Regionalism: Regionalism is a group of strong local traditions that divide people within a country or region. The mountains and tropical forests of Latin America fostered regionalism throughout the continent. When Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors reached Latin America, regionalism allowed them to conquer large areas of land without a stronger centralized resistance from the Native Americans living there. Regionalism also accounts for the large variation in customs and appearances present in inhabitants of Latin America.
Ancient Civilizations’ Advancements: Before Europeans ever landed on the shores of Latin America, the Maya, Aztec, and Inca empires made many great advancements in science, art, mathematics, and other fields. The Maya built impressive buildings and canals, created two calendars based on the moon, a number system with zero, and a complex writing system of glyphs. The Aztec made elaborate costumes, jewelry, and sculptures, had a system of glyphs for taxes and records, created a calendar based on the moon, and calculated the movements of some planets. The Inca built temples and forts out of precise, interlocking stones, were skilled with metallurgy and weaving, and built a large road system.
Treaty of Tordesillas: The Treaty of Tordesillas was a treaty dividing territory between Spain and Portugal in the Americas. Its signing prevented war over territory between the two countries. The treaty gave Portugal a significantly smaller portion of Latin America than it did Spain, which resulted in Portugal having a smaller empire and impact in the continent than Spain did. This treaty ended conflict between the countries; however, it also enabled them to devote more time and resources to expanding into and exploiting the continent.
Mercantilism: Mercantilism is the belief that a country’s economic strength depends on increasing its gold supply by exporting more goods than it imports. Spain and Portugal did not have to import many raw materials from other countries because of their territory in the Americas, which saved them money. They were also able to heavily export their manufactured goods to their territories, earning even more money. Under mercantilism, Spain and Portugal grew very wealthy at the expense of their Latin American colonies.
Ecomienda: Ecomiendas were a Spanish system in which conquistadors could get taxes and labor from conquered people. The Spanish also made use of the mita, which was a system that allowed drafting natives into working in mines. The ecomienda system helped Spain earn great wealth, but it was at the expense of the Native Americans who were forced to work in poor conditions with little restitution. After Bartolome de las Casas, a former conquistador, spoke out about the cruelty with which Native Americans were treated because of ecomiendas, the system was abolished.
Columbian Exchange: The Columbian Exchange was an exchange of cultures between the Americas and the rest of the world, starting with the voyages of Columbus. Europeans brought plants, animals, and knowledge to the Americas, and products and ideas from the Americas spread around the world. Europeans also brought diseases to the New World, which made many Native Americans die because they were not inoculated. The Columbian Exchange enabled the exploitation of Latin American people and resources under mercantilism and the Ecomienda system.
Colonial Social Class Structure: In the colonial social class structure, the Spanish and Portuguese, called peninsulares, were at the top and held all important government positions. Next were the creoles, who were descendants of Europeans born in Latin America. After creoles were mestizos, people of mixed European and Native American heritage, mulattoes, people of mixed European and African heritage, and native and foreign slaves. Under the ecomienda system, the peninsulares were allowed to take control of the lower classes of Latin America and use them for slave labor. In addition, the creoles deeply resented the peninsulares and their domination of trade, and so helped revolutions in Latin America to succeed in overthrowing the government.
Land Reform: Land Reform is the redistribution of land from the rich to the poor, and it was popular in recent Latin American history. In Guatemala, after land that was owned by the United Fruit Company was redistributed to peasants, America intervened, helping to replace the leader Arbenz with a military dictator. In Nicaragua, the land owned by members of the Somoza family was taken by the Sandinistas, a revolutionary group, and redistributed equally. Many other countries employed land reform in an attempt to assuage the gap between the rich and the poor.
Monroe Doctrine: The Monroe Doctrine was a doctrine created by the president James Monroe that guaranteed the independence of Latin American nations. It was created to ensure that European countries did not take back political control of Latin America. By doing so, the United States ensured that Latin America would be open to trade. Eventually, though the countries of Latin America remained politically free, they still fell under control of Western countries because they had to rely on them for manufactured goods and for an economic market.
Liberation Theology: Liberation Theology is the belief that the Catholic Church should be active in the struggle for economic and political equity. As a result of Liberation Theology, the large gap between the rich and the poor in Latin America was significantly lessened. Liberation Theology, and equality in general, is a major element in communism, but in Latin America, it often came hand in hand with oppressive ruling and strict punishments. On several occasions, strong believers in Liberation Theology, like Oscar Romero, were executed for their ideas of equality, and in Romero’s case, it prompted a civil war in El Salvador.