Latin America: Struggle for Independence (1808) to Great War (1914)
by Vladislav B Sotirovic on 09 Jun 2024 0 Comment

Politically, the 19th century in Latin America started in 1808 when the emancipation of the subordinated people against Spanish and Portuguese rule began. The struggle for independence was speeded up by the French military-political subjection of the Iberian Peninsula when both Spain and Portugal lost direct connections with their overseas colonies. This new geopolitical situation fostered domestic Latin American patriotism which demanded political independence, administrative sovereignty, and economic self-administration instead of the subordination and exploitation by colonial motherlands with their capitals in Madrid and Lisbon.


These political, administrative, and economic requirements were met by the Portuguese royal court by accepting them and leading the biggest Portuguese colony – Brazil – towards political nationhood as an independent state (Kingdom in 1815, Empire in 1822, and Republic in 1889) peacefully but minimum of social change. This was common for almost all ex-Iberian colonies in Latin America (Mezo /Central and South America): political independence did not change the social framework and relations within society from Mexico to Cape Horn.


Spain, on the other hand, from the beginning of the Latin American liberation movements adopted a policy of military confrontation with the nationalists to eliminate all political, administrative, and economic demands of colonies. This provoked revolutions for independence across Central America and South America.


Within the South American Spanish colonies, there were two revolutionary movements against Madrid: 1) The southern revolution from Buenos Aires towards Peru via Chile, led by San Martín’s Army of Argentinians and Bernardo O’Higgins’ Chileans (Battle of Maipu in Chile, 1818) attacking Lima, the capital of Peru; and 2) The northern revolution that was more seriously harassed by the Spanish army, headed by Venezuelans Simon Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre (Battle of Boyacá, 1819, in New Granada /North Colombia) and back to Venezuela. Both movements met in Peru – then the fortress of Spanish colonial rule in America.


In Central America, the Mexican Revolution started as a social uprising but became a prolonged counter-revolution, and ultimately ended with a power seizure by the conservative military commander, Iturbide, who became Emperor Agustín I.  


The wars in Latin America (1808-1826) transferred political-administrative authority from the colonial power to domestic landlords with minimal social and economic change within society. They ended with great loss of life and property. The revolutionary and counter-revolutionary terror resulted in a struggle between the owners of capital and the labour force.


A violent struggle began between the political centre and surrounding regions, between ideas of free trade and protection, agriculturalists, mine-owners, industrialists, and supporters of cheap imports vs. proponents of national production and export. In Colombia, the violent struggle between liberals and conservatives lasted for more than a century. Finally, the business vacuum in Latin America left by the Spanish was covered by Western (British, US, French) merchants.


All new Latin American nations were export economies founded on the exploitation of cheap land and labour, producing raw materials for Western industries and their global market. National industries were left underdeveloped; the economic institutions were mines, ranches, and plantations. Latin America in 1913 received the biggest foreign investment from the UK (over 50 per cent of the total) followed by the US, France, and Germany.


From the 1880s, massive immigration of foreign capital and manpower fostered economic growth. In both Brazil and Argentina, Italians were at the top of the immigration ladder followed by Portuguese to Brazil and Spanish to Argentina.  


However, national economic development after gaining political independence was impossible due to the rigid colonial-era social structure as the impoverished rural population could not adequately support local industry in the cities. The old West European (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British) colonial system of production and social relations founded on it remained static. Thus, two existing social strata were sharply divided: 1) the privileged minority that monopolized both civil offices and land for production, and 2) barely surviving peasants and industrial workers.


Economically, the 19th century saw a new powerful social-economic system – hacienda, the great land estate (larger than a ranch) that utilized much more land compared to capital surviving by cheap labour, both servile and seasonal. On one hand, slavery and the slave trade were soon abolished in all newly proclaimed independent states of Spanish Latin America (by the 1850s). However, in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, slavery lasted until 1888.


However, as in the pre-colonial era, the Negros (African Blacks), Mulattos (White-Blacks), and Mestizos (White-Indians) were left at the bottom of the social structure.[1] All these three socio-economic groups became peons (in Europe of the Middle Ages - serfs) or peasants given a small portion of land within the hacienda in return for hard labour on the land.


After the independence wars, the new regimes in Latin America tried to reduce racial discrimination based on social, economic, and ideological foundations. They intended to integrate native Indians into the new nations by forcing them to participate in post-colonial economic production. In practice, such policy presumed to divide the communal lands among individual owners (agrarian reform) which in theory was to benefit the native Indians. But in practice, such agrarian reform strengthened the white neighbours.


The wars created local war leaders (caudillo) who introduced a military-political structure above the civilian institutions. In the beginning, caudillo was just a military leader, but he soon assumed other social and political roles and became a dictator, who represented economic and national interests. He also became the distributor of patronage (office and land).[2] Up to World War I, Latin America passed through a time of caudillismo, when Santa Anna in Mexico, Rosas in Argentina, Páez in Venezuela, etc., governed their states as an extended hacienda like the rulers in medieval Europe.


At times, the caudillismo was subject to constitutional challenge. The number of Presidents in many Latin American nations changed frequently as in Mexico, which had 30 presidents in the first half century of its independence. President Benito Juárez fought the privileged elites who united with French imperialists and briefly succeeded in installing their puppet Emperor Maximilian I on the throne.[3]


By 1867, Benito Juárez subordinated both the Roman Catholic Church and Mexican armed forces. The Mexican liberals gave their country greater political freedom, but could not provide economic prosperity and higher living standards for the citizens. Within one decade, they succumbed to the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz.[4] His presidency saw enormous economic progress but made the country dependent on foreign capital investment and left the majority of citizens in terrible poverty. This provoked Mexico’s second revolution in 1910.


In essence, in Latin America, economic growth directly undermined the political regimes that promoted it. There were two reasons for including Latin America in the global market around 1900: 1) A huge investment in agriculture and mines by Western European countries and the USA, and 2) Massive Western European emigration (primarily from Italy, Spain, and Portugal). There was a ‘pampas’ revolution’ in Argentina which made the country a global producer of meat and grain. Other countries, like Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, succeeded in modernizing and commercializing economic production. They increased the export of food and raw materials due to and via railways and docks.    


However, unbalanced economic dependence caused many risks and failures. The famous silver mine and city of Potosí during the Spanish era, declined in the 19th century to an ordinary town in the Andes. There was a nitrate boom (1880 to 1919) due to Chile’s territorial gains from Peru (province of Tarapaca) and Bolivia (province of Antofagasta) in the War of the Pacific (1879 to 1883). But after WWI, the Chilean nitrates industry declined due to synthetic substitutes. In 1914, oil was discovered in Venezuela which in the interwar period (1918-1939) produced extreme differences between the wealthy and poor people. The towns of Iquitos in Peru and Manaus in Brazil enjoyed brief global prominence due to rubber production.


All these economic events triggered rapid urbanization and the emergence of new social groups whose everyday life depended on contemporary technology (concerning production) and trade (in global terms). A Latin American (urban) middle class emerged that was not landlords or peasants.


Latin America in the 19th century saw wars not only for national liberation against colonial powers but also against each other for territorial gains. Brazil was the sole exception that did not fragment soon after emancipation. Ultimately, Latin America saw the emergence of twenty independent states. Boundary disputes occasionally caused major wars between the Latin American republics.


The Mexican-US War from 1846 to 1848 resulted in the secession of Texas, which cost Mexico California and 40 per cent of Mexico’s original territory. In the 1864-1870 Paraguayan War, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina defeated and ruined Paraguay, a country in which native Indians succeeded in preserving their ethnocultural identity.[5] This was followed by the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific when Chile, Peru, and Bolivia joined the battle to control the important Atacama Desert which was rich in nitrite deposits. Finally, in 1883, Chile’s military victory over Peru and Bolivia followed by the accession of lands from both of them, made Chile a major Pacific power. As rich natural nitrite deposits were annexed in both wars in the north, Chile enjoyed the next five decades with a real economic boom.



1] Concerning the question of population and immigration, Latin America inherited a colonial-style racial structure of their societies. Spanish American societies comprised many native Indians, a lesser number of Mestizos, and a minority of the Whites. The Indian stronghold was in Peru (independent 1821), Mexico (independent 1821), and Guatemala (independent 1838), but less in Rio da la Plata (Argentina, independent 1810) or Chile (independent 1818).    


2] Some like Garcia Moreno, could be a fanatical theocrat. He became famous for dedicating Ecuador (independent 1830) to the Sacred Heart in 1873; he was murdered by local liberals in 1875.   


3] Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph (1832-1867) as Maximilian I was Emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867. He was the brother of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and Archduke of Austria. In 1867, the French Emperor Napoleon III was forced to stop supporting Maximilian I due to political pressure from the USA. As a result, Emperor Maximilian I faced a popular uprising led by Benito Juárez; he was arrested and executed.   


4] Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915) was a Mexican general and statesman, and President from 1877 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. He led a military putsch in 1876 and was elected President in 1877. His second presidency was a highly centralized government supported by the local Mestizos and landowners. Power was transferred from native American Indians and peasants. Diaz promoted the development of infrastructure and industry, using foreign capital and technical experts to build mines, bridges, or railways. However, the poor economic conditions of the Mexican working class in industry and rural areas followed by the rising power of the democratic movement led by Francisco Madero (1873-1913) led to Díaz’s forced resignation and exile in 1911.  


5] The Paraguayan War (War of the Triple Alliance) in 1864-1870 resulted from geopolitical rivalries between Paraguay and Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Paraguay President Francisco Solano López was alarmed by Brazil’s military intervention in Uruguay. At the same time, he wanted access to the Pacific Ocean as Paraguay was (and still is) a land-locked country. In 1864, Paraguay started hostilities against Brazil, hoping that Argentina (traditionally hostile to Brazil) would join him.


However, the anti-Paraguay Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (at that time, a puppet state of Brazil) was signed in May 1865. During the conflict, Paraguay’s well-trained military forces of around 600,000 soldiers did not overcome the challenge. One of the most destructive wars in the history of Latin America ended with President López’s death in March 1870. Paraguay lost more than half of its pre-war population together with considerable territory.   

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