. The European powers of Spain and Portugal colonized the region, which along with the rest of the uncolonized world, was divided into areas of Spanish and Portuguese control by the line of demarcation in 1493, which gave Spain all areas to the west, and Portugal all areas to the east (the Portuguese lands in South America subsequently becoming Brazil). By the end of the sixteenth century Spain and Portugal had been joined by others, including France, in occupying large areas of North, Central and South America, ultimately extending from Alaska to the southern tips of the Patagonia. European culture, customs and government were introduced, with the Roman Catholic Church becoming the major economic and political power to overrule the traditional ways of the region, eventually becoming the only official religion of the Americas during this period.

Epidemics of diseases brought by the Europeans, such as smallpox and measles, wiped out a large portion of the indigenous population. Historians cannot determine the number of natives who died due to European diseases, but some put the figures as high as 85% and as low as 25%. Due to the lack of written records, specific numbers are hard to verify. Many of the survivors were forced to work in European plantations and mines. Intermixing between the indigenous peoples and the European colonists was very common, and, by the end of the colonial period, people of mixed ancestry (mestizos) formed majorities in several colonies.

Independence (1804–1825)

Simón Bolívar, one of the independence movement leaders

Haiti, sometimes counted among the Latin American nations, was the first to gain independence, in 1804. This followed from a violent slave revolt led by Toussaint L'ouverture on the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The victors abolished slavery. Haitian independence helped inspire independence movements in Spanish America.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese power waned on the global scene as other European powers took their place, notably Britain and France. Resentment grew among the majority of the population in Latin America over the restrictions imposed by the Spanish government, as well as the dominance of native Spaniards (Iberian-born Peninsulares) in the major social and political institutions. Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 marked a turning point, compelling Criollo elites to form juntas that advocated independence. Also, the newly independent Haiti, the second oldest nation in the New World after the United States and the oldest independent nation in Latin America, further fueled the independence movement by inspiring the leaders of the movement, such as Simón Bolívar of Venezuela, José de San Martín of Argentina and Bernardo O'Higgins of Chile, and by providing them with considerable munitions and troops.

Fighting soon broke out between juntas and the Spanish colonial authorities, with initial victories for the advocates of independence. Eventually these early movements were crushed by the royalist troops by 1812, including those of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in Mexico and Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela. Under the leadership of a new generation of leaders, such as Simón Bolívar "The Liberator", José de San Martín of Argentina, Bernardo O'Higgins of Chile, and other Libertadores in South America, the independence movement regained strength, and by 1825, all Spanish America, except for Puerto Rico and Cuba, had gained independence from Spain. Brazil achieved independence with a constitutional monarchy established in 1822. In the same year in Mexico, a military officer, Agustín de Iturbide, led a coalition of conservatives and liberals who created a constitutional monarchy, with Iturbide as emperor. This First Mexican Empire was short-lived, and was followed by the creation of a republic in 1823.

Consolidation and liberal-conservative conflicts (1825–1900)

World wars (1914–1945)

Cold War (1946–1990)

Military dictators Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina and Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

In the 1950s, the Cold War moved close to the United States, in Latin America. The nations of Latin America faced many critical problems, including widespread poverty and poor health care. The United States saw this threat to their own security and businesses in Latin America, and used the label of Communism to wage terrorist and military operations. Through the Cold War, the United States removed many democratically elected leaders of Latin American countries through covert CIA operations and replaced them with leaders who were more friendly to the United States' interests.

Arguably, this interference with the democratic system in these countries created a blowback because many Latin Americans rejected the United States involvement. Many of the leaders who were put into power positions by the United States became dictators and oppressors as well.

By the 1970s, leftists had acquired a significant political influence which prompted the right-wing, ecclesiastical authorities and a large portion of the individual country's upper class to support coup d'états to avoid what they perceived as a communist threat. This was further fueled by Cuban and United States intervention which led to a political polarization.

Many Latin American countries were in some part of the Cold War ruled by dictatorship, either of the left or right. Beginning in the 1980s and by the early 1990s, all countries had restored or achieved democracy except Cuba.

Many right-wing regimes were supported by the United States through the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance in the context of the Cold War. Around the 1970s, these regimes collaborated in Operation Condor killing many leftist dissidents, including some urban guerrillas.[21]

Washington Consensus

The set of specific economic policy prescriptions that were considered the "standard" reform package were promoted for crisis-wracked developing countries by Washington, D.C.-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the US Treasury Department during the 80s and 90s.

In recent years, several Latin American countries led by socialist or other left wing governments—including Argentina and Venezuela—have campaigned for (and to some degree adopted) policies contrary to the Washington Consensus set of policies. (Other Latin countries with governments of the left, including Brazil, Chile and Peru, have in practice adopted the bulk of the policies). Also critical of the policies as actually promoted by the International Monetary Fund have been some U.S. economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik, who have challenged what are sometimes described as the "fundamentalist" policies of the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury for what Stiglitz calls a "one size fits all" treatment of individual economies.

The term has become associated with neoliberal policies in general and drawn into the broader debate over the expanding role of the free market, constraints upon the state, and US influence on other countries' national sovereignty.

This politico-economical initiative was institutionalized in North America by the 1994 NAFTA, and elsewhere in the Americas through a series of like agreements. The comprehensive Free Trade Area of the Americas project, however, was rejected by most South American countries at the 2005 4th Summit of the Americas.

Turn to the left

Left-leaning leaders of Bolivia, Brazil and Chile at the Union of South American Nations summit in 2008.

In most countries, since the 2000s left-wing political parties have risen to power. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández in Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica in Uruguay, the Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet governments in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, are all part of this wave of left-wing politicians who also often declare themselves socialists, Latin Americanists, or anti-imperialists (often implying opposition to US policies towards the region). A development of this has been the creation of the eight-member ALBA alliance, or "The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America" (Spanish: Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América).


Historical populations
Year Pop. ±%
1750 16,000,000
1800 24,000,000 +50.0%
1850 38,000,000 +58.3%
1900 74,000,000 +94.7%
1950 167,000,000 +125.7%
1999 511,000,000 +206.0%
Source: "UN report 2004 data" (PDF).

Ethnic groups

Ethnic Composition by the 21st Century in Latin America.

The inhabitants of Latin America are of a variety of ancestries, ethnic groups, and races, making the region one of the most diverse in the world.[citation needed] The specific composition varies from country to country: many have a predominance of European-Amerindian, or Mestizo, population; in others, Amerindians are a majority; some are dominated by inhabitants of European ancestry; and some countries' populations are primarily Mulatto[citation needed]. Black, Asian, and Zambo[citation needed] (mixed Black and Amerindian) minorities are also identified regularly. Europeans/Whites are the largest single group, and along with people of part-European ancestry, they combine to make up approximately 80% of the population,[22] or even more.[23]

In terms of culture, society, and national identity, Mario Sambarino classified Latin American states, based on Elman Service's classification, into "Mestiza America" (Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia), "Indigenous America" (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico) and "European America" (Argentina and Uruguay).[24] In Darcy Ribeiro's classification system, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Paraguay, and the Caribbean are classified as predominantly "new peoples", which emerged from the fusion of Europeans, Amerindians and/or Africans; Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Central America and Mexico are predominantly "witness peoples", the heirs of ancient civilizations (Andean and Mesoamerican), while Argentina and Uruguay are "transplantated peoples", essentially European after massive immigration in the 19th century.[24] However, under this scheme most Brazilian Amazon peoples can be regarded as "Witness Peoples", in the same way as Peruvian Amazon peoples; most Southern Brazilian peoples, i.e., Riograndenses, can be considered "Transplanted peoples" like those of the very similar cultures of neighboring Uruguay and Argentina; and so on.[25]


Linguistic map of Latin America. Spanish is in green, Portuguese in orange, and French in blue.

Spanish and Portuguese are the predominant languages of Latin America. Portuguese is spoken only in Brazil, the biggest and most populous country in the region. Spanish is the official language of most of the rest of the countries on the Latin American mainland, as well as in Puerto Rico (where it is co-official with English), and the Dominican Republic. French is spoken in Haiti and in the French overseas departments Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and Saint Pierre and Miquelon; it is also spoken by some Panamanians of Afro-Antillean descent. Dutch is the official language in Suriname, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles. (As Dutch is a Germanic language, these territories are not necessarily considered part of Latin America.)

Native American languages are widely spoken in Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia, Paraguay, and to a lesser degree, in Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, and Chile. In Latin American countries not named above, the population of speakers of indigenous languages is either small or non-existent.

In Peru, Quechua is an official language, alongside Spanish and any other indigenous language in the areas where they predominate. In Ecuador, while holding no official status, the closely related Quichua is a recognized language of the indigenous people under the country's constitution; however, it is only spoken by a few groups in the country's highlands. In Bolivia, Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní hold official status alongside Spanish. Guaraní, along with Spanish, is an official language of Paraguay, and is spoken by a majority of the population (who are, for the most part, bilingual), and it is co-official with Spanish in the Argentine province of Corrientes. In Nicaragua, Spanish is the official language, but on the country's Caribbean coast English and indigenous languages such as Miskito, Sumo, and Rama also hold official status. Colombia recognizes all indigenous languages spoken within its territory as official, though fewer than 1% of its population are native speakers of these languages. Nahuatl is one of the 62 native languages spoken by indigenous people in Mexico, which are officially recognized by the government as "national languages" along with Spanish.

Other European languages spoken in Latin America include: English, by some groups in Argentina, Nicaragua, Panama, and Puerto Rico, as well as in nearby countries that may or may not be considered Latin American, like Belize and Guyana (English is used as a major foreign language in Latin American commerce and education); German, in southern Brazil, southern Chile, Argentina, portions of northern Venezuela, and Paraguay; Italian, in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela; and Welsh,[26][27][28][29][30][31] in southern Argentina.

In several nations, especially in the Caribbean region, creole languages are spoken. The most widely spoken creole language in Latin America and the Caribbean is Haitian Creole, the predominant language of Haiti; it is derived primarily from French and certain West African tongues with some Amerindian and Spanish influences as well. Creole languages of mainland Latin America, similarly, are derived from European languages and various African tongues.


The vast majority of Latin Americans are Christians, mostly Roman Catholics.[32] About 70% of the Latin American population consider themselves Catholic.[33] Membership in Protestant denominations is increasing, particularly in northern Mexico[citation needed], Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.[citation needed]


Due to economic, social and security developments that are affecting the region in recent decades, the focus is now the change from net immigration to net emigration. About 10 million Mexicans live in the United States.[34] 28.3 million Americans listed their ancestry as Mexican as of 2006.[35] According to the 2005 Colombian census or DANE, about 3,331,107 Colombians currently live abroad.[36] The number of Brazilians living overseas is estimated at about 2 million people.[37] An estimated 1.5 to two million Salvadorans reside in the United States.[38] At least 1.5 million Ecuadorians have gone abroad, mainly to the United States and Spain.[39] Approximately 1.5 million Dominicans live abroad, mostly in the United States.[40] More than 1.3 million Cubans live abroad, most of them in the United States.[41] It is estimated that over 800,000 Chileans live abroad, mainly in Argentina, Canada, United States and Spain. Other Chilean nationals may be located in countries like Costa Rica, Mexico and Sweden.[42] An estimated 700,000 Bolivians were living in Argentina as of 2006 and another 33,000 in the United States.[43] Central Americans living abroad in 2005 were 3,314,300,[44] of which 1,128,701 were Salvadorans,[45] 685,713 were Guatemalans,[46] 683,520 were Nicaraguans,[47] 414,955 were Hondurans,[48] 215,240 were Panamanians,[49] 127,061 were Costa Ricans [50] and 59,110 were Belizeans.

For the period 2000–2005, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, and Venezuela were the only countries with global positive migration rates, in terms of their yearly averages.[51]



School children in San Ignacio in Belize.

Despite significant progress, education coverage remains unequal in Latin America. The region has made great progress in educational coverage; almost all children attend primary school and access to secondary education has increased considerably. Most educational systems in the region have implemented various types of administrative and institutional reforms that have enabled reach for places and communities that had no access to education services in the early 90's.

However, there are still 23 million children in the region between the ages of 4 and 17 outside of the formal education system. Estimates indicate that 30% of preschool age children (ages 4 –5) do not attend school, and for the most vulnerable populations, the poor and rural, - this calculation exceeds 40 percent. Among primary school age children (ages 6 to 12), coverage is almost universal; however there is still a need to incorporate 5 million children in the primary education system. These children live mostly in remote areas, are indigenous or Afro-descendants and live in extreme poverty.[52]

Among people between the ages of 13 and 17 years, only 80% are full time students in the education system; among them only 66% advance to secondary school. These percentages are lower among vulnerable population groups: only 75% of the poorest youth between the ages of 13 and 17 years attend school. Tertiary education has the lowest coverage, with only 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 years outside of the education system. Currently, more than half of low income children or living in rural areas fail to complete nine years of education.[52]

Crime and violence

Crime and violence prevention and public security are now important issues for governments and citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean region. In 2004, violence was the main cause of death in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.[53][54] Homicide rates in Latin America are among the highest in the world. From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, homicide rates increased by 50 percent. The major victims of such homicides are young men, 69 percent of whom are between the ages of 15 and 19 years old. Many analysts agree that the prison crisis will not be resolved until the gap between rich and poor is addressed. They say that growing social inequality is fuelling crime in the region. But there is also no doubt that, on such an approach, Latin American countries still have a long way to go.[55] Countries with the highest homicide rate per year per 100,000 inhabitants were: Guatemala 57.9, El Salvador 49.1, Venezuela 48, Honduras 59, Colombia 33, Belize 30.8, Brazil 25.7, Dominican Republic 23.56, Puerto Rico 18.8, and Ecuador 16.9.[citation needed] More than 500,000 people have been killed by firearms in Brazil between 1979 and 2003.[56][57] Cuba has the lowest crime rate in the western hemisphere.[unreliable source?][58] Havana is often regarded as the safest large city in the Western Hemisphere.[unreliable source?][59] Countries with relatively low crime are Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay.[60]


Standard of living, consumption, and the environment

According to Goldman Sachs' BRIC review of emerging economies, by 2050 the largest economies in the world will be as follows: China, United States, India, Brazil, and Mexico.[61] On a per capita basis most Latin American countries, including the largest ones (Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia), have per capita GDPs greater than that of China in 2009. As of 2010 Latin America included five nations classified as high-income countries: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Panama.[citation needed]

The following table lists all the countries in Latin America indicating a valuation of the country's GDP (Gross domestic product) based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP), GDP per capita also adjusted to the (PPP), a measurement of inequality through the Gini index (the higher the index the more unequal the income distribution is), the Human Development Index (HDI), the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), and the Quality-of-life index. GDP and PPP GDP statistics come from the International Monetary Fund with data as of 2006. Gini index, the Human Poverty Index HDI-1, the Human Development Index, and the number of internet users per capita come from the UN Development Program. The number of motor vehicles per capita come from the UNData base on-line. The EPI index comes from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Quality-of-life index from The Economist Intelligence Unit. Green cells indicate the 1st rank in each category, while yellow indicate the last rank.

Summary of socio-economic performance indicators for Latin American countries
Country GDP (PPP)[62]
(2010 estimates)

of USD
GDP per
(2010 estimates)


Gini index

HPI-1 %


Real GDP
ton CO2
 Argentina 632.223 15,603 48.8 3.7 0.797 (VH) 61.0 7.5 4.4
 Bolivia 47.796 4,584 57.2 11.6 0.663 (M) 44.3 4.0 1.3
 Brazil 2,181.677 11,289 55.0 8.7 0.718 (H) 63.4 7.5 1.9
 Chile 257.546 14,982 52.0 3.2 0.805 (VH) 73.3 5.0 4.4
 Colombia 429.866 9,445 58.5 7.6 0.710 (H) 76.8 4.7 1.4
 Costa Rica 51.130 10,732 48.9 4.6 0.744 (H) 86.4 3.8 1.5
 Cuba 111.1[70] 9,700[70] N/A 4.7 0.776 (H) 78.1 1.4[70] 2.7
 Dominican Republic 85.391 8,648 48.4 9.1 0.689 (M) 68.4 5.5 2.0
 Ecuador 113.825 7,952 54.4 7.9 0.720 (H) 69.3 2.9 1.9
 El Salvador 43.640 7,442 46.9 14.6 0.674 (M) 69.1 1.0 1.0
 Guatemala 69.958 4,871 53.7 19.7 0.574 (M) 54.0 2.4 0.8
 Haiti 11.056 1,122 59.5 31.5 0.454 (L) 39.5 -8.5 0.2
 Honduras 33.537 4,405 55.3 13.7 0.625 (M) 49.9 2.4 1.1
 Mexico 1,549.671 14,266 51.6 5.9 0.770 (H) 67.3 5.0 3.8
 Nicaragua 17.269 2,970 52.3 17.0 0.589 (M) 57.1 3.0 0.7
 Panama 43.725 12,398 54.9 6.7 0.768 (H) 71.4 6.2 1.9
 Paraguay 31.469 4,915 53.2 10.5 0.665 (M) 63.5 9.0 0.6
 Peru 274.276 9,281 50.5 10.2 0.725 (H) 69.3 8.3 1.2
 Uruguay 48.140 14,342 47.1 3.0 0.783 (H) 59.1 8.5 2.3
 Venezuela 346.973 11,889 43.4 6.6 0.735 (H) 62.9 -1.3 5.2
Total 6,270.231 11,119 10.1 76.2 4 2.3

Notes: (H) High human development; (M) Medium human development; (L) Low human development

Poverty and Inequality

Slums on the outskirts of a wealthy urban area in São Paulo, Brazil: an example of poverty common in Latin America.

Poverty continues to be one of the region's main challenges; according to the ECLAC, Latin America is the most unequal region in the world.[71] Inequality is undermining the region's economic potential and the well-being of its population, since it increases poverty and reduces the impact of economic development on poverty reduction.[72] Inequality in Latin America has deep historical roots that have been difficult to eradicate since the differences between initial endowments and opportunitites among social groups have constrained the poorest's social mobility, thus making poverty to be transmitted from generation to generation, becoming a vicious cycle. High inequality is rooted in exclusionary institutions that have been perpetuated ever since colonial times and that have survived different political and economic regimes. Inequality has been reproduced and transmitted through generations because Latin American political systems allow a differentiated access on the influence that social groups have in the decision making process, and it responds in different ways to the least favored groups that have less political representation and capacity of pressure.[73] Recent economic liberalisation also plays a role as not everyone is equally capable of taking advantage of its benefits.[74] Differences in opportunities and endowments tend to be based on race, ethnicity, rurality and gender. Those differences have a strong impact on the distribution of income, capital and political standing.

According to a study by the World Bank,the richest decile of the population of Latin America earn[75] 48% of the total income, while the poorest 10% of the population earn only 1.6% of the income. In contrast, in developed countries, the top decile receives 29% of the total income, while the bottom decile earns 2.5%. The countries with the highest inequality in the region (as measured with the Gini index in the UN Development Report[64]) in 2007 were Haiti (59.5), Colombia (58.5), Bolivia (58.2), Honduras (55.3), Brazil (55.0), and Panama (54.9), while the countries with the lowest inequality in the region were Venezuela (43.4), Uruguay (46.4) and Costa Rica (47.2).

According to the World Bank the poorest countries in the region were (as of 2008):[76] Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Honduras. Undernourishment affects to 47% of Haitians, 27% of Nicaraguans, 23% of Bolivians and 22% of Hondurans.

Many countries in Latin America have responded to high levels of poverty by implementing new, or altering old, social assistance programs such as conditional cash transfers. These include Mexico's Progresa Oportunidades, Brazil's Bolsa Escola and Bolsa Familia, and Chile's Chile Solidario.[77] In general, these programs provide money to poor families under the condition that those transfers are used as an investment on their children's human capital, such as regular school attendance and basic preventive health care. The purpose of these programs is to address the inter-generational transmission of poverty and to foster social inclusion by explicitly targeting the poor, focusing on children, delivering transfers to women, and changing social accountability relationships between beneficiaries, service providers and governments.[78] These programs have helped to increase school enrollment and attendance and they also have shown improvements in children's health conditions.[79] Most of these transfer schemes are now benefiting around 110 million people in the region and are considered relatively cheap, costing around 0.5% of their GDP.[80]

Trade blocs

Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Fernández, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, Nicanor Duarte, and Hugo Chávez at the signing of the founding charter of the Bank of the South.

The major trade blocs (or agreements) in the region are the Union of South American Nations, composed of the integrated Mercosur and Andean Community of Nations (CAN). Minor blocs or trade agreements are the G3 Free Trade Agreement, the Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). However, major reconfigurations are taking place along opposing approaches to integration and trade; Venezuela has officially withdrawn from both the CAN and G3 and it has been formally admitted into the Mercosur (pending ratification from the Paraguayan legislature). The president-elect of Ecuador has manifested his intentions of following the same path. This bloc nominally opposes any Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, although Uruguay has manifested its intention otherwise. On the other hand, Mexico is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Chile has already signed an FTA with Canada, and along with Peru are the only two South American nations that have an FTA with the United States. Colombia's government is currently awaiting its ratification by the U.S. Senate.

Metropolitan economies

The following table provides estimated GDP figures for the largest metropolitan areas in Latin America in 2008.[81]

Rank Metropolitan
Country GDP (PPP)
Billions of USD
Metro. pop.
in 2006[82]
per capita
1 Mexico City  Mexico 390 19.24 20,300
2 São Paulo  Brazil 388 18.61 20,800
3 Buenos Aires  Argentina 362 13.52 28,000
4 Rio de Janeiro  Brazil 201 11.62 17,300
5 Santiago  Chile 120 5.70 21,100
6 Bogotá  Colombia 112 7.80 15,800
7 Brasilia  Brazil 110 3.48 31,600
8 Lima  Peru 109 8.35 13,100
9 Monterrey  Mexico 102 3.58 28,500
10 Guadalajara  Mexico 81 3.95 20,500

Note: The GDP data are for 2008 while the population data are for 2006. The GDP per capita figures were obtained by dividing these two sets of data, so the results may not accurately reflect the GDP per capita for 2008.


Patagonia Located in Argentina and Chile.

Income from tourism is key to the economy of several Latin American countries.[83] Mexico receives the largest number of international tourists, with 22.3 million visitors in 2010, followed by Argentina, with 5.2 million in 2010; Brazil, with 5.1 million; Dominican Republic, with 4.1 million;, Puerto Rico, with 3.6 million and Chile with 2.7 million.[84] Places such as Cancún, Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Cartagena de Indias, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Margarita Island, São Paulo, Salar de Uyuni, Punta del Este, Santo Domingo, Labadee, San Juan, La Habana, Panama City, Iguazu Falls, Puerto Vallarta, Poás Volcano National Park, Punta Cana, Viña del Mar, Mexico City, Quito, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima, Maceió, Florianópolis, Cuzco and Patagonia are popular among international visitors in the region.[citation needed]

Performance indicators for international tourism in Latin America
Country International
Millions of USD
Receipts per
arrival (2)/(1)
per capita
Revenues as %
of exports
goods and
as %
 % Direct &
in tourism[83]
 Argentina 5,288 4,930 932 120 7.4 1.8 9.1 60 4.20
 Bolivia 671* 279* 415 28 9.4 2.2 7.6 117 3.35
 Brazil 5,161 5,919 1,146 29 3.2 0.5 7.0 52 4.36
 Chile 2,766 1,636 591 98 5.3 1.9 6.8 57 4.27
 Colombia 2,385 2,083 873 47 6.6 1.4 5.9 77 3.94
 Costa Rica 2,100 2,111 1,005 496 17.5 8.1 13.3 44 4.43
 Cuba 2,507 2,080* 829* 181* N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
 Dominican Republic 4,125 4,240 1,027 439 36.2 18.8 19.8 72 3.99
 Ecuador 1,047 781 745 53 6.3 1.5 7.4 87 3.79
 El Salvador 1,150 390 339 54 12.9 3.4 6.8 96 3.68
 Guatemala 1,219 1,378 1,130 103 16.0 2.6 6.0 86 3.82
 Haiti* N/A N/A N/A N/A 19.4 3.2 4.7 N/A N/A
 Honduras 896 650 725 82 13.5 5.0 8.5 88 3.79
 Mexico 22,395 11,872 530 106 5.7 1.6 14.2 43 4.43
 Nicaragua 1,011 309 305 52 15.5 3.7 5.6 100 3.56
 Panama 1,317 1,676 1,272 498 10.6 6.3 12.9 56 4.30
 Paraguay 465 217 466 31 4.2 1.3 6.4 123 3.26
 Peru 2,299 2,274 989 76 9.0 1.6 7.6 69 4.04
 Uruguay 2,352 1,496 636 428 14.2 3.6 10.7 58 4.24
 Venezuela 615* 618 1,004 23 1.3 0.4 8.1 106 3.46
  • Note (1): Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, marked with * do not have all statistical data available for 2010. Data shown is for 2009
  • Note (3): Green shadow denotes the country with the best indicator. Yellow shadow denotes the country with the lowest performance for that indicator.


Procession in Comayagua, Honduras.

Latin American culture is a mixture of many cultural expressions worldwide. It is the product of many diverse influences:

  • Indigenous cultures of the people who inhabited the continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Ancient and very advanced civilizations developed their own political, social and religious systems. The Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas are examples of these.
  • Western civilization, in particular the culture of Europe, was brought mainly by the colonial powers—the Spanish, Portuguese and French—between the 16th and 19th centuries. The most enduring European colonial influence is language and Roman Catholicism. More recently, additional cultural influences came from the United States and Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, due to the growing influence of the former on the world stage and immigration from the latter. The influence of the United States is particularly strong in northern Latin America, especially Puerto Rico, which is a United States territory. In addition, the United States held the twenty-mile-long Panama Canal Zone in Panama from 1903 (the Panama Canal opened to transoceanic freight traffic in 1914) to 1999, when the Torrijos-Carter Treaties restored Panamanian control of the Canal Zone. South America experienced waves of immigration of Europeans, especially Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Germans. With the end of colonialism, French culture was also able to exert a direct influence in Latin America, especially in the realms of high culture, science and medicine.[88] This can be seen in any expression of the region's artistic traditions, including painting, literature and music, and in the realms of science and politics.
  • African cultures, whose presence derives from a long history of New World slavery. Peoples of African descent have influenced the ethno-scapes of Latin America and the Caribbean. This is manifested for instance in dance and religion, especially in countries like Belize, Brazil, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Haiti, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.


Casapueblo, Carlos Páez Vilaró's citadelsculpture near Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Beyond the rich tradition of indigenous art, the development of Latin American visual art owed much to the influence of Spanish, Portuguese and French Baroque painting, which in turn often followed the trends of the Italian Masters. In general, this artistic Eurocentrism began to fade in the early twentieth century, as Latin-Americans began to acknowledge the uniqueness of their condition and started to follow their own path.

From the early twentieth century, the art of Latin America was greatly inspired by the Constructivist Movement. The Constructivist Movement was founded in Russia around 1913 by Vladimir Tatlin. The Movement quickly spread from Russia to Europe and then into Latin America. Joaquín Torres García and Manuel Rendón have been credited with bringing the Constructivist Movement into Latin America from Europe.

An important artistic movement generated in Latin America is muralism represented by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo in Mexico and Santiago Martinez Delgado and Pedro Nel Gómez in Colombia. Some of the most impressive Muralista works can be found in Mexico, Colombia, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Painter Frida Kahlo, one of the most famous Mexican artists, painted about her own life and the Mexican culture in a style combining Realism, Symbolism and Surrealism. Kahlo's work commands the highest selling price of all Latin American paintings.[89]

Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero is also widely known by his works which, on first examination, are noted for their exaggerated proportions and the corpulence of the human and animal figures.


Latin American film is both rich and diverse. Historically, the main centers of production have been Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba.

Latin American film flourished after sound was introduced in cinema, which added a linguistic barrier to the export of Hollywood film south of the border. The 1950s and 1960s saw a movement towards Third Cinema, led by the Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. More recently, a new style of directing and stories filmed has been tagged as "New Latin American Cinema."

Mexican cinema started out in the silent era from 1896–1929 and flourished in the Golden Era of the 1940s. It boasted a huge industry comparable to Hollywood at the time with stars such as María Félix, Dolores del Río, and Pedro Infante. In the 1970s, Mexico was the location for many cult horror and action movies. More recently, films such as Amores Perros (2000) and Y tu mamá también (2001) enjoyed box office and critical acclaim and propelled Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñarritu to the front rank of Hollywood directors. Alejandro González Iñárritu directed in (2006) Babel and Alfonso Cuarón directed (Children of Men in (2006), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in (2004)). Guillermo del Toro close friend and also a front rank Hollywood director in Hollywood and Spain, directed Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and produce El Orfanato (2007). Carlos Carrera (The Crime of Father Amaro), and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are also some of the most known present-day Mexican film makers. Rudo y Cursi released in December (2008) in Mexico directed by Carlos Cuarón.

Argentine cinema has also been prominenent since the first half of the 20th century and today averages over 60 full-length titles yearly. The industry suffered during the 1976–1983 military dictatorship; but re-emerged to produce the Academy Award winner The Official Story in 1985. A wave of imported U.S. films again damaged the industry in the early 1990s, though it soon recovered, thriving even during the Argentine economic crisis around 2001. Many Argentine movies produced during recent years have been internationally acclaimed, including Nueve reinas (2000), El abrazo partido (2004), El otro (2007) and the 2010 Foreign Language Academy Award winner El secreto de sus ojos.

In Brazil, the Cinema Novo movement created a particular way of making movies with critical and intellectual screenplays, a clearer photography related to the light of the outdoors in a tropical landscape, and a political message. The modern Brazilian film industry has become more profitable inside the country, and some of its productions have received prizes and recognition in Europe and the United States, with movies such as Central do Brasil (1999), Cidade de Deus (2002) and Tropa de Elite (2007).

Cuban cinema has enjoyed much official support since the Cuban revolution and important film-makers include Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

It is also worth noting that many Latin Americans have achieved significant success within Hollywood, for instance Carmen Miranda (Portuguese-Brazilian), Salma Hayek (Mexican), and Benicio del Toro (Puerto Rican), while Mexican Americans such as Robert Rodriguez have also made their mark.


Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez signing a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Havana, Cuba.
Chilean Poet Gabriela Mistral, first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945.

Pre-Columbian cultures were primarily oral, though the Aztecs and Mayans, for instance, produced elaborate codices. Oral accounts of mythological and religious beliefs were also sometimes recorded after the arrival of European colonizers, as was the case with the Popol Vuh. Moreover, a tradition of oral narrative survives to this day, for instance among the Quechua-speaking population of Peru and the Quiché (K'iche') of Guatemala.

From the very moment of Europe's "discovery" of the continent, early explorers and conquistadores produced written accounts and crónicas of their experience—such as Columbus's letters or Bernal Díaz del Castillo's description of the conquest of Mexico. During the colonial period, written culture was often in the hands of the church, within which context Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote memorable poetry and philosophical essays. Towards the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th, a distinctive criollo literary tradition emerged, including the first novels such as Lizardi's El Periquillo Sarniento (1816).

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, interviewed in 1971.

The 19th century was a period of "foundational fictions" (in critic Doris Sommer's words), novels in the Romantic or Naturalist traditions that attempted to establish a sense of national identity, and which often focussed on the indigenous question or the dichotomy of "civilization or barbarism" (for which see, say, Domingo Sarmiento's Facundo (1845), Juan León Mera's Cumandá (1879), or Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões (1902)). The 19th century also witnessed the realist work of Machado de Assis, who made use of surreal devices of metaphor and playful narrative construction, much admired by critic Harold Bloom.

At the turn of the 20th century, modernismo emerged, a poetic movement whose founding text was Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío's Azul (1888). This was the first Latin American literary movement to influence literary culture outside of the region, and was also the first truly Latin American literature, in that national differences were no longer so much at issue. José Martí, for instance, though a Cuban patriot, also lived in Mexico and the U.S. and wrote for journals in Argentina and elsewhere.

Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa

However, what really put Latin American literature on the global map was no doubt the literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, distinguished by daring and experimental novels (such as Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963)) that were frequently published in Spain and quickly translated into English. The Boom's defining novel was Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967), which led to the association of Latin American literature with magic realism, though other important writers of the period such as the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes do not fit so easily within this framework. Arguably, the Boom's culmination was Augusto Roa Bastos's monumental Yo, el supremo (1974). In the wake of the Boom, influential precursors such as Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, and above all Jorge Luis Borges were also rediscovered.

Contemporary literature in the region is vibrant and varied, ranging from the best-selling Paulo Coelho and Isabel Allende to the more avant-garde and critically acclaimed work of writers such as Diamela Eltit, Giannina Braschi, Ricardo Piglia, or Roberto Bolaño. There has also been considerable attention paid to the genre of testimonio, texts produced in collaboration with subaltern subjects such as Rigoberta Menchú. Finally, a new breed of chroniclers is represented by the more journalistic Carlos Monsiváis and Pedro Lemebel.

The region boasts six Nobel Prize winners: in addition to the two Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral (1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971), there is also the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1982), the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967), the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz (1990), and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (2010).

Music and dance

Salsa dancing

Latin America has produced many successful worldwide artists in terms of recorded global music sales. The most successful have been Roberto Carlos (Brazil) who has sold over 100 million records, Carlos Santana (Mexico) with over 75 million, Luis Miguel (Mexico), Shakira (Colombia) and Vicente Fernández (Mexico) with over 50 million records sold worldwide.[90] One of the main characteristics of Latin American music is its diversity, from the lively rhythms of Central America and the Caribbean to the more austere sounds of the Andes and the Southern Cone. Another feature of Latin American music is its original blending of the variety of styles that arrived in The Americas and became influential, from the early Spanish and European Baroque to the different beats of the African rhythms.

Caribbean Hispanic music, such as merengue, bachata, salsa, and more recently reggaeton, from such countries as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico,Trinidad, Cuba, and Panama has been strongly influenced by African rhythms and melodies. Haiti's compas is a genre of music that draws influence and is thus similar to its Caribbean Hispanic counterparts, with an element of jazz and modern sound as well.[91][92]

Another well-known Latin American musical genre includes the Argentine and Uruguayan tango, as well as the distinct nuevo tango, a fusion of tango, acoustic and electronic music popularized by bandoneón virtuoso Ástor Piazzolla. Samba, North American jazz, European classical music and choro combined to form bossa nova in Brazil, popularized by guitarrist João Gilberto and pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Other influential Latin American sounds include the Antillean soca and calypso, the Honduras (Garifuna) punta, the Colombian cumbia and vallenato, the Chilean cueca, the Ecuadorian boleros, and rockoleras, the Mexican ranchera, the Nicaraguan palo de Mayo, the Peruvian marinera and tondero, the Uruguayan candombe, the French Antillean zouk (derived from Haitian compas) and the various styles of music from pre-Columbian traditions that are widespread in the Andean region.

A couple dances Argentine Tango.

The classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) worked on the recording of native musical traditions within his homeland of Brazil. The traditions of his homeland heavily influenced his classical works.[93] Also notable is the recent work of the Cuban Leo Brouwer and guitar work of the Venezuelan Antonio Lauro and the Paraguayan Agustín Barrios. Latin America has also produced world-class classical performers such as the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire and the Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Arguably, the main contribution to music entered through folklore, where the true soul of the Latin American and Caribbean countries is expressed. Musicians such as Yma Súmac, Chabuca Granda, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Violeta Parra, Víctor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Jorge Negrete, Luiz Gonzaga, Caetano Veloso, Susana Baca, Chavela Vargas, Simon Diaz, Julio Jaramillo, Toto la Momposina as well as musical ensembles such as Inti Illimani and Los Kjarkas are magnificent examples of the heights that this soul can reach.

Latin pop, including many forms of rock, is popular in Latin America today (see Spanish language rock and roll).[94]

More recently, Reggaeton, which blends Jamaican reggae and dancehall with Latin America genres such as bomba and plena, as well as that of hip hop, is becoming more popular, in spite of the controversy surrounding its lyrics, dance steps (Perreo) and music videos. It has become very popular among populations with a "migrant culture" influence – both Latino populations in the U.S., such as southern Florida and New York City, and parts of Latin America where migration to the U.S. is common, such as Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico.[95]


  • Azevedo, Aroldo. O Brasil e suas regiões. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1971. (Portuguese)
  • Enciclopédia Barsa. Volume 4: Batráquio – Camarão, Filipe. Rio de Janeiro: Encyclopædia Britannica do Brasil, 1987. (Portuguese)
  • Coelho, Marcos Amorim. Geografia do Brasil. 4th ed. São Paulo: Moderna, 1996. (Portuguese)
  • Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. 1973
  • Edwards, Sebastián. Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Moreira, Igor A. G. O Espaço Geográfico, geografia geral e do Brasil. 18. Ed. São Paulo: Ática, 1981. (Portuguese)
  • Vesentini, José William. Brasil, sociedade e espaço – Geografia do Brasil. 7th Ed. São Paulo: Ática, 1988. (Portuguese)
  • Julio Miranda Vidal: (2007) Ciencia y tecnología en América Latina Edición electrónica gratuita. Texto completo en

See also

Latin American integration



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