List of Figures

List of Maps



About the cover image

1 Introduction to the Land and Its People





Culture and Entertainment

Latin America: Past and Present

2 Latin America in 1790

Colonial Background

Power and Privilege


Colonial Administration

Enlightened Monarchy

The Agents of the Reform

Disorder and Rebellion

Discontent and Disorder in Brazil

Changing Gender Roles

On the Road to Independence

Nationalism and American Culture


3 Competing Notions of Freedom

Five Roads to Independence

African Slavery in the Americas

Slavery and the Countryside

Slavery in the Cities

Treatment and Punishment

Slavery and the Church

African Medicine and Religious Practices

Resistance and Rebellion

The Sugar Colony of Saint-Domingue

The Slave Revolt

The Revolution Betrayed

Brazil’s Independent Empire

Independence in Mexico

South American Independence

Post-independence Changes in Racial and Gender Status

The Last Holdout of Slavery in Spanish America

Latin America in a Changing World Order


4 Fragmented Nationalisms

Searching for Political and Economic Unity

New World “Feudalism”

Post-independence Politics

Argentina and the Tyrants

Populist Caudillismo: Paraguay and Bolivia

After Caudillismo

Race, Race Mixture, and Liberalism

Gender and Liberalism

Intersections of Gender, Race, and Class



5 Latin America’s Place in the Commodity Chain

The Guano Boom

Nitrates in Chile

Sugar and Coffee

The Growth of São Paulo

Colombian Coffee

The Rubber Boom

Expanding Exports

Mexico and US Expansionism

The North American Invasion

General López de Santa Anna

The New Age of Imperialism

Central America and the Panama Canal

Ecuador and the “Panama” Hat

Independence at Last? Cuba and Puerto Rico


6 Immigration, and Urban and Rural Life

Asian Immigration

European Immigration

The Southern Cone

Life on the Pampas

British Investment

The Changing Cultural Landscape

Urban Renewal

Mexico and Benito Juárez

French Invasions

The Rise of Porfirio Díaz

Intellectual Theories: Positivism and Eugenics


7 Revolution from Countryside to City: Mexico

The Porfiriato

Opposition to the Porfiriato

Constitutional Opposition

Madero Assassinated

US Intervention

Women in Combat

Carranza as President

The Constitution of 1917

Aftermath of Struggle

Agrarian Revolts in Latin America


8 The Left and the Socialist Alternative

Socialism on the World Stage

Social Reform and the Middle Class

Anarchism, Socialism, and Anarcho-syndicalism

Women in the Workforce

Colombia: Resistance to the United Fruit Company

The Labor Movement

Socialism and the Arts

Tenentes Revolt and Brazilian Communism

Modern Art Week in Brazil

Women in the Arts

Socialism vs. Capitalism

José Carlos Mariátegui


9 Populism and the Struggle for Change

Getúlio Vargas and “New State” Politics

Juan Perón and Peronism

Perón’s Fall from Grace

Politics Engendered

Revolutionizing Mexico: Lázaro Cárdenas

Populism in Colombia and Peru

Central America

The Long Twentieth Century


10 Post-World War II Struggles for Sovereignty

World War II

Temporary Worker Program

Post-war Latin America

Military vs. Civilian Rule

The Absolute Dictator: Rafael Trujillo

Americas in Transition: Guatemala and Bolivia


Revolution in Bolivia

Mining and the Voice of Bolivian Activism

The Revolution in Decline


11 Cuba: Guerrillas Take Power

“History Will Absolve Me”

Causes for Discontent

The Revolutionary War

The Special Period in Peacetime

Cuba and the World

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

What Difference Did the Revolution Make?

Democratic Shortcomings


12 Progress and Reaction

Modernization and Progress

Brazil’s Military Coup

The National Security State

Latin America’s Youth Movement


The Massacre at Tlateloco

The Chilean Road to Socialism

The Chilean Road to Socialism Dead Ends

Urban Guerrilla Warfare: Uruguay

Urban Guerrilla Warfare: Argentina

Dictatorship and State Terror

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

The War of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands

Movements for Revolutionary Change: Peru

Sendero Luminoso, The Shining Path

Women and Shining Path

Repression and Fujimori


13 Revolution and Its Alternatives

A Changing Catholic Church

Marxism and Catholic Humanism

The Opposition

The Somozas versus Sandino: the Next Generation

The Sandinista Opposition

Sandinistas in Power

United States and the Sandinistas

Effects of the Contra War

Central America in Turmoil: El Salvador and Guatemala

Politics of Repression in El Salvador

The Opposition

The Fighting Ends

Guatemala: The Bloodiest War

The Evangelical Alternative

Colombia: The Longest War

The War on Drugs in Latin America


14 The Americas in the Twenty-first Century

The Washington Consensus

Brazil and the Workers’ Alternative

The Workers’ Party in Power

Bolivia: Twenty-first-century Indigenismo

Venezuela and Hugo Chávez

The Bolivarian Mission

Chávez and “the Pink Tide”

Complicating Social Ties

Chile’s Transition to Democracy

New Social Movements

Movements for Racial and Gender Equality

Women and Politics

The Latin Americanization of the United States

Immigration and Free Trade

Opponents Confront Free Trade

Immigration and Neoliberalism

Sharing the Environment and the Cost of Stewardship



Further Reading


Concise History of the Modern World

Covering the major regions of the world, each history in this series provides a vigorous interpretation of its region’s past in the modern age. Informed by the latest scholarship, but assuming no prior knowledge, each author presents developments within a clear analytic framework. Unusually, the histories acknowledge the limitations of their own generalizations. Authors are encouraged to balance perspectives from the broad historical landscape with discussion of particular features of the past that may or may not conform to the larger impression. The aim is to provide a lively explanation of the transformations of the modern period and the interplay between long-term change and “defining moments” of history.


A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present

Richard Reid

A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present

Teresa A. Meade


A History of Modern East Asia

Charles Armstrong

Chosen Nation: A History of the American People since 1886

Maurice Isserman

Europe since 1815

Albert Lindemann

A History of Russia since 1700

Rex Wade


List of Figures

1.1 Presidents Evo Morales (Bolivia), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), and Michelle Bachelet (Chile) at a meeting of the Union of South American Nations, 2008
1.2 Brazilian National Congress in the capital of Brasilia
2.1 The Execution of Túpac Amaru II
2.2 Eighteenth-century painting of the Last Supper, Cuzco Cathedral, Peru
2.3 The Virgin of Guadalupe
2.4 “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe”
3.1 Slaves carrying a woman in a sedan chair
3.2 The Runaway Slave (Neg Mawon or Marron Inconnnu), Port-au-Prince, Haiti
4.1 Plantation with house, barns, storage sheds and a row of slave cabins, ca. 1800s
4.2 “Cuba and Martí Present at the Moncada”
5.1 Slave men and women sorting and transporting coffee beans
5.2 Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil
5.3 Saint James the Great as a Moor-killer, wearing a “Panama” hat, seventeenth century
5.4 US President Theodore Roosevelt at the construction of the Panama Canal
5.5 Uncle Sam to Porto Rico: “And to think that bad boy came near being your brother!”
6.1 Torii gate in the Japanese neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil
6.2 Migration to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay, 1871–1924
6.3 Italian immigration to Argentina, 1871–1924
6.4 Tango Dancers in San Telmo, Buenos Aires
7.1 Soldaderas in the Mexican Revolution
7.2 General Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata
8.1 Tenement patio in Valparaiso, Chile in 1900
8.2 Calavera of Adelita, a Soldadera,” José Guadalupe Posada
9.1 “Accepting the Monroe Doctrine”
9.2 Eva and Juan Perón at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
10.1 Squatter settlements on the outskirts of Buenos Aires
10.2 Children’s playground in Buenos Aires squatter settlement
11.1 Ernesto “Che” Guevara
11.2 Near Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba
12.1 The Navy School of Mechanics, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada)
12.2 Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
13.1 Sandinista barricade, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, 1979
14.1 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on USS Yorktown, Curação Harbor
14.2 Forensic anthropologist Isabel Reveco and Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán. 316
14.3 Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile), 2006
14.4 Origins of all immigrants to the United States, 2007
14.5 Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho, Chiapas, Mexico, 1999
14.6 “Chiles Rellenos Contra Hot Dogs,” by Francisco Verástegui

List of Maps

1.1 The vegetation of South America
1.2 The countries of Latin America
3.1 The Atlantic slave trade, 1451–1600
3.2 The Atlantic slave trade, 1601–1700
3.3 The Atlantic slave trade, 1701–1810
3.4 The Atlantic slave trade, 1811–1870
3.5 Latin America in 1830
5.1 Comparative size of Brazil
5.2 Mexican territory lost to the United States
10.1 Latin America in World War II


This book covers well over 200 years of Latin American history. It begins with a brief summary of European colonialism, laying the groundwork for the succeeding chapters on the history of the independent nation-states that make up modern Latin America. Presenting such a history is not easy: Latin America is immense and diverse; events that have a huge impact on one nation or region (such as the US war with Mexico in the 1840s), may affect others only tangentially, or not at all. Moreover, textbooks of this sort inevitably experience a crucial conflict. The text should present a broad, general interpretation that makes sense of many disparate details and events, yet it is impossible to explore fully each and every event undergirding the big picture. Another inevitable tension is chronology (time) versus topics, as well as time versus place (country or region). Since historical events build on and grow out of whatever comes before and lead into and influence that which comes after, it is very difficult to extract a happening from its context, especially given the many cultural, social, economic, and political contexts surrounding every historical moment.

Historians must always grapple with this dilemma of presentation: the author can stick to certain themes and relay a general analysis fitted roughly into a chronology or, alternatively, can relate the history of one country, or group of countries, one at a time. The country-by-country approach is often more precise, but difficult to use in the standard history class, while covering many nations in one full sweep can become confusing. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter which approach is used if the end product is stripped of the fascinating stories and the lives of people who contribute to the overall narrative.

This book presents Latin American history as seen through the prism of social class, gender, race, and ethnicity. Specific historical events and trends – such as the slave revolt in Haiti, the patriarchal rules governing marriage in Brazil, construction of the Panama Canal, or the Mexican Revolution – are explained according to this interpretive approach. The seemingly unconnected events in the histories of Latin American societies come together in a narrative that is more than the sum of its parts; rather the parts, selected for their explanatory value, help us understand the whole. Thus I present examples of what transpired in a single nation at a specific time as representative of a wider phenomenon and to serve as a window into the ideas, conflicts, social movements, cultural trends, and ascribed meanings that have made an appearance on Latin America’s historical landscape. The resulting interpretation derives from a process of sifting and sorting through an immense amount of material; choices have been made as to what to include and, often with terrible regret, what to leave out.

Readers who seek a general level of analysis and broad historical narrative will find it here. The book refers to and describes major issues and events, drawing on many valuable texts, monographs, document sets, journalistic and fictional accounts of Latin America’s rich history. At the same time, it was often necessary to allow one event to serve as the archetypical illustration of important trends. For example, a discussion of Argentina’s labor movement is used to reflect the struggle between workers and owners that unfolded under specific conditions but also took place in many countries. Labor in other areas is then covered in broad strokes, with the assumption that readers and instructors will draw on other examples to fill out the narrative. I settled on this approach after more than 20 years of college teaching, mainly in a small liberal arts institution, where it soon became apparent that students are better able to grasp the big picture when given smaller, concrete incidents to exemplify the story on which the broader interpretation is based. Relying solely on “big theories” and moving from country to country and event to event makes students’ eyes glaze over and note-taking turn to doodling. Blame could be placed on poor training in geography, the ethnocentrism of US society, the internet, or what have you, but the truth remains that we often develop our understanding of history by building out from a specific example or single historical event. Similarly, the generalities of history often become clear when we focus on a concrete example, or a few examples, to illustrate the point.

Finally, history is based on original sources. The particular interpretation historians have drawn from those sources, even the conflicting conclusions they derive after looking at the same or similar documents, is the heart and soul of the enterprise. Interspersed throughout this narrative are first-hand accounts, documents, and excerpts from fiction, displayed in boxes. These boxes have two purposes. On the one hand, they can serve as the basis of discussion in a class; on the other, they demonstrate the kinds of materials historians draw on to construct a narrative, thereby allowing the reader of the text to critically judge the author’s interpretation. Although I am well aware that readers sometimes skip over this additional material, seeing it as irrelevant to the text, I am hopeful that instructors and students will pause to examine an original document, a quirky historical fact, and a literary comment, in the course of reading the broader narrative. The use of primary sources allows the reader and the student of history to take up the analytical process for her or himself. A Further Reading section at the end lists books chapter by chapter for ease of reference.

In addition to documents and first-hand accounts, I have also chosen to weave in historical, and also sometimes fictional, asides, from various authors, including the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano. Galeano compiled a three-volume “based on fact” fictional interpretation of major events in the history of the Americas from the pre-Columbian period to the late twentieth century. He did this, he anthropomorphized, because “Poor History had stopped breathing: betrayed in academic texts, lied about in classrooms, drowned in dates, they had imprisoned her in museums and buried her, with floral wreaths, beneath statuary bronze and monumental marble.”1As a historian and teacher, I naturally beg to differ a bit with his conclusion, since those of us who teach and write strive to present history as a lively narrative, not dull facts drowned in dates. However, Galeano is right when he exhorts us to rescue history from hero worship and to question the sources, since neither they, nor the facts they present, “speak for themselves.” In his trilogy Memory of Fire, Galeano freely and provocatively writes the history of the Americas. Drawing on documents, he creates a fanciful narrative of the past, which at points misses the mark and at others nails it precisely.

In the end, we are all interpreters of history, trying to make sense of our own past and our place within the era in which we are living; and for that we rely on books and the explanations contained within them. Although this History of Modern Latin America is a very small contribution to that daunting enterprise, I hope readers will find the events and people who comprise the narrative of Latin America’s past interesting, the explanation of that history understandable and enlightening, and the interpretation challenging. History should be nothing less.


In the course of writing this book, I have been assisted by many colleagues whom I am happy to acknowledge. Christopher Wheeler, now at Oxford University Press, first talked to me about this project over a drink at the American Historian Association conference where we discussed our mutual admiration for the work of Eric Hobsbawm. I have never met Mr. Hobsbawm, but I want to thank him for his many inspiring and profound insights, as well as Christopher and Tessa Harvey at Blackwell for the conversation that pulled me into this book. Many thanks to Peter Coveney, my editor at Wiley-Blackwell, who saw the book through to completion, and to his assistants Deirdre Ilkson and Galen Smith, who competently and cheerfully answered my millions of queries along the way. My special thanks to Caroline Richards for copyediting.

Colleagues and friends in Latin America and the United States have assisted with comments, corrections, and encouragement. I especially want to thank Cecilia Belej, Susan Besse, Avi Chomsky, Alejandra Vassallo, Barbara Weinstein, Ann Zulawski, and the anonymous readers for their insights, clarifications, and advice. Over the years I have accumulated a debt to my students at Union College who worked as research assistants, proofreaders, typists, contributors, and critics: Nancy Borowick, Heather Cunningham, Colin Foard, Kelvin Martinez, Stacy Paull, Jazmin Puicon, and Jessica Simpson. I especially want to thank Jane Earley for her assistance with this book, the Union College Faculty Development Grant for research and travel funds, and the librarians of Schaefer Library for help tracking down sources.

Alison Raphael applied her copyediting wizardry to the first draft and improved the prose. Working with Alison, whom I have known since the mid-1970s when we met researching our dissertations in Rio de Janeiro, was a special treat. My sister, Martha Meade, read the entire manuscript from start to finish, offered comments based on her years of teaching high school history and caught a number of errors. My family, Darren, Claire, and Andor Skotnes, provided expertise with computers, photographs, and technical and editorial advice. Andor, especially, I can never thank enough.

It is impossible to acknowledge all the people who contributed to this book, mainly because the process of writing a textbook draws on the resources of an entire profession. My debt is primarily to the many scholars who have explored, analyzed, photographed, mapped, and charted the history of Latin America. Compiling a narrative from mountains of books, articles, web pages, and news articles was both an inspiring and a humbling experience. The scholarship on Latin America is truly impressive; whatever errors and inadequacies remain in this text are my own.

About the cover image

The painting on the cover is Cánto a la Naturaleza (Song to Nature) by Paula Nicho Cumes, an indigenous Kaqchikel Maya Indian from San Juan Comalapa. One of the foremost Maya female artists in Guatemala today, Nicho Cumes’ work is noted for original and unusual themes, reflective of an authentic, self-taught, style.

For more about Paula Nicho Cumes and other Maya artists, see the web site