83 Latin America and the Caribbean (LACAR): Overview

In the various essays about Latin America and the Caribbean (LACAR) in this textbook, there are many facts presented and many ways of life understood.  After reading the textbook, students or other readers should know and understand many things about LACAR.  Also, as has been stated, it is not the point of this textbook to attempt to convey every possible bit of knowledge about LACAR.  However, there are a few basics about Latin America and the Caribbean that the reader should know, whether picked up in previous chapters or not.

As explained in Chapter 63, delineating this region, let’s recall that we are defining this region based mainly on three factors – Americas, Latin languages, and contiguity. Accepting those factors, what else should we know about the region, in general?


Physical Geography: Latin America


The most substantial highlands in Latin America are concentrated in Mexico, Central America, and along the Pacific side of South America. These mountains are the result of the same geological processes that created the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains in the United States. The tectonic plates that lie beneath eastern Pacific Ocean are slowly moving to the east, colliding with and slipping beneath the tectonic plates of the American landmasses. The results of this collision are folding – the wrinkling of the earth’s surface that causes mountains to bend upward – and volcanism, which is the formation of volcanic mountains. This tectonic boundary leaves much of this area susceptible to both volcanic eruptions and devastating earthquakes.

Lake Atitlan in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Guatemala. Photo by Daniel Mennerich on Flickr.

The most significant mountain ranges in Mexico are known as the Sierra Madre. In the northern two-thirds of Mexico, two mountain ranges parallel one another, one on the eastern edge of the country, and one on the western edge. They are known as the Sierra Madre Occidental (Western) and Sierra Madre Oriental (Eastern). These are rugged mountains with significant elevations, some topping out over 18,000 feet. Resting between these two mountain ranges is Mexico’s Central Plateau, a relatively flat landscape, but one at a significantly high elevation – Mexico City, at the southern end of the Plateau, is 7,300 feet above sea level. The two ranges of the Sierra Madre converge just south of Mexico City, and continue on into Central America. In Central America, the elevation of these highlands generally drops, although some peaks reach over 13,000 feet. Known by different names in different countries, these mountains and hills are collectively known as the Central American Highlands, and extend the length of the Central American isthmus.

In South America, the mountains increase in elevation, running for Venezuela down the Pacific side of the continent to the Tierra del Fuego – the “Land of Fire” – South America’s southern tip. Known as the Andes Mountains, this range features incredible variations in elevation, with the highest peaks rising above 22,000 feet.


Photograph of rugged land in Atacama Desert, Chile.
Atacama Desert. Photo by Jen Morgan on Flickr.



Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world.




The only other highlands in Latin America are found in two sections on the eastern side of South America. The Guiana Highlands are centered on southeastern Venezuela and the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana), as well as small sections of northern Brazil. The Brazilian Highlands cover much of the southeastern third of Brazil. Both of these highlands are dissected plateaus – blocks of earth worn down my long periods of erosion to form a hilly landscape (similar to the Ozarks in the United States). Landscapes in this region can be quite rugged, but elevations are relatively low – they never reach above 10,000 feet.

The lowland areas in Latin America are concentrated mainly in the east. In Mexico and Central America, broad plains descend from the highlands toward the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, including the large, flat Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, which is geologically similar to a Florida. In South America, there are vast plains and basins east of the Andes, including the Llanos of Colombia and Venezuela; the enormous Amazon Basin of northern Brazil and eastern Colombia and Peru; the Gran Chaco of southern Brazil, western Paraguay, northern Argentina, and eastern Bolivia; the Pampas of Uruguay and eastern Argentina; and the Patagonia of southern Argentina.


Photograph of the Pantanal wetlands.
Pantanal. Photo by Raphael Milani on Flickr.



The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, is mainly in Brazil, but crosses borders into Bolivia and Paraguay.





For an examination of temperature patterns in Latin America, see Chapter 68. For an examination of precipitation patterns in Latin America, see Chapter 75.


Physical Geography: The Caribbean Islands

The Caribbean Islands contain three major subdivisions. The Bahamas are a grouping of flat islands in the northern reaches of the Caribbean archipelago. The Greater Antilles are large islands in the western Caribbean, including Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola (the island divided by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The Lesser Antilles are smaller islands in the eastern Caribbean that form a crescent between Puerto Rico and Venezuela. There are forty-two significant islands that make up the Lesser Antilles, and they’re home to eight independent countries: Antigua & Barbuda; Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts & Nevis; St. Lucia; St. Vincent & the Grenadines; and Trinidad & Tobago.

Most of the Caribbean Islands were formed because of their location along the boundary of the North American tectonic plate and the Caribbean tectonic plate. If you play “connect the dots,” tracing a line from Jamaica, across Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and down through the Lesser Antilles, you are essentially tracing that tectonic fault line.

Cuba is the largest of these islands, and it is by far the oldest, created about 900 million years ago by the same tectonic forces of folding and volcanism that formed the Central American Highlands. Because it is the oldest island, it is also the flattest of the Greater Antilles. Most if the island lies off of the tectonic fault line, so the geologic forces that built the rest of the Caribbean have not been active in Cuba for a long time. The only part of Cuba that does fall on the fault line is the eastern end of the island, which is, not coincidentally, the most mountainous part of the island. On most of the rest of Cuba, forces of erosion have been wearing away at the landscape for hundreds of millions of years. It mainly consists of rolling plains and low hills.

The rest of the islands of the Greater Antilles are much younger, having formed over the last 100 to 200 million years. All of them are of volcanic origin. As the Caribbean plate slides beneath North American plate, the rock melts, and bubbles up to the surface as lava. A small volcano is then formed on the sea floor. Over thousands of years, those volcanoes got taller and taller, and as the lava flows merged, they formed an underwater volcanic mountain chain. Eventually, the tops of those mountains emerged above sea level to form the Greater Antilles.

Those volcanoes have long been dormant, and forces of erosion have been wearing away at the islands for millions of years. Still, these islands are relatively young, so the process of erosion hasn’t had as much time to work on them as they have on Cuba. Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Jamaica are considerably hillier than Cuba.


Pinel Island, Sint Maarten. Photo by Stuart Claggett on Flickr.

The Lesser Antilles are essentially younger versions of the Greater Antilles. Because of that, they are much smaller, usually consisting of one or two volcanic peaks. There are nineteen “live” volcanoes in the Lesser Antilles – meaning that they could potentially erupt. The last major eruption occurred on the British island of Montserrat in 1995. The eruption destroyed the island’s capital city, and forced most the colony’s population to temporarily flee. The region’s presence on a tectonic fault line also makes it susceptible to devastating earthquakes. One of the deadliest occurred in 2010, when an earthquake struck Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince, killing 160,000 people (as mentioned in Chapter 73).

The Bahamas are not of volcanic of origin. They are essentially geological extensions of the Florida Peninsula – flat limestone plateaus barely high enough to be above sea level.

The climate patterns of the Caribbean are about as simple as it gets. The entire region falls in the tropics, and is mostly warm and wet year-round.


Historical Geography: Latin America

Indigenous Cultures

The term “indigenous” is a generic term used to describe the original inhabitants of a place. In the Americas, the indigenous population are often referred to as Native Americans. Other terms are “First Nations” or “American Indians.” The use of the term Indian for indigenous Americans probably comes from the term “Indies,” an old term used to describe the islands of southeast Asia where the modern-day country of Indonesia is located. The Caribbean islands – a tropical archipelago like Indonesia – were given the name “West Indies,” and the people who lived there were known as “West Indians.” The term Indian (indio in Spanish and Portuguese) stuck, and is used throughout Latin America to this day.

The indigenous people of Latin America are the descendants of the first humans to reach the Americas, probably about 14,000 years ago. This was during the last ice age, when global sea level had dropped. During that period, there was a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska where the Bering Sea is now located – it is referred to as the “Bering Land Bridge.” (See Chapter 97) Those humans slowly moved through unglaciated areas of what is now Alaska and Canada, and eventually fanned out into the areas south of the ice sheet. The oldest evidence of human habitation in what we now call Latin America dates back about 12,000 years.

After the European Conquest of the Americas, two myths about pre-Columbia Native Americans arose, and still persist in the minds of many today. One of the myths was that there were not many people in the Americas prior to the Conquest – maybe a few million. Both the historical and archeological record suggest otherwise. Estimates of Latin America’s indigenous population in 1492 vary, but it was probably at least 50 million, and perhaps as high as 100 million. By comparison, the population of Europe in 1492 was about 70 million.

The other myth that persisted for centuries was that the indigenous civilizations of the Americas were not particularly advanced. This is a common theme when it comes to the conqueror’s story of indigenous people everywhere. History is much easier to swallow if the conquered people are characterized as “savages” who benefited from the civilizing forces of the conqueror.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Mexico.
Photo by Guy Dugas from Pixabay.

But the major pre-Columbian cultures of Latin America could hardly be characterized as “savage” or “uncivilized.” One of the oldest major American civilizations was that of the Maya, which peaked between the 200s and 900s CE. The Maya inhabited modern-day Belize, Guatemala, and parts of southern Mexico. The Maya demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture, and people marvel at their architectural accomplishments to this day. One look at the famous stepped pyramids of the Maya slays any myth that this was an unsophisticated society.

When the European Conquest was underway, two major civilizations in Latin America were still thriving. The Aztecs occupied the southern end of Mexico’s Central Plateau, with their capital at Tenochtitlan (the present location of Mexico City). The Inca controlled a 2,000-mile long empire in the Andes Mountains, with their capital at the present-day city of Cuzco, Peru. While neither civilization possessed all the technologies that had been invented in the Old World, some of their technology, and their level of social organization, did rival those of European, Asian, and African civilizations.

The Aztecs employed advanced urban planning in their cities, and had running water piped into their homes. The Aztecs had highly advanced trade and taxation systems, and their surviving architecture, like that of the Maya, are still impressive today. The Inca ran one of the most efficiently managed empires in world history. They organized cooperative labor, and had reciprocal food production systems to make sure that no part of the empire went hungry. The Inca built impressive structures, and their elaborate transportation system tamed one of the most difficult topographies on earth. Perhaps most impressively, historians believed that residents of both the Aztec and Inca civilizations had remarkably high standards of living – eating better and living longer than their contemporaries in Europe.


The Conquest

As mentioned above, Christopher Columbus, an Italian navigator working for the Spanish government, discovered the Americas. He was seeking a trade route to Asia, and made landfall in the Caribbean in 1492. This discovery would lead to the first permanent European settlements in the Americas. Shortly after, the Portuguese arrived in what is now Brazil, and began colonizing it in the early 1500s. In 1519, troops led by Spain’s Hernan Cortez defeated the Aztecs, and Spain slowly began to assume control of Mexico and Central America. In 1533, troops led by Spain’s Francisco Pizzaro defeated the Inca, and Spain assumed control over Andean South America.

We will discuss the nature of colonization as we conclude historical geography, and as we look at cultural and economic geography. Briefly, though, the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had two basic goals in the colonization of Latin America: obtain raw materials for merchants in Europe, and convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.

One of the immediate results of colonization was the mass die-off of Native Americans. Part of this was due to conflict and deprivation the Native Americans suffered as they were conquered, subjugated, and displaced. By far the biggest killer, though, were diseases introduced by the European colonizers (recall Chapter 67).

Most Latin American countries gained their independence in the 1810s, including Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela, or in the 1820s, including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, and Spanish Central America. For an examination of the legacy of colonial economics, remember the discussion in Chapter 66.


Historical Geography: The Caribbean

The Caribbean takes its name from the original inhabitants of the islands. The Carib were Native Americans who began to populate the islands about 6,000 years ago. The vast majority of them died within the first century of European colonization due to conflict, displacement, deprivation, and disease. Those who survived colonization were largely assimilated by their colonizers. The Carib culture survived in tiny, remote pockets of the islands for a few centuries, but has largely disappeared. The last native speaker of a Carib language died more than a century ago.

As a result, the cultures of the Caribbean have largely been shaped by the forces of colonization. Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean in 1492, and by the 1600s, most of the islands had been colonized. The colonial history and economics of the Caribbean are very similar to those of the rest of Latin America. Most of the region was colonized for the purposes of plantation agriculture, timber extraction, or mining. Slavery was a common practice throughout the region. Like the rest of Latin America, colonization left a legacy of authoritarianism, poverty, and economic disparity in the Caribbean.

The major European colonizers were Spain (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico), France (French Guiana and Haiti), Britain (Guyana, Belize, and Jamaica), and the Netherlands (Suriname). The Lesser Antilles were colonized by these same four European countries, along with Denmark.

The first Caribbean country to gain its independence from Europe (and the second in the Americas, after the United States) was Haiti, in 1804. Haitian slaves revolted against their French masters, and forced them off the island. In the 1840s, the Spanish side of Hispaniola gained its independence, and the Dominican Republic was formed.

In 1898, the United States seized control of Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War (the U.S. also seized several islands in the Lesser Antilles, as well as the Philippines in southeast Asia). The United States granted Cuba “independence” in 1902, although it would effectively remain a satellite state of the U.S. until 1959. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a self-governing “commonwealth” of the United States, earning some autonomy, although it remains a U.S. territory.

Most of the rest of the Caribbean achieved independence relatively recently. In the 1960s, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana gained independence. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Bahamas, Belize, Suriname, and six small countries in the Lesser Antilles gained their independence.


Cultural Geography: Latin America


Santa Rita de Cassia, the largest Catholic statues in the world. Santa Cruz City, Brazil. Photo by Marinelson Almeida on Flickr.

A primary goal of colonization was the conversion of Native Americans to Roman Catholicism. Spain and Portugal were both overwhelmingly Catholic countries and, to their credit, some religious leaders questioned the morality of colonization. Spain and Portugal were in the process of pushing Native Americans off their land and subjugating them to lowly political and economic status. Some of these leaders argued that the Spanish and Portuguese couldn’t do such things and still call themselves good Catholics. However, just as religion raised objections to colonization, it provided a moral shortcut. It was concluded that, since Native Americans were not Christians, they were bound for eternal damnation. By colonizing Latin America and forcing the natives to convert to Christianity, the Spanish and Portuguese were saving souls. At least that’s what they convinced themselves. As a result, the Catholic Church became a major partner in the colonial process. The Church received large land grants, and Catholics missions were established throughout the region. (It is worth nothing that this was policy in Spanish and Portuguese colonies throughout the world. For example, only two countries in Southeast Asia are predominantly Christian – the Philippines and East Timor. It is not a coincidence that the former was a Spanish colony, and the latter was a Portuguese colony). Today, Catholics account for more than 90% of the populations of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Honduras, and are the majority in every other Latin American country.

A relatively small percentage of Latin America’s population is non-religious, and there are very few non-Christian religious faiths. Aside from Catholicism, the only other major religious group are Protestants. Few of the people who have immigrated to Latin America over the last 500 years arrived as Protestants. The growth of Protestantism in Latin America has largely been the result of missionary work to the region, with many of the missionaries coming from the United States. Many prominent American Protestant movements – Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Mormons, and especially Pentecostals and Evangelicals – have established congregations throughout Latin America. The growth has been especially rapid since the 1980s, and Protestantism is now the fastest-growing religious movement in the region. While Protestants are nowhere close to outnumbering Catholics in Latin America, they now account for more than 10% of the populations of Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama.



The linguistic geography of Latin America is pretty simple – the colonial language is dominant in every country. Portuguese is the dominant language in Brazil, and Spanish is the dominant language in every other Latin American country (excluding some of the Caribbean countries, which we’ll discuss later). Some Native American languages survived colonization, and still persist throughout the region, particularly in more remote rural areas. A prominent example is Quechua, the descendant of the old Inca language. Quechua is spoken as a first language by 13 million people in the Andes. In fact, there are a good number of people in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru who only speak Quechua.

That said, the number of Quechua speakers, and the speakers of other indigenous languages like Guarani and Nahuatl, are declining. Just as English is the language of social mobility in the United States, Spanish and Portuguese are the languages of social mobility in Latin America. If someone from rural Peru chooses to migrate to a city, receive an education, and get a good job, they are almost certainly going to do so speaking Spanish, not Quechua.



Most Latin Americans trace their ancestry to three primary sources: to the Americas (that is, to Native Americans), to Europe, or to Africa. A large portion of the region’s population is of mixed ancestry. As we’ve discussed before, ethnic identity is complex, but most Latin Americans can be placed in one of five categories: mestizos; Native American/indigenous; European/white; African/Black; or Asian.

Mestizos are people of mixed Native American and European ancestry, and they are the largest ethnic group in Latin America. This is something that makes Latin American culture very distinct from that of the United States and Canada. In those two countries, only a small fraction (other than Latinx people) claim both European and Native American ancestry. That’s because early colonial settlements in the U.S. and Canada contained relatively balanced populations of men and women, so it was relatively rare for Europeans and Native Americans to intermarry. In Latin America, a disproportionately large percentage of the colonizers were men. From the earliest days, it became very common for European men and Native American women to marry.

Mestizos are the largest ethnic group in most Latin American countries, including Paraguay (95%), Honduras (90%), El Salvador (86%), Ecuador (79%), Bolivia (70%), Nicaragua (69%), Panama (65%), Venezuela (64%), Mexico (62%), Peru (60%), Guatemala (56%), and Colombia (49%).

Native Americans in Latin America are a diverse group. It is important to remember that categorizing someone as “Native American” is like categorizing someone as “European.” Certainly, the nations of Europe have some shared cultural traits, but no one would ever argue that the Irish, the Poles, the Germans, the Italians, and the Greeks are all pretty much the same. Similarly, there is considerable ethnic diversity within the Native American category.

Generally speaking, Native Americans usually have the lowest socioeconomic status in countries where they are common. This is largely the result of colonization. Native Americans were marginalized economically after the Conquest, and Latin America’s economies don’t often provide many pathways out of poverty. Although some Native Americans have risen to social, political, and economic prominence, Latin America’s indigenous populations generally suffer high rates of poverty.

As for spatial distribution, there is a very strong correlation between mountainous areas and Native Americans. Some of Latin America’s most mountainous countries have its largest indigenous populations, including Guatemala (44%), Mexico (28%), Peru (26%), Bolivia (20%), and Chile (11%).

People of European descent in Latin America are largely of Portuguese and Spanish ancestry, although some are descended from immigrants of other European countries, notably Italy, Britain, Germany, and France. They form the majority in four Latin American countries, including Argentina (98%), Chile (89%), and Uruguay (88%). In its census, Costa Rica does not distinguish between white and mestizo. 86% of Costa Ricans identify as white/mestizo, but the country’s history suggests that the majority of those people are white. People of European ancestry are also the single largest ethnic group in Brazil (47%).

It is notable that most of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay fall in Latin America’s mid-latitudes. In Brazil, Europeans are concentrated in the southern part of the country, which is also in the mid-latitudes. This matches an historical pattern found throughout the world. Most of the world’s “Neo-Europes” – places outside of Europe, but with large populations of European ancestry – tend to be located in the midlatitudes, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In many countries, even where Europeans are a relatively small minority, they tend to be the economic and political elite. Just as the legacy of colonization left many Native Americans in poverty, it left many white people in positions of power. People of direct European ancestry are a significant minority in many countries in the region, including Colombia (37%), Venezuela (23%), Nicaragua (17%), El Salvador (13%), and Mexico (10%).

Nearly all of Latin America’s Black population are the descendants of African slaves, 10 million of whom were forcibly brought to the Americas between the 1500s and 1800s. As is the case with Native Americans, although some people of African ancestry have risen to positions of wealth and power, Black Latin Americans are far more likely to live in poverty than white or mestizo Latin Americans.

In Latin America, there is generally an inverse relationship between populations of Native American ancestry and people of African ancestry. That is, countries with large numbers of indigenous people tend to have few Blacks, and vice versa. That’s because Native Americans tend to be concentrated in mountainous areas, while people of African descent tend to be concentrated in the low-lying tierra caliente.

Brazil has, by far, Latin America’s densest concentration of people of African ancestry. While only 8% of Brazilians identify as being wholly of African descent, 43% identify as being of mixed European and African ancestry. That means that just over half of the population claims at least partial African ancestry.

Other Latin American countries where a significant minority claims full or partial African ancestry include Panama (16%), Venezuela (10%), Colombia (10%), and Nicaragua (9%).

People of Asian ancestry represent a relatively small fraction of Latin America’s population, and are primarily found in Peru and Brazil, accounting for about 1% of each country’s population. The largest Asian population in both countries is Japanese – Brazil has, in fact, the largest Japanese population of any country outside of Japan.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Japan was industrializing, and with industrialization came the mechanization of agriculture, reducing the need for farm labor in Japan. Many of those Japanese farmers relocated to places like California and British Columbia, but large populations also migrated to Peru and Brazil. Many of them arrived with a fair amount of money, and were able to acquire farms or start businesses. In a region where so many people were either very rich or very poor, the Japanese were often solidly middle class. Over time, Japanese Peruvians and Brazilians became influential beyond their numbers in business and politics. One prominent example is Alberto K. Fujimori, the grandson of Japanese immigrants, who served as president of Peru throughout most of the 1990s.


Cultural Geography: The Caribbean

If we take care in stating “the Caribbean” as compared to “the Caribbean Islands,” then we may broaden our scope locationally.  Four countries on the Latin American mainland feature cultural elements that largely fit better with Caribbean Islands than with mainland countries. Belize is a Central American country with strong cultural connections to the Caribbean Islands. The Guianas, located in northern South America, have similar cultural ties to the Caribbean. They include Guyana (former British Guiana) and Suriname (former Dutch Guiana), which are independent countries, and French Guiana, which is still a colony.



Roman Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the Caribbean, and is the leading group in Puerto Rico (85%), Cuba (59%) Haiti (55%), The Dominican Republic (48%), and Belize (40%). Catholics are also a significant minority in Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago. Various Protestant denominations, either Anglicanism brought by British colonizers, or American denominations brought by missionaries, are the largest group in Jamaica (66%), Guyana (35%), Suriname (24%), and Trinidad & Tobago (32%). Protestants are also a significant minority in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Belize.

Religious syncretism is common in much of the Caribbean, where people practice Christianity, but also fuse it with a folk religion, many of them based on spiritual beliefs from Africa. Vodou (sometimes spelled Voodoo) in Haiti is a prominent example.

Non-religious populations are growing in the Caribbean. Today, 20% to 30% of the populations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica do not claim any religious affiliation.

The leading non-Christian religions in the Caribbean are Hinduism and Islam, the legacy of South Asian migration to the region. They are not the majority in any country, but are a significant minority in a few. Hindus a large minority in Guyana (34%), Suriname (22%), and Trinidad & Tobago (18%). Muslims are a minority in Guyana (7%), and Trinidad & Tobago (5%).



There are some speakers of indigenous languages on the mainland portion of the Caribbean region – in the Guianas and Belize – but the leading language in every country is the colonial language. English is prominent in Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Guyana. Spanish is spoken Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. French is spoken in Haiti and French Guiana, and Dutch is spoken in Suriname. All of these languages are scattered about the Lesser Antilles.

In many places in the Caribbean, these European languages have experienced creolization, where words from other languages, mainly from West Africa, have made their way into the local dialect. One of the more interesting examples is found in Belize. English is the official language of Belize, and is used in government, education, and the media. But an English speaker from the United States would have some trouble following a casual conversation in Belize, since many words from West African languages, Spanish, and Mayan have found their way into Belize’s unique dialect of English.



The vast majority of the people of the Caribbean trace their ancestry to one of two places – Africa or Europe. They are largely descendants of European colonizers, African slaves, or both. Numerous people in the region are of mixed ancestry. Smaller, but still significant numbers of people are of Asian or Native American ancestry.

People of African ancestry account for a large portion of the region’s population. The vast majority of the population in Haiti (95%) and Jamaica (92%) are Black. Nearly everyone else in Haiti and Jamaica identify as being of mixed African and European ancestry. People of mixed ancestry form the majority of the Dominican Republic’s population, at 70%, while 16% of the Dominican’s population identifies as Black. People claiming full or partial African ancestry are significant minorities in Suriname (38%), Cuba (36%), Trinidad & Tobago (38%), Belize (30%), Guyana (30%) and Puerto Rico (15%).

People of European ancestry are the other large group, and are primarily of Spanish descent. White people account for the majority in Puerto Rico (76%) and Cuba (64%), and are a significant minority in the Dominican Republic (14%).

The region’s Asian populations primarily trace their ancestry to South Asia – modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. When the slave trade was abolished, many Caribbean plantation owners turned to indentured servitude – contract labor that was imported from South Asia. The indentured servants agreed to migrate to the Caribbean and work on plantations until the cost of their transportation, housing, and food was paid off. These contracts were usually rigged, and most indentured servants did not live to see their contracts paid off. So, it wasn’t slavery, but it wasn’t much better. The descendants of these indentured servants are now a small minority in Belize (5%) and Jamaica (1%), and a very large minority in Suriname (41%), Guyana (40%), and Trinidad & Tobago (35%). Many people in the Guianas are of mixed Asian and African ancestry.

As mentioned above, the indigenous population of the islands were wiped out during colonization, so most of the region’s Native American population is found in Belize and the Guianas, where they account for 10% to 20% of the population.

Mestizos form the largest group in one Caribbean country – Belize. Traditionally, most of Belize’s population was Black, but over the last few decades a significant number of immigrants from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras have tilted the scales. Mestizos now account for 53% of Belize’s population.


Population Geography: Latin America

Population Density

Latin America (minus the Caribbean region) is home to 564 million people. The two most populous countries, Brazil (212 million) and Mexico (118 million) account for 56% of the region’s population. The next four largest countries, Colombia (48 million), Argentina (41 million), Peru (31 million), and Venezuela (30 million) account for an additional 27% of the region’s population. The remaining countries account for 17% of the region’s population.


Population Growth

Latin America experienced explosive population growth during the 20th century. Here are the region’s population numbers over that century:

  • 1900: 59 million
  • 1950: 164 million
  • 1960: 214 million
  • 1970: 278 million
  • 1980: 354 million
  • 1990: 431 million
  • 2000: 510 million

This is the result of the demographic transition (see Chapter 8). For several centuries, Latin America was a rural, pre-industrial society. Birth rates were extremely high, but so were death rates, so population growth was modest. Then, in the first few decades of the 20thcentury, modern agriculture and modern medicine were introduced, and death rates plummeted. The region remained mostly rural for a few more decades, keeping birth rates high. This combination of high birth rates and low death rates caused the population to explode upward.

Since the 1990s, Latin America has moved into the later stages of the demographic transition. The population is now mostly urban, where people tend to have much smaller families. As a result, population growth slowed significantly.

In Latin America, there is still a broad variation in TFRs (total fertility rates, or the average number of children per female). The global TFR is 2.8. Replacement rate, the TFR required to maintain zero population growth, is 2.1. Here are where various Latin American countries stand:

  • Four are above the global TFR of 2.8:
    • Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay
  • Nine are at or above replacement rate (2.1), but below the world average:
    • Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela
  • Four are below replacement rate:
    • Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay

The strongest influences on TFR are gender equality, urbanization, and education. In countries where women have more economic opportunity, they tend to have fewer children. Countries that are more urbanized tend to have lower TFRs because, as we’ve discussed before, urban life is less conducive to large families than rural areas. Countries with better-educated populations tend to have lower birth rates because people who are educated get married later and have fewer children than those with less education.

The statistics bear this out. Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay, which have Latin America’s highest TFRs, are more rural, have less gender equality, and lower rates of education than the regional average. Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, which have Latin America’s lowest TFRs, are more urban, have more gender equality, and higher rates of education than the regional average.

Even though Latin America’s population growth rates are no longer quite as troubling as they were twenty-five years ago, the region is likely to continue to grow for the next few decades. Latin America is still a relatively young region, with 28% of its population under the age of fifteen. That means that, even though TFRs are falling, a large portion of the region’s population will soon enter their reproductive years. Latin America’s population is not expected to stabilize until 2050, when it will be home to around 620 million people. This is a disturbing prospect for a region where the majority of people already live in or near poverty. Over the next thirty years, Latin American countries must find ways to provide an additional 60 million people with homes, health care, jobs, and food.

Modern LACAR is highly urbanized, matching North America as the most urban regions in the world at over 80% of the populations living in urban areas.  LACAR has accomplished this in a hurry, moving to cities in a rapid pace, thereby catching up with North America.  Often LACAR is considering to be in the developing world on a par with Asia and Africa.  In fact, LACAR’s urban percentage nearly doubles that of Africa and far outpaces that of Asia.


Population Geography: The Caribbean

The total population of the Caribbean region is about 45 million, roughly the same as Argentina. About 85% of the population lives in the Greater Antilles. The largest countries are Cuba (11 million), Haiti (11 million), the Dominican Republic (10 million), Puerto Rico (3 million), and Jamaica (3 million). All the remaining countries, except Trinidad & Tobago (1.2 million), have fewer than a million residents.

Like the rest of Latin America, the Caribbean experienced rapid population growth during the 20th century. Also like Latin America, birth rates in the region have been declining for the last few decades. All the major countries in the region have a TFR (total fertility rate, or average number of children per female) that is below the world average. Only two, Haiti (2.5) and the Dominican Republic (2.2), have a TFR that are above the replacement rate of 2.1. All the rest have TFRs at or below 2.1, including Jamaica (2.1), Cuba (1.7), Trinidad & Tobago (1.7), and Puerto Rico (1.2). Variations in birth rates are largely tied to levels of urbanization, economic development, education, and the status of women. Countries that are more urban, wealthier, better educated, and that have more educational and career opportunities for women tend to have lower birth rates.

With the exception of a few small islands in the Lesser Antilles, all the countries in the Caribbean region experience a net migration loss – that is, more people are emigrating out of the countries than are immigrating to them. The primary destinations for these emigrants are the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The United States is the favored destination, because of its large economy and close proximity. Language is an important pull factor as well. Haitians, for example, are more likely to emigrate to France or to the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec.

The effects of emigration on the Caribbean have been similar to those in the rest of Latin America. The Caribbean suffers from a substantial “brain drain.” For example, 80% of Haitians who have earned a college degree no longer live in Haiti. On the upside, emigrants send lots of money back home to their families. Those remittances now account for a substantial portion of the economy in many Caribbean countries.


Political Geography: Latin America

Border Wars

In the 1800s, as colonies became independent countries, there were a number of boundary disputes in Latin America that led to full-blown conflicts. Texas fought a revolutionary war to separate from Mexico, and acted as an independent country for about a decade. Mexico never recognized Texas’s independence. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, tensions escalated, and the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. Over the next two years, in a conflict that would kill more than 8,000 people, the United States was able to maintain control of Texas. The U.S. also seized a vast section of northern Mexico, including nearly all of what would become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.

The War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) pit Paraguay against an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Paraguay was on the losing side, and ceded significant territory to Argentina and Brazil. The war killed 400,000 people, including 42% of Paraguay’s population, and 70% of its adult male population. The War of the Pacific (1879-1882) was a conflict between Chile and the combined forces of Bolivia and Peru. The war killed 20,000, and ended with Chile on the winning side. It expanded northward, seizing territory from Bolivia and Peru, leaving Bolivia landlocked.

Remarkably, the War of the Pacific was the last major international conflict in Latin America’s history. There have been a few brief clashes, but the region largely avoided the bloody, sustained international conflicts that engulfed many other regions of the world. That said, Latin America’s 20th century was hardly peaceful. There were plenty of civil wars, rebellions, and counter-rebellions, many of them involving the United States. For an examination of the United States’ relationship with Latin America, review Chapter 69.


The Emergence of Democracy

Since the 1990s, democracy has flourished in a region where it was once extremely rare. Every country in the region has had at least a few relatively fair elections in the last thirty years, but there is considerable variation in the region in terms of the overall health of democracy. Costa Rica and Uruguay are considered full democracies, with free elections and little corruption. Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil are considered flawed democracies, with free elections, but serious corruption problems. Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia are considered partial democracies, with democratic institutions, but with some repression of opposition parties and questionable elections. Only one country, Venezuela, is a nominal democracy—a democracy “in name only,” that lacks legitimate rule of law and fair elections.

Venezuela is a recent arrival to the “nominal” list. Democracy eroded for many years under the leadership of the late President Hugo Chavez. His successor, President Nicolas Maduro, has effectively eliminated democracy during his time in office. Many countries in the international community, including the United States, no longer recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of the country.


Economic Geography: Latin America


Latin America is not the world’s wealthiest region, nor is it the poorest. Overall, its standards of living are lower than that of Europe and North America, but higher than sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Argentina and Chile have the region’s highest standards of living. Guatemala and Nicaragua have the lowest.

Raw Materials and Historic Underdevelopment

Latin America was colonized for the purpose of extracting raw materials, and these commodities remain the foundation of the economy. Here are some examples of leading exports by country:

  • Argentina: soybeans, corn, wheat, petroleum
  • Brazil: iron ore, soybeans, coffee
  • Chile: copper, fish, fruits
  • Colombia: petroleum, coffee, coal
  • Costa Rica: coffee, bananas, sugar
  • Guatemala: coffee, sugar, bananas
  • Mexico: petroleum, silver
  • Nicaragua: coffee, shellfish, cotton
  • Panama: bananas, shellfish, sugar
  • Peru: fish, gold, copper, zinc
  • Venezuela: petroleum, bauxite

Only Mexico and Brazil receive less than half of their export revenues from raw materials, and raw materials are still very important to those two countries. In some countries, raw materials account for nearly 90% of export revenue. Generally speaking, countries that are highly dependent upon the export of raw materials face significant economic liabilities.

First, raw materials don’t command very high prices. Even valuable commodities like gold, silver, and petroleum don’t earn countries the same kind of revenues as manufactured goods. Even though Latin America is now more industrialized than in decades past, it is still highly dependent upon places like East Asia, Europe, and North America for most of its manufactured goods. In short, Latin America exports cheap things (raw materials), and imports expensive things (manufactured goods). This is known as “poor terms of trade,” and it puts Latin America at a major economic disadvantage.

Another economic problem for Latin America is that profits from raw materials don’t greatly benefit most people. Many of the region’s extractive industries, such as its mines and plantations, are owned either by wealthy individuals in Latin America or foreign investors, or sometimes a combination of both. So, the profits from those industries typically enrich relatively few people. The foreign investors siphon profits out of the region, as does the wealthy class of Latin America, who often prefer to spend and invest their money in places like New York, London, Shanghai, or Tokyo. In short, profits from Latin America’s raw materials do as much to fuel economic growth in other regions as they do in Latin America. Additionally, taxes on the industries are often very low, so the governments of the region don’t receive much revenue to spend on things like infrastructure or education. Finally, and most significantly, wages for the workers in these industries are extraordinarily low.

In the markets where they are traded, raw materials are known as “commodities,” and commodities markets tend to be very unstable. Prices for manufactured goods tend to be far more stable. Think of manufactured goods you buy – a car, a phone, furniture, clothing, etc. You expect the prices of those goods to creep slowly up or down over time, but it is rare for them to undergo radical change. A car that costs $20,000 one week is not going to cost $50,000 the next. Then think about a commodity that many of us deal with often – gasoline. We are not at all surprised to find the price of gas rising or falling significantly over the course of a month, or even a week.

So, the economic fortunes of most Latin American countries are tied to an inherently volatile market. To make matters worse, many Latin American countries are extremely dependent on just one or two raw materials. Overreliance on a narrow range of exports makes the Latin American countries economically vulnerable to changes in market conditions, competition from other sources, changing consumer appetites and, when it comes to agricultural exports, the weather. Reliance on things like coffee and bananas has created a rollercoaster economy for many countries, especially those in Central America that came to be known derisively as “banana republics.” The volatility of such “boom and bust” economies discourages investment in new economic enterprises.


The Debt Crisis and Free Trade

In the 1960s, the economies of many Latin American countries were riding high, buoyed by a rising demand for the region’s raw materials. Many governments in the region began to borrow huge sums of money in hopes of developing and diversifying their economies. Some good came out of this, as much of the money was invested in new infrastructure, including new highways, power stations, water systems, schools, and hospitals, which in turn created new jobs. Unfortunately, much of the money was invested in inefficient, state-owned factories that could not compete with producers from abroad. Some of it was misused on other ill-advised development schemes and showy, but unnecessary, public projects. A lot of the money, however, simply disappeared into the corrupt structures of the Cold War-era military governments.

In the 1980s, the prices and demand for Latin America’s raw materials collapsed. By the early 1990s, many of Latin America’s governments could no long pay the interest on their loans, much less the principal. Most were rescued by the International Monetary Fund, which arranged bailouts and loan restructuring programs. This rescue came with an agreement that the governments of Latin America would restructure how they did business.

One condition was an embrace of free trade. Latin American governments agreed to eliminate tariffs on most imports and exports, and this helped to usher in the era of the maquiladora. 



There has been some manufacturing in Latin America for years. Venezuela, for example, has large deposits of bauxite – the ore used to produce aluminum – and large deposits of oil, which was used to power the aluminum smelters. Brazil has large deposits or iron ore, and a handful of steel mills sprang up there decades ago. Still, large-scale manufacturing, such as that found in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and eventually China, generally failed to develop in Latin America for most of the 20th century.

To this day, most of the manufacturing in the region consists of household enterprises or small factories that employ about a dozen workers, and that produce things – such as textiles, ceramics, and wood products – only for the domestic market, not for export.  Still, some significant industrialization has appeared in Latin America over the last three decades. As many Latin American countries signed free-trade deals with the United States, the European Union, and other countries, the maquiladora was born.

A maquiladora is a factory – often a large one – built with foreign investment money to assemble products for foreign corporations. The maquiladora is designed to boost exports of manufactured goods by using tax breaks, cheap labor, relaxed environmental rules, and other incentives to attract foreign producers. The factories produce cars, clothing, electronics, and other goods, mainly from foreign components that are imported tax-free. Large concentrations of maquiladoras can be found in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina (the region’s three leading manufacturers) and, to a lesser extent, in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The maquiladoras are important because they represent Latin America’s step away from dependence on raw material extraction. Still, they have not come without some problems. Taxes on maquiladoras are often extremely low, so governments are often not able to provide adequate policing, education, and other public services in these booming industrial towns. For example, Ciudad Juarez, in northern Mexico, saw huge spikes in sexual assaults and murders as it industrialized. The maquiladoras there employ a disproportionately large number of women, but the low tax base means that the police there are underfunded, and unable to provide adequate protection for those women. The maquiladoras also feature extremely low wages – the typical maquiladora worker in Mexico makes the equivalent of about $8 per day. And the factories are often unregulated, featuring poor working conditions and high rates of pollution.


The Informal Economy

In the United States and other wealthy economies, most people speak of their jobs as if they were possessions – we “have” a job. We can expect a relatively stable number of work hours each week, and we count on a paycheck arriving every week or two. Such permanent, regular employment is unavailable to many in Latin America. Despite its advances in manufacturing, the cities of Latin America have been unable to employ the wave of population that has arrived from the countryside. Nearly half of the region’s urban dwellers work in the informal economy – the part of the economy that takes place outside of the formal economic market.

The informal economy is a “day to day” economy, and is usually untracked and untaxed by the government. Workers in the informal economy do not enjoy regular wages, benefits, or government regulatory protections. A common job in the informal economy is called “day labor.” Many poor neighborhoods in Latin American cities have a well-known location where workers congregate early in the morning. A truck shows up, needing a few workers to dig a ditch, to poor concrete, to frame a building, or some other task. A few workers are selected, work for the day, and are paid with cash. They return to the same spot the next morning hoping for another day’s work, which is by no means guaranteed.

Others in the informal economy provide crafts or services out of their home – they mend clothes, they cut hair, they make food, they fix cars. Some people acquire goods to vend on the street. Some pick through garbage for food and recyclables. It’s a tough life. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to make a lot of money in the informal economy is to participate in an illegal industry, such as drugs, weapons, or prostitution. Competition in these industries is fierce, and the mortality rate is very high.


The 21st Century’s Boom and Bust

As mentioned above, all Latin American countries are highly dependent upon raw materials for their export revenue, and the volatility of the commodities market creates a rollercoaster economy. Latin America’s cycles of economic booms and busts have been as reliable as the tides.

In the 1990s, the economic news from Latin America was dire. Prices for raw materials had collapsed and poverty rates were climbing. Then, in the 2000s, the news changed completely. Most of the region experienced rapid economic growth, stimulated by an increase in the demand for raw materials. Much of that growth was fueled by economic expansion in China. Prices for oil, natural gas, gold, silver, bauxite, and soybeans soared. At the end of the 1990s, 39% of Latin America’s population lived in poverty, and only 103 million people there could be defined as “middle class.” At the end of the 2010s, the poverty rate had dropped to 28%, and 152 million people could be defined as middle class.

And then, in the mid-2010s, Latin America’s economy fell apart. As you’ve probably guessed, this decline resulted from the collapse in prices and demand for the region’s raw materials. That, in turn, was largely due to overproduction and declining demand in an economically weakening China. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation rates rose sharply in Latin America.

No country has suffered more than Venezuela. The collapse in the price of oil, coupled with government corruption and disastrous economic planning, have created the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Since 2016, the annual inflation rate has been 720%, an apocalyptic number. There are massive food shortages, and about 87% of the country’s population is undernourished. The health care system, once the envy of South America, has all but collapsed. The coronavirus is certain to make an already hellish situation even worse.

Even Brazil, which in the 2000s was one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has suffered. 2015 saw the country’s worst economic performance in two decades. Brazil’s economy contracted by 4% in 2015, and by another 2% in 2016, the first consecutive years of economic contraction since the Great Depression. Brazil’s economy has grown each year since 2017, but rarely by more than 1%.

Of course, in the 2020s, the tide may shift once again into a boom phase. And if it does, it will almost certainly be because the prices and demand for Latin America’s raw materials are rising again.


Did You Know?

There are four thousand varieties of potatoes in Peru.

Chile is one of the world’s top producers of wine.

Guinea pigs are eaten in Peru and parts of Ecuador and Colombia.  Statistically, guinea pigs consume less food per pound of meat yielded than cattle do, so perhaps it is more efficient to raise guinea pigs than it is to raise cattle.  Don’t argue that point in Argentina and Brazil where cattle ranching is a huge agricultural industry.


Cited and additional bibliography:

Almeida, Marinelson. 2015. Santa Rita de Cassia. https://tinyurl.com/santaritacassia. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Claggett, Stuart. 2012. Pinel Island Tree Top View. https://tinyurl.com/pinelisland. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Dugas, Guy. 2007. El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Mexico. https://pixabay.com/photos/el-castillo-chichen-itza-mayan-1039512/.

Mennerich, Daniel. 2012. Panajachel GCA – Bienvenidos al Lago de Atitlan. https://tinyurl.com/lakeatitlanguatemala. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Milani, Raphael. 2008. Pantanal. https://tinyurl.com/pantanal2008. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Morgan, Jen. 2011. Atacama Desert. https://tinyurl.com/atacama2011. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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